writing lessonsAs I noted the other day, 2012 has been a pretty big year for me. I’ve not only finished a book, but had it edited, had a nice cover designed, published it myself, and sold copies. That’s, like, a few dreams in one.

But 2012 has not been a year without writing lessons. And I’m not talking school lessons — although I do study at university and enjoy my degree, as it were. I’m talking about Writing Lessons with a capital ‘W’ and ‘L’. Those big life-changing flashes of light. Y’know, the ‘and the moral of the story is…’ type of lesson. Lessons that aren’t necessarily taught (as helpful and beneficial to my writing as those writing lessons are) but learned through experience. Yeah, 2012 has been pretty jam-packed with such experiences. A week, or day, rarely goes by without learning some new trick or finding a new method that I enjoy. That’s the beauty of the game — we’re always learning, always adapting. So, without further ado, five writing lessons I learned in 2012…

1. I CAN finish writing a book.

Writing a book has been a lifelong dream of mine, but before this year, it always seemed somewhat out of reach. It was one of those things that I always intended to do, but ‘next year’ or ‘when I’ve finished doing… WHATEVER.’ So, to complete the first draft of What We Saw back in June after starting a couple of years earlier was a great feeling.

Sure, I had some motivational and confidence stumbles along the way, which is probably why it took so long, but now I know I can write a book. That knowledge… I can’t even begin to describe how amazing a feeling it is. Imagine all the confidence in the world rolled up into a big, electric ball and injected inside you to work its way through your innards, and you’ve pretty much got it. Just nowhere near as, um, painful as that sounds.

I had false starts. I had ideas that I thought I wanted to explore, but ditched a few pages in. And I had crises of faith surrounding What We Saw itself. But I shut my inner critic up and wrote through it. I finished a book. Life ambition reached at twenty. Everything from here is a bonus. Of course, the first draft wasn’t perfect, but that leads to the second of the writing lessons I learned in 2012…

2. It’s okay for the first draft to be a bit shit.

Back before writing What We Saw, I kind of thought there was only one way to write — tear my hair out over every minor detail, word-by-word. Finish a page. Read it. Correct the errors. Change my mind about things. Rewrite it. Burn it. Stab it. Rinse, repeat.

But then I started reading a few writing guides and blogs, as well as my Creative Writing classes, and a lot of the advice seemed to lean towards just getting those words down on the page. It’s difficult at first — ignoring the red squiggles underneath words can be torturous — but it definitely accelerates the process and keeps the ideas flowing.

From now on, I try to write my first drafts without much thought on word choice and the like. I have a rough plot-arc outline of where my story is headed so that it doesn’t go off on some crazy tangent, but everything else kind of just writes itself and is a great journey for me too. If the writer can surprise themselves, then imagine how the reader will feel…

So, yes. It’s okay if the first draft messes up names, uses the word ‘bonkers’ around five times per page, and kills then reincarnates a character. All that can be sorted out in the rewrite. Just get those bloody words down and get the story out of your system.

3. I’m not as good a writer as I thought I was.

This isn’t intended to come across as cocky, but I’ve always been rather proud of how I write. Writing is something I’ve always excelled at and always been told I’m good at, so naturally, I kind of started to believe that idea.

But critical feedback and advice, both from fellow colleagues and lecturers at university, has been greatly enriching. Furthermore, structural advice from my editor has highlighted a few common issues with my writing and how to solve them. Things that seem small on the surface, but definitely look more obvious to a passing reader than to myself.

So, while I’ve always been wary of adverbial crush and the like, I’ve learned about comma overuse, about the stricter-than-I-thought rules of past/present tense. These skills are for life, and although I technically learned this lesson in 2012, it’ll be something that I continue learning for the rest of my writing career. Like I say, that’s the beauty of it.

4. Self-publishing is accessible and legitimate!

I’ve told this story a gazillion times already, but when I finished the first draft of What We Saw, I had no intentions of self-publishing it. I still thought self-publishing was, like, a place where the rejected or lacking in quality reside, and although this is true in many cases, I discovered a whole host of writers who were self-publishing and making a respectable living off it. Some writers were even leaving publishers to independently release their novels.

I found out about CreateSpace and about KDP, and all the wonderful opportunities for professional editing and cover design. I probably spent too much time inside the house researching last summer, but it really paid off. The moment I decided to independently publish What We Saw was the moment everything really became clear to me. It was the moment I realised that, shiiiit, this could ACTUALLY happen. No, more like, ‘this is GOING to happen.’

I didn’t submit What We Saw to any publishers but not because I lack faith in the thing, more that I feel self-publishing is the best route for new authors at this moment in time. While a hybrid model of self-publishing and traditional publishing is something I’d be interested in trying in the future (hey, publisher! Look at me! I’m selling pretty well!), I’m happy releasing my work on my own and making a bit of cash from it until that point.

5. I am an author, not a brand

I hear a lot of talk about author branding. In a sense, it’s a good idea — creating this concrete version of yourself for people to trust in, using your social media account to share content based on your brand image, etc etc.

I did this initially but I soon became jaded with it. I used to love Twitter and expressing myself, but now I was basically a ‘useful content four times per day sharer’. Perhaps this gained me more followers and fans, I dunno, but I think it’s important to remember that yes, you are kind of a brand, but you’re an author too.

I like my personality to shine through on Twitter. It’s a pretty cool tool, isn’t it? Offering snapshots of life, balancing that with useful content. So, I think one of the biggest things I learned about social media is to only use it if you enjoy it, truly. Sure — useful link sharing can be good to grab a few followers, but everyone shares so many links these days that it’s practically impossible to sift through them all. Although these links are not technically ‘spam’ (as in sales links, ‘like my page’, etc) I am finding myself switching off to them.

Be social. Be engaging. Be an author. You’ll get fans that way, not just followers.

There we go, my top writing lessons learned in 2012. Really, this list of five barely even scratches the surface of the stuff I’ve learned over the last twelve months. I’ve got a few things to work on in 2013 though. Learn to spell necessary without the help of spellcheck. Learn to discipline and motivate myself better.

Oh, and learn never to trust WordPress’ ‘autosave’ feature in future. I may just have lost a 1,600 word blog post on Wednesday.

What writing lessons have you learned in 2012? Or any lessons for that matter? Has 2012 been a significant year in your career?

What We Saw, Ryan Casey’s debut novel, is now available in paperback and eBook formats. Click here for Amazon.com and here for Amazon UK.

Image courtesy of Vandy CFT via Flickr.