These are some of the key lessons I’ve learned on my journey as a writer. Some of them will apply to other writers as well.
On writing a novel
Spend time on the initial setup and get it right. When I began writing The Emperor’s Hunt, I started with a strong premise with built-in conflict, and I defined the setting and the characters’ personalities early on. With those in place, I wrote the first draft (120k words) in four months while working full-time (mostly writing on nights and weekends), and it worked well. Of course, both the setting and my understanding of the characters evolved as I wrote the first draft (for a fun example, I had to change the course of a river on my map to make a plot twist possible), but the initial setup helped a lot.
Have the characters drive the plot. Write strong, proactive characters. Have them make decisions, and have their decisions alter the course of the novel. Have your characters evolve as the novel moves forward. Have them act in a consistent manner, or have good reasons for why they don’t.
Finish the first draft. Don’t get caught in doing endless revisions as you are writing the first draft. Re-read last day’s work once, make the edits you find useful, then move on.
Once you finished the first draft, the real work starts. Even if you decide that the main storyline doesn’t need to change (much), the first draft is usually pretty rough. Revision is what makes a decent book good, and a good book great. It takes multiple rounds of revision to make a book great, and you gain more experience and notice new things as you revise. A few things I targeted in revision: fixing small inconsistencies, adding tension, improving characters’ voices, tightening the prose.
Have tension on every page. That’s what keeps the reader engaged. You can have many sources of tension: the main plot, one of the subplots, or a smaller in-scene conflict: two characters having an argument, a sudden change in the environment (a storm, or a traffic jam), and so on. Raise the stakes. Have tension built into the premise of the novel, add micro-tension as you write, and increase the tension in revision. Read Donald Maass’s books (linked from the Resources page), he explains this extremely well.
On the writing process as a whole
Writing is a team sport. As a yet-to-be-published author, I received great feedback from my wife (she reads everything I write within 24 hours), my beta readers, my critique partners, my local writing group, my instructor and my peers in a Writer’s Digest course… and the list goes on. Their input has helped me make the books better and I am grateful for it.
Publishing is a team sport as well. In traditional publishing, you have the writer, the agent, the editor, the graphic artist, the publisher’s marketing people, and so on, and each of them brings a particular set of skills to the task. It is essential to be a good team player. Be professional, honor your commitments, and trust the experts to do their jobs. In self-publishing, you will likely have to play many of these roles yourself, but you can still delegate some of them (like cover design) to an expert.
Keep writing, keep revising, and keep improving. Your first draft is not as good as your fourth, and your first novel is not as good as your fourth (that is, if you keep improving). It takes serious work. But the results are well worth it, and the journey itself is rewarding as well.