A NOVEL JOURNEY
Writing & Publishing A Novel
Writing a novel is hard.
Amazing revelation, right? But why it’s hard, that’s a little more complicated. For some, it’s coming up with the perfect idea. For others, getting the right words down on the page. Perhaps it’s pacing a story well or crafting characters that feel real. Maybe it’s developing a meaningful theme. Heck, naming the book is its own gargantuan struggle.
For me (in addition to some of those things listed above), it’s a feeling of accomplishment. I’m a short story gal by nature who loves the moment of finishing. Flash fiction is my favorite because I can write a draft in one sitting.
Novels, though, are an entirely different beast. For me to keep going, I need a finish line. Chapter markers are my best bet, and because I’m a very visual person, bullet journals give me that satisfying moment. I create a chapter tracker (stolen from one of a million trackers online – Pinterest is my best friend) and color in each chapter marker once I’ve completed the writing. It’s a tiny celebration but allows me to see how far I’ve come and what I need to do to complete my first and sloppy draft of the novel.
Whatever your reward style is, make sure you celebrate along the way. There are many tiny wins on your way to that novel.
Writing space (at least for me) is sacred.
I’d love to be one of those roving writers who can settle into a coffeeshop, a park, or wherever and write. But my brain isn’t wired that way. People distract me. Cute puppies distract me. The way the sun filters through jagged leaves onto the cracked sidewalk distracts me. You get the idea. So when my planning is done and I’m ready to finally jump in, I become a creature of habit and feather my writing nest in preparation.
I start all writing projects by hand, typically on a very high-tech notepad from Target with fineline colored pens because colored lettering is just pretty. Eventually I migrate to the computer. An entire novel by hand would be exhausting and a great recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome. But each chapter starts with good old pen and paper. Writing this way slows me down. I’m more thoughtful when I don’t have the handy delete or autocorrect in action.
Next is keeping track of the time passing in my novel or story. I scavenge Michaels craft store for outdates planners on clearance and pirate the pages. They are the perfect spot to jot down events as they happen. And there’s also always scrap paper as well to jot down future bits or reminders for consistency’s sake. Otherwise, I try to keep the space neat and clean from distractions. It’s shocking how suddenly even the most boring of chores start to look appealing when faced with writers block. In my little nest, though, I give myself permission to forget the messy house, food prep for the week, or stacks of grading in favor of being a writer.
Now it’s time to write that book. Easy peasy.
I didn’t come up with this system. Save the Cat is a brilliant way to organize and plan based on careful study of popular films and stories by Blake Snyder. There are workshops but also templates online. I created my own template after reading the book which is also a great resource. Save the Cat tests the waters of a story. Translating my outline into this template addresses all the big questions I need answered before I commit to a project.
What picture does the opening create for the reader?
What is the catalyst that changes things for the protagonist?
What are the internal and external obstacles?
What are the stakes for the protagonist?
What are the side stories and how do they affect the primary narrative?
What leads up to the ending?
What does the resolution do for both the protagonist and reader?
Full disclosure, my end product will not fit perfectly into this template. Things change. Each story is its own beast. (As is Junebug who is now climbing up my pantleg.) But considering the movement of the story, understanding the working parts, and having this Rosetta Stone in hand lets me confidently – and finally – get to the fun part.
I started writing short stories when I was four years old.
It’s a hard habit to kick, so when my stories grew too big for a few pages I literally had no idea how to tame a larger piece and just started writing page after page without any planning. What I ended up with was a jumble of words that resembled a labyrinth or discount bin at Target more than a novel.
I needed some semblance of a plan.
But when I tried neatly outlining by hand on a legal pad, that didn’t work either. My brain could wrap around individual scenes but not in any reasonable order. I ended up crossing out and restarting half a dozen times. Finally, I realized the answer was simple-ish. One closet door and stacks of post-its later, the real planning had begun. Here’s how I outline – part one.
Color-coding helps. It enables me to sort ideas into the three acts of the novel. (See my Save the Cat post for more info.) I can move around the plot points, attach them to each other, and even code further with quick visuals for subplots, too.
For me, planning backwards makes sense. I need to know how things work out so I can subtly drop clues – and sometimes misdirection – throughout. The post-its allow me to constantly reassess how well those hints are spaced out and where they need to go.
Finally, the post-its make the project feel more manageable. Be still my short story heart. Each square is a scene, not a chapter, and I can focus my energy on perfecting these moments while always keeping a cautionary eye on the full landscape of the novel.
There are a million different ways to outline, but a door and post-its somehow work for me.
Writing reminds me of cooking.
Only I write much better than I cook or bake. Still, I’m often drawn to recipe boxes in thrift shops or discount stores because they are compact, whimsical containers for my brainstorming notes.
I plan my stories by their ingredients.
Typically to get started I explore four categories. Each one helps me envision the world splayed out in front of me and sidestep major problems. I also need this all to come together before I begin the actual storymapping. A pantser by nature, that just doesn’t work for me with longer works. So, with a bit of whiteout and a few recipe cards, I figure out the following:
Characters – Who are the important people? Honestly, I rarely start with the primary character. Often I’ve seen someone walking or talked to someone in line at the grocery and feel like they need a spot in this world I’m creating. The hero (or anti-hero) arrives after secondary folks take their place, waiting for the star attraction.
Places – Where should the different pieces of the story take place? I lean heavily on pictures for this one, studying details and trying to create the keystones for the story. This is a great moment to mimic moods and tone with those locales.
Events – What are the major happenings that change or shape the story? Thinking about their ripple effects lets me see the big picture while also adding secondary storylines. I imagine them as rocks in a pond and the rings those rocks make when dropped become the beats of the story.
Imagery – What are the governing images in the story? Even though this one isn’t a novel in verse, I am forever changed by the idea of an image system, something I first picked up through Cordelia Jensen’s awesome article. (SO excited to take a mini-course with her at Highlights this summer.) Click HERE for the full article but essentially establishing images and language that mesh and mean something help establish a lyrical continuity throughout the work.
Once these ingredients are all dumped into the proverbial mixing bowl, it's time to cook the story and plan ahead.
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.”
Stephen King said it better than I could have. One of my favorite parts of beginning a new project is that it forces me to read more which may sound counterintuitive. But I assemble a stack that fuels the novel process in a variety of ways.
Research – Popular wisdom advises to write what you know, but we all have blind spots. In this case, botanical folklore fit the bill for an area I haven’t read but might provide more depth and texture to my story.
Voice – Books in the appropriate genre help with tone and vocabulary. For this book I need to revisit a few of my favorite MG authors like Kelly Barnhill, Katherine Applegate, and Cindy Baldwin, all with beautiful authentic voices.
Inspiration – This particular story intricately links nature to storytelling, so I hunted down magical poetry collections and not only writing about animals but instruction on how to draw them. (I love doodling in the margins of my stories, but I’m a stick figure gal so a little help doesn’t hurt.)
Writing a novel certainly takes time, but don’t forget to carve out reading space so that your toolbox is full!
I love magazines.
The old-fashioned hold in your hands, roll up and stick in a purse, ink smudges all over fingers kind. My addiction began with Highlights. Then there was Seventeen that published short stories by Joyce Carol Oates and Jodi Picoult alongside the best back to school clothes. I embraced my inner edginess with Sassy, and now Bella Grace and Breathe are scattered through the surfaces of my house.
This is how I write.
I forage for images, moments, inspiration, ripping out pages and tossing them in a silver mesh bin on my desk along with my own iPhone pictures extracted with a handheld printer. When it’s time to write, I grab handfuls and piece them together like a puzzle. Sometimes I already have the inkling of a story, and the images flesh out that inkling. Other times, I wait for something to make sense.
So, the picture above is my novel, or at least the novel to come.
It’s a mess right now occupying the space of a person at my dining table. I’ll take notes tomorrow. Outline. Invent names for people and places. Try to make sense of an idea that’s been rattling around my head for some time paired with this pile. It’s sort of wonderful, the moments before the novel is set and stone when anything could happen in the pages I write. Literally, anything.