Tag: novel writing

A Novel way to Write a Novel

image from www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

There are books on the process of writing a novel. Entire websites are dedicated to the subject. And none of them suggest doing it the way I’m about to demonstrate.

As I move through the process, the reason for that will become abundantly clear. In fact, multiple reasons for avoiding my novel way of writing a novel will flash like neon warnings.

But did that stop me?

And it begins

I’ve been working on a short story project since March. I’ve alluded to it several times in posts here or updates on Facebook.

However, even though I have a signed contract, I was sworn to secrecy. It was my Top Secret project.

As I pen these words, I still haven’t been given the go ahead to announce the project or my participation therein. What was supposed to have an October 2015 publishing date has been pushed back to February 2016.

The repercussions of a story I wrote specifically to submit to this secret project ring like aftershocks in my writing world.

It all began with a line from an email:

“Last, but not least, the publisher is curious as to whether you’d be interested in developing The Demon Was Me into a full novel! (Way to go, Sharon!)”

In a world where I sent queries into the depths of cyberspace, pleading for a chance to send my fully written, revised, edited and proofed novel for their reading enjoyment, that simple sentence knocked me for a loop.

And there were expectations

I would have been crazy to shrug off this opportunity. So, I sent a cautious reply to my editor.

And the email correspondence continued for another week.

What the publisher wanted, however, wasn’t a novel – or even the outline of a story. These were the specifications for what she wanted:

“To retain threads of time, theme, characters in the short story and throw out ideas that can be explored further” in a novel-length work.

Does anyone go about building a story this way?

Isn’t the seed usually for a premise or concept, or maybe a character or problem?

And there were plenty of lee lines hanging around in my short story. In fact, my main character had something like a heavenly directive given to him in the resolution of the 9000-word experience (otherwise known as short fiction).

So, rather than outlining his complete story, I was supposed to brainstorm possibilities for what happened afterward.

Yeah, I scribbled out three full notebook pages without pause.

But how can I organize these tidbits into something compelling enough to convince this publisher she wants the story?

And deadlines

The initial deadline to share my visions of where the story might go (after it ends in the short story bought and to-be-published) was given.

“The publisher would love to have a 10-point outline from you by October 1.”

More gaping.

I have an idea factory inside my brain. Every fiction writer I know has something similar. The slightest thing becomes a seed for a full-blown tale.

The same was true for the universe I imagined in detail as the setting of this short story.

So the scribbles continued. First, I guessed I had enough for a four-book series. On closer thought, I condensed it into a trilogy.

But the stakes and the ticking clock needed for the first installment still seemed a little week.

And wait! Am I even supposed to be planning this stuff?

The ten points that are due …the clock is ticking on that…don’t have to outline a complete story.

Shouldn’t I have sighed with relief? Instead, frustration mounted.

I seriously didn’t know how to pitch on incomplete story idea. Should I focus on a few premises? Let the publisher take her pick?

And brainstorming sessions

Those original three handwritten pages were a drop in the bucket.

I expanded the 500-word history I’d written for my setting into a nearly 3000-word history. I laid out the different sub-sections of the war-torn country. I gave each of them inhabitants and a governing style and leaders.

Now there were people for my hero to meet on his journey.

And so I filled more notebook pages with descriptions of the people and their problems. I listed possible conflicts that would arise when my hero encountered those systems.

And it still looks like a trilogy in the making or one FAT novel (not the preference for YA readers).

But I didn’t know what to include in the requested outline. So I called on my fabulous editor.

And waiting

When it was all said and done, written down in sparkling clean fashion and emailed to the publisher, the waiting began.

Again.

Sometimes it feels like writing is more about waiting than it is about transcribing pretty words on a page to form cool adventures.

Are you writing a novel? If you’re nodding yes, don’t follow this plan. Seriously.

Beta Readers: Bane or Boon?

betareaderblissThis spring, I’ve had my second – and third – encounter with a group of beta readers. Even as my stinging ego debates whether they are the bane of my existence or a boon to my career, I can’t deny they are essential.

If you’re a writer, you need beta readers. Further, you need beta readers who are willing to tell you what they think, regardless of how much your feelings might be hurt (and I mean demolished – picture me curled in a fetal position sobbing).

What are beta readers?

In my mind, a beta reader is like a software program’s beta tester. They take the product for a ride and find everything that’s wrong with it.

In the case of books, much of the beta feedback is subjective – as a reader’s preferences are varied and unique. Some people adore Shakespeare. I despise reading him, but I’m all about watching his work performed on stage.

In any case, betas are the first real readers of a manuscript. Sure, Aunt June may have seen your first draft and raved about it becoming a best seller. This isn’t the same as having an objective reader give feedback.

Beta readers read your rewritten and lightly edited second draft. They read it as if it’s a book they picked up off the shelf. The only difference: every time they see something they don’t understand or  something they dislike, they comment on it.

What I expect from my beta readers?

Unlike beta testers for software, beta readers might be expected to look for different things by the author. Software programs are meant to work a certain way, and the betas are supposed to find the bugs, so the code can be repaired before the program is marketed.

In a similar manner, beta readers are expected to see if a story works. Does the plot progress in a sensible fashion? Do the characters grow and change? Is there an obvious story problem that is resolved before the book ends?

Of course, my idea of what makes a story satisfying could be different than yours. This is where the subjectivity comes into the picture.

As far as expectations go, I send a detailed checklist to my beta readers. I generally ask about story structure, setting, believability and character likability and growth.

I consider every comment from beta readers, but that doesn’t mean I always change the things thy find problematic. After all, I’m the author.

Bane

Two types of readers tend to be the bane of my existence when it comes to betas: non-genre and published writers.

First of all, having readers who don’t generally read your genre take your manuscript for a test drive is an excellent idea. They are going to be more critical of story elements and plot holes. If you can suck them into the story, great. It’s more likely that they are going to be on the outside noticing all the things they don’t like.

Remember, I don’t change everything they suggest. This is especially true for non-genre readers. However, I do take their thoughts on plot and character seriously to heart. After all, if they can’t relate to my characters, I’ve done something wrong.

Published authors – especially if they are in your genre – are harsh. And, I’ll be honest, it hurts to have someone you respect dissect your story. It feels like being gutted alive.

Once you stop bleeding, however, you’ll be able to sort through all those comments – meant to help not scald – and use them to make your story better.

Boon

I always make sure I have some avid readers of my genre and some members of my focus audience read my early manuscript. These people are going to be a boon to my story.

Avid readers know what works. They’ve read so many books, they can predict outcomes and wade through poor prose without losing touch with the story.

This makes it sound like they aren’t going to be helpful. Not true. They will be able to spot a plot hole a mile away. If your plot is too predictable, you can be sure you’ll hear about it. And, they can tell you if the character you’ve chosen works in the story.

Since my novels are aimed at a young adult audience, it’s essential that some of my betas are in this group. It can be difficult to find young readers who can give helpful feedback.

Luckily for me, I have connections at the local middle school. Further, I can interview the readers in person, thus tailoring my questions based on the answers they give me.

Time consuming? Without a doubt.

However, I’ve discovered problems with character consistency, magic systems, weak resolutions and plot progression from my target audience. The investment is worth the outcome.

In the end, books are meant to be read. As the author, I’m too close to the work to determine if the story is clear. I know my characters so well, I might miss the fact that on paper they don’t appear at all like they do in my head.

This is why authors need beta readers. Without unbiased reader feedback, a novel will never reach its fullest story potential.

Bane or boon, if you’re a writer, get your manuscript to beta readers – before you send it to agents, editors, publishers or -worst of all – publish it yourself.

Don’t ask for a critique unless you want your writing shredded

Writer’s need to develop rhino skin, it’s true. If you want to improve your writing, you will need other writers to critique it. Early and often, you should subject yourself to (constructive) criticism from writers you admire.

“Be careful what you wish for”

Recently, I paid to have a published author of urban fantasy critique my novel. I submitted a two-page synopsis of the novel and the first twenty pages several weeks before our meeting.

Then I took a class “The First Five Pages” and completely rewrote the beginning of my story. What was I thinking?

When I entered the business center a few minutes before my scheduled appointment, I already had an agent’s business card. She wanted the first fifty pages of the novel I had asked this author to critique.

That had to mean my manuscript was read, right? An agent loved the premise and main story and character arc. Time to move to the next level with my book. So, I was reading for whatever this other writer had to say about my manuscript. Right?

I handed Ms. Hughes my new beginning. She read it quickly and commended me on improving the story. She pointed out a few areas where my language might be confusing to my readers.

Top three pages - the other 18 look just as lovely
Top three pages – the other 18 look just as lovely

In front of her, she had the pages I had sent her. White margins no longer existed on the first three pages. Her comments were scrawled everywhere.

First, we discussed my synopsis and how it lacked the essential component of introducing the setting. In a fantasy novel, this is element cannot be overlooked.

“I almost stopped reading when I saw it was a destiny story,” she said. “These have been overdone.”

The context cleared. She read my manuscript with a bias against the premise from the outset. Of course, she realized by the end of the synopsis that this didn’t sound like a “girl must find her destiny” story.

We talked for thirty minutes. She pointed out areas where she was confused. More details need to be added prior.

“It needs more setup,” she said. Then turned to a page where she lined out several paragraphs of setup. “This information isn’t essential at this point. Add it in when she actually goes to the city.”

Too much detail. Not enough detail. Details in the wrong place.

In fact, there are only six sentences in the entire twenty-two pages that she commended. Am I sure I’ve selected the correct career path?

I agreed with 80 percent of what she said.  I was stunned by 20 percent. The fact that my writing style with metaphoric actions can be confusing to fantasy readers stopped me in my tracks. Am I writing in the correct genre? I had to wonder.

She suggested two resources – one for story structure (guess I didn’t have it down after following the advice and guidance of Brooks and Bell) and one for sentence structure. “Your sentence construction is really holding you back.”

At the end, she stated that taking a few classes on world building might be a good next step. “All fantasy writers struggle with this in the beginning.”

Do all of them have an agent’s request for pages of the manuscript lying flayed before them?

What had I gotten myself into? A world of revisions. Or the chance to walk away from this project because it was too far from ready to be read.

If the choice seems obvious to you, come back next Friday to see what other murderous (or manuscript-enhancing) things await this novel I keep touting about on this website and Facebook.

Will Daughter of Water get a second look from me – meaning more rewriting? Or will I choose to toss it in the trash and move on to the next great thing (of which I have 35,000 words currently written)?

So you think you want to write a book

Image courtesy of littlebahalia.com

No one who has actually ever written a book thinks they want to write a book. They like telling stories. They enjoy playing with words. Creating things using sentences and punctuation as opposed to brushstrokes and paint is very appealing to them.

When we sit down to write a book, we don’t think we’re going to write a book. We just have a story to tell. Things start going out onto the page. Generally someone else might get a hold of it read it.

“Wow. This is a really great story,” they say. “You should write a book.”

Shows what they don’t know about writing. Writing a book is not fun and games. Like everything else worth doing in life, it’s work. Yes, the terrible four-letter word: work. Writing a book is work. There, I said it.

I will admit there are times during the process of the first draft when the joy is welling over as the words spill onto the page. The story is so real, it’s like you can see the characters and hear their voices. You can feel the sunlight on your face.

Amazing! Incredible!

Then it’s finished. You think, “Okay let’s read this and see what I got.”

You know, anyone who thinks they want to write a book thinks when they read it, they’re going to think it’s awesome. I can’t wait for my friends to read this.

Another sign that they had never actually written a book.Windows Photo Viewer WallpaperWhat generally happens: I read my story and isn’t how I remember it being at all! It flowed in my brain and it made perfect sense. Not so on the page. What is this crap where my excellent words were deposited earlier this month?

Sometimes it takes other people to read the book before we see the flaws. Maybe they say they aren’t really sure what happened on page 10. Everything was going along smoothly and then suddenly it’s like we jumped in time, space, and place.

Why would someone want to read about this character? They’re a jerk. Was the point of this whole story just to entertain? Or just to get those words driving me insane out of my head and onto a page?

I’ve written a few books. I wrote my first in a green spiral notebook when I was nine years old. I have it in a box in my attic along with my second book, also written in a spiral notebook, and a whole bunch of journal from my teenage years. I have notebooks full of short stories and steno books of poetry.

I’ve been creating with words since I learned to write a sentence. I wrote a book and sent it to two different publishers. It got rejected. When I went back and read the book, years later after I learned a little more about writing, a light bulb turned on. “No wonder they rejected it,” I think. “This gal is too perfect; who likes her? What’s with the flashback on page five?”

Talk about a truckload of sophomoric mistakes. So, I wrote another book after studying craft and taking writing classes. It was the first of a series and I was so pumped.

I was determined to follow the formula for rewriting and do this one right.Halfway through the rewrite, I realized something was missing. It’s like my antagonist doesn’t exist. The conflict feels empty.

So, I took a class (notice how this is my answer to everything). I talked to a professional writer and editor. I had to scrap that book, too, along with the little darling that was its sequel.

Fine. Whatever. Throw it all out.

Next, I wrote this book that I didn’t even like, but while I was writing it, something amazing happened. I started liking the story again. I started figuring out what the character was going to be like and where the story should go.

So, hey, National Novel Writing Month. Millions of people are going to write a book this month. Yes, we’re all insane. 23 days later, I had 60,000 words in a file. A book. Better yet, the second book in the series.

I loved the story as I created it. The whole thing flowed from my creative center onto the page. I’m actually afraid to look back at it now. What if the thing’s a mess? I loved it when I wrote it. The idea of reading it now and being horrified by it just drains me.

So I didn’t read it, I wrote the third book in the series instead. Finished the whole thing. Then I read the first book (it was still bad), rewrote it and edited it. Afterwards, I sent it to six beta readers.

All of them did not like my main character. They didn’t think she was very sympathetic. The story needs more work. What this means is that I’ll be rewriting it again.

I guess if you think you’re going to write a book, go ahead. If you think your book will be worth reading, pardon me while I laugh or cry or just shake my head. Because writing a book might sound like a good idea, but it’s not as easy as everyone who has never written a book seems think.

Story Engineering

At the behest of my Jedi Master, Kristen Lamb, I’ve begun dog-earring a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It’s a masterful guide for creating a strong, complex story.

If you’re thinking, “I’ve got story structure down,” I thought similarly after highlighting James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure into rainbow-like proportions. Brooks subtitled his book “Mastering the 6 core competencies of successful writing.” Structure is only one of the six.

Two hours on the phone with Kristen reiterated for me the fact that I’m still a noob in the writing arena. Sure, I’ve been writing stories since I was nine. Does that mean they were well-written stories?

My first attempt at young adult fantasy flopped because I didn’t understand my antagonist’s motivation before I started writing. In the past, I had an idea and I sat down and wrote it. That might work for a short story, but all it provides in the novel-writing world is 60,000 words of warming up to the real story.

Trust me. I was halfway through the revision process when Master Lamb tapped the major plot points with her force push. The resulting pile of rubble buried my heart. A novel shouldn’t be a wobbly house of cards. It needs to have bones of steel beneath its thin skin (or maybe it’s the writer who has thin skin?).

Most of us right-brained artistic types see the word “engineering” and lose our appetite. Isn’t engineering all about calculus and equations with 18 variables and figuring out how to use all the buttons on a $200 calculator? So not interested.

The point behind Brooks’ use of “engineering” in his title is that writing a great story doesn’t just happen. We all know that only a fool would run out to build a tower without having blueprints and expertise. Brooks presents a logical (yes, very left-brained) argument for planning the major plot points and character arc before you attempt to build your novel.

The six core competencies of writing according to Brooks are:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure
  • Scene Execution
  • Writing Voice

I was directed to this stellar directory for story-planning for the lesson in story structure. I started with Part Five of the book so I could take my medicine and “do” rather than “try” to plan a successful novel.

In reading the entire book, I see that Brooks marries character arc to story structure in a way that simplifies the planning process. He offers sage advice for weaving theme between these major elements, as well, and erases the gray area between concept and theme.

In short, this book should be required reading for newbie writers. Using a conversational tone, Brooks invites the panster to do a little planning and gives the outlining mavens a blueprint to follow. He never talks above our heads or down his nose and he uses examples from fiction and film to illustrate every point.

Is your work in progress a mess of Bondo? I highly recommend Brooks’ book. It works better than an air sander at smoothing out the rough spots.