In a previous article, I mentioned how volunteering abroad, accidentally led me to start writing my first novel. That was three years ago. I would like to take you on that little journey that was the creation of that story, and share the lessons I learned.
Back then, I was living in Cambodia, and volunteering at a local NGO. Our goal was to provide children with free education and to do that, we needed money. Money to pay for infrastructure, salaries of trained teachers, school material for the kids. I was living in a homestay at that time, and really got close with my host family, and all the kids running around constantly.
My job at that NGO was mostly the management of our Guest House, which was then our largest source of income. Many tourists came from all over the world to visit Cambodia, and quite a few made a pit stop in our little village, Chiro, to discover rural life in a developing country.
I was looking for a way to share the story of the people that I lived with, and also to potentially collect money to donate to that NGO. And then, quite suddenly, I thought to myself, why don’t I write a novel?
On Starting Out
I had no idea what it meant to write a novel at that time. To me, it was just about writing. Inspired by watching the local kids play, I decided to write a fictional story based on what I was seeing there. The idea for the story came to me quite suddenly, I didn’t have to look long for it.
Srey Li, a young girl from a rural village in Cambodia, wanted to leave, and explore the country, see the capital with its high rise buildings. With her friend, they take it upon themselves to find a way there but accidentally end up in Vietnam. From there, they are left to themselves and need to find a way back home.
That was the basic storyline that I had thought out in a few minutes. I didn’t want to think about it more. The more I think about something, the more flaws I will see, and end up not doing it.
So, immediately, I pulled out my dusty laptop and started typing the first few words. I knew that starting the project, was the only way to get it done. Because, once I start something, I feel the intrinsic need to finish it.
On The Process
Life in the village was busy, and I woke up around 5 am to try to get some writing done before the first few guests would depart, or require assistance with their daily tours.
The early morning was the only time where things were relatively quiet, and I could write freely. I went to our wooden library and wrote. I had no method, no clear plan, just a story. I kind of knew where it would lead, but hadn’t made out any details, or characters besides Srey Li, at the very beginning.
I decided that I would just create along the way. I didn’t write daily but tried to write regularly, a few lines here and there. I wasn’t too strict on myself. Some days it would be 300 words, others 800. Little by little I made my way through the story.
I was writing in English, which isn’t my mother tongue, and sometimes struggled to find the right words. But I kept going. Occasionally, I went on to check some literature forums, in search of writing advice.
It seemed to me that every great writer the world has seen had his or her method. Some would write the same amount of words every day, others would write drunk. Some would write early in the morning, others late at night.
The only thing they all seemed to have in common, was a rather stable routine. While they were writing a novel or else, they would stick to a schedule, and get the work done. And so I tried.
Writing was not too hard. Writing well was. I always felt like my words had no impact. And I haven’t read my story again since my final draft was finished. To me, it still feels like an unfinished project that needs polishing. I also gave some consideration to writing the story in French, but I thought that I could reach more people if I stuck to English.
Even though I wrote in another language, whether they were the right ones or not, words came easily to me. I just felt like I knew what I wanted to write, and every time I could, I sat down in front of my laptop and typed. It was a long process, but quite satisfying at the end. Occasionally I asked myself too many questions. How long should it be? Is this enough? Should I finish the chapter here? What about my writing style? Is my grammar alright?
It sometimes felt like I was writing the way I would tell the story orally. Similarly to what I am doing right here. I could be sitting across the table, and tell you how I wrote this first novel.
Yet, every time I asked myself those questions, it just prevented me from moving on, from writing. Of course, I was going to make mistakes. Of course, the quality wouldn’t be that of James Joyce’s novels. I just had to ignore all that and keep on writing. So, day by day, I did.
One thing I enjoyed in the process, was the possibility for me to make anything happen to Srey Li. I could put her in the most difficult situation, and decide how she’d go about getting herself out of there. I was the captain of her journey. I could create.
I quickly realized I could put some of the questions I was asking myself, onto her path, and make her think about it. Writing then became a way to analyze my thoughts. To find solutions to my problems, and to share those with whoever wanted to read it.
It took me about five months to finish the draft. My story seemed clear in the outline, and the details unfolded as I typed. Once completed, I had nobody to proof read me, so I tried by myself and went over my text a couple of times. I later discovered the app Grammarly, which helped me clear out many basic syntax mistakes I had made. I was quite proud of myself.
Looking at that Word document and its 60 something thousand words. I could nearly hold the story in my hands. A family friend sent the draft to one of her acquaintances for a quick review. I was kindly told to focus on writing in my mother tongue, the story wasn’t good enough.
Well. That hurt, but he was probably true. Who was I kidding, right? But it didn’t matter to me. It was about the story and sharing it.
Then came the attempt to publish it. Like you, maybe, I like to hold a physical copy of a book in my hands when I read it. There is just something about the smell of paper, the printed ink, and the traces it leaves behind. When I look at my shelve full of books, I remember the lessons I learned, the feelings I had when I read each and every one of them. My book too should be published in print.
That task proved to be very challenging. I went on to the internet to search about the publishing process. It differs from country to country, but in the United States, one has to reach out to a literary agent and submit a sample of the first few chapters, and a summary. I looked for agents that published along the lines of what my story was about, and reached out.
Surprisingly, they nearly all replied. It was always a no, but they all replied, and I much appreciated that. Most of them already had too many authors to supervise and didn’t take in any new projects. Unfortunately for me, but still a valid reason, I thought to myself. After a couple of months of search, I became impatient.
I wanted my book to be out there, I wanted my family and friends to read it. I wanted the guest’s from the NGO to be able to purchase it so that money could be donated. I saw so many potential readers. And so, as a last resort, I went to Kindle’s ebook publishing platform. It was very easy to set up, and within just a few minutes, I had an account, and a manuscript ready to be uploaded.
I didn’t wait any longer and pressed publish. I am not going to lie, I felt a little proud of myself. My first novel. I could type my name on Amazon, and see the cover of my book there. Immediately, my mum and a few family members bought it.
I was hoping to get about 500 downloads for it, at 5$ the download, I would have been able to donate a lot of money to the NGO. That didn’t happen. On top of my mind, I sold maybe 20 or 30 downloads. It was disappointing, but it was something.
Thinking back on that first novel three years later, a little has changed, and many things haven’t. Even if it didn’t get published as I hoped, I have no regrets in the efforts put into bringing that first story to life, and maybe, in a few years from now, I will have taken the time to improve it.
Currently, I am in the process of proofreading the draft of my third novel. I have since been writing them in French, and yes, It makes things somewhat easier. It is just more precise. My method has defined itself more and more throughout the years, but I will write about this in detail later.
For now, if you too, are thinking about writing your first novel, I only have one piece of advice for you: start writing.