Authors don't like the idea of doing a work specifically for practice, especially a long one. I mean, if you're like me, and a rough draft takes you about a year, do you really want that to just be practice? Well, whether I wanted it to or not, that "novel", really a novella, was practice. After looking at it a year later, I no longer hate it, but I know that it was still practice. Everything we write is practice, really.
This process is particularly important for beginning writers, because, let's face it, how do we know that anything we write is publishable? I'm sure mine isn't. And so, I plan to write several books for practice, focusing mostly on my weak points, and once I am writing at a publishable skill level, I will then turn my practice novels into "real" novels. So don't feel like you're doing an injustice to your brilliant idea by making it a practice novel. All that means is that you're going into it with a mindset to learn, and without the intention of publishing it immediately.
Just because it was written for practice doesn't mean that you can't publish it later. For example, I'm currently trying to find a good idea for a practice novel meant to improve my plotting abilities because that is my weakest trait. But trust me, a few books from now, I'll come back to it and make it publishable.
My three favorite authors are Tolkien, Christopher Paolini, and J. K. Rowling. Yeah, I know, going with the mainstream. Anyway, Tolkien is the only one of those three whose books don't have obvious jumps in quality. Eldest is a better book than Eragon. Brisingr is a far better book than Eldest. And Inheritance manages to be a better book yet. Similarly, Rowling made many rookie mistakes in her first books that made problems for the later ones. On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings as a series is fantastic. There's no real change in quality between the three, though some might argue that The Two Towers has the traditional mid-series slump.
Why is this? Well, look at the way they published them. Rowling finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone and published it. She finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, published that. And so on. Paolini did the same thing, but Tolkien worked on his series for years, writing and re-writing them as a series. He didn't publish The Fellowship of the Ring until the rest of the series was pretty much, or possibly completely, finished. In fact, Return of the King was published less than a year and a half after The Fellowship of the Ring, which may have been to give people a chance to read the earlier books.
How did this help him? Well, putting aside the fact that he spent twelve years on the series, he also had the practice of writing all three, when he was re-writing the first one. He was able to learn from each book, and apply it, because the books were still in his hands, and changeable. For the same reason, I recommend that writers not publish a single book until they have completed at least three, and by completed, I don't mean the rough draft. That way, you can do the learning, become a good writer, and then fix up your early books so that they don't hurt your name and/or series.
How to Practice?
When writing a practice novel, what do you do? How can you maximize your learning? Well, first, remember that every book you write is a learning experience, but, when you are writing a novel specifically to learn, you should change things a little.
- Decide what you are trying to learn. It is very important to know what, specifically, you are trying to improve. For example, I am trying to improve my plotting skills, so I should choose something plot-heavy. This could mean a mystery or thriller, which are naturally plot-based, or simply doing my usual genre, but outlining and thinking of plot more. It could even mean writing a serial story with both episode-sized plots and overarching plots. If you're trying to improve character interaction and emotion, try a romance, or a book focusing on the main character learning a lesson.
- Choose something you care about. You may be here to learn, but you aren't going to learn much if you lose all motivation because you didn't like the story in the first place. It can be hard to find the balance between something that will help you and something you will enjoy writing, but it is usually better to err on the side of liking it. If in doubt, ask a fellow writer and see if they think it will challenge you enough.
- Research. "What?" you say, "Why do I have to research? What if I'm doing something completely speculative?" Well, you should still research. Not for your book, necessarily, but on what you are trying to improve. Find some tips about plot/characterization/description/whatever, and put them into action.
- Be willing to compromise. This is probably the hardest for me. Even if it might feel like you are breaking or crushing your idea a little, you need to focus on learning. This may mean lots of different things, such as following a very strict outline, or perhaps putting in things that feel like they don't belong. This is okay. It's a practice novel, and you will change it later. It may not feel right, but this is not your finished product anyway. Go through the process, learn what you came to learn, and fix it when you decide you are ready to write publishable material, and then you will give it its true form.
- WRITE! This is the most important part. Go and WRITE it! Don't stop part way through, don't put it off, write it. This is a practice novel, and you will learn from what you do, even if only subconsciously. That means that if you don't finish it, or never even start, you are building a habit, and that habit is extremely hard to break, trust me, I know from experience. So go and write your novel.
Elisabeth TenBrink Kelley is an aspiring author and poet. To learn more about her, see our About Us page. You can follow her on Twitter here: @ElisabethGTK.
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