Mistakes I Made Writing My First Book, by Jack Heath
Writing is like anything else you do in life – except skydiving – in the sense that you get better at it with practise. (Skydiving, meanwhile, doesn’t tend to favour second chances.)
For this reason, each book you write is likely to be better than the one that preceded it, assuming you allocate the same amount of time and effort. While my first novel,The Lab, is my most commercially successful book so far, the novels which superseded it greatly benefited from all the mistakes I had learned to avoid.
But you don’t have to write a whole book to learn these lessons. I’m here to help.
Over-describing the characters
If you have a picture in your head, and your goal is to precisely convey that picture to the reader, then you might want to give up writing and become an illustrator. Good writers leave flexibility, so the reader can imagine whatever will please them most. In The Lab, I described Agent Six’s age, height, hair colour, eye colour and more. (I also described a character who looked exactly like Milla Jovovich, just so there would be someone for her to play in the movie.) Now I know better.
Stating the moral
If you have some kind of political or philosophical point to get across, never outline it directly. The readers who agree with you won’t learn anything, and the ones who don’t will be alienated. If you want to make a statement, write an essay – teen novels should be about the story. Towards the end of The Lab, Agent Six makes some pronouncements about the human soul which are now hugely embarrassing to me. Lesson learned.
Including evil characters
It took me a long time to realise that there was no such thing as an evil person. Selfish, sure. Misguided, absolutely. But over-the-top “dark side of the force” evil does not exist in nature, and this makes it thoroughly unconvincing in fiction. My cast of villains was plentiful in The Lab – Methryn Crexe, Retuni Lerke, that other guy whose name escapes me – but in the editing process, I realised that none of them had much personality. My subsequent books featured villains with clear goals, and reasons for them, which made them all the more frightening.
It’s always tempting to use your own writing as a shout-out to the books you have admired, but your readers won’t see it as a respectful nod. They’ll see it as the author trying to put him or herself on the same pedestal as the greats. The Lab had references to Sherlock Holmes, Metal Gear Solid, Alien, The Terminator,Harry Potter and others. I took some of them out in the editing process. I now wish I’d removed them all.
Writing your debut novel is like skydiving. You never get a second chance if you screw it up the first time. I’m not going to use the “I was a teenager at the time”defence, because according to readers, reviewers and other writers,The Lab was a great novel, and it makes no sense for me to argue with them. But it could have been better. And a book that could be better is a book that needs one more draft.