My friend Righan asked me to write a blog post sharing “what you wish you’d known” before writing a novel. She recently started writing her first book, and remarked that it feels like “learning how to fly by smoking a joint and swan diving off a cliff” (which is probably the best description of the creative process I’ve ever heard.)
I gave this some serious thought, and ended up writing much more than could fit in one blog post. So this is the first part of three part series. I’m still learning how to write a novel – and probably always will be, no matter how many novels I write – but here are a few things that could have spared me an enormous amount of headache and heartache. Hopefully they’ll do the same for you!
#1 Becoming a “plotter” can save your sanity.
There’s an age old divide among writers between the “plotters” and the “pantsers” (i.e. ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ writers, who don’t pre-plan their book.) I thought that, given my personality, I’d be a ‘pantser.’ Writing my first novel, however, made me a die-hard plotter, if only as a survival strategy.
Now, if you truly are a “pantser,” and that works for you, and you’re churning out excellent manuscripts that way, then definitely don’t mess with success. But I think a lot of first time novelists are ‘pantsers’ simply because they’ve never learned how to plot. They’re not happy with their process; they just don’t know an alternative. A novel outline is not like the outlines we learned to make in grade school, like those dreadful, “five paragraph essays,” etc… Plotting is, however, a learnable craft, and there are some excellent books on the subject. (Personally, I’m a HUGE fan of Cathy Yardley’s “Rock Your Writing” series.)
When you learn to plot, you become a student of the story structures all around you – seriously, you’ll start recognizing narrative arcs everywhere – in your favorite books, in movies and TV shows, even in nonfiction articles. If you write genre fiction (romance / mystery / suspense / fantasy / sci-fi, etc…) mastering story structure is essential. If you write literary or experimental fiction, the rules are not so hard and fast. However, I think every writer can benefit from studying the plots of great genre fiction writers. Those who disparage ‘genre fiction’ often snidely quip that these stories are formulaic, but the time-tested ‘three act structure’ allows for endless variation – just like human beings are infinitely diverse, and yet all have a similar underlying skeleton. The reason best-selling books and Hollywood movies use a narrative arc is because it works. (Haven’t you ever read a dime-store paperback, or watched some detective drama on TV, that really wasn’t very good, and yet you kept turning the pages, or stayed glued to the screen, because you just had to find out how it ends? That’s an example of a successful story structure.)
(And conversely, have you ever read (or written) a novel where the quality of the writing was just beautiful, and yet it began to drag, and you couldn’t get through it? Even the best writing can’t be sustained without good plotting / pacing.)
The other reason to plot out your story is that it can save you an enormous amount of time and frustration. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t start with an outline; I only started with a loose concept. I then wrote 300 pages, sort of stream of consciously, as I dumped out all the ideas that had been dancing around in my imagination for years onto the page. It was an unreadable mess. I then picked the characters and storylines I liked the best from that first attempt, started afresh, and wrote another 300 pages. It was still terrible, but at least I could vaguely say what the story was “about” now. Then I read Cathy Yardly’s books, made a thorough outline, and wrote yet another 300 pages, nailing down the story’s basic plot. Of course, I still had to re-write and revise, but at least the “bones” were there. I don’t regret the 600 pages I had to throw away, because these “exploratory drafts” helped me hone in on what I really wanted to write about. However, it would have saved me a lot of time and wasted effort if I’d just started with a freaking outline! Now, even with a thorough, detailed, scene-by-scene outline, you can still run into plot-holes, and your story can still go off the rails, however, I find, as a newbie writer, the more I plan, the saner I stay.
For the next post in this series, #2 and #3, I’ll be talking about critique partners, and why your first draft sucks (hint: it’s supposed to.) Stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you’re thinking about “that book” you’ve been meaning to write for years – make this the year! And for all the authors out there reading this – what did YOU learn from writing your first book, that you wish you would have known when you started? Please share in the “Comments” section!