Midpoint: What I’ve Learned from Writing a Novel in Public (So Far!)

Written by Mark McElroy

A Novel Experiment

In July of 2021, I started writing a novel called Parallel Lines, intending to post a 1400-word chapter (plus an author’s commentary, plus discarded material) to the web six days a week. I wanted to craft a solid first draft by writing the entire novel straight through, buoyed by the the pressure of a daily deadline and the obligation I’d feel to readers who were kind enough to come along for the ride.

Despite degrees from a well-known writing program and a career as a writer of non-fiction and corporate video scripts, to date, all my attempts to complete a novel (beyond one drafted for NaNoWriMo and one delivered as a work-for-hire contract) have been abandoned somewhere in the second act. I’d hoped that writing “out loud,” in public, would push me past the “second act curse.”

Best Laid Plans

Just as I finished the second act of this four-act novel, the date for a long-planned romantic getaway to Greece arrived. At first, I fantasized about continuing to write and post daily … but ultimately, I realized that being fully present for my husband’s sixtieth birthday trip wouldn’t be possible if I were writing and revising chapters each day. (I also knew there were many days we would be touring from early morning until late in the evening, which made completing a chapter a day extremely unlikely.)

So: despite knowing that many a past project has died when set aside for a vacation, I put Parallel Lines on hiatus for the duration of our trip. And, as I feared, the break from writing did disrupt my deep engagement with the work. Even after we returned home — perhaps because I felt guilty about not meeting expectations — I found a thousand reasons not to return to work on the book.

Prompted by Nancy Condon, a good friend who called to ask when more chapters were coming, and by Clyde, who very gently asked, “Is today the day you go back to writing?” I’ve resumed work, posting the first new chapters in almost three weeks.

Given the disruption and recovery, this felt like a good time to engage in a practice called a “retro” — pausing to look back and consider what I’ve loved about the process … what I felt it lacked … what I’ve learned … and what I’ve longed for. I’m sharing this process in public because I think it might help other artists who “fall off the horse” of a given project to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back to the work that needs doing.

A Retro of the Experiment So Far

What I’ve Loved

By design, this experiment demanded that I write and publish 1400 slightly-polished words per day. That’s been hard so far, but it turns out that an aggressive deadline, paired with feedback from a real-time audience of enthusiastic readers, really energizes me as a writer. For the first time, writing didn’t feel like lonesome work … and every day, I woke up eager to return to work on the book.

I’ve loved seeing the story unfold in ways that surprised even me. If you take a look at the original outline for the story, you’ll see that actually writing the book has moved me (and my characters) into uncharted territory (though the overarching structure of the work remains the same). Every day, the writing feels like an adventure, and, despite the noodling around I’ve done on the outline and chapters to come, every day is also a voyage of discovery.

I love writing in Obsidian.md, which is as fast and flexible as a writing companion ought to be. Being able to review multiple previous versions of each chapter is a godsend … jumping around among drafts, commentary tracks, and deleted chapters has been quick and easy … and organizing the work has been a snap. (I also love watching the visual graph of the book grow as I write!)

Obsidian Sync is fast and flawless, keeping the latest versions of all my work available on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac without requiring me to depend on an insecure or unreliable cloud service. And while Obsidian Publish has its quirks (sometimes, it takes few minutes for changes I make to be reflected on the public site), I don’t know of any other service that makes pushing text out to an audience faster or easier.

And finally, I’ve loved the comments, feedback, and encouragement I’ve received from readers who are on this journey with me. Every tweet, email, and text message means so much … and helps keep me going. It troubles me deeply to think that, by failing to fulfill the “chapter per day” publication promise, I’ve disappointed people who believed in me and shared the project with others.

While I’m sorry that happened, I’m glad that I got over the guilt and shame and got back to writing — and that, in itself, has been a valuable lesson for me.

What I’ve Lacked

Well, let’s start with the big one: I lacked the discipline, will, or whatever you want to call it to stick with my original plan of writing and publishing a chapter a day until the novel was finished.

While I stand by my decision to be fully present for a trip with my husband, I kind of wish I had waited until after that trip to pull this “write a chapter a day, every day” stunt. That said, I’m glad I’ve made the progress I’ve made so far. If I’d waited until after the trip … well, 30,000+ words I’m proud of would have remained unwritten.

Until this week, I’ve lacked the courage to say much about the delay or the resumption of the work. It meant a lot to me to have people reading along … and even more to have people believing in me. I feel like I’ve let a lot of people down, and that’s hard.

But I also realize that the whole point of an experiment like this one is to escape the “pass/fail” mentality that pervades my life and mature into a model that tries, fails, learns, and pivots … while hopefully getting smarter along the way.

So: while I did lack the discipline or dedication to plow straight through the novel as planned … I am glad to have an opportunity to model another (potentially more useful) behavior: getting back on the horse, taking stock of what’s needed to move forward, and resuming the work.

What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned to check the calendar for pending vacations before announcing to people all over the planet, “Hey, I’m pulling this stunt! Come along for the ride!”

I’ve learned that it’s easy to say things like “We learn from failure!” But in the face of failure, it can be really hard to shift away from the emotional response (“I’ve failed! How embarrassing!”) and shift into a learning mindset (“What can I learn from this? How will it help me succeed in the future?”). The fact that I’ve overcome that difficultly — the fact that I’ve managed to face the failure, extract lessons from it, and move forward — tells me I’ve matured a little since I attempted my last fiction-writing project.

I’ve learned that novel writing is a marathon. Settle in; you’re going to be in this for the long haul.

I’ve learned that writing 1400 publishable words per day while also maintaining a full-time job and meeting other responsibilities is probably not sustainable over the long-term.

I’ve learned a lot about actually writing a novel. Knowing the principles and processes is one thing; actually employing what I knew from earning degrees in creative writing and from reading over a hundred books on writing novels is quite another.

I’ve learned that novel writing requires restraint. When I know what’s coming, I have an urge to toss everything I know into the story too quickly. It’s better to reveal little details and twists bit by bit. Relax! It’s a novel. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover … so rather than rush, think about the best possible order for your revelations … and dole them out slowly, over time.

Writing out loud, in public, and publishing the work daily via Obsidian has taught me how much I value having an audience. Writing is lonely work; having a channel of constant feedback has been manna for my lonesome soul. I have so much gratitude for the people who are on this journey with me!

And finally, I’ve learned from writing this novel how my own desire to avoid conflict in my life has probably hindered me from being able to write good fiction. When my characters face tension, I catch myself trying to resolve it, or ferry them away from it, almost immediately. Over the course of the first two acts of this novel, I’ve been reminded that the soul of good fiction is conflict … so I have to avoid my urge to fix things and let the drama play out.

What I Long For

I really. really long to see this work finished. I want to look back on weeks and months of effort and see the final manuscript in a stack on my desk. I’d like to see it find its audience — readers who will love and appreciate it — but, in truth, I wrote this one for me, to learn what I could from the process and step away from a history of uncompleted work.

Even so, I long for this book to be the best it can be. I hear other fiction writers talk about valuable guidance from their editors, and this is a relationship I’m curious about. Whether this is part of making this particular book as powerful as possible remains to be seen.

I long to see how the last chapter ties everything together. I long to feel like I’ve done right by Thomas and the rest. I long to see my husband’s face on the day the novel is complete.

Most of all, I long to arrange my life in such a way that writing like this — moving forward on a novel, four to six hours a day — can become my full-time occupation.

What Now?

So, with an eye toward sustainability, here’s the new plan:

No Stunts. Instead of writing, polishing, and publishing 1400 words a day every day, I’m backing down to guaranteeing three chapters per week, appearing like clockwork on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

That’s not as sexy as my stunt was. “I’m writing a novel live, online, and publishing a minimum of three chapters per week” will not get the Twittersphere as excited as “I’m writing a novel and publishing a chapter a day, every day” did.

But for all it lacks, this model is sustainable. I can do it and meet my other obligations. (And if I want to exceed this writing goal … well, I’m free to do that, too!)

This week, I’m already ahead of myself, as I’ve published Tuesday’s chapter a day early.

Move on. No use crying over spilled milk. I couldn’t or didn’t do what I thought I could do. Oh, well. Back on the horse.

Crying about not meeting my original goal will not get a novel finished.

Making These Insights Your Own

Wow, if you’ve read this far, you’re amazing.

Given your dedication, there should be something in this for you, don’t you think? Here are some ways you can put these insights to work in your own life:

Retro Your Own Projects. Have you just completed a project? Do a retro. Call up a page in your journal and ask, “What did I love about this project? What did it lack? What did I learn? What do I long for?”

These are four magic questions, and they can really help you break out of a “pass/fail” mentality, identify ways to grow and move forward, and help you learn and extract value from the creative challenges you face.

You don’t have to finish a project to retro it! Pick a milestone — for me, it turned out to be the halfway point through the book — and retro away.

If you’re like me and have a bunch of unfinished novels on your hard drive, you might also retro your working practices as a writer. What have you loved? What have you lacked? What have you learned about yourself or your writing process? And what do you long for?

Be Encouraged. Whatever horse you’ve fallen off of, however many people you’ve disappointed, whatever your level of regret … get over it. Get back on the horse. And if that horse has run away in the meantime, find another horse and start riding.

Instead of obsessing on your mistakes or failures, embrace them. What can they teach you? What can you learn? And how will you use that to avoid the same trap the next time you try?

Consider Learning Out Loud. Many months ago, Tracy Winchell urged me to get over myself, write in public, and share what I learned along the way with others. It took me months to get my head wrapped around it.

Learning out loud — trying things where folks can see you, falling down in public, figuring out next steps, and moving forward regardless — is hard. It’s humbling. It’s sometimes humiliating.

But: it’s also magical. When you learn out loud, you take on an entirely different mindset. When you learn out loud, you help dispel the myth that great work happens all at once, in one stroke of genius. And when you learn out loud, you leave a trail of wisdom behind you: little signposts for others to follow … little breadcrumbs they can use to find their way … and feed themselves.

I appreciate your time and attention so much. Reach out to me via Twitter or email any time.

And now … I have another chapter to write!

Photo by Josiah Gardner on Unsplash

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).