I spent about six years writing and revising my first book, Hunting Vienna. It was the first book I ever finished, though definitely not the first I ever tried writing. I learned so much on this journey that I feel the need to share some of these lessons. Remember, as with anything, that these are just my experiences and my takeaway from them. What works for me might not work for you, so the best thing to do is to do your own research and simply try out different methods and learn from your own experience.
Nevertheless, I hope this might be entertaining or inspirational to some, so here are 10 things I learned writing my first book.
1. Planning is key
I had attempted to write books before this one, and even got quite far along in a few of them, but they always petered out eventually and I would abandon them. So, with Hunting Vienna, I tried thinking it through a bit more. The main plot of the book revolves around a scavenger hunt of historical artefacts around Vienna, and so I did a lot of research and planned out all the different clues. More on research a bit later. But even with this amount of planning, the first draft ended up about double the length it should have been and I had to scrap about 80% of the story and completely rewrite it. Twice. Oh, and this first draft took me about three years to finish.
There’s a technique in story structure where you write down all of the scenes in your plot on flashcards and visualise them, move them around so they form a story. I did that. About two drafts too late.
Writing by the seat of your pants can be very fun, don’t get me wrong, and it does work for some people. I just learned that it definitely does not work for me. I need to plan out the story, otherwise I meander too much and it takes me way too long to get to the heart of what I’m trying to achieve.
I’ve mentioned this in my last video but I found that the style that works best for me is the beat sheet method, where you plan out the 15 main beats of your story in advance, and then connect the dots. This gives me just enough freedom where I can still experience the joy of discovering something new about the story or the characters, while at the same time keeping me grounded on exactly where I need to go and how to get there.
2. Google doesn’t always count as research
Hunting Vienna takes place, as the title suggests, in Vienna, my favourite city. Even before I knew anything else about this book I knew I wanted to set it there. I have visited Austria’s capital twice, during high-school and took enormous amounts of pictures.
I had a good reference of some of the places I wrote about, but since my story focused on the history behind the landmarks, I needed to do copious amounts of research.
The problem, I found, was that no matter how resourceful the internet is, if you need to get deeper into particulars, you must find other ways to gather this information. Read books, specialised books on the topic, talk to people who work in these areas or who live in these cities, go there and take notes on the spot of what you are seeing and experiencing. If you want to describe what happens to someone who has just been shot, don’t just rely on your imagination, but talk to a doctor, or to someone who has seen it happen. Even if the end result never makes it into the book, your pool of knowledge will have increased and you’ll be able to write about it better in the future.
Unfortunately, due to…well, life, I did not get the chance to go back to Vienna in the entire process of writing and editing this book. I feel confident enough that I’ve managed to portray it properly with the bits of research I managed to do and my fond memories of my trips there. In fact, I like to say that the city is almost a character in of itself. However, I learned that it’s important to surround yourself with what you are writing about and the more access to information you have, the better your book will be.
And I now feel like I can lead a tour guide around Vienna. I know more about it than I do of the city I was born in.
3. Titles are hard
Coming up with a title for a book sometimes feels like magic, while other times it feels and looks like this:
For some books you know the title before you even write the thing, while others can take draft after draft until you get so frustrated that you just want to publish it under the working title. Document 1 it is, then.
There are some tricks that can help with coming up with a title, such as creating word clouds from the book or even picking out a few key lines. Some authors even use song names or song lyrics that fit with their theme, but I’m not entirely sure of the copyright laws of doing that.
You have to remember though, that if you’re planning on traditional publishing, your publisher may change the title of your book to whatever they feel will attract more readers to it. So try not to get too attached either way, although a great title can sometimes peak an agent’s interest when you’re querying them. At the same time, having a not so great title will not put off an agent if the rest of your query and pages are solid.
My point is, try not to stress too much about finding the perfect title for your book, unless you’re self-publishing. And even then, give it some time, it might pop up out of nowhere, or you might have to try some of those tricks to lure it out.
My first book’s title, Hunting Vienna, came to me after about four years of calling it EuroDaniel as a working title. I had to resort to the word cloud method, since nothing seemed to fit. I’m still unsure wether this is the perfect title for it, but I’m sticking with Hunting Vienna for now.
4. First sentence/first page is critical
Of all the extensive editing I’ve done to this book, the part which changed the most is the first sentence and first page. When you first write your draft, you probably don’t even think about it, but once you start revising, more importantly once you start querying, you realise just how much punch that first sentence can throw.
I would never stop reading a book if the first paragraph was mediocre, but you have to understand that agents and editors need to get through hundreds of submissions a week and the sooner they find themselves bored of your writing, the sooner they will reject you. I’ve seen agents talk about how excited they were after reading the query, that they thought the premise was fantastic, only to then move on to the sample pages and to be let down that the first sentence was mediocre at best.
I’ve started paying a lot more attention to beginnings of the books I read, and I know that a great start can make me really excited about what’s to come. And you can play around with it so much too. Are you going to have a meaningful first paragraph which neatly suggests the theme of the book? Are you going to start with some punchy dialogue? What about a really funny sentence, make your readers laugh and be in a good mood from the start? I’ve tried all of these and more.
Ultimately you need to stop at some point and leave it up for critique partners, editors, agents, or even readers to judge if the start of your book is strong or not. Just don’t begin your story with your main character waking up or looking at themselves in a mirror and describing their appearance. Seriously, never do that. Even if you think it’s somehow meaningful; even if you think you can spin it around to make it funny. DON’T DO IT.
5. Writing is rewriting
This feels incredibly obvious to me now, and yet I still see new writers posting on forums that they just finished the first draft of their book and are wondering how they can publish it. And I understand the sentiment. You worked for so long writing all these words. You probably think it’s a masterpiece and you cannot wait for everyone to read it and pat you on the back for doing such a great job.
The absolute truth every new writer must learn one way or another is that your first draft is most likely a steaming pile of trash which you accidentally set on fire. Unless you’ve already written, edited, and published a few books, this is a fact. If you have the experience needed to create a good story structure and your prose is defined, after a few books you might have a relatively clean first draft. You’ll still need to edit it multiple times, but it will be miles better than anyone’s who just started writing.
Revising and editing that draft multiple times is the only way to achieve a good book. And it seems daunting at first. You have to completely rewrite these beautiful 150,000 words? You have to scrap half of them? Take out characters and subplots? Polish your prose to the letter?
And I learned that this is my favourite part of the whole process. I have seven drafts of Hunting Vienna, and if you read the first one and the seventh one now, they are completely different books. Seven is a bit much; the last three or so drafts aren’t so different from one another, just more polished and some things moved around. I love the way editing transformed the steaming pile of trash on fire into the book I’ve imagined in my head all along; it just took a while to get there.
I read back on it now and I surprise myself. I wrote this? And it started off as…THAT? How is this possible? Editing. Editing is the answer to writing a good book.
6. Get the setting right
I love interesting settings. World-building in fantasy is probably my favourite thing to think about and I believe that a story without a rich setting will be dull and boring. It doesn’t have to be a made-up magical world of faeries. Even if your story takes place in some small town in America, make it feel unique.
Personally I am a sucker for books set in unusual places or cities. Writing about Vienna was one of my favourite parts of working on this book. But as I’ve already mentioned, you need to bring the setting to life. I realised embarrassingly late into the process that everyone in the book spoke perfect English, even strangers my characters met on the streets. Of Vienna. A German speaking city.
So, if your characters all speak English all the time, but the story takes place in a German speaking country, you better put some German in there. If one of your cast members is from a slightly different culture than the rest, I’m sure they have some interesting customs or mannerisms. If your story is set in England and it never rains once throughout the entire book…I’m sure your characters would at least notice this and comment on it. But you better have a damn good reason if that’s the case.
Small details enrich a story so much so I definitely learned to pay closer attention to these things.
7. Kill some of your darlings
One of the most common writing advice you’ll hear is: kill your darlings. What they mean is the fact that usually writers fall in love with scenes, chapters or characters which don’t add much in terms of plot development. If something in your book does not move the plot along, it should be cut out, no matter how happy it makes you, as the writer, to read it.
As most advice on writing, you should take it with a grain of salt. I don’t think it’s a great idea to cut out all of your favourite scenes and characters and be left with a dull story that works. Take those scenes and change them, make them work. Re-purpose the characters, maybe even blend two characters into one that moves the plot along. If you wrote a joke you really love but the scene or character who said it no longer exists, move it somewhere else. Make it work, and you’ll still have those darlings.
I re-purposed lots of scenes and bits of dialogue which I loved and did not want to throw out, and guess what, they work much better in that new place anyway. One chapter I wrote I had to take out entirely because it made no sense to the plot whatsoever. I wrote it as a way to get out of writer’s block, and it worked. I loved that chapter, it still makes me laugh. But it went on a complete tangent from the plot and there was really no way I could change it to make sense. I’ll probably never do anything with it; I saved it as its own file just to be able to keep it in some way. Perhaps I’ll post it on my blog some day if I can. I don’t regret taking it out, and that’s the thing. I knew it did not fit the story. But if you feel like your scene needs to be there, play around with it until it fits just right.
8. The stakes need to be high
For commercial fiction, when you start querying, you will hear this phrase a lot: The stakes are not high enough, or, high-stakes plot. What this means is: what are the consequences going to be if the character fails? Basically, what’s at stake here?
This of course ties into character motivation and really, the entire point of the story. Why are you writing this? Why would people want to get to the end of this story? If there’s nothing for the character to lose, then why would readers even bother?
I love stories with high-stakes. I love stories with competitions, where the stakes are built in. My story is one of these, since this scavenger hunt is a competition with a big cash prise attached at the end of it, and my main character really, really needs this prise. What I had to learn was, initially my stakes were not high enough. The cash prise was not substantial enough and the reason my character needed to win was weak. I tried going at it from a more realistic point of view. What teenager would say no to trying to win some money while having fun along the way?
But I know now that there needs to be more to it. A lot more. I had to re-write my main character’s motivation and up the stakes for the competition many times. I added in a time limit to speed up the pace. I added in more competitors so there was a clearer sense that it was anyone’s game.
High-stakes do not mean that the world the character knows will be destroyed if they fail. It doesn’t have to be a life or death situation. But it has to mean something to the character, it has to feel to them as if they will lose a friend or a family member, even if all they will lose if their dignity, or their first crush’s love.
9. Hating your work is normal
I’m sure you’ve heard about the seven stages of grief: denial, guilt, anger, depression, upward turn, reconstruction, and finally, acceptance. Well I like to think us writers have our very own stages of dealing with our work, but instead of stages it’s a circle of always either hating or loving your story.
First there’s the excitement of having come up with this brilliant idea. You love it. You love yourself for having thought of it. You know everyone will adore it. Then, you start working on it at full speed, not having thought it through completely, and soon realise maybe it’s not as great as you initially believed. It’s sloppy. It needs more work. But it’s okay, because you know you can eventually mould it into that brilliant idea you had in your head, it’s just coming out rougher that you thought. When you sit down and try to fix it, you break down because you think it’s a pile of trash and it can never be fixed. You’ve wasted all this time, typing up this steaming pile of trash. Then you take some needed time away from it, maybe go work on something else. Eventually you sit down again and read through it, and somehow, you can now see the brilliance underneath the pile of trash.
That excitement is back. You start editing it. And editing it. And you do some more editing. You do so much editing until you hate every word of the book and just thinking about working on it makes you want to throw up into your hands, smear it all over your screen, and then run away to live a solitary life on an island somewhere.
Because you can’t stand to look at it one more second, you give it to others to read, hoping they will either set it on fire or fall madly in love with it. There is no middle. Except there is, and these people are saying some really nice things, while also suggesting how you can improve bits here and there. You look at those notes and bob your head manically. How did you not see that? It makes so much sense. So down the rabbit hole of revising you go one more time.
Writing this book drove me mad sometimes, but I eventually learned it’s completely normal. You will love it and then you will hate it, followed by some more love, followed closely by intense, burning hatred. But as long as you always come back to loving it, which you should, it’s okay.
10. Make yourself laugh
And finally, as a follow-up to the circle of love and hate, I learned that if you can make yourself laugh, cry, angry, really any feeling, with your own words, then chances are you can evoke those feelings in other people too.
After taking some time off from working on the book, I’d come back and read through it and find myself laughing out loud. Or just smiling continuously as my eyes moved over these words I couldn’t believe had come out of my head. I wrote this? Surely not. But I did. And more than anything, that feeling was enough to make myself believe in the story again, believe that others will enjoy reading it just as much as I did, even when I knew exactly where it was going.
So, those were 10 things I learned writing my first book. Of course, I learned so much more from this amazing experience and I will continue to share that knowledge one way or another. But honestly, I think the best thing that has come out of writing this book is the realisation that I can actually do this. I could be an author. It’s not just some vague desire in my heart, but something I might actually be good at doing, with some time and practice. Since finishing the first draft of Hunting Vienna, I’ve gone full throttle on achieving this dream of mine. It’s a long and slow process, but I’m confident I will get there eventually and be able to hold my published book in my hands and scream with excitement. And I mean to bring you along every step of the way.