Category Archives: General

How to Write a Novel

You’re going to need an idea.

It can be a clever plot. Something about uncontrollable magic or unpredictable mayhem or unconventional love. Or maybe your idea is a character. Someone who stands out. Someone who blends in. Someone who lives in a coffee house attic. Someone whose feet never touch the ground.

Okay, now the hardest part: You must write a sentence. Any sentence will do (yes, even a sentence fragment) because you’ll probably change it a hundred times anyway. Here, I wrote some for you:

  • The monkey never saw it coming.
  • Halfway between the sky and the sidewalk, she realized she had forgotten how to fly.
  • His favorite sound and his favorite activity were defined by the same two words: shattering glass.
  • Nothing moved.

Next comes the hardest part: You have to write more sentences. Lots of them. Good ones. Bad ones. Brilliant ones. Ugly ones. Sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence.

This is going to take you longer than you thought. It always does. Oh, sure, you’ll have one 10,000 word weekend. And for a few days after, you’ll think of yourself as an Actual Professional Writer.

That feeling will fade.

After three weekends in a row with an average output of 723 words, you’ll be ready to quit.

You’ll be ready to quit a lot. Writers walk a tightrope from the beginning of a book until the end and even the slightest breeze can tip them off balance. You know these breezes by their more common names: doubt, frustration, uncertainty, hopelessness, fear, distraction. They’re relentless, so just fix your eyes on the other side and keep moving. It’s okay if you only wrote seven sentences today. It’s even okay if those seven sentences suck.

Just stick to it. If you do, you’ll eventually be ready to face the hardest part of writing a novel: Typing “The End.” Yes, there’s a moment of satisfaction, perhaps even joy in typing those two words. It’s a well-deserved moment. You just wrote a novel!

No. You didn’t.

You just wrote a first draft. When you type “The End,” you’re actually typing “The Beginning of All That I Still Have to Do to Make This Great.”

But there is some good news here. You’ve made it to the hardest part of writing: Revisions.

During this season of a book, you’re no longer on a tightrope; you’re carving through a jungle of your own making with a machete. All sentences are suspect. Many must die. You’ll have to write some new sentences, too. Lots of them. (I know the machete metaphor breaks down here. Let it go.)

During the (interminable) revision process, you’ll hand your “latest draft” to friends and family and hired strangers. They’ll nearly always tell you what you don’t want to hear: “It’s not finished yet.” Deciding which suggestions to use and which to ignore may very well be the hardest part of writing.

[Side note: Revisions last forever. I'm not being hyperbolic. Twenty years after your novel has hit the bestseller lists, you'll still be re-writing it in your head.]

This leads to the hardest part* of writing a novel: Deciding to be done with it. Despite the infinite revisions that will go on in your head, there comes a time when you must say “Enough!!” (in a doubly-exclamatory voice) and begin the marketing process or the agent-search process or the contest-entering process, so you can move on to the next book.

The next book? The next book.

Sigh.

You’re going to need an idea…

 

*I’m well aware that I described every step as “the hardest part” of writing. I don’t need to explain myself here, do I?

How To Be a Good Editor

Ever wanted to be an editor? No? That’s probably wise.

But just in case all your other options suddenly fall through (ie: the bowling alley installs an automatic pinsetter, the crash test dummy program stops accepting applications from humans, the professional dog walker eliminates her “Assistant Dog Walker In Charge Solely of Scooping Poop” position), here are some tips on how to be a good one. (If, perchance, you would rather be a bad editor, just do the opposite of what I suggest. And good luck with that.)

Be selective. Edit the books you love; work with writers you like. This makes the job of editing embarrassingly enjoyable and reduces the likelihood that you’ll be cursing your career choice before you even get to page 27. Some good reasons to say no: scheduling conflicts; lack of familiarity with the genre (to avoid having to say this, read widely); discomfort with the author him- or herself (the relationship is a bad fit); you can’t see how you could help (the book has too far to go, or is already so good your contribution would be minimal). Note: It’s easy to be selective when the bills are being paid.

Read between the lines. Most writers suffer from low self-esteem and fear the Red Pen. But generalities aside, every author is an individual with specific needs and expectations. Ask lots of questions before you agree to work on the writer’s book and listen carefully to their answers. Some want to be assured they aren’t pursuing an impossible dream. Others believe they’re just one step away from achieving it. Knowing the author before you even look at the manuscript helps you to anticipate the sorts of challenges you may uncover in the editing process.

Immerse yourself in the story. Read it through as if you just bought the book from your soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore. (Sorry Borders. I still love you. I did earn a paycheck or two from you a few years back.) Don’t open to page one and begin editing, be a reader first. Spend time in the world and with the characters. The big issues will reveal themselves as you read. The smaller ones will simmer in the back of your head and pop up just in time for the Red Pen once you get down to the business of editing.

Let go of your own writer voice. If the writer already has a strong voice, this isn’t difficult. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the story, you’ll become intimately familiar with it and editing in that voice will be second nature. But if a writer doesn’t have a strong voice – as is the case with most inexperienced writers – this can be a challenge. You may be tempted to edit using your own writer’s voice. Don’t. Instead, make it your goal to help the author discover his or her original voice. Find the seeds of that voice (word choice, tone, rhythm, etc.) and water them. This is the best thing you can do for a writer. (Yes, I just used a gardening metaphor. I’m allowed one gardening metaphor a year. This was it.)

Respect the story. You have two masters when you’re an editor. (Three if you’re being contracted by a publishing house to do the edit.) The most obvious master is the writer. She’s the person paying you, so it’s important to respect her desires and concerns. But a happy writer with a bad story really isn’t a happy writer at all. Let the story guide your editorial notes. Communicate those notes in a way that doesn’t disrespect the writer’s hard work, but don’t shy away from saying the hard things when the story and the writer disagree.

Say encouraging things. Editing isn’t all about noting what’s wrong. It’s also about revealing and encouraging a writer’s strengths. If you find a particularly brilliant sentence or description, say so. You can even use exclamation points in your comment. However, be honest. Don’t make up things to praise. That just feeds false hope. If you have a hard time finding nice things to say, you can always say (with absolute sincerity): “You wrote a book. You have done something many people only aspire to. Good for you!” (Note use of exclamation point.)

Don’t edit with a jackhammer. If you find bad habits, point them out. Be direct, but avoid hammering a point more than necessary. Show the writer why the habit is bad, offer suggestions on how to solve it, then let the writer make the appropriate application to the rest of the occurrences. This gives the writer a chance to practice a better habit.

Exude confidence, but never arrogance. You’re an editor because you know books. You know characters and plots and how to show instead of tell. You have a sixth sense about what works and what sucks. So edit with confidence. However, you’re not God. Not even close. Have a good reason for every editing note and every change you make or suggest, but don’t presume your suggestions are the only ones that work.

Invite discussion. The writer will initially be intimidated or discouraged by your notes. (Even those who say “I love being edited!” experience some measure of one or both of these feelings.) We’re trained at a young age to fear the Red Pen. You’re not here to tell the writer she’s an idiot or a fool or a failure. You’re here to help the writer discover more of the writer inside. You’re not here to dictate, but to encourage and shape and direct. Talk with the writer. Explain your choices. Listen to her disagreements, concerns, fears. Then together, learn.

A good editor is a writer’s best friend – the kind of best friend who tells you when you have spinach in your teeth. Or adverbs.

 

 

 

Do the Best You Can With What You Have

There’s little need for a post here. If you’re pressed for time, just read the title again, let it inspire some brilliant application for your writing life, then jet off to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Of course, if you want to spend a few more minutes in this space (and who wouldn’t; don’t you love how the gray header matches the cloud of uncertainty that’s giving your muse black lung?), feel free. It’s your dime.

Here’s the thing (and by “thing” I mean premise for this post): writers have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations. We call these expectations “dreams” or “goals” to make them sound beautiful or practical. But they’re expectations nonetheless.

“I’m going to write 10,000 words today!”

“I’m going to get an agent by Christmas. This Christmas!”

“I’m going to quit my day job and write full time and be happy and successful and tip generously even when the service is bad!”

“I’m going to read every book ever written about how to write well before I even put a single word of my own novel on the page because then when I do it will be lovely and perfect and certain to capture the hearts and minds of every human being on the planet including people who’ve never read a single novel!”

Then, often due to circumstances beyond our control, the dreams become nightmares. The goals grow mold (like the stuff hiding in your basement walls that’s going to kill you someday).

Still, we persist.

Maybe you do what I do – try to give the pain of underperformance purpose by re-categorizing it as a “life lesson.” [Here's how to do this: cup your ears to the yawning abyss and listen for some murmured echo of wisdom about how pain - even the pain of unmet dreams or goals - is really a gift because it makes us better writers. Then try not to throw up.]

There’s certainly some truth in that murmur – Real Life Pain does make us better writers of Imagined Pain. (See this post.) But unless your plan is to write a novel about feeling totally inadequate at the one thing you long to excel at, this probably isn’t the sort of pain you should be listening to.

We don’t mean to do this to ourselves. (Except for you masochists out there.) We start off with good intentions. But somewhere along the way, we become concerned that we’re not as far along as we thought we should be so we reach farther than we ought for the One Ring (“we wants it….”) only to fall off the horse. Again.

Discouragement sets in. And frankly? Discouragement sucks the fun out of writing.

What if, instead, you gave yourself a little slack? Sure, set goals. Follow dreams. Do everything you can to reach those places. But always, always with the quiet understanding that your reach only extends so far in any given moment.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it.

Then why do you keep beating yourself up for not being Stephenie Meyer?

Pursue everything with diligence and excellence. Maybe you’ll meet your writing goal. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll get an agent this month. Maybe you won’t. Maybe your book will get published someday. Maybe it won’t.

Just do the best you can with what you have.

And that will be enough.

You

Sit down. No, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t about dangling too many participles or ending sentences with prepositions. It’s not about your premise or your plot. It’s not about your characters (they’re all really very lovely). And it’s not about your craft.

You want what? A drink? Sure. What would you like? I have tea and coffee and…

Really? This early? How about just the orange juice without the vodka?

Okay, where was I? Oh, right. You’re a good writer. Your novel is competent, smart and entertaining. You’ve obviously read lots of books on how to write. I bet you read all the really popular agent and editor blogs, too.

But…

Hmm? Yes, you can move to the couch if you want. No, I don’t have any Xanax.

Like I was saying, your novel is good, but it’s missing something.

Yes, I know, I know. You’ve labored on this for months. You’ve poured every available minute into the writing and the re-writing. Your husband thinks you’re having an affair with someone named Strunk N. White. Your kids are wondering what a “crit group” is and where to find one and do they really need more feedback on their two-paragraph “what I did last summer” essays anyway? And your dog, Pulitzer, is afraid to ask to go for a walk because, apparently, his whimper sounds excessively adverbial and this causes you to scowl like Stephen King and it makes him nervous when you scowl like Stephen King.

No, you haven’t wasted your time. All that study has paid off. Surely you can see how you’ve improved. And if not? Go back and look at the first story you ever wrote. You’ve come a long way. I’m impressed. You should be, too.

But your novel is still missing something. Something really important.

It’s missing you.

You’re looking rather pale. Maybe you should lie down.

Let me say again – you’re a good writer. I’ve seen manuscripts from contracted novelists that aren’t as well-written as yours.

Good. You’re getting some color back. You were making me nervous there for a moment. I’m not trained in CPR.

It’s quite possible that your novel is good enough to capture the interest of a good literary agent. And maybe even good enough to get published someday. Of course, that could take a while. You know how tough it is for writers to break through. Of course you do, that’s why you’ve been so diligent at the craft and so dedicated to learning the business.

Maybe persistence and patience are all you need at this point.

But I can’t help wondering about that “missing something.” Where are you in your novel? Where’s the smart, slightly snarky writer whose email correspondence always makes me smile? Where’s the clever wordplay? The knowing smile? The arresting blend of confidence and vulnerability that I think of every time I think of you?

All that great writing advice might have kept you off the page. I like you. I like the way you think. I think readers would like you, too. And if you found you – if your novel had more of you in it – I believe that might just bump your manuscript from the “good enough to be published” pile into the “wow, I love this!” pile on an agent’s desk.

Ah, yes, that’s the million dollar question. And there’s no easy answer. I’d suggest these three steps:

  1. Let the manuscript sit. Don’t obsess over it. Forget about it and do something else for a while.
  2. Stop reading “how to write” books and websites. Instead, read novels. Good ones by authors you admire. Fresh ones by authors you’ve never met.
  3. When you finally do go back to your manuscript, forget the rules. Just (re)write as you hear the story in your head. You already know craft – that will come naturally now. This time, listen to your inner voice, follow it. Trust your instincts with word choice, pacing, rhythm, attitude. And here’s the real key: have fun.

Be you.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. And if you find you’re still struggling, start another novel. Yes. From the beginning. The more you write, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the page. When you do, you’ll not only be “good enough to be published” – you’ll be the only person who writes like you.

That’s the book I really want to read.

Yours.

Yes, you can have the vodka now.

Stuck In the Middle

For some, it happens around the 30,000th word. The lucky ones make it to 40 or 50K before they start to wade through it. You know what I’m talking about. Yeah, the dreaded Middle of Uncertainty. (Okay, no one really calls it that. I just made it up because it sounds imposing).

Just what is the Middle of Uncertainty? Well, it’s a lot of things, but in the simplest of terms, it’s that place where you start to lose hope/interest/momentum in this novel that you were certain was going to be a beautiful saga of love, loss, redemption and werewolves.

It’s the place where you’re suddenly stymied. Stuck. Or perhaps worst of all, beginning to fear that the rest of the book won’t live up to the first pages. Oh, and sometimes? You don’t realize you have a Middle of Uncertainty until the whole damn book is written and you’re starting work on your second draft.

Not every writer struggles with the Middle of Uncertainty. Some feel practically giddy when they hit the midpoint, then frolic to the finish line without the least bit of gastric or career distress. (We hates them, we does.) But most writers I know struggle here.

There are two main reasons for this struggle, and it’s important to know which is your root cause before you try to fix it.

The first? Writer fatigue. This is all about you. You’ll know this is the root cause when you start to write metaphors and similes that are as weak as other things that are weak. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. Another clue is that you start to write the same sentence over and over again. And you don’t notice even after reading and re-reading the paragraph six times. Sometimes this happens when you sit too long in the same place. Sometimes it happens when you try to write after a long, long, long, long day. Sometimes it happens when you’re feeling the pressure of a deadline.

The solution to writer fatigue is simple: take a break. I mean it. Stop writing. Writer fatigue isn’t quite the same thing as writer’s block. After all, you do have an amazing plot worked out for the story, right? Of course you do. That’s why writer fatigue is so frustrating. You know exactly where you’re going, but you just can’t get there from here.

Here’s the best way to fix it: do something that doesn’t involve writing. Go bowling. Plant a garden. Bake cookies. (Preferably thick, cake-like chocolate chip cookies.) Mail those cookies to your favorite noveldoctor. Run a marathon. Borrow your son’s Legos and build a scale model replica of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull.

Just leave the laptop alone for a while. I don’t mean ten minutes. I mean a day. Or two. (Yes, even if that deadline is looming. Your editor doesn’t want a crappy book on time. She wants a great book. On time. Or maybe two days late if you call and ask really nicely.) Then, just before you sit down to write again, think about the critical plot points that are yet to come. If they don’t shout at you and command your pen to paper so you can get there and then onto the big finale, well, you might need a longer break. Or…you might be suffering from the other reason for the middling struggle:

The broken story.

This is all about the work. It’s quite possible your book has no middle. Or no good one anyway. The beginning? You’ve got that down. And the ending is so perfect, anyone who invested six years in “Lost” will weep with joy when they read it. But that middle-to-end stuff? You don’t know what to write. Or maybe what you already wrote just isn’t working.

Try these second-half ideas:

  • Raise the stakes. Make the protagonist’s journey more dangerous. Don’t make it easy for the protagonist to get to the ending you know is coming. If the path is too clearly laid out, the reader will finish the book long before the final page.
  • Set a major obstacle in front of your protagonist. Kill his hopes. Kill his career. Kill his dog if you have to.
  • Stretch your protagonist. Push him to places he hasn’t yet gone, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.
  • Send your protagonist on a quest that seems to pull him in the opposite direction from his goal.
  • Give the subplots their due. Remember when you locked uncle Sal in the insane asylum back in chapter three? Maybe it’s time he escapes. Or gets a visit from the protagonist.
  • Check your pacing. Does the action slow to a crawl in the second half after a blistering first half? Maybe you need to mix that up a bit more. Vary the rhythm to keep the readers’ interest.
  • Reveal more secrets. If everything is out in the open by the midpoint, readers won’t have anything left to discover along the road to the ending. Everyone has one more secret. Your character just hasn’t told you about it. Yet.

And heed these warnings:

  • Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. Readers have good memories. Stop rehashing the fact that Becky is a loner with a drinking problem. We know this. Give her something new to do.
  • Don’t introduce a new plot element that goes against the story’s logic or “rules” just to mix things up. Readers will stop trusting you. Then they’ll stop reading.
  • Similarly, don’t introduce a new character late in the story who suddenly has a key plot role. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but readers will find it hard to swallow when a mysterious woman in black lands on the page just in time to save the hero, then disappears again because that was her only reason to be there.
  • Don’t fill the space with flashbacks. Again, not a hard and fast rule, but the second half of your book has to do more than maintain interest, it has to propel readers to the end with purpose. A bunch of “remember when” content will usually drag the story to a halt. Keep the tension high.

Of course, you could just read a good book on plot and structure like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and do what he says. That would work, too.

Here’s the bottom line, writer-friends: The middle of your novel can’t be the boring part. Know which part can be the boring part? None of it. Sorry, there’s no “coasting” in a good novel. And there’s definitely no place for filler.

No one ever said writing was easy. Actually, someone probably did say that. But he was being sarcastic.

Write well.