Sunday, December 14, 2014

8 Lessons Learned from Taking 2 Years to Finish 1 Novel

Book Cover: The Red Road by Jenni Wiltz
What, me, self promote? Perish the thought.
I'd never be so brazen as to tell you that it's
available for pre-order on Amazon or Kobo.
Official release date: January 26, 2015.
So if I don't write a post for five months, will anyone notice? It's been eating at me - the time I've spent away from blogging about reading and writing. My last post was in July, for goodness' sake. I had lots to say, but no time to say it. But now that The Red Road is finished, I feel like a weight has been lifted. It's cliche, and as a writer, I should do better, but that's exactly what it feels like. 

This two-and-a-half-year journey is finally coming to an end. I started writing The Red Road in May of 2012. As of December 2014, it's done. As in file name "TheRedRoadFINALFINALNOREALLYIMNOT
KIDDINGTHISTIMEFINAL.epub." It's formatted, tested, and ready for pre-sale on the interwebs. Now it's time to wrangle some marketing and take stock of what I've learned. And, boy, this is the book that's taught me the most. Here's some of what I've learned.

Lesson #1: Writing about real life is hard. In thrillers, it's easy to come up with a quip and have the bad guy shoot someone to get out of a tough spot. In a book about high school girls? Not so much. These characters don't have the spatial freedom grown-ups have. I had to give up the easy answers that thrillers and paranormal tales had to offer.

Lesson #2: Writing about real people is hard. I don't think I will ever do this again. Characters based on my mom, dad, and sister are in this book. And I did bad things to them. I stripped every character of safety and left the worst versions of themselves exposed. This is much easier to do with people you're not sitting across the table from at Thanksgiving.

Lesson #3: You have to care about something a hell of a lot to work on it for two and a half years. There were times I cried, shut off the computer, and told the hubby I needed to find something else to do with my life. I never actually wanted to give up, but it felt good to say. It gave me the freedom to come back the next day and say, "Well, since I'm giving up, I guess it would be okay to tweak this one thing just to see what would happen." Sometimes that was enough to take the pressure off and shut down my inner editor, who is a world-class psycho hose beast. 

Lesson #4: Don't go into a book with a social or moral agenda. When I started this book, I was fresh out of grad school. I wanted to write a literary novel, a novel with purpose. I picked out all the social ills and evils of my hometown and forced them into the story. Guess what? The first draft was embarrassing. Preachy. Overwrought. Lacking connection with the characters. And, worst of all, boring. I deleted most of it.

Lesson #5: Presentation matters. File size, epub2 versus epub3, fleurons, dropcaps, embeddable fonts, line height, media queries...holy crap, I didn't know what I didn't know until I decided not to rely on Smashwords or Microsoft Word. My brain hurts. But this is the best-looking book I've ever put out. Now I'm kind of ashamed of all prior efforts.

Graphic: Purple nametag that says, "Hello, My filename is TheRedRoadFINALFINALNOREALLYIMNOTKIDDINGTHISTIMEFINAL_VERSION3_USETHIS.epub"

Lesson #6: Never give up. Be as stubborn as you can. The day that ends in failure? It's just today. Tomorrow's different. You might spend weeks trying to figure out the dumbest thing (why the eff images come out huge in Adobe Digital Editions when they look great in the InDesign file). And you might feel really stupid and small because you can't "get" something that most people don't even bother thinking about. But if you keep working at it, you'll unlock it. And then everything you do from here on out will be right and you'll know why. It won't be an accident.

Lesson #7: Take the time you need. This goes hand-in-hand with Lesson #6. Any sane person would have said, screw this ninth draft. Screw this stupid image that won't size right. I can't spend any more time on this. Those Write, Publish, Repeat guys have serialized a twice-as-long sequel to War and Peace in the time it's taken me to figure out what CSS is. They don't write ninth drafts. And they're making money. So why should I do it? 

You should do it because you care about your work and your name and the story you're telling. If you care more about production time and the number of titles you can crank out in a year, you and I are different and that's okay. I want to take my time. I want to savor the process and learn every part of it. Delayed by 10 weeks to learn InDesign and eBook coding? Fine by me. Delayed by 3 months to add new character arc and revise book again? If it makes the story stronger and will leave readers more satisfied, I'll do it every damn time.

Lesson #8: Stay true to you. The writing world is full of posts and books that offer strategies, productivity tips, and shortcuts. Hell, I'm writing a tip-filled post right now. You have to know which are going to help you and which are not. You have to know what you believe in and why. And you have to know your own strengths and weaknesses. All advice must be filtered through your self-awareness. I'm still learning how to do this. But I'm getting better every day.

You are the architect of your own success. Good luck out there.