When you finish your first novel, your troubles have only begun



Remember how it gnawed at you? How it obsessed you? How you couldn’t put it out of your mind?  How it distracted you from concentrating at your day job? How it drove you to your keyboard in the middle of the night, or long before the light of day?

That first book you had in you that must come out.

I do.

All my life I had dreamed of writing that book.

And finally I did it.

Or more accurately, I made myself do it.

The binder in which I keep the manuscript of book one (what eventually became Last One Chosen) tells me I wrote the last word of the first draft on July 9, 2009.

I have to say that July 9, 2009 was an “aha” moment for me in the sense that I felt as if I had walked through a door, not into another room, but into an alternate reality.

And it was an alternate reality.

For fifty-seven years I had a dream of writing a book.

On July 9, 2009, that dream vanished.

What happens when dreams vanish?

I can only to speak to my experience in the world of writing.

When my dream vanished I found myself addicted to the process of creating books.

I could write them.

I had demonstrated it.

Hadn’t I?

Not so fast.

Herein lies what I will call the Indie Delusion.

The Delusion consists in a person’s believing that he is an author because he typed the words “The End” on a manuscript.

When a person types “The End,” her troubles have only begun.

Like a kid on a bike for the first time, she doesn’t think about the slope of the pavement ahead of her until she is caroming down the hill toward the ditch.  In her elation at the accomplishment of gaining her balance on two wheels, she doesn’t yet know how hard it is to peddle uphill.

The Indie Delusion is the notion that one book is as good as another.

One book is not as good as another.

That’s where craft enters the picture.

The main thing I have learned over the last five years or so of writing is that each day presents an opportunity to improve my ability to put words on paper, to hone my skills, to abandon techniques that don’t work in favor of those that do.

Ray Bradbury’s admonition that the first million words don’t count, and Malcolm Gladwell’s observation that it takes ten thousand hours to become proficient at an enterprise are right on the mark.

Now that I am approaching those two benchmarks, I have a better idea of where the road leads, where the ditches are and how steep the mountain around the bend.

If it was easy, anybody could do it.



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  • I’m amazed that you’re only now approaching the million-word mark. Good job getting even more books published since the first one.

    You’re right – I remember deciding to mail out the queries for the first book after finishing it. I don’t remember the long periods after that with any pleasure – the waiting alone kills you. I think it’s been 18 years since I started writing the first novel. Of course, there was a lot of life happening during those years.

    Finishing the first novel is a milestone so many people never achieve. Even ‘starting a novel’ is more of broken New Year’s resolution for most.

    Writing is a good tribe to join – it’s just that the initiation rites can take rather a long time.

    • “Rather a long time” may be the most understated view of it. On the other hand, I know of no enterprise worth trying that doesn’t require countless hours of work and practice. As we cross each threshold, we look forward to the next.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    There is a great difference in books, Stephen. Some authors want to merely spill words on a page until they reach 100,000 words. Others use words to tell a good story even if it only takes 50,000 words.

    • If only we knew which 50,000 words to spill on the page.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        Leave out the ones that bore you.

  • Gae-Lynn Woods

    I think you’re right about the indie delusion. But there is a great difference in books. Whether they’re long or short, it’s quality that will win out, not quantity. And quality is indeed a craft that takes time and practice to build.

  • Andy Holloman

    write on…couldn’t agree more…once you finish that first book or two, you realize are far behind you truly are!

    • Andy,
      Writing is a gig no one can master. So I guess we all just have to learn what we can while realizing that each lesson will lead to another. Thanks for the comment. SW

  • 1hollyrobinson1

    I love this post–because you’ve really laid out the hardcore truth of what it means to be a writer: you write so that you can REWRITE the words you’ve put on the page, sometimes many times over. Then, at last, you start to have a book…

    • Holly,
      Thanks for the comment. I am learning the truth of the rewrite with each passing day. The words can always get better, tighter. It’s kind of like Carl Sandburg said about writing when he was in his mid-80s. He said if he had another ten years or so he might get good at it.Regards, SW

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