From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I Learned from Actually Writing a Novel

People say all the time that no matter how many craft books you read, how much writing advice you learn, there are certain things you just don't learn or grasp about writing a novel until you've, well, written a novel. So maybe its futile for me to tell you guys about my experience and what I learned because you probably already know this stuff and will learn other things from your own experiences and I'm going to have to figure out a whole new set of things for this next novel anyway. But maybe it might help a little, so here goes.

Logical flow in an extended narrative. What I mean by this is that as I've been getting feedback from readers, one relatively consistent comment seems to be that certain reactions or plot sequences are not natural. They don't flow logically from the situation. I believe this comes from having a long narrative that I've outlined, and knowing steps A to B to C, because then when step C needs to take a little longer or detour straight to step E, because that's the most natural flow, you don't see it as well. Does that make sense? Hopefully all the issues have been fixed, but now I know that you can NOT let an outline or predetermined sequence of events get in the way of natural character reactions.

Fluff scenes and Action scenes. This ties in to logical flow. I was so worried about reaching word count that before I even started I filled in my outline with "filler" scenes to make sure I had enough. So I ended up with several scenes I needed to trim down or chop entirely and a lot of other sparser areas that needed to be expanded. I think this happens in most first drafts, because we think we know what's important and follow our outline instead of the characters telling us what really matters. I'll try and give an example without giving away too much. My main character has relationships with characters A and B. Both are very important to him and say a lot about his character, but his relationship with character A is much more important to the forward action of the story. My outline was focused much more on character B, which means I had to take out a lot of B and add a lot more A. Hopefully all for the better. And I didn't need to worry about word count in the first place.

So those are two related things I learned via trial and error in the process of writing a novel. Hopefully I've fixed most of the problem areas, and will continue to do so. But this means that as I start novel #2, I will be very conscious of keeping my characters reactions and decisions very logical and realistic, and letting those choices and emotions guide the narrative. I still need an outline (I'm one of those writers) but I'm going to let myself be much more fluid with it, and add and delete scenes from it as I go. Because the character is the true director of the story. The outline will make sure we know where we're going, but the characters are the ones deciding how we get there.

Sarah Allen


  1. These are great points. It is funny how one can underestimate a novel-length story. Before every tackling a finished draft, I used to think it would be like writing a short story--just with more words! Hahaha. I had no idea how involved the ideas would have to become, and how much work it takes to keep that plot moving and twisting and turning without falling off the tracks. It's nuts!

    And I hear you on the fluff scenes and wordcount. This round of revisions, my book is increasing in word count. Ugh. I'll have to start paring down in the next round.

  2. Hey, I just saw you're in love with Frasier.

    But I'd ask, are you in love with *Frasier* or are you in love with *NILES*?

    Cause if it's Niles, you and I should be bosom friends.

  3. I think for me, the hardest part is pacing. I tend to get distracted easily so I have a ton of action which could be too much. And then I realize this and add in slower scenes, but they're all bunched together, and could also be too much. Just doing is def the best way to learn though, I agree!

  4. I just think writing a novel is wow... HARD. I gave it a try only to realize I'm not sure fiction is my passion. But the experience wasn't wasted. I learned oh-so-much about plot, characters, flow, pacing, story-telling. So hats off to all of you who write novels. Maybe I'll try again someday, but for now, I think I'll stick to non-fiction.

  5. Writing can be super difficult, right? There's so much to do, so much to think of! Plot twists, characterization, everything else - it can be difficult to keep it all straight. Trial and error is definitely the way to go, although sometimes it's really nice to read craft books to avoid common pitfalls. I can never outline, and that has a lot of problems of it's own. Oh dear. :)

  6. Some good learning there. The most important thing I've learnt about writing is there's always something new to learn! That's why it's so much fun :-)

  7. Always interesting reading about this, but I think you're right a writer learns from personal experience. :-)

  8. I learned how to write better. I think my sentences are stronger now than they used to be.

  9. I used to avoid outlines like the plague, believing them to be evil devices to keep someone from actually writing anything. And while some of that is still true, I have found myself more and more using some pretty crude outlines.

    The first two times I've sat down to write a novel, I've found myself guilty of the first thing you describe. I think I've decided I spend too much dedication to the outline, assuming that can be the entire story, and it's not working. It used to be I would develop a few major events (A, B, C, D, E), but never knew how exactly I got from A to B or C to D, etc. Those details would come out in the natural flow of writing, not an outline. I'm starting to realize now that I need to leave room for that natural flow between A and B, otherwise it seems stinted or jumpy.

  10. I find pacing the most difficult thing to make sense of in advance. i need to get most of an end to end draft completed, before I can see where it flags and where it needs filling out. The other issue that is difficult, without a full length draft, is back story, especially about secondary characters. Each book I've written I have found that some character steals scenes that I didn't expect, and then I need to go back and fill out more of their story because they have become too interesting to ignore.

  11. I totally agree- I'm editing my first novel (2nd draft! Whew!) and logical flow and fluff scenes have been a big part of my 1st draft edits. I think outlining, at least rough outlining, before beginning is easier for me. I have a book I'm reading now called Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland and it has some very good points. Good luck with your queries!

  12. Haha, those "fluff scenes." I know...we want the word count, but we end up having to slash them anyway! Rather humorous!

  13. hi, i found you through julie. i am just starting to write and the idea of a novel seems quite daunting. my mechanics are awful but my heart's in it. i would love for you to stop by my blog and have a look around.
    thanks bev


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