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5 Mistakes I Made With My First Novel

This weekend marks the FIFTH anniversary of my blog's launch! Before we get too far into things, I want to begin with a short thank you to long-time readers and newcomers alike. Whether you stop by every week or pop in occasionally, I am so incredibly appreciative of the time you spend with me and my ramblings.

It's crazy to think I've been running the blog for half a decade now (half a DECADE???). I'm struggling to wrap my head around it in all honesty, but I cannot wait to see what the future holds for not only myself, but for my writing.

Of course, the blog is not the first bit of writing I've done, nor is Bound to the Heart despite it being the story I've shared the most about on here apart from this year's NaNoWriMo project A Tided Love.

I began writing on a more serious basis during my freshman year of high school. It was a hobby back then but I knew becoming a published author was my absolute dream. And the novel I thought would take me there was something I titled Guises to Keep.

This was a "historical literary romance" set "sometime before electricity" until I found my love for the Regency Era. It had very strong Downton Abbey vibes, following an upper-class earl and his heir apparent orphaned grandson, and the servants below stairs at a country manor estate akin to Pemberley. The story followed three protagonists: the aforementioned heir apparent, the newly hired maid, and the rebellious stablehand. Those three were involved in one of the two connected love triangles (because I started this in the age of love triangles being wicked popular thanks to Twilight among many pop culture phenomenons).

As a heads-up, I'll be referring to these by to their role within the manor rather than by name to make this post a little easier to follow.

The maid and the stablehand were trying to keep their budding romance under wraps since a relationship beyond general workplace cordiality would be a major rule violation (as was pretty standard for the time period), but a conveniently timed inclusion of the miscommunication trope thanks to the stablehand's sort-of-ex showing up and the heir's inheritance of the estate being threatened by his estranged sister's engagement sends him and the maid into an engagement of convenience because he needs a convincing bride immediately and she needs money. At this point, the stablehand is trying to break off the engagement and the heir is actually falling in love with his maid-turned-fiancee as they're trying to keep up the Pygmalion act.

Did I mention this thing was roughly 600 pages at 160,000 words long (180,000 at one point)? And the heir and his sister were separated as a result of their aunt's scheming? And there was a done-out-of-love kidnapping? And


As you can easily deduce from this fraction of a retelling, Guises to Keep was a hot mess.

But back when I was in my teen years, I was wholeheartedly, irrevocably convinced that it would sweep the literary world off its feet, become an instant international bestseller, and get a blockbuster film adaptation starring Toby Regbo (who would subsequently be my date to my high school reunion to help me rub my success in the face of the classmates who doubted my dreams) because he had not only the look I imagined for the heir but he has the perfect voice for the character...

Needless to say, that is SO not what happened!

What actually happened with Guises to Keep was that after taking four years to finish the first, handwritten draft, I started editing in circles. Every round of revisions saw minor improvements, but for every one thing I fixed, there were another ten popping up.

This went on up until my senior year of college, when I shifted gears to focus on writing the first draft of Bound to the Heart for the travel course I took during the second semester. Outside of writing short stories when they were assigned for my classes, that was the first time I was not actively working on Guises to Keep in any capacity.

Nearly eight years since I started the first draft as a high school freshman.

When I did get back to trying to edit Guises to Keep, I barely made any progress. It became too much to deal with, so sometime around 2021, I made the difficult decision to shelve the project and focus on Bound to the Heart and other WIPs.

Looking back, many of the problems Guises to Keep suffered were the result of mistakes I made while writing it. The plot itself had an abundance of issues as outlined above, but there are so many smaller things I wish I would do differently as an adult with a better comprehension of the craft.

Better. Not perfect.

I've been wanting to tackle this topic for a while but in some respects, it's tricky. The perfectionist in me dislikes admitting failure and while I don't consider Guises to Keep a failure, per se, it did fall short of where I hoped it would land.

I mean, my ten-year high school reunion is next year and I even haven't so much as met Toby Regbo, let alone cast him in the film adaptation of my novel!

Jokes and preambles aside, I want to do something special to commemorate the anniversary of my blog's launch, and it feels weirdly fitting to roast myself and my misguided teenage writing—in a way that others can learn from.

Without further ado, in honor of my blog's fifth birthday, here are five mistakes I made when writing my first novel!

Mistake Number One: Starting In The Wrong Spot

Since my high school didn't offer any writing-centric classes and I wasn't able to find anything feasible programs in my region, my adolescent writing know-how was based mostly on internet findings and how-to books. Each of these resources remarked on the necessity of starting with a bang, something exciting to snag the reader's attention. Often, this was a dramatic action sequence.

With this in mind, the original opening of Guises to Keep was a prologue showing the murders of the heir's parents and how he was nearly killed in the attack.

The thing is, that didn't relate to the overall story. The deaths of the heir's parents was a catalyst for his tragic backstory I'll touch more on in a bit, it served no tangible purpose beyond being a cool action sequence.

Prologues can be tricky in general for a number of reasons, one of which being that they can feel disconnected from the main storyline. They often have you starting in the wrong placeie, with an event that is not the inciting incident.

I didn't exactly understand the purpose of the inciting incident. It was just something that came up as a vocabulary word in Language Arts but wasn't discussed in any significant depth. The inciting incident is the thing that kicks a story into gear. It's the moment the protagonist is thrown into the plot either by taking action or by having something happen to them.

My new favorite example of this comes from Barbie (2023), with the inciting incident being Stereotypical Barbie casually blurting out, "Do you guys ever think about dying?" during a dance sequence followed by a montage of a not-perfect morning. That is the moment her reality is entirely shattered and she must set off on a journey to resolve the problem.

In the case of Guises to Keep, the inciting incident for the plot was not the heir's parents being killed by highwaymen. That happened about twenty years prior to the main story's events and apart from making the heir next in line to inherit the estate after his grandfather's eventual passing, it has no significant bearing on the plot.

That would be like the inciting incident of Barbie being President Barbie's election. It's relevant in the sense that women-led leadership is a comforting constant in Barbie's world and that the real-world patriarchy comes as a shock to Barbie when she leaves Barbieland, but President Barbie's election is not a core event within the film's main story.

It wasn't until I started college as an English major with a creative writing concentration that I was really able to get a grasp on these literary ingredients and put them into action.

Eventually, the murder scene was cut and Guises to Keep opened with the maid arriving for her first day working at the manor house.

Mistake Number Two: Overdramatic, Tragic Backstories For All

Another thing the internet and my mini-library of how-to books strongly suggested was to give all of your characters a deep and/or tragic backstory to make them likeable and relatable to readers.

The more complex, the better!

So that's exactly what I did, and I admittedly went overboard in retrospect.

Because it's easy for complexity to become convoluted.

As mentioned above, the heir basically has the Batman origin story. His parents were brutally killed right in front of him when he was a child. He's wealthy and brooding. Really, the only difference was that rather than a butler like Alfred, he had a valet to fulfill the confidante and advisor role.

Additionally, he has admittedly under-researched PTSD, was separated from his sister for twenty years because his aunt stepped in to be her legal guardian while he would stay with his grandfather. And his grandfather developed what would be diagnosed as dementia in a modern-day setting (which causes him to mistake the heir for his late father) and has a stroke, so the heir is in a regent role and more or less running the estate.

But since the heir is not the only protagonist, he's not the only one with a tragic backstory!

The stablehand grew up in an impoverished home. His mother walked out. His father, who was alluded to being an Irish immigrant and disliked by their Protestant neighbors for being Catholic, turned to alcohol. The stablehand ran away from home as a kid and ended up living on a farm with a decent family, until their daughter developed romantic feelings for him and it became a whole big thing because he didn't feel the same (remember that sort-of-ex I mentioned? That's her. She's the lady's maid for the heir's estranged sister).

Meanwhile, the maid's father is gravely ill and her mother died giving birth to her. She also had a stillborn twin sister that I cut around the fifth draft.

Because I wanted all of my characters to be liked by readers, I was overzealous in heeding the advice to give all of them tragic pasts. Even the manor's cook, a super-minor character in the grand scheme of it all, had a sob story about his daughter eloping with a sketchy guy!

Giving your characters deep backstories can help readers relate to them and appreciate their journey to overcome their struggles. Knowing what they have endured makes their successes more rewarding and their failures more devastating.

But giving everyone a tragic backstory can feel like a cheap ploy to pull at the reader's heartstrings. And that can make the characters feel more fictional than realistic.

Heavy Rain is guilty of this. Every playable character has a tragic backstory or flaw of some sort. One of Ethan's sons is hit by a car and dies, his marriage falls apart, and his other son is taken by the Origami Killer; Ethan also suffers from blackouts that end with him in the middle of a street, which was reportedly going to be a plot thread having to do with him thinking he was the Origami Killer that was cut sometime in production. Jayden is dealing with an addiction to a drug called Triptocaine. Madison has insomnia. Shelby's brother died and he has asthma.

Apart from Ethan, these character details really don't play into the narrative. The only reason Madison's insomnia comes into play is to have an engaging action sequence that turns out to be a nightmare and her coping mechanism being staying at motels so she can conveniently run into Ethan. It doesn't factor into any other scenes. Just as Shelby's asthma is brought up maybe twice and totally forgotten about during chase scenes and combat later on where it would realistically impact him.

Heavy Rain forgets about these details, making them even more insignificant and leaving the story feeling cluttered. And in some ways, the number of backstories and woe-as-me threads feels comical. Overdone.

Were I to go back and redo the first draft of Guises to Keep, chances are I would tone the backstories down a tad and make them more story-relevant than just being there to demand that readers feel bad for the characters.

Mistake Number Three: Heavy-Handed Symbolism

One thing you'll see me discuss on the blog every so often is how rubrics and standards for writing formal essays as a student played into the way I wrote fiction early on—specifically in regard to how stiff the narration was.

The way we read and wrote about books in class also influenced my approach to writing Guises to Keep.

In many class discussions, we would be asked to find meaning in these small details and deduce the larger message the author was intending to convey. What the "real" meaning of the work was.

I got it in my head that in order for a book to be well-received, there had to be something hidden within it. Something buried beneath the surface just waiting to be uncovered.

With Guises to Keep, there was a lot of heavy-handed symbolism surrounding religion in particular.

The heir was pretty devout, often justifying his actions through prayer or quoting the Bible. He was Protestant, as the majority of characters were because that was the primary religion of England in the Regency Era. On the whole, he was intended to be this faithful-man-turned-reluctant-sinner. Pretty straightforward.

The stablehand, meanwhile, was raised Catholic but had since become an atheist. He was painted as the bad boy. A depiction of sin, as it were. He had a pet snake. He offers the innocent young maid an apple as if he were the serpent tempting Eve. And he was—gasp!—left-handed (which, in a historical context, was considered to be a sign of evil).

He also had a dimple in his chin based on the Irish proverb that goes something like, "A dimple in the chin, a devil within." I thought I was incredibly clever for that one!

One standout detail at the conclusion involved a mention of the morning sunlight shining through the heir's blond hair almost like a halo. It was supposed to represent that he had found peace with his decisions and therefore regained the grace of God or something.

Additionally, the maid was at one point going to be named Faith to play into the idea of one love interest losing his faith while the other finds faith in something even if it's not God.

I also planned on using Biblical references to title each chapter; I distinctly remember wanting to use "Nothing New Under The Sun" for the heir's introduction. This was scrapped after finding fitting titles for close to fifty chapters became too elaborate.

But the religious undertones were only one thing readers were supposed to piece together. I treated it almost like crafting a scavenger hunt rather than crafting a novel, so to speak, where you picked up on so much more the second time you read it (without really worrying about writing something readers would even want to finish a first time).

Here's the thing, though: to quote Mr. Hippo from Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria Simulator, sometimes a story is just a story.

How often have we heard the example of a professor insisting the use of blue curtains in a scene symbolized the author's struggles with depression when in reality the curtains were blue simply because that's what the author decided they were? Blue without any significant meaning behind the color. Just blue.

There doesn't always have to be a bulleted list of things readers need to find in order to "get" the meaning of a story. More often than not, writing a story that readers have to untangle can make the work dense. Nobody wants to read something they have to slog through.

There is no fault in writing a story that has something to say. Many of our favorite books become our favorites because of their messaging and the deeper meanings tenderly planted throughout.

The truth is, your readers are going to interpret your book based on how they experience it. They enter with their own histories and perceptions and walk away with their own opinions and understandings. Trying to force these conversations makes the reading experience less enjoyable for all.

Allow readers to draw their conclusions organically. You can certainly weave in your interpretations and symbolism, but you cannot command your audience to view any of it as you do.

Mistake Number Four: Not Getting Outside Feedback Sooner

Now that we've covered a few craft mistakes, I want to address some post-draft blunders.

As I mentioned earlier, completion of the first draft of Guises to Keep was followed by years of editing in circles. This is around the time I experimented with various techniques I still use to this day, like editing in color and highlighting my drafts to ensure a fair balance between narration and dialogue.

You would think I would reach out to writerly friends and get feedback, right? After all, isn't seeking outside opinions of your work crucial to improving the work and bringing it to its best self?

It is! And I didn't. Not right away, at least.

I held off for years before getting any feedback on my writing that wasn't for a class assignment.

I can think of a few reasons for my hesitation. On one hand, it was a matter of trust. I didn't want to hand my manuscript off to just anybody who wanted to look at it. Not after all of the horror stories of someone agreeing to be a beta reader for an author-in-the-making only to plagiarize it. This genuinely terrified me, to the point I would scarcely even talk about my book. I wouldn't use my characters' names, only ever their first initial on the rare occasion I mentioned them online.

Secondly, there's the common fear of a harsh critique. The thought of someone ripping your efforts to shreds is not exactly comforting even if it does come with the promise of improvement. And after some not-so-great experiences in workshops with shorter assignments for class, I absolutely dreaded the thought of letting someone else read the novel I had been working on for years.

My perfectionist streak was also getting in the way. I was afraid to let someone read something that wasn't perfector, at least, as close to perfect as I could get it.

Perfect writing is all but impossible to achieve on your own. Writers rely on a team of critique partners, beta readers, and editors, to help shape their manuscript into its best self. No matter if you're taking the traditional publication or plan to self-publish, getting outside feedback is vital. There are so many things you are bound to miss or simply not know are issues until someone points it out.

In my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to do an editing-focused independent study with one of my creative writing professors (hi, Jen!) where I started getting into the nitty-gritty of editing fiction, specifically Guises to Keep, and was able to get a stronger sense of what needed fixing.

I finally started working with a critique partner soon after that (hey, Ally!). Our weekly workshops were like running a diagnostics check on my WIP the way you might try to repair a virus-ridden computer, identifying what was working and what was misfiring and falling short. Much of her feedback has carried over into the stories I've written since Guises to Keep.

Above all else, they were encouraging because after years of editing in circles, I finally had a sense of direction.

Outside feedback is invaluable, even if finding it is intimidating. Don't be afraid to take that leap.

Because the truth is, holding off on getting input from your writerly peers can hold you (and your story) back.

Mistake Number Five: Not Letting Go

I touched on this in a blog post that went live towards the end of September, but it bears repeating.

What may very well be my biggest mistake with Guises to Keep was one of the last I made: convincing myself that I could rescue it from its tattered shambles.

Part of the reason I was editing in circles for so long was the simple fact that I was not skilled enough to edit the story in the way it needed to be edited. Combined with the story's overarching issues, there was no saving it, no matter how desperately I tried and wanted to.

I needed to let go, even if only for a little while.

Shelving Guises to Keep frankly sucked. After so many years of working on it, setting it aside was not easy and was a hard blow to withstand. I felt like I was abandoning my child. Kicking it to the curb.

But some things just don't work out as you intend them to.

Nowadays, I view it as something of a long-term romance that ran its course.

I started writing Guises to Keep when I was fourteen. Looking back on it now at twenty-seven, I know it's not the kind of story I would have written today. It doesn't fit into my life as it once did. It doesn't resonate with me as it once did.

There are some elements that still feel like me and my writing style. The Regency Era setting. The exploration of grief. The bromance between the stablehand and the footman. The ball and its elegant attire.

But there are things that I would do differently or just omit altogether. The love triangles would be far less toxic. The symbolism would be less heavy-handed. We would solve our problems in ways that don't involve kidnapping...

I try to treat my relationship with Guises to Keep as a sign of growth both as a person and as a writer. That's what helped me let go when it was finally time to move on to other things.

You can still find traces of Guises to Keep sprinkled throughout the blog's earliest posts, but it's only more recently that I've talked about it in any real depth. For one thing, I always envisioned publishing it under a different pen name I would use for that book only whereas things like Bound to the Heart and Against His Vows and anything else in that "universe" for lack of a better term would be published under Avril Marie Aalund.

But I've also distanced myself from Guises to Keep. Not because I fell out of love with it or no longer appreciate it for what it was and how it shaped me as writer, but simply because I'm in a new phase of my writerly journey.

There could very easily be a second part to this post, and there probably will be one in the future.

For now, however, I will leave you with this: it's okay to make mistakes. What matters is how you grow and learn from them.



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