Writing a Novel: Five Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Confession: I’m not great at taking advice.

I listen to advice really well. But acting on it is a different story. I don’t know why I have this compulsion to learn things the hard way, but if someone says Hey, don’t do this because it doesn’t work, then some part of me stays convinced that yes, it WILL work, until I do it myself and learn that no, in fact, it does not.


Writing a novel has been no different. I’ve read plenty of advice about how to complete a novel in the quickest, most effective way–yet I still did it my way. Why? I have no idea.

But if there’s one good thing that comes from learning lessons the hard way, it’s that you actually do learn them.

As a result, here are five things I’ve learned the hard way from writing a novel, including what I’ll do differently (very differently) next time for a smoother, less stressful, more effective writing experience.

  1. I didn’t decide which writing platform to use first.

    What I’ll do next time: I’ll use Scrivener from start to finish. (I’m still learning how to use it effectively. There’s a learning curve.) I had notes and partially-completed drafts saved on Word, Google Drive, in Scrivener, and in notebooks, and my organizational strategy was nonexistent. I even had a near-meltdown one night when I thought I’d lost some very important notes, only to realize later that I’d already written them into the manuscript. Next time I will decide on ONE platform to use (like I said, probably Scrivener) to stay organized and keep me from losing what’s left of my mind.

  2. I didn’t plan ahead.

    What I’ll do next time: Writing a book without planning ahead is like swimming with shoes on, or cooking a meal starting halfway through the recipe, or traveling to Barcelona without a pocket dictionary. It didn’t matter that I took Spanish through high school and half of college. That didn’t make me fluent, kind of like being an English major didn’t automatically make me a good novelist. I had to read and study and ultimately jump right in with both feet. But next time, I will plan, and I will plan with a vengeance. I will know every plot point before I write it. I will list out once scene at a time and plan each before it happens. I vow to never, ever wing it again.*

  3. I didn’t determine my characters’ motivations.

    What I’ll do next time: I will get to know my characters inside and out before I try to tell their stories. The first time around I only paid attention to my protagonist, and everyone else just sort of fell into place as I wrote. (Just kidding. I forced them all into place with bad cliches and a monkey wrench.) It made for a long, confusing, inconsistent writing process in which major plot points changed multiple times. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write the book anymore because it was such a mess. A large part of that confusion was my lack of knowledge about my own characters. I will take them out for coffee first next time.

  4. I didn’t pay attention to word choice.

    What I’ll do next time: Little words make all the difference. Is your character doodling, or is she sketching? The word you choose will say a lot about her. Details like that make the writing process seem overwhelming when looking at the big picture, but they shouldn’t. That’s also what the editing process is for.

  5. I didn’t read like a writer.

    What I’ll do next time: I used to read novels from purely an entertainment perspective. Now I’m also reading them as a student. I notice word choice. I notice tense, POV, literary devices, brevity and clarity of language. I try to notice these things consciously and assess them instead of just taking them in as a passive reader looking for a good escape. Studying your favorite writers is an excellent way to improve your own writing. Reading from a writer’s perspective will vastly improve my work in the future.

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If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably save this post and think, yeah, cool, good idea. Then you’ll go back to your manuscript and pick up right where you left off without incorporating any new ideas you’ve picked up along the way. That’s fine, but I’ll tell you this: I’m definitely not doing it that way next time. Not if I want to write another book without developing a nervous tick or crying myself to sleep every night.

Ultimately, not all of these ideas will work for you. Each writer has to figure out her own process, and sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. Learn as you go and actively look for solutions to the hangups that hold your manuscript back, and you’ll perfect your process as quickly as possible.

*Let’s just go ahead and file this away and pretend I didn’t say it, yeah?

What have you learned the hard way in your writing? Do you take advice well, or do you prefer to wing it as you go? Leave a comment below or join the Ladies in Read community on Pinterest for tons of writing tips + inspiration!

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Writing a Novel: Five Lessons I Learned the Hard Way from TheLadyinRead.com


About Meghan

Meghan is a novelist, blogger, and copyeditor fueled by coffee and red lipstick. When she's not typing away you can find her reading, organizing, or watching old sitcoms and superhero movies with her husband, cat, and baby-to-be.


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  2. Elizabeth

    I’m very much the same way… gotta do it the hard way first. I’m currently still writing my first book but have been “collecting” stuff on it for over 10 years. It wasn’t until a year ago that I thought “hey I have all this material and a few characters, I got this.” I don’t got this. Lol but it’s fun. Eventually it’ll be done. Then I have to worry about editing and publishing it. Eek! Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned along the way!

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