Learning from mistakes: writing my new novel

My old novel had been a monster that had threatened to eat me alive. The new novel was going to be different. I was going to tame the beast before it got the better of me.

spacer - Ruth Livingstone - writer

Giving up is hard

Notebook with red crossA couple of months ago I gave up on a novel I had been trying to write for a few years. I analysed what had gone wrong and listed some of the problems in a blog post: Why I Abandoned My Novel .

Giving up was a difficult decision to make and I spent some time convincing myself I was doing the right thing. In writing – as in anything in life – making mistakes is OK. This is how we learn. To stay cheerful, I found a great collection of quotes on learning from mistakes and many of these quotes come from some very good writers.

So, there is no shame in making mistakes.

Now I was itching to get on with a new novel. I had an idea for a story which came to me during a Birkbeck assignment. But this was historic fiction. Something entirely new. Could I do it? And what if I made a hash of this one too?

Perhaps I was never going to achieve my goal of writing a novel and getting it published. I should  give up now and go back to playing Candy Crush?

I decided I should spend a few minutes thinking of the successful writing techniques I have discovered – those that really work for me. Can I find ways of incorporating these into my novel-writing process?

spacer - Ruth Livingstone - writer

Writing: What do I do well?

writing work

  • I can write short stories (1,000 to 3,000 words). No problem. I find it relatively easy to maintain a cohesive feel for the whole story as I type the first draft. I even won a competition, once, with The Shed.

  • Editing a short story is fun. Yes, I enjoy taking a rough draft and refining it. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle. Have I got the outline firmly in place? Does this piece really belong here? Does this part fit properly or does it need trimming? Is there something missing?

  • I enjoy working within restrictions. Discovering this was true came as a total surprise. One of the reasons I wanted to write science fiction was because of the apparent lack of restrictions within the genre, but I realised I performed best when I had some rules imposed on my over-active imagination.

  • I had an aha! moment: For a recent Birkbeck assignment we were forced to write a 1,000 page extract taken from the middle of a hypothetical novel we were writing. No exposition was allowed. If we wrote any descriptive details or referred to any background information we would lose marks. Everything had to be conveyed through either action or dialogue. It was tough! We were forced to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’. The experience was incredibly valuable. It taught me loads.

  • Historical fiction is just like sci-fi. Yes. Really. This was another aha! moment. The same Birkbeck tutor – the provocative and stimulating Toby Litt – pointed out that historical fiction was simply time-travel in reverse. Nobody really knows what the future will be like. Nobody really knows what the past was actually like. Sci-fi is the imagined future /alternative universe. Historical fiction is an imagined past / alternative universe. Aha!

  • Learning from books I really enjoy. What is that makes some books work for me? What can I pinch from them and incorporate into my own writing? Looking at books in this way is one of the purposes of my Ruthless Readings blog. So, here is a quick summary of techniques I decided to incorporate into my new novel:
    – begin with the ending,
    – keep the language simple,
    – use accurate but sparse prose,
    – banish the smug, omniscient, intrusive narrator (gosh, that’s me).

  • Writing from the first person is a common technique chosen by first time authors. It helps maintain a consistent point of view and prevents the vertigo-inducing head-hopping that was such a problem in my previous attempt at a novel.Yes, there are problems with writing from a first person POV. The pros and cons are nicely outlined in this article on www.the-writers-craft.com. And there is another interesting discussion on the pros and cons of 1st person POV over on John Yeoman’s blog at Writer’s Village. But I decided to give it a try.

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New Novel: Taming the beast

monster, illustrating Ruth Livingstone's abandoned novelMy old novel had been a monster that had threatened to eat me alive. The new novel was going to be different. I was going to tame the animal before it got the better of me.

Putting all the above self-analysis together, I came up with a set of rules to define the restrictions and boundaries within which I was going to write my new novel.

  1. I will write one scene at a time. 1,000 – 3,000 words. Each one in a separate word document with a pragmatic title that will tell me what the scene is about and allow me to shuffle, reference, edit, and merge at a later date.

  2. I am writing from the first person POV. There is only one voice in this novel – my main character. (Actually, of course there are others, but he is my main focus.)

  3. I will show and not tell – by using dialogue and action and keeping description to a minimum. (Yes, I’ve already broken this rule a few times, but I can always fix that later by ruthless editing.)

  4. I will start a few chapters / scenes in mid-dialogue.

  5. I will begin with the ending of the book. The last scene was the first scene I wrote. I can change it later – that doesn’t matter. The point is this: right from the beginning I know where I’m trying to go.

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How am I doing with my baby novel?

New babyI started on the 27th July and, two months later, I have 41 scenes in the bag – or, to be more accurate, on the disc. There are probably another 10-12 to go before I finish the first draft.

With each scene in a different document, I don’t know exactly how my word count is doing. I calculate I will end up with 52 scenes each averaging around 1,500 words. That makes a total of 78,000 words. That feels right.

And, I am writing easily and fluently and – most important of all – I’m enjoying it tremendously.


Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, Doctor, woman, etc.

8 thoughts on “Learning from mistakes: writing my new novel”

  1. Ruth, you’re always so spot on. I’ve spent ages this week sorting out my 32,000 word synopsis/treatment hybrid into 22 individual Word documents (one for each chapter) after finally understanding how much I loathe working on one sprawling Word document (all those words, all that scrolling up and down to check one little fact!). I’ve also created a basic Excel spreadsheet which lists key details and scenes for each chapter on one spreadsheet with a separate spreadsheet for each chapter alongside it. It all feels very uncreative but after years of half-written projects, I know it’s the ‘muddle in the middle’ that gets me every time. From now on, it’s going to be organisation all the way… and hopefully better-constructed novels/scripts that actually get finished.

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  2. Good luck with the new novel Ruth, sounds like you’ve got it in the bag. I’m working on my second novel. My first isn’t abandoned, but needs completely changing, so must dash…. I’m determined I’ll get one of them published one day. Persistence I’ve heard pays off.

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