Sunday, April 22, 2012

My Mistakes as a First Time Novelist

About a year ago, I finished my first novel complete with first time mistakes.

photo credit: Matt Hampel {Flickr Creative Commons}

I didn't know my abcs about writing a good story. I simply knew writing coursed through my veins--I enjoyed stringing words together, thought in blog posts, and filled journals. Plus, daddy always told me to write a book one day, and my English professor liked my essays. And then there is the picture of me in diapers, scribbling.

So that makes me a novelist, right? Well, sort of.

Three years ago, I pulled out my notes and let my fingers fly. Without the slightest clue about market or genre, I picked an international setting with a foreign character, wrote in first person, and spanned a lifetime of events. Not to mention, I utilized every adverb and clich├ęd phrase known to humankind.

And aren't writers supposed to tell a story? And yes, my novel reads like soggy oatmeal about half way through. Oh, is that what you call a sagging middle? And it isn't wise to introduce too many characters or backstory at once, you say?

Clueless. You could say that.

Yet, despite my blunders, I completed the project. And though I started with the noble purpose to create a polished--somewhat perfect--piece of art, I realized, after my story grew a mind of it's own {and thew a temper tantrum}, I had a choice to make.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, "if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won't be able to get very far if you don't start trying to get over your perfectionism."

In order to finish, I had to resist my urge to cross my t's and dot my i's. I could either complete what I had started, or tuck my work away.

I opted for the former.

Oh, I wish I could tell you my first novel is Einstein genius, that it glimmers like the Taj Mahal, that publishing houses are sitting on pins and needles waiting for me to query. However, as I slog through edits, I realize the rational side of my brain is right--my story needs work {okay, it needs plastic surgery}. I may now call myself a novelist, but just as marathon runners run and singers sing, I must write. And I must not worry about getting it right the first time.

So, I must make mistakes.

It's the only way to write a better story.


Melanie's formula for success:
Practice. Read. Write. Fail. Cry. Pray. Practice. Laugh-out-loud at first manuscript. Say, what in the world was I thinking? Practice again. Receive rejection {with grace}. Cry. Pray. Practice...

"Your dedication to writing is a marching step forward from where you were before, when you didn't care about reaching out to the world, when you weren't hoping to contribute, when you were just standing there doing some job into which you had fallen." --Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Check out Alicia Rasley's article "Top Ten Plotting Problems". This is a very useful editing tool {and yes, some of these problems have sneaked into my story}.

What blunders have you made in your writing journey {if you're willing to admit:)}? What lessons have you learned?

*this post first appeared on the International Christian Fiction Writers blog, February 6, 2012

Melanie N. Brasher is a full time mama of two boys and wife to an incredible husband who understands her bicultural background. She moonlights as a fiction and freelance writer, crafting stories and articles toward justice and change. She's a member of American Christian Fiction writers and a contributing blogger for Ungrind & Hoosier Ink. Though she's an aspiring author, she'll never quit her day job.


  1. I love this post, Melanie, because we all need to remain teachable no matter what stage of the game we're at. And I do believe you're right -- finishing that first novel is HUGE! Just HUGE!

    Have you ever read The Breakout Novel by Donald Maas? That was the "first" book that spoke to me in a way I "got" editing that first novel. I love that book and go back to it again and again for my stories. The workbook is excellent. I also love Bird by Bird. So many great books and blogs on writing out there, including this post!

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Karla! Yes, I've read Donald Maas, and I need to reread him now. :) I learned so much from that book, and yes, I love Bird by Bird as well. I'm working through James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. Very helpful.

  2. Melanie, As always, I love your honesty and humility. Thanks for the good words and the truth behind them. Things to think about for us all.

    1. Thanks for your sweet encouragement, Nikki! I appreciate you. :)

  3. Thanks, Melanie, for sharing this.

    My first novel was written in '84 with a pen on notebook paper (or was it pencil?). I did no research, no character sheets giving facts about them. It was too Christian for the secular market and too worldly for a Christian market. However, the plus side is it proved to me that I could write a complete novel, and I had fun doing it.

    Almost a quarter of a century later, I wrote another novel. This one is far superior, with better research and better characters. But I have a lot of characters and some of them I introduced in batches. But so have experienced authors -- Frank Peretti did that in his second adult novel "Piercing the Darkness" and again in "The Oath". Those were early novels compared to where "Bear Island" is on the list of Alistair MacLean's stories, and he introduces most of the large cast in the first chapter.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jeff. You're absolutely right about getting better with each novel. My goal is to keep getting better. :)