Write Your Novel Like A Noob…Or Not

As I write this, here in my 38th year, I'm struck by a number of what some people might consider failures, and yet others might see as learning experiences. To not put too fine a point on it, this is the writer's experience in an online nutshell. As for me, I've taken several cracks at this whole writing thing. In total I've started writing, around 18 different books...give or take. All of them in various stages of incompleteness. Wow, right? But to be honest, it's not as impressive as it is disappointing. Because only in the last couple of years have I actually seen any of these projects to completion.  In fact, only four of them have been finished (as in reaching completion on the first draft). Only two have reached a second draft. And worse still, only one has been refined enough to be sent out to find representation. So this being said, let's jump into a short list of things to do...or not do as it were, when writing your novel(s).

Finish what you start:

If you didn't spot the problem laid out above, here it is in plain view. While no writing is ever wasted (unless it's about Frozen, I hate that movie), as in we get better the more we practice our craft, start a project only if you intend to finish it. Writer's minds are often scattered, we are creatives after all. I personally have so many ideas that will randomly come up and ignite excitement inside me that I can't wait to work on them more. Listen to me now: NO! No. Bad writer. BAD WRITER!

On that note...make a note:

This is why notebooks exist. Carry one in your pocket, in your purse, in your knapsack...but not your fanny pack. Get an app on your phone (Evernote is great). Get a new idea, jot it down in a new note, or create a folder for new ideas. Get it out of your head so you can come back to it later. Then, exercise self control and go back to the project you've already started and finish it.

Plot...but also pants:

If you're new to this idea it's basically this: You're either a plotter (someone who fully and in detail plans out their novel before writing). Or you're a pantster (someone who flies by the seat of their pants, allowing their story to take whatever path it will). Personally, I've done both. And the greatest thing I can take away from those experiences...is that I suck at each one. Individually, that is. For me I need a mixture of the two. A healthy amount of plotting so I know where the story is going and needs to go, and a generous spritzing of pantsing so that the story remains fluid, able to adapt to the awesome things my brain will drum up when I'm in the middle of something else. Be adaptive. Nothing is set in stone.

Try this:

Start writing. If at any point you find yourself struggling to write a scene and you're having to force it...stop. Exit the word processor, notebook, stone tablet, or parchment scrawled in your own blood. Open up something new, and plot. No need for full on detail. Think about your story. What is happening? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the main events/actions/consequences/stakes that need to take place. Then figure out (in very broad strokes) how your character is going to get there. Then, if you're comfortable doing that, start constructing individual scenes. The most important point here, though, is finding the process that works best for you, probably a mixture of both plotting and pantsing.

Do NOT obsessively re-write...the same scene...over and over:

To me, this is tantamount to self mutilation. Pointless. Painful. And unlikely to do anything but sow the seeds of regret later on. This goes hand-in-hand with plotting and pantsing. If you find yourself doing this, then it's a pretty good sign you might need to step back from the scene you're stuck on and figure out where your story needs to go. The best cure for writer's block (which doesn't actually exist) is planning.

DO have multiple projects...just not 18 of them:

At a certain point, if you're diligent, if you're dedicated, and if you aren't binge watching something on Netflix, you will finish your book. The first draft anyway. Once this is done, put the pen down and step away. Stop thinking about it. Stop worrying about it. If you need a break from writing, take it. If you still want to write, start working on something else. The point is two-fold: to remove yourself from the other project and get emotional distance so that you can see it from more objective eyes. And to get something else going on the back burner. I mean, come on! You've got other ideas you want to get rolling. Do it!

The End:

There's more to this discussion, many more things that we can talk about. Perhaps we'll talk about those next month. In the meantime...write something.

Oh, the weather outside is ….. perfect for my story!

"If you don't like it, wait five minutes." That's the mantra Coloradoans mumble when the temperature plummets from 70 to 30 in one day. Important plans get interrupted, and you may sprain your back shoveling two feet of wet spring snow off your deck and have to cancel your tennis match.

The unpredictability of weather and its related conveniences and inconveniences can be useful tools as you plot your story.  It’s done with good scene-setting, consistent information, common sense/believability, and excellent timing.

LightningConsistent/Common Sense. It’s clever to tie the weather to your protagonist’s moods. If he’s just suffered from the loss of a loved one, a cloudy sky, dripping rain like teardrops, may be perfect to amplify his grief.  However, if every time he’s troubled the sky becomes overcast, it becomes obvious and distracting. And admittedly, humorous, where comedy was not intended.

Scene-setting. A romantic story setting might be, not just sea and surf and sand, but a gentle surf, at sunset,  warm, with sound effects--whoosh, whoosh, a soothing, sensual rhythm to the waves. Perfect for that “First Kiss” moment between hero and heroine. Or the surf can be crashing and pounding against the cliffs in that “Life Threatening” moment with rain so heavy the characters can’t see as they stumble along a treacherous path to the castle. The setting can become a critical “Plot Point” when nature becomes the antagonist, as when Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass fought against a hostile climate to drag himself back to civilization in The Revenant. It can become the “Saving Grace” moment when a vicious clump of space garbage veers just to the right of our hero’s space capsule.

Believability. Was there really an ice storm in Florida in August? Not that you can’t deviate from normal expectations, but everybody and his brother had better be talking about it. I recall visiting Vancouver in March, and the weather was something we in Colorado are accustomed to: blue skies, not one cloud, sunny. The difference was that every person on the street and every DJ on every radio station was marveling and commenting. The DJs encouraged everyone listening to take the day off work and just get out there and enjoy it.  The entire city was joyful. Unusual weather works in novels. If you need flowering trees earlier than expected, it can be done. Just acknowledge the rarity through your characters.

Timing. If the weather causes a turning point or crisis, build toward that moment to avoid the deus ex machina factor. If there’s a fog-caused 20-car pile-up in which the villain is killed just before he arrives to finish off the hero, palm to head. It won’t work. Your fan has been loyally reading for hundreds of pages, anticipating this confrontation. For the satisfying ending, the villain needs to arrive mentally and physically strong and able to compete, so the hero can suffer and strive and finally win.

If in the struggle the villain slips on ice, falls and loses his gun, it needs to be established beforehand that it rained and the temperature dropped at sunset, causing treacherous driving conditions, for example.

Most of these are common sense. Considering the weather is one of the joys of writing. No longer are you victim of the weather. Now you are the Wizard, throwing clouds and rain and snow on your people. Just cool it with the lightning bolts.

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)


No, not what you’re thinking… this isn’t a lesson on how to plot.

This is a musing on how plotting happens.

Which means?

I was shoveling a foot of snow out of my driveway last Tuesday afternoon and I found myself plotting. I’ve been in a restaurant trying to keep my mind on the conversation at my table, and found myself plotting. I’ve been watching a movie, and found myself plotting.

It’s insidious. It creeps into my consciousness no matter what I’m doing. It’s either the story I’m currently working on or it’s the one I’m planning to work on next. It’s a new character that’s begging to be introduced or an old character that does something unexpected. It’s the answer to the corner I’ve painted myself into. It’s the ending I didn’t see coming.

Plotting is a fluid process. Even when I’ve carefully laid the story out scene by scene, I’m often surprised by an idea that seems to pop into my head. It’s what makes writing so much fun.

But not always for those who have to live with you. Sometimes my husband will be chattering away and suddenly he’ll stop and look at me. “You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said, have you?” he’ll ask.

He doesn’t even wait for an answer. “You’re plotting, aren’t you?”

Can’t deny it. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.

Except during the Super Bowl this year… Best.Superbowl.Ever.

So, how about you? Where do you do your best plotting?

Write Only the Interesting Parts

By Kevin Paul Tracy

There is a joke which has been apocryphally attributed to various famous sculptors:

Bird Sculpture

HOW TO SCULPT A BIRD: Chisel away all the parts that do not look like a bird.

    As a joke this is worth a chuckle. As a fundamental truth about sculpting it leaves something to be desired. For example, I would submit that a sculpture of a bird, alone, is interesting only insofar as I am curious about the physiognomy, the outward appearance, of a bird. But what if I want to know more: Where does he live? On what does he feed? What are his interests, his passions, his pursuits? A sculpture of a bird alone does not tell me any of this, and is therefore of only passing interest to me.

There are those who will tell you, in regards to writing, to chisel away all those parts of your story that do not directly relate to your plot. Like most such rigid axioms about writing you are going to have to develop an instinct for when to break it before you become fully ready to publish. A novel about its plot and nothing but its plot is a very stiff, mechanical, utilitarian thing and while perhaps entertaining to read, isn’t very enriching or memorable.

If I were to rewrite the joke above to pertain to writing, I would put it:

HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL: Think of a story, then write down only the interesting parts.

Rather less like a joke, still it says what I want to say. Sometimes, some of the most interesting parts of a story do not necessarily relate directly to its plot. For example, in Jurassic Park, one of the most fascinating parts of the story is how Dr. Grant, a man with no experience of and no real interest in children, is forced to not only interact with, but to protect and even to comfort two young children during the course of the story’s events. Some refer to these as subplots, so be it. These are the things that enrich a story and make it memorable.

Go ahead, don’t be shy, say it: “But some of the most interesting things about my plot happen off-stage, out of sight or knowledge of the protagonist. How can I relate these parts of the story without violating the “One-and-Only-One-POV” rule?” The rule that says you must only portray the point of view of a single character in your novel, period. The answer is simple: violate the single-POV rule! But learn how to do it well and to good effect. For example, “head-hopping” is jumping from one character’s POV to another in a single scene. To a large extent this is not a good time to break the rule. One POV per scene still, by and large, holds true, though I have read some rather effective tales in which a scene is told more than once, each time from a different character’s POV. Still, as a rule, only shift from one POV to the next between scenes, or at least between narrative breaks.

Also, even if you shift from one POV to the next between scenes, still try to keep the number of POV’s in a single novel to a close few. We don’t need to know what every character thinks about every situation. Remember, we are writing only the most interesting parts of our story, and we are only shifting POV to provide a means to do so. Anything else is chiseled away.

Next, remember that subplots are like any other plot, they need to go through the same stages: the inciting incident, the complicating factors, the black moment, and the denouement. Even though a subplot is, by definition, less critical than the main plot, if it is left unresolved by the end of your novel it is a loose end, and bad form. So be sure to bring your subplots along on a pace with the main plot and resolve them at some point prior to the resolution of the main plot.

Remember, all of this is in service to writing only the most interesting parts of your story. If at any point you find yourself bored with what you’re writing, it’s a good bet your readers will be bored as well. Chisel it away!

Check out Kevin's latest releases, the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, "Rogue Agenda" and a startling and engrossing gothic thriller "Bloodflow."

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Old Writer, New Tricks

By Mary Gillgannon

I’m what I call an intuitive or “into the mist” writer.  I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I don’t really plot. I’m also a linear writer. I start from the beginning and keep going on the rough draft until I reach the end. Between “non-plotting” and writing straight through, I usually end up with a complete mess and then have to go back and rewrite extensively to get a coherent and compelling story. It was pretty typical that for a 120,000 word novel, I’d write about 30,000 extra words. For my 160,000-word historical novel, I probably wrote 300,000!

About five years ago, I decided I wasn’t up to all that floundering and struggle and wasted words. I was going to learn to plot. I attended workshops, read books and talked to other writers about their plotting process. It all sounded good to me… until I sat down and tried to do it. Nothing happened. No story ideas came. My mind went blank and my muse refused to speak to me.

So, I went back to “writing into the mist” and writing linearly. I seemed to be getting better at it with my romances. But when I tried to write a fantasy series, I ended up with a 200,000 word book that needs to be about half that. Not to mention, I can’t market the series yet because I don’t know what happens in the second book, let alone the third and fourth. (I know. George R.R. Martin probably doesn’t really know where his series is going either. But he’s clearly better at this stuff than me.)

The feeling that there has to be a better way keeps gnawing at me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found it with my latest project. It’s a fantasy romance that I first started years ago. Because I was trying to sell on proposal back then, I actually wrote a very rough synopsis for this book. I started writing based on the synopsis, and after a few chapters, inevitably, the plot began to change. But then I did something different. I didn’t keep writing. I went back and started revising the synopsis to fit the story. As I did that, I realized there were lots of story questions I hadn’t addressed. So I went back and rewrote parts of the first few chapters. In the process, the whole story became clearer to me. For once, I wasn’t writing “into the mist”. I could actually see where I was going.

I’ve decided I would keep up with this new technique with this book. I’m beginning to think that maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t plot, but that I keep writing forward even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe if I try to plot as I write the book and fix things as I go along, I won’t end up with such a disaster at the end.

I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years. It would be really exciting if I finally figured out a better way to do it!


Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook.