A writer e-mailed me to ask, "Do you think the first ever novel is the hardest to write? Feels like that may be because it's overwhelming and can be frustrating."
This is a great question.
Several of you have talked to me about organizing a novel and being overwhelmed. This is completely normal. In every project I work on, somewhere around the 75% mark, I think to myself, "Yikes! How can I wrap all this up in a satisfying way??? There's too much going on!!!" I'll frantically scroll through some pages and realize I completely dropped a plot line, or that I've forgotten about a character, or that I foreshadow something in the opening, and nothing has ever happened with it.
My first published novel, Me, Just Different, was the third novel I'd written. And I rewrote it about four times before it turned into a sell-able piece of fiction. That took me four years.
Out with the In Crowd and So Over It each took about four months and nobody has ever said to me, "Me Just Different was my favorite in the series." Usually people like one of the other two the best.
While all novels have their own unique challenges and complications, I still think Me, Just Different will always be the hardest book I ever had to write. I didn't know my genre, I didn't know what word count I was aiming for, and I was fuzzier on what kind of character traits worked and didn't, what kind of plot lines worked and didn't.
So, yes. Writing a novel is like anything else. The more you do it, the easier it gets. (Though certain dangers come with this comfort, but that's another discussion for another time.)
If you're feeling overwhelmed by all your ideas, here are a couple suggestions for chilling yourself out:
1. Stop worrying.
Okay, that's today's lesson. Hope it helped.
Just kidding. But that is a technique, particularly in the first draft. When I hit my 75%-done panic, I indulge for a minute or two, and then I just dive back in. I tell myself, "I can fix it in the second draft, let's just get this sucker done," and then I do it. If I forgot a plot line back at the 25% mark, I make a note to myself to fix it, and then write the rest of the book like I already did. Did that make sense? I don't go back through and weave in that plot - I wait until I do my second draft - but I write my ending with it included. Same with a forgotten character. I just bring 'em back like they've been there the whole time, and make a note to myself.
2. Make a list, then plot it out.
I've never been super-plotter-girl, so I can't really say this for a fact, but I think it's easier to get overwhelmed by plot lines when you're a seat-of-the-pants writer. If you feel you've lost a handle on your story, pull out a stack of index cards, and on each one write something that needs to happen between now and typing The End. If you've got multiple characters telling the story (also known as multiple POVs) you might consider using cards in a couple different colors.
Then either tack the cards up on a bulletin board in order, or you can arrange them in a stack.
3. Remember you don't have to write the whole novel right now, you just have to write the next sentence.
I love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's the first writing book I ever read, and it's proven to be an excellent stick against which all other craft books are measured. Ms. Lamott talks about the concept of short assignments. And I can't say it any better than her, so I'll just quote it:
Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of - oh, say - women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It's hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up....
Then there's like a page of really hilarious stuff she thinks about during her panic moments, like finding a boyfriend and orthodontia. Then she gets into solving the problem:
...and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame ... all I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown in the late fifties when the trains were still running.
These words are a great comfort to me when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I don't have to wrap everything up right now. All I have to do is write the next paragraph, the next scene.
Have a great weekend everybody! On Monday we'll have a new writing prompt, and the winners from last week's will be announced very soon!