10 Things I WISH I Knew Before Writing My Debut Book
Today I’m tackling a topic that was pretty much the reason that I wrote my debut writing craft book, Shut Up and Write the Book. Writing a book is hard, especially if you're writing your very first book and you're doing it without guidance. My debut novel came out almost a decade ago. It was a fun sci-fi adventure. It's no longer in print, and while I had a blast writing it, it was a really difficult journey because I didn't have any mentors. I didn't know any other writers. I was doing it completely on my own. It was a major learning experience and there were a ton of things that I wish I knew before I started tackling that book.
That's why I wrote Shut Up and Write the Book. It's for writers who don't wanna feel alone through this process, who want a step-by-step guide for doing the damn thing the right way. And today I'm giving you a taste of what you can find in Shut Up and Write the Book because I am listing the ten things I wish I knew before I started writing my debut novel. Pay close attention to this list, especially if you're writing your debut novel because I'm about to make the process a whole lot easier. Let's get to it.
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Number 1: Outlines Are a Godsend
“But Jennaaa! All real writers write by the seat of their pants.”
Well then, it looks like millions of successful writers aren't “real writers” because lots of us use outlines. Like a lot of writers, I began my debut super quickly. I was so excited to write it that I just dove right in. I rambled, I went on tangents, and I invented characters that didn't need to exist. And without an outline, I wrote myself into a corner. I reached chapter four, didn't know how to proceed, and ended up with the worst case of writer's block I ever had–for four months.
After weeks and weeks of slamming my head against the wall, I finally bit the bullet and wrote an outline. I was able to locate all of my problem areas, find the source of my issues, and get my novel back on track. I also had to delete about 75% of those first four chapters. All those rewrites and those four months of nothing could have been avoided if I’d started the process with an outline, or if I had at least tried outlining sooner.
Number 2: Write What You Want To Read
A lot of writers are afraid of judgment. They think, “If I write horror, my family's gonna think I'm crazy.” “If I write romance, people are gonna think I'm cheesy.” What writers don't realize is . . . no one's thinking about you. In fact, no one cares that you're writing a book at all. There's a chance that this book won't sell and no one will end up reading it. So if you're gonna take that big of a risk, you might as well write the book you wanna read.
This is a smart option because one, if you're writing the book you want to read, you're probably very passionate about it. Two, if you're passionate about the story, it's probably going to be a lot more enjoyable to write. Three, if you're passionate about the story, it's going to be a lot easier to get through the rough patches of the writing process, and there are many of those. And four, if you want to read this book chances are other people want to read it as well, so it's a great marketing decision. Like a lot of people, I went into writing my debut so worried about judgment and embarrassment and it honestly was a waste of my time. Take it from me, just write the damn book.
Number 3: Mingle With the Writing Community
Writers, I know you may not believe me, but I promise you it is so much easier to write and publish a book if you have writer friends or acquaintances along for the ride. I didn't start making writer friends until toward the end of writing my debut novel, and let me tell you, it was a game changer. Writer friends are a major asset for an obvious reason: They can relate to the struggle and know exactly what you're going through. But beyond that, every writer friend brings an asset to the table. One of my writer friends is an expert at self-publishing. If I have any questions about the indie route, she usually knows the answer. Another one of my writer friends is a trauma therapist, so anytime I'm writing about trauma and I have some questions, she provides a wealth of information.
Writer friends can support you during the writing process. They can help improve your writing, they can help promote your work, and it’s easier than ever to mingle within the writing community. There are YouTube channels, like mine, all about writing. There are Facebook groups. There are Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok hashtags. There are also Discord groups. I have my own writing Discord group available through my Patreon and it is called Cyborg Central, and it's a blast. However you find these writers, it doesn't matter. You just gotta do it. And the sooner you do it, the better.
Number 4: Filter Words Are Not Your Friend
Filter words are words that filter the reader's experience through the character's perspective. They distance readers from the story, which makes the work less immersive and thus less enjoyable. I didn't even know what filter words were before I started writing my debut novel. And you know how I learned about ’em? From mingling within the writing community.
Words like “see,” “hear,” “think,” and “feel” are all filter words, and if you can avoid them, you probably should. Take the sentence, “She saw dancers twirling across the stage.” “Saw” is a filter word. It doesn't benefit the sentence. It makes it clunkier, longer, and less vivid. Instead, you could write it as “Dancers twirled across the stage.” It conveys the same message without filtering the reader's experience through the character's perspective.
Number 5: Sensitivity Readers Exist
A sensitivity reader is someone who reads through your manuscript and points out any accidental cultural inaccuracies or offensive language. Basically, it's their job to make sure you didn't accidentally write something bigoted.
“But Jennaaa! I don't need a sensitivity reader. I'm woke!”
This may shock you, but even woke people don't know everything about every, single marginalized community. You may be well-intentioned, but everyone fucks up from time to time, so you might as well enlist some help. When I wrote my debut novel, I compared skin color to food because at the time I didn't know that it was offensive. A sensitivity reader could have helped me learn I was making a mistake. No matter how open-minded you are, we’re not infallible, and hiring a sensitivity reader can make all the difference.
No matter how open-minded you are, we’re not infallible, and hiring a sensitivity reader can make all the difference.
Number 6: Genres Can Be Really Complicated
Like most writers, when I began writing my debut novel, I thought genres were pretty straightforward. We all know the main genres. There's romance, there's sci-fi, there's mystery. We've heard of them before. But I didn't take into consideration the strict rules for each genre, or how genres can change drastically when we consider sub-genres. And if you get this terminology incorrect, you are going to be releasing your book to the wrong audience.
And don't even get me started on categories. Categories represent the age range of your potential audiences, like Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult. A lot of writers think categories and genres are the same thing, but they're not. They're different qualifiers and you need to understand all of them before you write that book. I didn't understand the depth of genres and categories until about halfway through writing my book, which meant I had to put my writing on pause and do a whole lot of research. It behooves you to understand genres and categories–especially the genre and category you're writing in–before you start the writing process.
Number 7: Adverbs Are a Lot Easier To Avoid Than You Think
Most writers have heard that adverbs are bad, but not a lot of writers understand why, and it's a lot easier to avoid adverbs if you understand the reason for it. A lot of times an adverb describes a verb; it's a description of an action. They're usually pretty easy to find because they often end in “–ly.” The problem with adverbs is they aren't inherently bad or evil, it’s just oftentimes verbs already describe themselves. You don't need to say that the man “whispered quietly” because whispers are inherently quiet. On top of that, if you're using an adverb, often it's because the verb that you used attached to that adverb is really weak and not conveying the right message. For example, if you said, “She spoke angrily,” the verb “spoke” is pretty vague, which is why you added “angrily” to the mix. Maybe a stronger, more powerful verb to be used instead, like “hiss,” “yell,” “shout,” or “bark.” These verbs paint a clearer picture which is exactly what you want in your writing.
Number 8: Kill Your Darlings
Of course, everyone's heard this phrase, but a lot of writers think that it's about killing off characters. That ain’t right. It's about being willing to delete content from your story that doesn't benefit the plot, no matter how much you love it. Filler is any content that doesn’t move the plot forward. It may be fun or entertaining, but if it doesn't move the plot forward, it is not necessary to the story and it should be deleted. If you're not sure if the scene counts as filler, imagine that it's been removed from the story. If the story could continue without issue, that means it's filler and it's gotta go. I know it hurts, but your readers will thank you.
Number 9: Thoroughly Vet Your Editors
I hired my very first editor based on their reputation. They had worked on some very famous New York Times bestsellers that had even gotten movie deals. So I thought, “Hey, this guy's legit.” It didn't matter that his rate was much higher than the average, or that his website had barely any information on it because hey, he was a big deal and that's all that matters, right? Wrong!
The editor didn't end up providing the type of edit I had requested, and a lot of his suggestions were misogynistic. He basically wanted me to make the male love interest the hero, and the heroine the damsel in distress. Anytime the heroine was assertive, or any of the female characters behaved in an unladylike manner, he wanted me to rewrite the scene and have them behave as passive and docile.
Long story short, I had a really rough experience, which could have been avoided if I had thoroughly vetted my editor. Ask for recommendations, look up their rates, read positive reviews, and of course, check their genre specialty. Just because someone sounds good, doesn't mean they're the right editor for you.
Number 10: Get Your Writing Advice From a Credible Source
Before I made my writer friends, the only writing advice I got came from books and articles on the Internet. The only writing advice I got from another human being was from a guy who wasn't a writer. This may shock you, but his advice fucking sucked. Once I started meeting other writers, I was bombarded with writing advice–and some of it was great, but a lot of it wasn't. Usually, the bad advice came from writers who weren't yet published, didn't have any experience, or the book was still percolating in their minds. Or if they did have experience, they weren't that great of a writer.
Listen, we're all imperfect. None of us have all the answers, but it's good to be cognizant of where you're getting your information from. If someone with no experience is giving you advice, maybe take it with a grain of salt. But if an award-winning, bestselling author is giving you advice, sounds like it could be pretty good. Just saying.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Everything I discussed in today's video and a whole lot more is available in Shut Up and Write the Book. So if you want to get even more writing advice, and you want an action plan for writing your book in a step-by-step format, definitely check it out. It's available to buy right now in ebook, paperback, hardback, and audiobook. I have it linked right here!
What lessons did you learn writing your debut? Drop them in the comments below!
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