When I look back at the first novel that I wrote during the pandemic, it makes me proud seeing how much I’ve learned over the past few years and how far I’ve come as a writer. There’s such a skill to writing novels. You can’t just sit down and decide to try to become an author without honoring and learning the craft. That was something that I failed at and had to learn the hard way.
I thought that by reading a few books about writing fiction novels and having a serious love of reading was enough. But after unsuccessfully pitching my first novel to agents, I took a step back and invested in the amazing resources available out there to improve my writing skills before I attempted my second novel. Here are three things that I’ve learned along the way.
1. The Beginning of Your Novel is Everything
Of course, keeping the audience engaged throughout is what really makes a book shine, but if you have a slow start, your novel will be DOA to agents. When you query agents and send your manuscript out, typically you are only sending the first 5-20 pages. And that’s it folks. If those pages don’t immediately grab the agent’s attention and keep them thinking about your novel afterwards, then chances of hearing back with a partial or full request are slim. I started my first novel with all the things not to do. The weather, my main character alone, no dialogue or action. It was also fifteen pages long. What an opportunity for some serious growth.
2. Find Supportive Beta Readers Outside Your Inner Circle
I was so nervous to share my work with other people. It was an entirely different experience than writing about architecture and design in my career. Writing a novel takes an enormous amount of time and mental fortitude and I had poured my heart into my first novel for six months straight. It's also super personal. Your ideas and imagination spilled out onto the pages. I would wake up at 4am to write. Stay up super late. I missed going to the park with my daughters, so that I could write. It was one of my proudest moments when I finally completed my first novel. But not all audiences are going to be receptive of your work. And that’s ok, everyone is allowed to have their own opinion. It makes for tough critiques later if it ever gets published. However, when you’re first starting out, I recommend finding beta readers outside your immediate circle of family and friends. I didn’t always have the most supportive experience sharing my work with my inner circle and it really damaged my confidence. I couldn’t write for a long time because of it. It was a difficult thing to go through, not having that support, but an important lesson for me. Find writing groups through writing associations or local writing chapters to be a part of that are focused on the genre you’re interested in. I found my incredible writing group through author Bianca Marais’ website. For the past few years, she has matched up beta readers into small groups. Last year, I was paired with the best group of women I could have ever hoped for, and they have lifted my spirits, given incredibly helpful feedback and helped me fall in love with writing again. Bianca also has great events and webinars for writing on her website, many of which I've taken and applied to my writing.
3. Choose Your Genre and Read, Read, Read
My first novel is a young adult speculative novel. I wanted to write the story because it really spoke to me personally and I felt like I just had to write it. However, my forever favorite genre is thrillers. Psychological thrillers to be exact. I have always been fascinated with psychology and dark topics and even darker characters. Twists and turns abound. Many successful authors remain within their genre for the entirety of their careers. Sometimes the successful authors can break out into another genre, and some write under pseudonyms to do so. But one of the big things that I learned is that my work has improved tremendously because I am writing in the genre that interests me most. I am not tabling my YA spec novel forever. It might have a life eventually. But I didn’t want to be a YA spec author for the rest of my career and debut novels are so important to an author’s brand. So, figure out what genre you enjoy most and read every best-selling novel within that genre to study how other authors are able to be so successful. And bonus, if you’re reading in your genre, you’ll be able to find quick comps (comparable titles) to put into your query letter to agents.
Also, I highly recommend the podcast, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, for great tips from some very well-respected women in the business.