I Wrote a Novel — Here’s What I Learned

A stack of open books all over the floor.
Photo by Natalia Für

Every decade or so I find challenging myself into becoming something, or at least making a decent attempt at it. Ten years ago it was becoming a software developer, and in 2019 pushed by circumstances and gentle nudges of my own curiosity and conscience I decided to take a serious crack at writing. You know — a novel.

Roughly a year later, I finished it, and can consider it my “pandemic success story”. While half the world was stockpiling bog-rolls, I was piling pages upon pages, which incidentally may or may not eventually become bog-rolls themselves, but that is entirely beside the point. Success, while some might argue, is primarily personal, and writing this book, this novel, was a personal endeavour to me. The prospect of it becoming a New York Times best seller, a straight to Amazon mediocrity, or an obscure limited edition of something that only my friends and that one weird person ever bought was mostly irrelevant, and it still is. What was infinitely less irrelevant though was my journey as a person, writer, and character throughout the writing process. Reflecting upon it all, over the last couple of months, I realised there are a number of key learnings that are worth sharing.

Some would and will vehemently disagree, but I would like to challenge everyone to stop for a second and think. What makes a writer a writer is the act of writing. Good, mediocre, utter shite, who cares? It doesn’t make me less of a writer. To some I might be a fantastic writer or an absolute disaster, and vice-versa. Some get Picasso, some don’t. Some love country music, others loathe it. The bottom line is, I wrote a book, I am a writer. The rest… history will tell.

Seriously. You can’t just sit down and write a book. It’s not how it works. There is a prerequisite, and it’s a massive one. You must have a story inside you. I found myself pushed by some personal events in 2019 feeling that I really had a story in me that had to come out. I always imagined becoming 50 and as a birthday present to myself, would hide away into Alaskan solitude for 6–12 months and write a book. I was under the false impression that I could not possibly write anything worthwhile without having lived at least 50 years. This false assumption is quite common, a lot of people associate success with age, and I wasn’t immune to it either, but when I started to really get honest with myself, I couldn’t deny that the story I wanted to tell has been there, simmering for years. So, no, you can’t just sit down and write a book, there must be a story inside you first. Maybe it’s new, or less so, or even very old, but you gotta have something to say. I knew that all that stopped me from writing it all down was the discipline to do it — will get to this in a minute.

Just because I decided my book was going to be a novel, just because that novel was semi-biographical it didn’t mean I had all the facts around what it meant to write a novel, well understood. Here’s just a few of them:

  • a novel is rarely considered a novel below 300 pages. Below that mark, it’s often called a novella. Makes sense, but I am glad I checked, because I definitely wanted to write a novel, and not a novella.
  • the number of pages might be hard to calculate due to font-size, page format, etc, so the easier way to go about it is by word count. About 70.000 words should cover it. Most text editor applications count words accurately.
  • use the right text editor. When you write, the last thing you want is the tool you use to get in the way. I opted for iA Writer for writing, and Marked 2 for formatting, stats and exporting.
  • creative liberty is a double-edged sword. A novel implies fiction, but if any of it is tied into reality, don’t mess it up, don’t invent historical facts that are just outright wrong. You can colour the facts — like I did with the Romanian 1989 revolution — or even fill in gaps with your imagination, another tool I used, but unless creating an actual fictitious history and that is clear to the reader, stick to the facts. If you’re unsure, read up on the history. These days Wikipedia is a tremendously helpful resource for doing quick fact-checks on historical events, or just facts in general.
  • established authors tend to write one book per year, and it’s not coincidental. Given the above requirement of 300 pages / novel, that allows a writer to write a page a day, and still finish under a year. The general advice is to write 300–500 words a day, if you are the regimented, in need of self-discipline type, which brings me to my next major learning.

I found that for me it was incredibly important to define the goal. The vision was less clear, and to be frank it still isn’t very clear, because I wrote the book primarily for my own personal, subjective success. I have some vision of what the objective success might look like, where I would maybe like to see the book go within the next two years, but what got me really going was the goal, and that was very-very simple — write a novel of around 80.000 words. The number of words wasn’t arbitrary at all. It reflects my personality of never wanting to do the bare minimum. Going to a publisher with exactly 300 pages was not something I was prepared to do. I wanted this to be a novel, and I didn’t want anyone to question that. Not me, not an editor, not a publisher or even the reader.

Writing 80.000 words requires for the most part I think a very good story, and a writer who likes writing. The latter is true, the former I hoped was true, but in the absence of certainty, I think hope is a perfect substitute, or at least the next best thing.

Time is the next key requirement, and one I feared the most. Having a full-time job as a software engineer, and a somewhat active social life of lunches, dinners, dates, the occasional parties and leaving dos one cannot ignore the unforgivable nature of time, and neither could I. Knowing that a lot of writers spend months or years going on an unpaid sabbatical to write their first novel, I was naturally worried. On the other hand it was a welcome challenge that was partially solved by self-discipline. I committed myself to 500 words a day, or 3500 words a week, setting myself up for a reasonable expectation of finishing the book in 9–12 months.

What was surprising in the end about my expectation was not the fact that I did indeed finish the writing process in 9 months, with an additional 3 months of editing, but how I got there. I think I barely had a single day when I would write less than 500 words. Often I would find myself churning out 2000 or even 3000 words in a single evening. The first 20 or so thousand words I wrote in the first week alone! Then I would have some hiatuses. Surprisingly enough, not because of loss of interest, but exhaustion. The act of writing wasn’t really tiring, even after a long day’s work at the office, but rather the mental and emotional drain of turning stories from my brain into written form which is a nice segue to my next point.

Having written a semi-biography in the form of a novel put me in an interesting position, one I have never really been in before, and took me a while — well into the second half of the book — to grasp. I was both the writer, the main character and the person. There is both a fission and a fusion happening when one takes on all three roles.

As a writer I knew I had all the creative liberties I needed and wanted, and used them to a great extent. This allowed me to bring to life my own character, other characters, play around with them and frankly manipulate everything exactly the way I wanted. I was the king of my castle, and the castle was the novel.

The main character however, which the writer developed based on the actual person — me — had a journey to walk through within the space of the novel, and that is where some of the results of the creative liberties the writer took started to come into conflict with the person. The character was more than happy with the storyteller’s prerogative, the person however — I — had to sometimes remind myself what I was trying to achieve, the initial goal of writing a novel.

None of the the great stories out there miss to deliver on this. And sometimes even the arguably terrible ones like 50 Shades of Grey, or all the Hallmark movies, manage to deliver some sort of message — something I’ll get back to in my next point. Besides the very clear goal of wanting to write an 80.000+ words novel, keeping the message of the book alive, and delivering it to the reader stayed in focus. Knowing the feeling you want to impart, the way you want the reader to connect with the main characters, must be crystal clear to the writer.

While the mere success of writing the thing was exciting in itself, of course as a writer I hoped it would not be utter shite. This is a fear hard to overcome, but I found solace and reassurance coming from unexpected places: Woody Allen and Hallmark movies — both of which I like. The former, while makes decent to great movies, he himself admitted to being mediocre and feeling completely comfortable and happy in his mediocrity. The latter — Hallmark — the scripts are entirely predictable, never an aha moment, next to no introspection, all in all just barely qualifying as a story, yet I still like them, and so do tens of millions of other people. If mediocre and borderline bad can be enjoyed by so many people, I knew someone would like mine as well. It’s almost a statistical impossibility not to, and I had my reasons to believe that as my next point will explain.

Once I had at least a couple of chapters fully written, two things happened. Firstly, I felt very proud. I reread them a good number of times, and I genuinely loved those two chapters every time I read them. The second thing that happened was that I felt the need to show those chapters to someone, and get some sort of feedback. I felt like the kid I was with my little Lego creation I would show my folks and ask “Do you like it so far?”. This time I didn’t go to my parents for feedback but a couple of close friends initially and an actual stranger a few months later. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but the professional in me wanted a little bit more. What I ended up employing was Christopher Vogler’s “Hero Journey” and “Character Arc”, followed by Michael Hauge’s “Six-stage Plot Structure”. Looking at the finished draft and trying to see if and how my story fit these very well known screen and story-writing blueprints was highly enlightening and encouraging.

On the one hand it proved that without ever having seen these blueprints before, my story naturally followed with a few exceptions here and there the so-called “industry standard”. As I was studying the Hero’s Journey — both inner and outer, the Character Arc and the Six-stage Plot Structure in more detail, I found myself getting excited about ticking the boxes and meeting what one would regard as professional requirements.

Unless it’s terrible and mean. But even that should be taken with a pinch of salt. I don’t like Star Wars, it bores me to death and so does The Lord of the Rings, both highly acclaimed stories. I don’t see anyone crying over my negative opinion of either. I knew off the bat, there is no way everyone will like my story. It is statistically impossible to write a book that is universally loved. The Bible is the best-seller of all times, and I know plenty of people who hate it, and plenty more who never even read it, or stopped at “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

Real critique comes from people who either see the potential and want it to become a real thing so it can succeed, already like it but see spaces for improvement and people who love it, but have a few thoughts or questions around a few things. That’s the type of critique one can actually work with. Everything else I would largely disregard as noise and unnecessary distraction.

Once I was done with the draft, I made getting critique an active mission. I started identifying poor sods (joking!) with amazing hearts and kind souls who would volunteer to read what actually became 430 pages of print formatted pages. But I had to be careful about this one, as it was important to me to cover as many reader types, and personalities as possible with varied backgrounds. The way I see it, this will help me with identifying the following:

  • who is my real target audience, who responds best to the story and writing style
  • what gaps are there in the story, where do some of my readers find unclear elements or scenes
  • how well I hid the person — me — inside the main character
  • what the readers like and what they don’t
  • where, why and which character they connect with
  • grammar mistakes, typos — I have at least one grammar nazi already reviewing it
  • where people stopped reading, (if they did) and why
  • whether female or male readers resonate better with the story and the characters

I guess by now you’re as curious as I am about what’s next. I currently have 10 beta readers reading my draft manuscript. Three have already provided feedback, very valuable feedback in fact.

The first person who read the entire manuscript, read it in a single sitting (8h), as she could not put it down. This was humbling and extremely exciting at the same time as it came from a person who is not a close friend, heck, we barely know each other. Another interesting feedback was from a dyslexic reader of mine who struggles with the sinusoidal nature of the story, something I can maybe improve on, so that it’s less jarring. Another great side-effect of the book is the dialogues it generates with all of my beta readers. Being a fairly introspective story, where the hero’s inner journey is just as important as the outer journey, makes people open up about themselves, their perspective on the character or the character’s struggles.

I will eventually want 25 beta readers over the course of a year to provide feedback of some kind, feedback in line with their personalities, what they care about. I want to give people that initial freedom of reading the way they want to read, without any agenda. It will be up to me then what I do with that feedback, how I collate it, and what follow-up questions I may have, which I probably will. It’s both scary and exciting having people read something I have written and worked on for an entire year, but it will prepare me for what will have to come afterwards — the professional editor review.

The editing I did over the three months after having written the draft was basically just to get it into a coherent enough, readable state with many of the typos and grammar mistakes that I could pick up on, corrected. It’s probably worth mentioning I wrote it in English, which is my third language, but also the language I feel I can write most eloquently in — speaking of which, I found out thanks to Marked 2, that the reading level is of 6–7th grade English, which is apparently a bit over the standard 5th grade. On that note, here’s some more stats:

Book stats.

Yes, I know, the goal was 80.000 words. I ended up hitting just shy of 100.000, hence the 430 pages. I am very curious now what an editor will think, as I am fairly convinced nothing can be thrown out. If anything, some thoughts and chapters need elaborating on.

Post editor review, and subsequently edit, I know I will want it published. I promised myself one way or another this novel will get published. I have two avenues: find a publisher or self-publish.

Someone quite dear to me vehemently disagrees with the whole concept of self-publishing. I myself am a little bit on the fence. I do think that great books are written and often don’t see the light of day because publishers, just like music labels are often after one thing only — profit — and if it doesn’t fit exactly into the pattern of literary works they publish, the manuscript ends up in the bin. Musicians have already proved this model wrong and writers started doing that too, so while I would love for a publisher to jump at the idea of getting my book out there, I am perfectly OK self-publishing as well via Amazon which allow me to sell both digital and paperback. But, this is probably a 2021 or 2022 decision.

For now, I’ll just bask in the glory of having written a novel while half the world was shopping for bog-rolls. Fun fact, this article is nearly 3100 words long, and I wrote it in one sitting. I guess I really do like writing, ha? 😊

Writer of code, blogs and things that live on the web. Pragmatic doer, Lego fan, Mac user, cool nerd. JavaScript and Flutter enthusiast. HMH.engineering editor.