This week I nailed a writing goal and finished the fourth book in my YA series. Finally I had typed, “The End”, knowing I’d written everything that I wanted to. While there’s still more editing to be done on this book and the other three—for now—the series is complete.
That got me thinking, not only about what the hell I’m going to work on next, but also the lessons I learned after writing four books, lessons such as…
You Are the First Editor
Obviously editing and writing go hand in hand. Once you’ve written and then re-written, you edit the book.
I am not awesome at grammar, very far from it, but I’ve gotten better while writing the four books, and I have also come to realize that editing is more than just making sure the commas are in the right place.
Editing is spotting errors, knowing when a scene needs more or less, identifying where the pacing lags, and if the characters are distinguishable. When I completed the first book in the series, I knew I had issues with those things, and relied on two different editors to help me pinpoint the problems. While they did to a degree, it was actually writing the next three books that helped me hone my skills and realize that I needed to be my books first editor.
It was my job to work a constructive eye over the words, figure out what sections were bothering me and why, and stop expecting someone else to fix them. I knew what needed to be re-written better than anyone, and I needed to edit until I could say, unequivocally, that it was the best I could do—only after that is it time to reach out to a professional editor.
You’ve Got to Catch the Repeats
Just as everyone has their own writing style, there are certain words or phrases that writers love to use, and they use them constantly!
I’m partial to sentences saying “as if it was…”, writing that a (or every) character “stood”, “looked” and “took”. I start a lot of sentences with “although”, and end just as many with “though”. When you’ve been writing in bits and pieces, and then editing in fits and bursts, it’s easy to miss how much you repeat the same phrasing or words. By the time I was editing my last book, I had a list of repeats that I knew I used so I could replace them with alternatives. Now when others read my work, they won’t question if I know anything other than the same five words.
You Shouldn’t Add Words Just to Meet A Word Count
I write YA fiction, which is in the word count ballpark of 55,000 – 69,999. I don’t set a word count when I start writing, I just aim for anything above 55,000, and I am happy when I go beyond 60,000. I only look at my word count after the first draft, when I know the full plot. I then take stock and decide which sections need to be fleshed out so that I can reach a decent word count.
When I completed my first few books, I made sure they contained the story I wanted to tell without any extra scenes just for the sake of reaching a certain length. But as I finished the last book, I better understood that, although I don’t write scenes just to add pages, it’s likely my earlier books have sentences with extra words that don’t need to be there. At the time, those extras got me to my word counts, but I now know that extra words in sentences only dilute the impact of those sentences. Essentially, less is more. Say what you’ve got to say and then get out.
You’re Going to Find Typos
Out of the four books, the first book is the one I have read the most. It has also been the only book that has been read by five beta readers and two editors. That’s because it’s the book I spent a year sending to agents, and the book I am currently submitting to publishers. This week I loaded it on my kindle, having not read it as a whole for at least a year, and I found three typos. Typos that myself and numerous others had missed. Even when you think you’ve gone over something a million times (that count might not be accurate but it sure feels like it), there are still typos.
You’ll Know When You’re Done
A beta reader once asked me how I knew there would be four books to the series, and I didn’t have an answer for her other than, “I just knew.”
I’m not sure how other muses’ work, but mine stops giving me ideas when I’ve finished each book. That’s usually how I know that I’m done. Other than tweaking some events, or suddenly realizing there is a better way to have something happen, I really do stop getting fresh, new ideas for a book when I’ve written it the way it’s meant to be. So I know when I’m done with a story, and when you finish writing yours the way it’s meant to be—you will too.
You Are Your Own Worst Critic
Now for the final, and perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned; you are you own worst critic. Spending the last few years writing this series has given me happiness and meaning, yet at the same time, the process has frustrated me and brought me to the edge of despair more than once.
I know what it’s like to both love and hate your book. Most of the criticism comes down to my expectations of what I want the book to be. I have done writing worth celebrating, and then looked at that writing and wondered, “who would want to read this?”
As mentioned, I’ve been submitting my first book for over a year now and have received nothing back but rejections. When the only feedback you get is “no”, it’s very easy for that inner critic to confirm all of your writing doubts and fears. Fears such as, is the beginning too slow? Are the characters not deep enough? Is the plot too cliché? Does the mystery not pay off? Are the plot twists flat? If I were to answer those questions, it would be, yes! the opening three chapters are slow, the characters need more depth, the plot is full of clichés, there was a mystery in there? And plot twists, what plots twists?
On the other hand, if you ask one of my beta readers (which I did in a moment of panic), they would say the opposite. No one will be more critical of your work than you. No one reads your work more than you, which means you can no longer be objective. The real final lesson then is that you need to accept that you are doing the best job you can. Be happy with what you write, because one day you will have a bevy of readers who will love what you’ve written, and know nothing about the hard lessons you learned to get there.
— K.M. Allan