This past Saturday, November 10th, I finished the first draft of my newest YA Contemporary novel, Every Bright and Broken Thing. I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for about 7 years now and I’ve managed to finish about half of those attempts. This was probably my best/most productive year ever and I want to share a few things I learned as a writer with you guys. But first, a little bit about my new novel.
With striking and introspective dual first-person narratives, Every Bright and Broken Thing follows the stories of two brothers, Ezra and Liam, after losing their mother to cancer. Eight years apart, Ezra and Liam couldn’t be more different. Ezra sees the world in pictures and colors while Liam sees the world in music. Ezra is running from everything while Liam is drowning in everything. This is a story of the bond between brothers, learning to endure through things both broken and beautiful, and a reminder that you can always come home no matter how far you’ve gone.
This is just a rough synopsis and it probably doesn’t capture the full essence of the story. This is, of course, what the editing process is for. 🙂 Anyway, on to the point of this post!
This NaNoWriMo only took me about two weeks to finish. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an international online writing competition that challenges writers to write 50,000 words in the span of one month. The first draft of EBABT concluded at 55,000 words. I suspect some of those will be cut and that there will be more to add later on.
This year, with the release of my first YA Contemporary novel, Love and the Sea and Everything in Between, I was heavily motivated to move onto my next story. So, by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around on November 1st, I was ready to go! For ten days, EBABT was all I thought about. It consumed my thoughts and emotions. Because of some of the heavy issues that I deal with in this story, it was also an incredibly emotionally exhaustive story to write. Had I tried writing this story three years ago, I likely wouldn’t have had the emotional fortitude to finish it. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to maintain balanced emotions and mindsets. This brings me to the first thing that I learned this November as a writer:
1. Learn to rest.
I churned out a total of 9500 words on Saturday because I could sense that the end of the novel was near and, frankly, I was just ready to be finished. By the time I typed those sweet, sweet words – the end – I was exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally. I’m not kidding you when I tell you that EBABT deals with some heavy things. The rough synopsis above does very little to convey just how strong a message this novel carries. And because of that, I felt the weight of the responsibility I had to convey the story’s themes in a balanced, Godly, and respectful manner. Looking back now, I can already discern some elements that need to be refined more before I’m comfortable placing this book in the hands of readers who may be hurting and wrestling with grief, loss, and heartbreak.
Because of the level of exhaustion, when I came to the end of this draft, I promised myself that I would take a season of rest before starting my first round of edits. I knew that there was no way I’d be able to process and refine this novel appropriately unless I stepped away from it long enough to come back with fresh eyes and renewed spirit. To all you writers out there who are committed to writing as your career, allow me to encourage you to r e s t. I believe that rest is absolutely crucial to success not only as a writer, but also as a person.
2. Learn balance.
The second thing I discovered is that as long as I’m working full time, taking college classes part time, and serving in my church… that level of time and energy spent writing is not sustainable. It wasn’t until my last day working on EBABT where I discovered that I was neglecting a lot of my family and household responsibilities. I know now that I can’t do that again. I can’t become the writer version of a workaholic. Because it isn’t healthy for my frame of mind and it isn’t healthy for my family relationships.
The second area that I realized has actually been off-balance for a couple of months, ever since starting the publishing process for Love and the Sea, is my spiritual life. My thoughts have been so scattered and so honed in on my writing and my books and publishing and marketing that I’ve hardly had room for dwelling on and meditating on the things of the Spirit. Sure, I’ve still carved out my personal devotional, prayer, and worship time. But because of my scattered frame of mind, there was no life to it. This will have to change and I’ll probably have to learn how to do a better job with time-management when I sit down to work on edits. I can’t allow things – even genuinely good and productive things like writing life-changing stories – to get in between me and Jesus. Because the only way I’ll ever write a story that carries eternal value is if I remain tapped into the Well. And I can’t allow my Well of relationship with Jesus to because stopped up by dirt – even if that’s the very soil that I’m trying to water. (if that makes sense?)
So, writers, I encourage you to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Exercise. Take a break from writing and go spend time with family and friends. Read. Go out to eat. Take a break from your computer and phone. Put in your headphones and take a walk. Pray and spend some time with the Lord. Tap into that Well.
3. Learn to be okay with imperfect.
Lastly, on the more writer-ly side of things, the thing I had to come to terms with as I wrote the first draft of EBABT… is that it’s absolutely, 100% OK that my first draft is basically trash. For a long time, my growth as a writer has been stunted by the fact that I was incapable of writing even one line if I couldn’t figure out how to articulate it perfectly. Thus, writer’s block. This November, I had to learn how to push past writer’s block, push past the trashy scenes and the half-developed characters and the stilted dialogue and the scattered plot. I had the soul of my story beating inside of my chest and if I didn’t get it out there, I was going to lose it. So I had to be okay with letting it all spill out, even if it’s just bare bones right now. Just get it all out there.
After finishing EBABT, I realize that the second half of the story is almost entirely different from the first half. Because in the first half, I was still learning the personalities and emotions and tones of my characters. I was still discovering their unique voices. And that’s okay! That’s honestly half the fun of writing first drafts! It’s an adventure because you get to focus on learning who these characters are and what this story is about. Especially if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer like me. 🙂
I hope these insights helped you. I know they helped me! Remember, make sure to rest, maintain balance in your life, and be okay with imperfection.