Seven essentials for writing a kick-arse first manuscript (and surviving the process)

WIP from the manuscript that lives in a drawer.

I’m currently hard at work on my third full-length YA manuscript. The first lives in a drawer with a stack of rejection letters and the second, Neverland, will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in April 2018. My good friend and fellow blogger, Lucy, AKA The Unlikely Bookworm, recently asked what advice I’d offer someone setting out to write their first manuscript.

It’s a tricky question because I’m not convinced that there is a ‘right way’ to go about novel writing; my author friends all have different routines and approaches. But there is one thing we probably all agree on: Completing a manuscript and getting it out in the world is damn hard work. Here are my top tips for surviving the process:

Read

Books make excellent writing teachers. Read extensively within your chosen category and genre, but read widely beyond them as well. And read critically. Pay attention to the way authors use various narrative techniques and take note of what works, what doesn’t and why.

Also, when it comes time to pitch your manuscript, agents and editors will expect you to know your field. They want authors who understand and are invested in their industry. Read everything you can.

Persist

Being a writer sounds glamorous and whimsical and basically like a fabulous excuse for playing make-believe as a grown-up. And it is all those things and then some. But it’s also tedious, lonely and downright gruelling. However long you think it’ll take you to write a novel and however much work you think it’ll require, triple it and then some (she says, throwing shade at her work-in-progress and crying bitter tears). Those writers who smash out a manuscript in a matter of weeks are the exception, not the rule. It generally takes numerous drafts completed over months or years to tweak the plot, build characterisation, develop themes, polish your prose and bring together all the other myriad elements that create a compelling story. I don’t mean to sound discouraging; you’re more likely to succeed if you know what to expect. Writing a book is a huge (and emotionally draining) undertaking. It’s hard work and takes a long time—don’t lose heart.

Join a writing group

Other writers aren’t your competition; they’re your best friends and closest allies. Being part of a writing group or having writer friends with whom you can discuss and workshop your ideas and drafts, and who are there to support you is integral. And not just because they will help you improve your work. There will be times when you feel like you’re going quietly insane and you’ll want to give up, and on those days your writer friends will be your cheer squad. They will know exactly what to say to give you the boost you need because they’ve been where you are and know exactly how you feel.

Find a way to work with that doubting voice in your head—it’s not going anywhere

Call it what you will: impostor syndrome, doubt, lack of confidence—most of us have an insidious little voice whispering away in the back of our minds: You can’t do this. You’re wasting your time. You’re going to fail.

I don’t know that it’s possible to completely silence that voice. But you don’t have to let it get the better of you. Use it to spur you on; prove the voice wrong.

Embrace rejection

All writers get rejections, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Try not to take the knockbacks personally, and if an agent or editor offers you feedback with a rejection, use it to improve your manuscript. The fact that they’ve taken the time to offer you advice is a huge vote of confidence—they see potential.

Write because you love it, not because you want a publishing deal

Obviously, landing a publishing deal is fantastic. BUT they’re rare as unicorn tears. Even if you have buckets of talent and work extremely hard, you’re still going to need luck (and ideally a great agent) on your side to land one.

That said, Lady Luck won’t just help you out because getting published is your dream and you really, really want it. You need to court her and prove yourself worthy of her favour: Study your craft. Write a cracking manuscript. Work it and rework it until it’s the best story you can make it. Network online and off. Enter competitions. Seek out opportunities. Look for an agent who’s going to champion your work. Do everything you can to put yourself in the right place at the right time. Then cross your fingers.

Also, you hear a lot of whispers about publishers looking for certain kinds of stories, but by the time you’ve finished your manuscript, they’ve likely already found what they were after and moved on. Don’t try to game the system. Write the story that you feel it’s important to tell. As Jay Kristoff tweeted the other day, ‘There is always a market for awesome.’

Look after yourself

This is the big one. There is a difference between working hard and neglecting your wellbeing. Unfortunately, the things that help writers in small doses: a certain obsessiveness, intense focus, keen attention to detail, a desire for perfection, heightened sensitivity and a tendency to daydream and get lost in one’s own world—are incredibly unhealthy if you don’t keep them in check. In fact, your manuscript can become an excuse for indulging bad habits. Despite what you may have heard, ‘Suffering for your art’ isn’t romantic, it’s self-destructive. Be kind to yourself: Take breaks. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat well. Interact with other humans. Have hobbies. Ask for help when you need it. And if your manuscript starts to become your everything, it’s time to step away for a bit.

Cliche as it sounds, writing ultimately has to be a labour of love—your reader will know if it’s not. Do it for the joy and satisfaction of creating something and because you have a story to share that excites you. 

Happy writing, friends! 

—Margot XO 

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