THE BLOG

If I Wrote My Debut Novel Again, Here's What I'd Do Differently

01/09/2015 17:19 BST | Updated 31/08/2016 10:59 BST

In the same way that you'll only ever have one first kiss, you only get one shot at your debut novel. I mean, you'll redraft and edit it 10 million times, but you only do the whole process once. And it's about trial, error, heartbreak and pride.

I'm proud as punch of my debut, but when I came to write my second, I did a lot of stuff differently. So if you're currently wrestling with your first written kiss, maybe some of the lessons I learned could save you some time...

1. Use Scrivener

I'm not joking, I don't think I could have written my second without this piece of software. Not because it wrote it for me (that software does NOT exist) but because it enabled me to structure a tricky plot and move things around without messing everything up. So, if you possibly can, get Scrivener. It's not super cheap (around £35) but you can get a month's trial - I did - and that gives you a chance to see if it's for you. You can export anything you've written so you won't lose it at the end of the month. I feel like I'm flogging this a bit hard. This isn't a pyramid scheme. Promise.

2. Don't polish it, yet

You've all heard the expression "don't get it right, get it written"? Yeah. It's true. I spent ages (years) tweaking this and that, perfecting dialogue that all got cut when I did a massive rewrite on chunks of Try Not To Breathe (that's a normal thing to do, by the way).

When it came to my second, I just bashed it all out really quickly. I had the characters in my head and I knew the basic plot, so I just wanted to get it all down and see how it looked. It took about three months to write that first draft, unlike the years it took the first time.

3. Then polish it until it screams

Obviously you don't just leave your huge lump of stone unchiselled, Michelangelo!

Once you have the shape and the characters and something to work with, then you go through and edit ruthlessly - this is where you should spend your time. Whole scenes, characters and timelines could (and probably should) end up being cut.

If you can bear to leave a bit of time between finishing that first draft and editing, do. The fresher your eyes when you read through, the more you'll spot what needs changing. If you read and edit it too soon then you see what you intended to say, rather than what you did say.

I like to read through on my iPad's Kindle app before editing. I find it easier to do close reading and spot things, but I also find that I read it as a reader rather than as a writer.

I read through that first time, highlighting bits and making notes on the screen, then go through and do another draft in Schrivener that takes these into account. Then I export the whole manuscript into my usual word processor and start editing from the beginning. Like, a million more times. I'm still at this point with book two.

4. If it doubt, take it out

When editing Try Not To Breathe, I hung on to scenes I liked through several drafts, just because I liked them. That there is self-indulgent BS of the highest order.

No one wants to read a scene that doesn't deserve to be there - and no editor would leave it in anyway. I'm really lucky that my agent has an amazing editorial eye (she was an editor before an agent) so she wouldn't have let me get away with that anyway, even before it reached my editor.

Every word, line, paragraph and chapter should deserve to be there, if not, cut it.

As an aside, for comfort, I kept a Scrivener folder of deleted scenes so I could dip back in and rescue things if I wanted to. I rarely did.

5. I'd guard my writing time with my life

I wrote Try Not To Breathe while working full time and doing other silly vanity projects like an Open Uni degree (I'm a big fan of the OU but, for me, it was entirely a vanity thing) and destroying an allotment (all I did was weed and rotovate that thing).

I used to get up early to write, write at night, write on the train, take notes in between sets at the gym and so on. I'm proud that I managed to patch it together like this, but there were plenty of times when time I'd set aside was absorbed into other stuff. Stuff that didn't really matter. I'd take a day off work to write and half of it would go on doing laundry. Eff that, those clothes just get dirty again.

When it came to writing my second, I'd just had my youngest baby. I had to juggle things in a different way. My husband worked away a lot, so at night I'd put the kids to bed, feed the baby to sleep next to me and then write all night, pausing to feed him (and generally do one-finger typing while he fed as he fed for HOURS). I realised how much more I could immerse myself in what I was doing when I could dedicate hours of quiet time to it.

Time is a luxury. And, as I found with my first book, you can make any fragments of time work for you. But if you possibly can set aside chunks of writing time, do. And be strict, protect it and respect it. Your first kiss will be all the better for it.