I fell in love with creative writing when I was in the fourth grade, after spending many childhood years reading books and discovering the fun of narrative composition assignments in school. At the age of ten, I decided that writing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and publishing a book was one of those goals I absolutely had to accomplish at least once before I died. Eager to get a headstart on my career as an author, I wasted no time in writing my first novel. As it turned out, however, being a preteen writer came with a major disadvantage: a severe lack of experience.
The final product of my labor was a relatively short tale about a child’s adventure through a dream world, creating imaginary friends along the way to aid her on her quest to develop what she had been missing for years: an active imagination. Though I believed the idea to be a good one, I realized a few years after finishing the story that the execution was subpar due to various mistakes that I hadn’t recognized when I was ten. Of course, I don’t want to bore you with the details of every single one, so instead, here’s a list of five of the most important aspects of fiction writing that I wish I had known when I was working on my first book.
1) Good books don’t get written in a day.
Unless you’re an extremely focused hermit locked in a room with nothing but a desk and a typewriter (or you’re the Flash), you’re not turning out a bestselling novel in less than 24 hours. Now, I didn’t literally expect to write a whole book in one day, but given that the basic outline of a plot was already clear in my mind when I started, I also didn’t expect it to take longer than a week to finish. Instead, I probably spent the equivalent of at least a month’s worth of writing before I finally completed my novel. By creating such unrealistic expectations, I was setting myself up for the disappointment that inevitably hit me after the first week of writing came and went. And disappointment is not an emotion that ten-year-olds are usually prepared to handle well…
It’s worth mentioning, however, that I probably still could have finished my story in less time than it actually took me. So why didn’t I? Because there was one piece of advice I didn’t take into account before I started…
2) Planning is important.
I made the rookie mistake of thinking that a single idea was all I needed before I actually started writing a novel. I thought that as long as I could keep that one idea clear in my head, inspiration would take over and I’d have a full manuscript ready before I knew it. Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, novels don’t quite work that way. There were several instances during the writing process when I had to stop and even retrace my steps because I wasn’t entirely sure how to move the action forward, or how to fill a gap between two scenes that I already knew were going to happen. I’m not saying I should have spent a year only planning without actually writing anything, but had I taken just a little more time to map out the full course of my story before I dove headfirst into the narrative, I could have saved myself a lot of confusion and tedious rewrites in the long run.
3) Compelling characters are those who are flawed.
During the course of my story, my protagonist created three imaginary friends, each of whom was some sort of fantasy creature with magical abilities of incredible power. Ironically, the only imperfection in each of these characters was the fact that they were perfect. They were all beautiful, intelligent, strong, courageous, and downright wonderful in every way conceivable. In retrospect, they were probably the personifications of the qualities I subconsciously wished or wanted to believe I had myself, with none of the drawbacks.
But there was a major problem with this: my characters were not relatable. Perfection was fine for my own daydreams, but nobody wants to read about impossibly powerful heroes who can save the day without so much as breaking a sweat (outside of comic books, that is). Readers want heroes who make mistakes, who fight for their goals with everything they’ve got and emerge triumphant after struggles that only made them stronger in the end. In other words, readers want to potentially see themselves in their heroes. And my characters didn’t fulfill that purpose. By designing them to be impossibly perfect, I had inadvertently made them every writer’s worst nightmare: boring.
4) Bad things must happen to good people.
Yes, I was one of those idealistic children raised on fairy tales, who believed that good always triumphed over evil, and the heroes should always defeat the villains in every battle, with no exceptions. This was reflected in the climax of my novel: when I finally introduced actual antagonists near the end of the story (another mistake, mind you), a series of fights ensued in which my main characters would always beat the bad guys every time they tried to attack. In the end, the villains were completely defeated, while the heroes were left without even a scratch. As you can imagine, that was a pretty boring scene.
This was probably the biggest flaw of my story: I had failed to create suspense. With every single attack of every single fight ending in the heroes’ favor, the scene that should have been the most exciting part of my novel became too predictable and bland. If, however, I had thrown a few twists into the mix, such as having one of my protagonists suffer a terrible injury that put her at the villains’ mercy, I could have set the scene up for a much more engaging and satisfying conclusion. In short, if anyone was going to care about whether my good guys would win the war, there had to be at least a chance that the bad guys might win a few battles first.
5) Your first book is going to stink… no matter what.
OK, maybe this isn’t true for all writers, but it’s likely true for most (if you’re one of the exceptions, I salute you). Sometimes I think that even if I had known everything else about planning and character development and conflict, my first novel still would have turned out mediocre at best. I was, after all, only ten years old; how well could I really have written a story reflecting important values of life if I had barely even started living mine? But even if I had started my first book in my twenties, I’m sure it still wouldn’t have amounted to a great classic of literature, because to know what to do in order to turn out a brilliant piece of fiction, I first would have had to know what not to do, and there’s only one truly effective way to learn that lesson…
I have absolutely no regrets about my first attempt at writing a novel. Although it was rather lame, I still love it for everything it’s taught me about fiction writing, and the fact that I was able to start gaining this experience at such a young age makes me all the more optimistic about my future as a writer. Today, I’m proud to say that I am once again working on a novel, this time with naturally flawed characters and a storyline filled with due drama and suspense, all planned out well in advance. From here on, there’s only room for improvement.
So what about you? If you’re a writer, have you been through a similar experience? What did you learn from your first mistakes in fiction writing?