Hunting Holly - Blog

The cover of Hunting Holly

15 Things I've Learned Writing My First Novel

1. Patience

It took me a total of 6 years to publish my first novel. I spent two and a half years researching and writing, six months editing and finalizing, eight months to get it copyrighted with the Library of Congress (and that's the expedited track), two months finding a publisher I wanted to work with, 10 months to publish, and 20 months in between where I did not do any tangible work on it because I was busy having adventures, doing school, working, or chasing snatches of inspiration. Six years is a long time. It was tempting to walk away from the project and go do something else. It would have been easy to get overwhelmed with all the work it takes to take an idea and make it into a book. It would have been simple to say "nobody cares" and simply keep the whole story to myself. Don't get frustrated that it's not happening quickly and don't give up. It's worth it in the end.

2. It takes vulnerability to share your art.

I sat on my idea for a story for a long time. I was scared to share it because I was afraid it would get shot down by people whose opinions I value. It takes a lot of bravery and vulnerability to say "I made this" and to add "What do you think?". Writing my first novel has given me a deeper appreciation for other people's art, for the process it takes to make it and the strength to share it.

3. How to take criticism

It's not easy to share your art with anyone, whether it's a drawing, music, poetry or writing. It's even harder to take criticism well, but it's so necessary if you want a good final product. The trick it to balance taking feedback and suggestions with your own convictions about how it should be.

When I was editing I asked for feedback on countless aspects of my story, like pacing, plot, dialogue, setting, relationship dynamics and much more. I carefully recorded the feedback and tried never to justify my choices unless someone asked for it. If I had to justify why I did what I did, perhaps it wasn't as clear as I needed to be.

I also had to be careful about who I asked feedback from. If I asked only people who had the same worldview and values I had, they would likely give me positive feedback but the end result would likely only appeal to a tiny demographic. If I asked lots of different people, the feedback was more varied and harder to get a consensus on but overall more valuable. It also helped me figure out who my target audience was.

For example, I had a friend look it over and they told me it was the worst romance novel they had ever read. To which I responded that it was fine with me because it was a spy thriller not a romance novel, but she had a point. The relationships were cold and not subtle. I didn't rewrite a spy thriller into a romance novel but I did edit a few scenes. Not to make her happy but to make it a better story in my eyes.

I have come to really value honest critics. When I ask someone what they thought of the story, the answer "it was good" is frustrating. I would rather have someone carefully explain what they didn't like than have them tell me it was just "good". I enjoy hearing what readers liked about it and what their theories are about why a character did something or what's coming next.

4. Research, research, research...

Have you ever been reading a really good novel and then the author mentions something offhand that they clearly don't know much about and it kind of ruins the movement for you? You have to stop and go "that's not how that works at all". I have and I find it frustrating. I also deeply admire authors that are well researched on the topic they are writing about. I set out with the goal of trying to research every aspect of my book. I quickly found that it's not totally realistic; it's not going to be perfect. I also realized that a lot of artist take creative license with their universes because it's easier, it moves things along, and it keeps it exciting, makes it imaginative and engaging.

Why research at all? Because I was writing about what I was interested in and not what I already knew. I think of it in terms of four levels of research. The first being knowing nothing at all about a topic. That's the first hurdle to overcome. I started with asking questions from the very broad: What is a spy? To the very specific: If you have no official identification how do you retrieve the contents of a safety deposit box that is in someone else's name from a bank in Paris? To answer them I read online, talked to people, emailed experts and looked up peer reviewed journal articles, called companies and bought or was given research books.

I once spent 8 hours researching for a scene that was going to include a sniper shot from point A to point B. I looked all the conditions that might affect a long distance shot, looked at average weather and temperature for that time of year, what normal wind conditions would have been and did all the math a sniper spotter would have had to do. After all that, I decided I didn't want the scene and scrapped it and wrote something totally different.

The second level is knowing something and thinking you know enough or doing bad research. I have made this mistake more than I would like to admit but it still annoys me when someone reads one opinion-based article and buys into it without fact checking. Or sees something in an action movie and believes in the "Hollywood magic" that made it possible. This is the one I tried to avoid but I still made a few mistakes.

The third level is expert research. I have gotten to interview a lot of experts in their field who graciously shared their knowledge with me. I talked to retired military, doctors, professors, a retired drone pilot, a certified master scuba diver, fishermen, flight attendant, international businessmen, an FBI agent and a handful of experts that didn't want to be quoted or mentioned. Some of the conversations were formal and a few were by chance. A good friend of mine took me to a shooting range and an older man was making fun of me for being a tiny blonde girl learning how to shoot an AR15. I sassed him back and it turned out he was a retired marine sniper spotter who pulled out his scope and taught me how to use it. Another time I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me on a bus who turned out to be an expert in trauma counseling and she had worked internationally rescuing and counseling women who had been the victims of sex trafficking. She explained religious and cultural differences that abusers leveraged that keep women in awful situations. The FBI agent I meet through my church, she was teaching a public course on how to prevent yourself from being the victim of abduction, how to spot someone tailing you on foot in a crowded place and basic hand to hand self-defense when your attacker is much bigger than you are. I attended a public lecture on drone controversy, which is how I meet the retired drone pilot. I attended another public lecture given by an illusionist and learned how sleight of hand and misdirection work up close and the psychology behind it.

The top level of knowing is first had experience. There are a lot of things I write about that I don't know about first hand. I have never been shot, nor do I ever want to. I write about some things that are illegal and immoral, and I have never nor will I ever do them myself but I can interview those who have and do the harmless things myself. I learned how to break out of duct tape, zip ties, and out of a locked car trunk. I learned how to install security cameras and how to sneak past the ones that now guard my house. Incidentally, I have now adjusted my security system to cover those gaps. Some of my home research projects have worked out really well. I can break out of duct tape in under 30 seconds in three different ways. Some of them have not gone so well and were either a dud idea or should come with a "do not attempt at home" warning. Several ended up with "Well that was a bad idea but I now know not to have my character try that... I need some ice... and a really big band-aid".

Research gives me a way to approach questions that keep me writing, from the little curiosities to be big soul-searching existential ones.

5. Keep asking why

Its seems toddlers have mastered the art of asking why. Anyone who has kids or has been a nanny or spent time with kids knows that they ask a lot of questions. It can be obnoxiously when a three-year-old askes you "why" for the millionth time because they haven't yet learned that "that's just the way it is", but maybe it's the adults that are missing something. Somewhere down the line we lose our wonder and stop asking why. We miss out on the search for the answer and opportunity to understand things deeper. The three most important questions in writing are "what", "what if" and "why". The story is deeper and richer when you keep asking why. Why is that character mean? Why did they join? Why do they do what they do? Why do they have that habit? Why do they care? Why is that their dream? Why do they maintain hope? Why are they in love? Why are they lonely? Why is that the way it is? Why does that exist? On and on and on. Why are a powerful word and you never know what you will end up with?

6. Fan support means so much.

The thing that keeps me putting the story to paper is the people who keep asking "What happens next". I may be satisfied with finding the answer but without fan support, the answer would stay in my head. The characters I write and the universe I made is something I am passionate about so it means the world to me when other people are excited about it with me. Those are the moments that make the risk of being vulnerable worth it.

7. I can't not write.

I don't always put the ideas down but I am always writing. Even if no one was reading what I wrote, I would keep writing. I am at my happiest when I am writing, but more importantly, I have to know what happens next too! I want to know what that character's back story is, I want to know how they got that scar, and I need to know if they will be okay. I had always assumed authors knew everything about their characters and their universe but at least for me, it's more like figuring out the answer as I go along. I only know about 20% of the whole story and have written about 10% of it. That leaves so much to be discovered.

8. I learned to love the world I created.

Writing lets you create your own world. You can pick any world you want, whether it's a fantasy medieval kingdom, a dystopia, a realistic modern world, a historical time period or a nonfiction personal memoir, what you write about is your own. You decide what to include and how to tell your story. If it's fiction, you create the culture, how people interact and what daily life looks like. You get to choose how they dress, what they eat, who they love and what their dreams are. As crazy as it might sound I ended up loving with my characters. I empathize with their pain, cheer when they accomplish their goals, fear for their safety and worry about their future. Through writing, I can confront big issues and share some personal philosophy. I can vicariously live out dreams, have adventures, face fears and search for answers to life's big questions. None of the characters are me and at the same time, I am all of them. It's a wonderful and complicated duality that makes creating so interesting.

9. Find Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It rarely comes when called and is next to impossible to pin down. I have found that it comes when I am least expecting it. I will be having a conversation and the phrase someone used just jumps out at me. I might be sitting in class and a concept catches my imagination and I apply it to my writing. I will read a book and a situation will spark a question. I might be walking down the road and try to describe a person's walk or clothing style. A tv show or movie might capture a feeling I want to be able to write about. A song often contains a lyric or idea that sticks with me.

10. The story you start with is not always the story you end with.

My original inspiration for my book looked nothing like the finished product. Like putting together a puzzle without looking at the box, I had pieces that I was sure of but couldn't yet see the whole picture. Some pieces looked cool but didn't fit and some pieces were not so pretty but connected important parts. It's tricky to balance the ability to adapt to follow where the story leads you and still keep the whole thing cohesive. Characters grow and change and their relationships change. I started with an idea of who a character was which changed the more I got to know them. Just like my first impression of someone is rarely complete, my first impression the story wasn't totally accurate.

11. The process of writing is weird.

I often lose time when I write. I am my most creative late at night. Some days I have sat down to write and end up researching the some obscure question four hours later and haven't written a thing. Some days I will start writing and look up ten minutes later and realized it's actually has been 7 hours and I have written three chapters but I have two hours to sleep before my morning classes. Other times I have spent hours editing one paragraph and have rewritten one sentence 12 times and I am pretty sure my first version was the best.

12. Holding your book is an incredible feeling.

It is totally surreal to hold something that once was simple an idea. To know that you created something that now is tangible. There is an unbelievable feeling when you set your book on a shelf next to the one's that inspired you. It's so strange for someone to ask you to sign it for them. It's crazy, humbling, rewarding and wonderful.

13. What you consume affects what you make.

I consume a rather high rate of media, art and research content. I love story so I watch movies, tv, and plays, I go to art galleries and museums, I read novels, poetry, random textbooks (really random textbooks) and academic journal articles. I follow blogs on culture, photography, and crafts and travel. I go to lectures on all sorts of things and I love watching TED talks. As I got older I started asking bigger questions and looking deeper at the different kinds of art. I noticed over time the kind of content I was consuming or spending time thinking about affected my writing. If I was watching comedies with sarcastic characters it was easier to write funny and witty lines. If I was wrestling with big existential ideas I started to weave those into my writing. Watching mind numbing garbage and I wasn't challenging my characters to work harder or reach for bigger dreams and I wasn't inspired as often.

A few years back I started watching a really dark tv show. I was impressed and a little repulsed by the creative but disturbed content. I didn't think too much about the effects of watching it late at night by myself until I printed a scene I had just written. I read it again and realized it was the most brutal, gory and disturbed scene I had ever written. I shredded the pages and deleted the document. I chose to stop watching the show and never picked it up again because that's not what I wanted to write and not the kind of writer I wanted to be.

So I went back to the content I did like and started analyzing what about it I liked and why it worked. I started to incorporate that into my writing and the way I see the world.

14. Just because I am not putting words on paper doesn't mean I am not writing.

I am not good at being creative on a deadline. Need a 5 page paper on literary analysis in that book? Done. I have two days to write a midterm? Been there done that. 20-page paper and presentation on institutionalized racism in American mental health systems, due in a week? No problem. Two weeks to write a poem?... Um. You want the next chapter done in a few days? That's probably not going to happen.

When I try to force a scene or dialogue it comes out canned and dull. I have to write a back story, do research and imagine the scene twenty different ways until I am happy with it. Then I have to make time to write and hope I am not interrupted and lost my train of thought.

A lot of my writing goes on in my head while I am walking to class, running on the treadmill, or just constantly daydreaming. I am always working on something; it just doesn't always look like it.

15. Finishing it is only the beginning.

That triumphant moment when you save your finished novel, print it out and back it up 4 times, is a sweet moment worth celebrating, but it's just the start. You then get to edit it, get feedback and edit it again. The you move on to copyrighting it, then publishing starts with formatting, writing the dedication, the acknowledgments, designing the front cover and the back cover, then printing the proof, and finalizing everything, then book deals and turning it into an ebook. Then marketing begins and you desperately hope people will buy it. You watch and listen as people start to talk about it. You go to book release parties and book signings. Then you get to go home and hold the book that you wrote in your hands.

Then you write the next one.

Hunting Holly is a registered copyright. All rights reserved. No reproduction, storage in a retreival system, distribution or transmission in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, unless permission is obtained in writing from the author. Hunting Holly is published and designed in association with Armchair Publishing. Cover design by Tony D Locke. Any likeness to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.