Your Novel-Writing Toolbox

Posted: June 15, 2016 in Writing
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This past weekend we held a teen novel event at Barnes & Noble — giveaways, author signings, sample chapters of upcoming YA books, and on Sunday, a teen writing workshop, featuring a panel of many of the published authors who were in the store signing their books.

I happened to be working in the music department on Sunday, during the writing panel, and as a consequence I got to set up the chairs and so forth. I was excited, because I was going to be in the perfect position to watch and listen to the whole lecture, even while I was helping customers.

However, as the hour wore on, and the half dozen teen writers sat fidgetting in their seats, it became apparent that none of the invited authors were going to break away from signing their books, and the only person standing at the front was a fellow B&N employee who had agreed to kick things off (he is also a writer, working on his fist novel). After about 15 minutes it was clear he was struggling to fill the void.  He noticed me watching and asked if I would like to add anything to the conversation.

So now, instead of a panel of professional authors, our eager teen writers have two unpublished writers who are winging it and hoping to stumble upon a few pearls of wisdom. We went back and forth, talking about our personal experiences, and while neither of us really had anything prepared, we did manage to give the attendees some useful tidbits of advice for writers just starting out. So I thought I would try to chronicle here those bits I remember and pass them on to you, in case you might find any of them useful.  So, in no particular order ….

  •  You don’t have to write every day, or write 3,000 words every week to be a novelist. But you do need to decide what you can reasonably commit to on a regular basis, and stick to that.  Even if it is only one hour a week.  I only get time to write late a t night when the rest of the family is in bed.  Because I don’t want my writing to take away from my family time; I already have two jobs.  Nevertheless, I finished a 67,000 word novel in a little over a year this way.
  • Join a critique group.  It doesn’t have to be in person, and it doesn’t have to be all that formal.  But you need fellow writers (and not your spouse or mom) to read and comment on what you have written.  Feedback in essential, and you need people you trust to provide it.  If possible, find people who write in your genre and for your age group.  And return the favor — you get as much or more from giving feedback as you get from receiving it.
  • Know your genre.  Read books in your genre.  And research the common word-count range for books in your genre. You don’t want to write a 90,000 word contemporary Middle Grade, then find out only then that no agent or publisher will touch a manuscript over 60,000 words.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you the way you write is wrong.  Do what works for you.  If that means keeping a dream journal and only writing in the bathtub, do that.  If you have no use for a dream journal and can only produce by sitting at a desk for six hours at a time, do that.  Only you can decide what works.  And if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.
  • Don’t go down the rabbit hole of self-editing everything you’re written before you move on to the next chapter.  That way lies madness.  On the other hand, if you absolutely need to fix something in chapter three because in chapter five you realize you’ve hit a wall, then by all means, fix away.  My own personal process is one of building on the things I’ve written before.  If I figure out halfway through the novel that my villain needs to be a man instead of a woman, I am distinctly uncomfortable leaving her a woman in the first half of the book.  Her motivations will probably change, and so will her actions.  I need to know those motivations and action before I can refer to them in later chapters. I took a free weekend between writing chapters six and seven to go through and revise the first six chapters — based on critique notes and a major change in the direction of the story.  And when I was done, I could  move to the next chapter.
  • Listen to how real people talk, and try to incorporate that into your writing.  We are taught to use dialogue as one way to impart information and ease in backstory, but be very careful.  Most people don’t actually use the phrase, “As you know, Bob….”
  • Learn how plot works before you write your entire novel.  There are several schools of thought on this, and many, many books and other sources of wisdom that will help you understand how to get from the beginning to the end with the necessary ups and downs along the way to make for a story readers can’t put down.  A good story is not simply a narrative of events strung together one after another.  There are beats and rhythms to every story.  Failures, successes, losses and triumphs.  People have gotten used to how stories work, and when they deviate from that formula, they feel lost or let down.
  • Read your book out loud.  I know, it feels completely weird to do this.  But it is a really simple way to see where the rough spots are.  If you stumble over them when you read them out loud, they need work.  This is also a great way to test your dialogue.
  • Carry around a notebook (or an iPad or a smart phone) so you can jot down any ideas or snatches of dialogue or descriptions that may occur to you in the course of your regular day.  Because — believe me — you will forget them if you don’t.  Keeping one by your bed is another good idea.
  • Write the synopsis first.  If you are not a plotter and tend to write everything by the seat of your pants, then this will be difficult for you.  But once your book is finished and you prepare to show it to the world (by which I mean prospective agents), you will need to boil your entire book down to a single page (synopsis), or a paragraph (query), or even just 35 words (logline).  Writers often learn too late that there is something fatally wrong with their book when they simply can’t express their book in a few sentences.  So it can often help to do this before you write, to make sure you have these primary things well established: main character, situation, conflict, and stakes.
  • Be prepared to receive negative feedback.  Because you’re gonna.  Failure is part of growing.  Sometimes a batter misses the ball.  Sometimes the chef over-seasons.  Sometimes the musician hits a sour note.  Especially when they are just starting out.  Baby’s learn to walk because they fall down a lot.  Receiving a bad review doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad writer.  Giving up makes you a bad writer.
  • Have fun.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Write for you, first.  If there’s an audience and a market for what you wrote, so much the better.  Reach for that brass ring with gusto.  But writing is a creative process, and for a story to have a spark you have to love the story.  When it stops being fun, it’s time to move on to something else.

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