what I learned writing my first book
I often hear people say, “Oh, I could never write historical fiction. All the research that goes into it …”
Mm-hmm. Welcome to my world.
Really, historical fiction dumped itself on me. Or I let it take over? I’m not quite sure what happened. All I know is that suddenly there were a lot of things I didn’t know—and needed to. What were houses made of in Tudor London? How did people dress? What occupations were held, and what was the typical age for a person to get married?
I found the answers to those questions. But always there were more questions, and sometimes the answers weren’t so easy to find. I borrowed books from the library, bought others in the meantime, and scoured the internet for information. (Interesting fact: if you search for information on Tudor England now, you’ll have an easier time. A host of websites have popped up since my early days of research.)
One of my biggest fears arrived in the middle of the process. What do I do if I can’t find the answer to a question?
And I had to consider that questionable idea: artistic licence.
At first it was horrifying. I wanted what I wrote to be accurate. I wanted people to read my book and be able to take every detail in it as true. And I did not want some person—who happened to have information I missed—to read it and think, Wow, this author didn’t do her research.
But I realised it gave me the freedom I needed to keep writing. For those unanswerable questions, I let my imagination fill in the blanks.
Don’t feel pressured to make every tiny detail accurate—it’s called ‘fiction’ for a reason
Whew. Another hurdle behind me. Here comes the next.
When do I stop editing? Because I could spend the rest of my life trying to make my book better. With each year, I’m going to learn new things, whether about writing, history, human nature, or life in general, and it’s going to change my perspective. Ten years from now I’m going to flip through Voice of the Ashes, laugh a little, and say, “Wow, I was young back then. I could have changed this and this and that …”
But if I continue editing until I die, what good would it do? None! For readers will never get their eyes on it. And there are so many other books to be written, so many other characters begging me to tell their story because it may change someone’s life …
This is a hard one. You should edit—you want your book to be worthy of the message it proclaims. But at some point, you must accept the fact that it will never be perfect.
Don’t edit one book until your death, but accept that God can use it in an imperfect state—just as He uses us in our imperfect state
Sometimes I struggled with specific scenes. I couldn’t pinpoint the problem, I just had this idea that they weren’t any good; that people would probably find them strange. Sometimes I could hardly get myself to read them.
When a wonderful friend of mine read my manuscript and gave me her feedback, she started telling me about one of her favourite parts. I interrupted, “Wait, wait … you mean such-and-such a scene?”
It was one of the ones I struggled with the most. But her words encouraged me so, so much.
As I said, I couldn’t pinpoint an issue with the writing. I was just afraid people wouldn’t like it, or that it wasn’t written as well as the rest, etc.
It’s easy to read other books and think along the lines of, Oh, I could never write as well as Donna Lynn Hess. Her books are so intriguing, with such amazing inner transformation of the characters …
And I realised thinking that way isn’t good for me. It could be true that I’ll never write something worthy of the Newberry Award, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of being read. There are a host of books I’ve read and learned from, though they were by obscure authors with no awards to their names.
Don’t expect everyone to dislike your writing—but don’t expect everyone to like it, either
Readers have very different tastes, and what some savour others will spit out at the first bite. That’s to be expected. Some people will relate to your protagonist and some won’t.
Someone’s less-than-enthusiastic response to your book doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem with it. I had a range of responses when I had Voice of the Ashes beta-read, and I went through it all again when I had sample edits done by different editors.
Often my first reaction to all the red marks across the pages is one of despair. I go into Author Defence Mode for the first day or so. And then I take a deep breath, sit down at the computer again, and start really paying attention to what was marked.
Don’t be discouraged by feedback. Get your initial reaction out of the way and then look at what was said with an open mind
That doesn’t mean you have to correct everything someone marks. But you should never dismiss a comment or concern just because it’s your favourite part or you worked for hours to construct that one sentence.
It’s hard to look at your writing without bias, but that’s how others will. (For the most part—close friends are bound to have some, and I think that’s a lovely thing.) So take a step back and look at it with the perspective of someone who has never seen the book or heard of the author before.
Difficult, isn’t it? But it’s very important when it comes to character reactions or the message you’re trying to portray. I know the whole back-story of my protagonist, so what he says and does makes sense to me. But you don’t—and won’t—have all the information I do, so I need to write it in such a way that it makes sense to you, the reader.
The same goes for the theme or message of the book. Sometimes it’s hard for me to articulate exactly what I mean. With my last blog post, Transparent Treasure, my sisters pointed out that part of it was confusing. What I had written made perfect sense to me, but other people could have taken it in an entirely different way.
I pray that the lessons I’ve learned so far will be an encouragement and challenge to you, spurring you on to write for God—without fear of failure, and with the courage to push through any roadblock.
“Now the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17