Five things I learned from novel-writing


Here are five things I learned writing and publishing two novels that are relevant to my work today:

1. Persistence pays

I wrote 14 drafts of my first novel over a period of six years, fitted into the cracks and corners of raising three kids. I was grimly determined to land an agent and a publisher, and produce a cracking story that fulfilled its promises. I took on board feedback (even when it hurt) - though not all feedback, see #5 - and I polished and polished and polished.

Relevance today: I’m building a business and every experience and every customer makes me a better advisor. It’s about having a crazy dream and working towards it every day.

2. The rewards of ego are fleeting

Nothing beats the feeling of seeing your book in a bookstore, and nothing is as withering as when bookstores no longer stock it.

Relevance today: The rewards of ego don’t last, so motivation needs to be intrinsic.

3. Take the problem for a walk

When I had a knotty problem with a character or plot point, I’d head out for a walk. Moving the body brought clarity of mind and, usually, a solution.

Relevance today: I now average 9kms walking per day, either on my own or with a walking partner. I come down from the hills with a clear head, ideas and a to-do list.

4. Not everyone likes your stuff

After a book reading in Cape Town, a friend surprised me by saying, ‘I don’t know how you can do that. It feels so vulnerable.’ Putting a book or two out into the world does make you vulnerable. Not everybody likes what you’ve done. Critiques hurt. The worst responses for me were the meh ones - I’d always prefer a strong reaction, good or bad. The meh ones still rankle, even ten years on.

Relevance today: Building a business is not a popularity contest. If I’m a good fit for five to ten customers, then that’s success.

5. Not all feedback is created equal

During the writing process, I got a lot of beta feedback - some great, some mediocre and some less helpful. I learned to choose my interlocutors carefully, and the best were those who understood the promise I had made the reader and then assessed where the manuscript was failing to meet those promises.

Relevance today: What people say reflects their experience, and it’s my choice which nuggets of wisdom I put in my pocket for reflecting on later - and which I leave for someone else to benefit from.


Edited to add: Links to my novels Balthasar's Gift and Karkloof Blue. They are a (short) crime fiction series set in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.