Clayton Pulsipher

Lessons Learned from Writing My First Novel: Give Your Creativity a Break

March 19 2021

You’ve done it! You’ve taken the first big step on your writing journey!

After finishing the initial draft of your novel, you’re chomping at the bit to dive into the editing process. After all, this is your story, and it’s incredible! You need to get it finished so you can share it with the world as soon as humanly possible, right?

Let’s pump the brakes a bit.

It’s exciting, I know! Writing a novel is a monumental undertaking, and few things in life can compare to finishing a full first draft, especially if you’re racking up high word counts. Then again, you’re fully aware of this after spending countless hours perfecting your prose—and now that you’ve reached this point, all that excitement is probably compounding on your creative energy and pushing you back to chapter one.

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My advice? Take a beat. Give your creativity a break.

Last week, I shared a bulleted list featuring the high-level steps I’ve taken throughout the process of writing my first novel, including finishing the initial draft. This post will be the first in a two-part series that details the biggest, top-down view takeaways I’ve learned from my efforts so far. 

Part one is all about giving yourself the last thing you want to admit you need: time.

I finished the 122,859-word first draft of my space opera novel on July 4th, 2020. Absolutely thrilled that I was able to finish something of such magnitude, I was ready—no, I was primed to jump right in and keep going. Then, as I started reading more about writing processes, almost everything—advice from famous authors, tips on blogs, you name it—suggested that I give my story time to breathe. Begrudgingly, I decided to give myself at least a couple months.

This decision evolved into what was perhaps the most vital step in my process to this point.

Many will tell you it’s important to leave your novel alone for at least three to six months once you finish the first draft. This time away from the story effectively removes your rose-colored glasses; it allows enough space for your mind to clear itself of your current conceptions of the narrative, which will ultimately help you to be more honest and critical throughout the editing process. For me, though, it did much more than that.

I first started writing this novel back in the late winter months of 2016, making it through five chapters before backing off and doing nothing meaningful with it until May 2020. Then, I managed to wrap the entire book up in about five weeks.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that books are long, and they’re even longer when you’re writing as opposed to reading them. All this goes to say that if you write a novel in spaced out chunks like I did, there are bound to be disconnects. 

My post-first-draft time away from the novel helped me bridge the gap between the story I started writing and what the narrative became. This led me to find the true purpose behind the novel, the reason why I’m writing this particular book—and this purpose has driven every decision I’ve made since. Had I jumped directly into editing, I likely would have ended up with an entirely different story.

Now, you may be thinking my situation is somewhat unique. After all, how often do we start working on a creative project, manage to hang onto it for four years, and then put all efforts into finishing it? It’s not just this scenario that applies.

As human beings, we evolve by nature. Let’s say writing is your side hustle, so it took you two years to finish that delicious first draft. Although many things about you may have stayed the same, you aren’t the same person you were two years ago when you started writing the story. Your goals have changed, your outlook has shifted, and your purpose has either gained or lost definition or direction—and if you read my last post, you know that each of these is more than vital to your creative art: Each is a part of the narrative itself.

Writing is just as much self-discovery as it is putting words onto paper (or into a computer program). Whether we intend to or not, we’re recording our deepest thoughts, hopes, and fears, and if you’ve ever been to therapy or practiced journaling, you know all this does is uncover more thoughts, hopes, and fears. Hell, you could even call book writing a form of therapy (not a replacement for it, obviously). 

What do you do after you have an epiphany, a personal realization, or an important conversation? You stop and think about it. Therefore, the most important things you can do after finishing your story draft are to stop and reflect.

So, what should you do? Go on a hike with your dog! Take a trip to the coast and let the waves wash over your feet! Watch some movies! Just do something that brings you joy and allows you the mental space to rest. If that means broadening your horizons, great! If that means sinking in and becoming your couch, also great!

That being said, don’t stop writing altogether. Writing, like any muscle, is one that needs to be flexed in order to grow. In my few months away from my story, I hit up the r/WritingPrompts page on Reddit and wrote a bunch of fun short stories. The result? When I went back to edit my larger work—to put it bluntly—I was better. Not only did I have a fuller sense of my purpose and goals, but I was a more fluid, interesting writer.

Win win win, no?

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Clayton Pulsipher

Author of Speculative Fiction

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