Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.
This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)
My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.
This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.
I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.
It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.
That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.
Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.
As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.
And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.
I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.
How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?
One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.
Easier said than done, right?
Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.
You could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:
- The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
- The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
- Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
- Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.
This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.
You’d think if you struggle with word count, you should forget about novels and just write short stories, right? Nope. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. Take it from me. Underwriting is practically my middle name.
If you get stuck after 2,000 words, maybe you’re not planning enough. Maybe you’re “pantsing” — or sitting down to write without much more than an idea and seeing where it takes you.
But 50,000+ word beasts don’t get written that way. Novels require outlines, or you’re gonna get stuck a lot. Now, everyone’s pre-writing stage is different. And there is such a thing as doing too much brainstorming and not enough of the actual writing, so you need to determine the balance that works for you.
Here’s a glimpse at my outline and “story bible” for my WIP. I have five major buckets:
- My original brainstorming of my seed idea, along with the trigger moment where my story begins and the key scenes in my protagonists’ pasts that shaped their worldviews.
- A rough sketch of the defining scenes that I knew I wanted in my novel.
- A bullet-point outline of my whole book. I’ll slot in new scenes here and there, and I refrain from plotting out the next act until I’m done writing the previous one.
- Main plots and subplots, with chapter-by-chapter developments. This helps me see how each thread is developing and whether any lack substance or depth. Occasionally, I’ll add new subplots while writing the book.
- Stuff for agents: my query, theme, paragraph summary, elevator pitch, professional synopsis, etc.
- Notes on the voice of my characters, as well as any slang and sayings unique to my world. I worry about this more in later drafts, but I like to have something to consider as I begin.
- An ongoing list of things to fix in revision. While I’m working on the first draft, I’ll put stuff here if I’m worried something isn’t working so that I remember to come back to it later.
- Acknowledgments (so I know who to thank should my book be published).
Profiles on each of the central characters. Details about their physical description, personality, moments in their pasts that sparked their “misbelief” (worldview), and ideas on how they will fail and succeed throughout the novel.
As author Lisa Cron says, you can’t “write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone [that you] know absolutely nothing about.”
Rules of the world:
This is where I do my world-building! I take notes on my world’s history, cultures, creatures, religions, locations, and anything else that comes up in my story.
This adds dimension and can be beefed up as you go along, but it’s good to have a decent idea of how things work before you dive in.
Real-world research to lend credibility to different aspects of my story or to inspire fictional elements.
Examples: plants used for healing, types of geography/terrain, how archery or blacksmithing works, and so forth.
Scenes in development:
This is where I keep my scene cards, track my overall progress (chapter/act word counts and what I accomplished each week), and “guiding principles” — memos to myself about bigger picture considerations to keep in mind as I write.
In my pre-writing process, the scene cards come last, and I develop each immediately before writing that scene in my novel.
I don’t necessarily do all this work upfront. My real-world research, for example, I complete as needed as I’m writing the book, and I may come back to the character profiles to flesh them out more if I’m feeling stuck with a character.
But that’s pretty much it. It’s a growing, organic document, and pre-writing spawns a lot of ideas for plot, subplot, and character development.
I keep all these files in Scrivener, but some people prefer a binder and paper. It’s your choice.
What does you pre-writing process, outline, and “story bible” look like?
Writing is not always fun and joy. In fact, I’d say a lot of writing is not fun and joy. But it is deeply rewarding, and that’s why we do it.
Right now, I’m finding it hard to move on from one manuscript (in the query trenches) and focus on the next. There are no guarantees in writing, and when you’ve put years and tons of work into a book, learning to be okay with possibly nothing happening with it can be soul-crushing.
So how do you stay motivated and optimistic in the face of rejection?
Take a break
First thing’s first: Don’t buy into the myth that you have to write every day. You don’t.
I find that I operate best when I hold myself to a schedule that works for me. Consistency is what matters. I consider sitting down for a writing session (including preparing/building scenes or doing research — whatever keeps me grounded in my book’s world) five days a week to be a respectable, manageable goal.
That’s just me. Find what works for you, and for god’s sake, cut yourself some slack. You are not a machine. You can still (and should) have a semblance of a social life, even as a writer. It’s healthy for you.
Forget about numbers
Some writers keep on track by giving themselves daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. I find this incredibly demotivating.
Instead, I focus on accomplishing quarterly goals. To push myself, I might set a goal like, “Finish Act I.” When it’s done, it’s done.
I always freeze up when I look at word count, especially since I’m an underwriter. My internal dialogue goes something like, Ugh god this scene was only 800 words how am I supposed to write a 80,000 word novel at this rate, this is IMPOSSIBLE. Cue the self-doubt and worthlessness.
That’s bad. Stop it. Don’t worry about word count. You can always add more in revision.
Watch (or read) something that inspires you
Sometimes just listening to or reading the advice of other writers can give you the shot of inspiration you need to get your butt back to work.
“Booktube” and the community of authors/writers on YouTube always gets me pumped and excited about stories — both reading and writing them. I love Ava Jae, Kim Chance, Rachael Stephen, Lindsay Cummings, and Kristen Martin, for example.
And there’s no better reminder of why you’re in the writing game than reading a book so damn good that it makes you want to learn to be that good, too.
Look at the bigger picture
Writing is hard, but guess what? You’re a rockstar. You’ve got this. You’ve written thousands of words before this — hell, whole manuscripts, even. And you’re getting better every step of the way.
Becoming a good writer is practice. We lose sight of the big picture because writing a single book (over one, two, or more years) is the equivalent of one dance performance, one bicycle race, or one marathon. Ain’t nobody got our level of determination.
Fucking embrace it
I know it sucks (believe me, I do), but sometimes you just gotta work through the pain.
If you hate the thought of sitting down to write, or if you think you’re a shitty writer — well, you can still feel that and put fingers to keys, or pen to paper.
Use that anger and frustration and agony as fuel — forget all about showing others you can do it. Show YOURSELF you can do it.
It doesn’t have to be perfect — you just need to get the words out. So yes, you can get this piece of shit done. You WILL be an author.
Because you’re a fucking badass, that’s why.
Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.
Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …
You need to fix it, but where do you even start?
This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?
Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.
Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.
But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.
I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.
Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.
Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.
After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.
Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.
I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.
Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.
Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.
Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?
I think my brain needs a break first. :)
Making a chapter outline is one of the best things I’ve done for my work in progress (WIP).
I’m in my second draft now, so this chapter outline (pictured above) is different than the one I made for my first draft. It’s a lot more focused on what I wrote, not what I planned to write, and it helps me to spot the strengths and weaknesses in my story.
To make the outline, I used Google Spreadsheets. First, I “froze” Column A and Row 1 (click “View” –> “Freeze”), which locks them in place. I set columns for chapters, color-coded by point-of-view (my WIP features multiple character perspectives). Then I created rows for all the major aspects of storytelling that I wanted to keep track of — plot summary, conflict (external, internal, and escalation), the quality and content of the writing (dialogue, body language or action beats, description or sense of place/setting, verb strength), worldbuilding, and character relationships and subplots.
Here’s how I color-coded the rows:
Plot = bright yellow
Conflict = bright green
Writing = medium blue
Worldbuilding = bright blue
Character relationships, arcs, and subplots = medium purple
I made a lot of different purple rows — for a character’s relationship to another character, a character’s interactions with and feelings about the world, and any side issues that I wanted to explore. Basically, these rows let me track a character’s arc, relations, and development, as well as any subplots.
I always colored in the cells for plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding and added notes — but I only colored the purple cells when something in the chapter contributed to those elements. For example, if Character 1 and Character 2’s relationship changed, I colored that cell and wrote how.
If one of the purple cells should have been colored in, or one of the main cells (plot, conflict, writing, and worldbuilding) weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, I colored the cells orange and wrote notes on why they were lacking and ideas for how to address the problem. These orange cells are basically a “red” flag to tell me that I need to work on a certain aspect of the chapter — I just used orange because it’s a less stressful color than red. :)
This chapter outline has been crucial for getting me to analyze and reflect on how each chapter is contributing to the novel overall. Each chapter should pull its weight and be invaluable to the story. It should deepen character development and relationships, reveal a new aspect to the world, intensify or add conflict (or sometimes resolve it), and occasionally introduce or develop subplots. The writing itself should also be the best it can be. Filling out the outline for each chapter gives me a better sense of where the gaps are, which helps me determine where I should focus my self-edits and revision.
I made a separate spreadsheet for assessing each character’s relationship to another, which gives more “life” to characters other than the protagonist, but maybe I’ll cover that in another post. :)
Tip: This is just my personal strategy. Your spreadsheet (if you want to use one) can look however you want. In fact, I’d love to hear what you’ve done with yours!
But remember, anything you can do to help yourself revise smarter is important — because revision will make your novel awesome:
Do you make any spreadsheets to help you with writing/revising your WIPs? Let me know what approach you take in the comments!
There are two types of writers in the world: overwriters and underwriters.Read More...