This week I finished my twentieth novel, Fear of Water.
Yes, my twentieth. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that I have now written twenty novels, and that I did it in less than ten years. That’s about two books a year, which is crazy!
A friend of mine asked me this weekend if it was really twenty. If it was really eleven or twelve or something and that I was counting longer short stories or unfinished manuscripts.
Nope, I was able to say. Twenty freaking novels since 2010, and she only believed me when I was able to say all twenty titles in the order they were written.
Ready, set, go!
Happy Birthday to Me (2010)
Happy Birthday to Me Again (2011)
Happy Birthday to You (2011)
The Vampire Underground (2011)
The Zombie Playground (2012)
Over the Rainbow (2012)
The Monster Apocalypse (2012)
Magic Hour (2013)
Crashing into You (2013)
The First Day (2013)
The Luckiest Bookworm (2014)
Monster Movie (2015)
Nightmare Road (2016)
It’s Come to This (2016)
Virgin State of Mind (2017)
Dark Glasses (2018)
Fear of Water (2019)
Twenty! I get exhausted just writing down and looking at all those titles, so it’s hard to believe I actually managed to write them all, too.
Ten of those books have been self-published to Amazon at one time or another. Eight of those ten books are still there, and I’ve since pulled two of them.
The other ten books are so far unpublished. The First Day received second place in a major novel contest in 2017 and was almost published. Monster Movie has been on submission to editors at major publishing houses for more than a year now… and still no word. I’ve been in active revisions on Nightmare Road, Virgin State of Mind, and Dark Glasses in the past two years… but neither of them has been pitched yet.
And now I’ve just completed the first draft of book 20, Fear of Water, which I started writing on June 3 and then finished on July 3. The first draft is 81,000 words, which is a LOT of words in just 31 days! The last week of the process I was averaging 3,500 words a day, up from 2,200 words a day where I started in early June.
But this past Wednesday I finished it, it’s done, and now I’m going to let it rest until at least September while I complete one more revision on both Virgin State of Mind and Dark Glasses.
So what did I learn from this process? What’s changed since 2010? What’s gotten better, and is there anything that’s gotten worse?
Here are three things I learned from writing my twentieth novel…
1. The writing doesn’t get easier.
This is the big, sad reality of novel writing. At least it is in my case. You’d think after nineteen books I’d be able to finally write a first draft that came easily, that just flowed right off my fingertips from day one. Yes, there were scenes in my latest novel that were lots of fun, and I was happy to slowly but surely figure out the arc of my story and the depth to my characters.
But the writing itself wasn’t easier. In fact, in a sense, the writing has become harder in the last couple years because I actually feel more pressure now than I did with the early books. When I was writing up a storm in 2010 and 2011, I felt free to make mistakes, I didn’t overthink anything, I genuinely enjoyed almost every second of the process.
Now, however, the pressure is on. I’ve completed an MFA in Creative Writing. I have a whip-smart literary agent who tells me when my writing stinks. And I’ve been at this for nearly ten years now. In some way I don’t feel I have the option to screw up another one. I don’t have the option to make any more mistakes.
I haven’t been traditionally published yet, and after writing twenty novels, there’s a tendency to ask myself why. Am I not good enough? Will I never be good enough? Will I never get a book published even I end up writing another twenty of them?
I wanted the first draft of my latest to go seamlessly, to feel really, really good every day. And while I feel great about the manuscript now and am excited to tackle the second and third drafts in the months to come, many of the writing days were really, really, really hard. Like, where I would stress over a single sentence for twenty minutes. Where I’d write a whole page… then erase it and start over. Where I’d question a character’s motivation in chapter six while I was currently working on chapter ten.
All sorts of things went wrong, and worse, I often found myself tearing my hair out in a few tough places in the story. I wanted to scream (and sometimes did). I wanted to cry (and definitely almost did). Partly because the writing process was hard, like it’s always hard — in the words of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “the hard is what makes it great” — but also because I’ve just written so many books, and I feel like by now the writing part shouldn’t still be kicking my ass so much.
Thankfully, at the end of the day, I got 90% or so of my original vision of this novel on the page, and I’m ecstatic about that. Now that it’s done, now that the hardest part is over, I can celebrate. You should always celebrate when you finish a first draft of a novel because, like I often say, a messy first draft is a lot more useful than an incomplete first draft. There are places in my new book I’ll need to revise, cut, re-shape heavily, and that’s okay. But a draft is done. Now I have something to work with.
2. The one thing that does get easier is hitting the words I want to hit every day.
Although writing novels doesn’t necessarily get easier year after year, the one thing I do feel gets easier is making your word counts every day while you’re writing. I really struggled with this in the beginning. Back in 2010, when I wrote my first novel Slate, I aimed for 2,000 words a day for eight straight weeks, and so often I failed to reach that number. I would get to 1,600 words and say, okay, that’s enough. There were a few days I stopped at 1,000. Rarely did I actually pass 2,000. I remember having the same struggle on my second novel, Happy Birthday to Me.
But that’s never an issue these days. I sit down at my writing desk in the morning, and I decide how many words I want to hit, and I always reach that number for the day, even if I only have two hours of writing time. Even if my time is limited, I still reach the word count I set for myself.
On my twentieth novel, I started by aiming for 2,200 words a day. I of course allowed myself to go over that number, but I couldn’t go a word under. And I never did. The absolute lowest amount of words I wrote in a day during that 31-day period was 2,200 words. The most? 4,200 words. That was my marathon final day of writing this past Wednesday. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote 4,200 words in a single non-stop novel writing session. That was a little bit insane, and took almost five hours, but I was finishing the novel, so I was able to do it.
Throughout the years you pick up on little tricks to reach your word counts. Like listening to the right music. Like picking the time of day when you’re at your most creative (for me it’s between 10am and 2pm).
Something I do lately that helps a lot is not think of it as reaching 2,200 words in 2 hours or whatever. I look at trying to hit 500 words in 30 minutes. That’s the goal I aim to achieve from now on.
When I start writing at 10:30am, I do everything in my power to hit 500 words by 11am. If it takes until 11:05am or 11:10am, fine, but it’s a really awful writing day if, say, an hour passes, and I still haven’t hit 500 words. That’s when I know it’s gonna be a very long day.
And yes it happened to me once on my latest novel. Just this past Tuesday, actually. The day before I finished writing the novel. I could not figure out how to start chapter nineteen. I tried three different ways, and they all sucked. And I erased them all.
I was nearly ninety minutes into my session where I finally figured out a good way to start the chapter, and then I found a rhythm. But those ninety minutes of false starts hurt like you wouldn’t believe. Especially since I was so close to being done, and frankly exhausted from writing for a month straight. Thankfully I figured out what to do, and I ended up writing more than 3,000 words in the next two hours. I hit my word count goal and more.
In the last five years, I’ve been able to hit my daily word count 100% of the time, and that basically comes from lots and lots of practice.
3. It’s okay if you need to take a break.
There were a few other things I learned, of course, and that I’ve tried to pay closer attention to as more years pass. Take more chances in my storytelling, for one. After twenty books, there’s simply no more time to play it safe. Therefore, in my twentieth book, I play with a super cool dual POV structure, one told in first person from the male protagonist and one told in first person from the female protagonist’s blog entries. I also bring at least three huge surprises in the second half, including an ending that I hope will make readers gasp.
I also have had the tendency throughout the years to pay way more attention to the plot of my story rather than the characters, and especially since my MFA in Creative Writing, where I took workshop after workshop and studied craft like never before, I’ve come to the realization that many of my books in the past have failed because the characters weren’t unique enough and didn’t have strong enough goals and motivations and desires and passions.
It’s not enough, for example, to just have things happening to your main character. Your main character needs to be actively going after something, and his or her actions and decisions need to play a key role in the novel. This is something I never thought enough about in my early years writing novels, but it’s something that never escapes my mind now.
One other thing I learned in the writing of my twentieth novel? It’s okay if I need to take a break from writing novels. And boy, oh, boy, you better believe I’m finally taking one!
In nearly ten years there was only one extended break I took between writing new novels and that was the seventeen months that passed between 2014’s The Luckiest Bookworm and 2015’s Toothache. And you know what? That break was kind of great! I worked slowly on a revision of my MA thesis novel, and lived my life a little more. Went on more adventures. Left the house more. Traveled more. That year I didn’t spend writing every second of the day was kind of wonderful, and I feel ready to embrace that mentality in the months to come.
Of course I’m going to keep writing. I’ll keep writing here on Medium. I’ll keep writing short stories. And I’ll be spending long, hard hours revising the past few novels I’ve written.
But in terms of new novels, I genuinely feel like a two-year break is in order. A two-year break to recharge my batteries and come back fresh. For the first time in nearly ten years, I honestly have no other ideas for novels. While I was writing my MFA thesis Virgin State of Mind in 2017, I had the ideas of Dark Glasses and Fear of Water lingering in the back of my mind. And now they’re both written. Those stories now exist.
I have no other ideas for novels, and that reality doesn’t fill me with fear or dread. Instead, that reality has given me a state of peace and relaxation I haven’t felt in a long, long time. I feel like I have nothing left to prove when it comes to writing book after book. I can slow down, finally… and life my life a little better than I have in recent years.
Twenty books is a lot. Twenty books in less than ten years is a hell of a lot! I’ll always be proud of that. And I can’t wait to get to work on revisions for my recent projects in the months and years to come.
But one thing I know for sure is this: I am definitely not going to write another twenty books in the next ten years. Something big I’ve learned from writing my twentieth novel is that, ultimately, there’s more to life than writing novel after novel. There’s more to see and do with my time, there’s more experiences to have and to cherish with so many people I love.
And I’m thankful that realization came to me sooner rather than later.