Writing My First Book: 5 Lessons Learned
I self-published my first book, Wildcat, about two years ago. The response from reviewers has been positive (go me!), but even among those reviewers who loved it some have highlighted the same flaws in the work. Hopefully, I’ll be able to learn from this going forward and my books will just get better with every new release (that’s the plan anyway)!
For any other new authors out there who are interested, here are some lessons I learned from Wildcat. The examples are obviously Wildcat-Specific, but the general principles may be of use to other writers.
- Set Your Pace
A few people commented that, while the first act of Wildcat was interesting, it was at best a very slow burn, aimed to get the reader invested in the daily lives of the characters. By having the prologue landing us right in the middle of the action, I’d hoped this book would ‘hit the ground running’ as it were. Trouble is that Wildcat did indeed hit the ground running, then decided to power walk for several miles before building up to a jog again.
I’m all for taking time to get people invested in the characters (look how long it took for Rocky to get to the plot), but a bit more pace in that first act would probably have made for a more enjoyable read. Find a balance between taking time to get to know characters and keeping the story moving.
- Develop More Characters
In Wildcat the reader gets plenty of time to get to know Rhia, which is right and proper as she’s this book’s protagonist, and as a result all the reviewers seem to love her. Unfortunately her development has come at the cost of other characters, for whom I’d written copious notes but didn’t actually explore in the text. Marius in particular was a well-liked character but more than one reader commented that he felt under-developed. I know that he’s twenty-two when we meet him, that he’s only just been promoted from Proxima Tribune, and he was his father’s favourite, making him always the outsider among his siblings. However, since I didn’t include any of that in the book itself, none of the readers know that about him. Other characters like Delyn, Peira, and Bael also had a great deal more to them than I wrote, but there just never seemed to be a good time to do it without dragging the pace down.
It’s important to take the time to develop your protagonist and get the reader invested in her, but the supporting cast have to be filled-out as well. Find a way of doing this within the flow of the narrative – again, need a good balance.
- Beware Your Red Herrings
I’m a big fan of making the reader think the story is going to go one way then suddenly shifting it in another direction. Fantasy in particular is a genre that can be awfully predictable and I strive to avoid falling into too many predictable traps. So far, so good. Unfortunately, some of the red herrings I threw in to fool the reader wound up being very overdone, to the extent that some readers felt cheated that the ‘distraction storyline’ wasn’t developed.
As with all of these the key is balance and in this case I failed to balance my sub-plots properly, turning what should have been a clever distraction into an unsatisfying loose end. Sub-plots and red herrings are all very well, but handling them well needs careful planning.
- Messages: Subtle vs Overt
This one is quite specific to Wildcat so I’ll keep it short. Early on in the book I have a group bathing scene, intended to show how little this culture cares about nudity and sexuality, and how open they all are about it. Unfortunately the writing made it seem less like an historical observation and more like a letter to Playboy! The message was lost and to a lot of people the scene just read as awkward, bordering on creepy. Not good.
When you want to make a point, sometimes you have to trust your reader to pick up on subtle signals. If you’re aiming for shock value then by all means be overt, but when you want to send a subtler message, sometimes less is more.
- Show Me, Show Me
One common point brought up by readers is that the story is sometimes slowed by internal monologues. Now, I’m a fan of showing what’s going through a character’s head, particularly in moments of stress or following trauma, but the old screenwriting adage above is just as relevant to novels as it is to film. When too much time is spent on dialogue, whether internal or aloud, the audience gets bored and itches for the next actual event. In this book I definitely over did it with the inner thoughts and rather than being a brief pause for breath, to some people they became a dead weight that slowed the story down needlessly.
The magic word balance rears its head again. Letting the reader into a character’s head is all well and good, but their thoughts and motivations are shown just as well, if not better, through their actions. Again, sometimes you have to trust the reader to rely on their own understanding, rather than beat them over the head with the point you’re trying to make.
Well, you’ve probably guessed by my repeated use of the word that the key to all these flaws is balance. Balance between character-building and pacing, between protagonist-focus and the supporting cast, between plot and sub-plot, between subtle and overt, and between internal and external. Seems simple enough when put like that but it seems it’s something that, in my case at least, needs careful attention and thought when writing one’s book.
Hope this has been of interest or of use to some of you – enjoy your reading, or your writing, or if you’re anything like me, both!