Because there are no absolutes when writing a novel, learning to write is a deeply individual process. While I can’t give you a roadmap that leads straight to The Land of Publication, I can tell you how I got there. Maybe one of my steps (or missteps) will inspire you or at least point you in the right direction for finding your own rules.
If you only dream about writing
I first thought about being a writer when I was twelve years old, but I didn’t do much more than fantasize and write sporadically until I was thirty. Then something inside me clicked. If I was ever going to see my words in print I had to get serious. Here is what I did:
- I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
- I read every book I could get my hands on. Newbery award winners and honor books. Prinz award winners. National Book Award winners, Boston Globe-Horn Book award winners. And I tried to read every other children’s and young adult book in the library as well. (Almost.)
- I read about the craft of writing. One piece of advice stood out. It was from How to Write for Children and Young Adults, by Jane Fitz-Randolph. It was the first book that truly helped me understand plot, and it contained a freeing suggestion. Do not submit anything for one year. In that first year, concentrate on learning and practicing. Consider it an apprenticeship.
- I took every writing class I could. Assignments got me in the habit of writing. Teachers provided valuable information. If at first you are an apprentice, you must find yourself some masters. Consider every writer you meet a potential teacher! I still do.
- I joined a critique group! I don’t have words to express how important this was and is for my writing, for their insight into making my stories better, for the moral support and for the motivation. If I could only give one piece of advice, this would be it. (Joining SCBWI and taking classes are both great ways of meeting potential critique partners!)
If you are ready to start writing
The first spark of an idea might be a book title, a plot twist, or a character’s voice, but I know that I will need all of these ingredients eventually, so before I begin writing, I go through a planning phase.
- First, I get to know my main character. For this, I find the book 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt to be a terrific resource. I journal about and in the voice of each character, and I use a character worksheet that I made for myself.
- After I know my character, then I plot. What does my main character want most in the world? Why can’t s/he have it? What sets the story in motion, and what obstacles happen along the way? Again, I journal and use a plotting worksheet I made to help flesh out the story.
- Once I know how the book will end, I start writing. (I’m one of those writers who likes to know where she’s heading rather than simply writing and exploring.) I don’t do a detailed scene-by-scene outline generally, but as I’m writing sometimes the ideas for scenes come faster than I can type them, so I’ll stop and outline a couple of scenes ahead so that I don’t lose those ideas.
- As I progress through the first draft, I often need to revisit the character and plot worksheets. Sometimes they help me to sort out problems, sometimes to develop other characters and their subplots.
I often find myself feeling stuck as I slog my way through a first draft. I don’t know what happens next. I’m not sure if I’m following the right storyline. These things may or may not be indications that my story is in trouble, but either way, in a first draft I try to ignore those voices telling me how much I’m messing up the book. If I don’t know what comes next, I make something up. If I’m following the wrong storyline, well, I’ll follow it to the end.
The most important thing about the first draft is to finish it!
Really. I know you’ve heard this a million times before, but it’s true. Don’t worry about it being good or bad. It will have good parts and bad parts, but if you don’t finish it then it doesn’t matter if your manuscript had the most brilliant third chapter in the history of third chapters. Finish it!
If you’ve already written a first draft
Congratulations! I mean that with complete sincerity. That is a huge accomplishment. Pat yourself on the back.
Okay, now take a deep breath, because your work has only just begun.
This is the part where I strongly advise you to get a critique group. Find other writers who are as committed and at least as experienced as yourself. Let them read your book and give thoughtful consideration to their advice.
If you can’t find or don’t want a critique group then you must put your manuscript away for a good length of time. As long as you can. (Maybe even the length of time that it takes to write the first draft of another book.) Because when you go back to that first draft you want to be able to read it as if someone else wrote it. You need to be able to sense which parts bore you and which parts make you turn the pages faster. What questions are you left with at the end of the book? Which plot threads disappear half-way and never resurface? All of these things are much easier to discern with extra pairs of eyes, but many writers do work solo, so if this is for you then, great.
When I revise I try to focus on the following elements
Plot and subplots
I diagram these on separate sheets of paper, listing the events that happen in each storyline extracted from the book. Here then, I can see if there are too few complications, or a missing resolution in any given storyline.
I make a chart of each chapter in my book, and note with colored dots which plotlines occur in each one. Then if red dots are missing from an entire row, I know that I either need to bolster that plotline or drop it. I also divide this chart into thirds, so I can make sure that my big plot turns happen at an even pacing.
I often forget this in first drafts. When I revise, I make sure that the reader can picture each scene. This includes a sense of place and giving the characters something to do if they are just standing around talking. And heaping in the sensory information, smells, sounds, textures and visual descriptions.
In each scene I ask myself, what is the problem for the character here, and is this what she would really do given what I know about her. If the character doesn’t have a problem in the scene, odds are it’s a pretty boring scene. And if the character is taking some action simply because you need that action to happen for your plot—forget it! You either need to make her take a different action, or you need to show us why she’d act so out of character!
After you’ve completed the first revision jump up and down! You can now consider yourself a serious writer. Serious writers revise! Go out and celebrate. Do the snoopy dance on your front lawn.
Okay, now take another deep breath, because…sorry. You’re still not done. You’ll probably have to revise at least one more time (if you are brilliant) or many more times (if you are a half-notch below brilliant.) I usually do five or six drafts (or more) on a book.