Monday, March 31, 2008

Writing Well: Behind the Completed Novel

My first real attempt at novel writing was DYING TO REMEMBER, the manuscript that earned a semi-finalist spot in the Amazon breakthrough novel contest and recently finaled in RWA's Golden Heart.

Put like that, it sounds like writing a publishable novel comes easily to me.

This is not the case. =)

Writing is a discipline as much as it is a passion. Crafting fascinating, realistic characters, vivid setting, and pacing plot arcs that keep your reader turning the pages for "just one more chapter" is as much a process of trial and error as it is intuitive talent.

Scattered in the wake of every completed novel are discarded scenes, openings re-worked fifteen different times, characters who appeared in a series two books before their time, dialogue that ended up being the exact opposite of what that character would really say, hours of agonizing over the wording in one pivotal paragraph, and a ream of constructive comments from a critique partner who refused to allow the writer the luxury of phoning it in, even once.

The reward for the hours of re-writing, re-organizing, cutting what you love, learning to make every word count, and growing a thick enough skin to put what lived inside of you on display for the consumption of strangers is polished proof that you are, indeed, a writer.

I am honored that my first finished manuscript has been recieved with enthusiasm and interest in the literary community. I can guarantee you that I worked hard for that.

Here is a look at DYING TO REMEMBER - behind the completed novel:

*Begin writing DTR with enthusiasm and excitement.
*Run into plot snag in chapter three and stop writing for a month.
*Painstakingly work through another two chapters and realize that piecing together a full-length novel is an enormous task.
*Let manuscript sit for weeks.
*Figure out what to say next and write another four chapters.
*Serve coffee to someone who turns out to be Celeste Bradley, published author of historical fiction and begin talking about writing.
*Am incredibly fortunate that Celeste offers to read my current (and first!) work in progress and give me feedback.
*Wait on pins and needles for a month until Celeste calls and agrees to meet for coffee.
*Hear her say that I am "the real deal" but that it took until chapter 7 (when I finally started getting comfortable with my characters and my plot) to see it.
*Take in feedback which included the fact that my opening completely sucked, I was relying on cliches rather than pushing for my own originality, my characters were not well-developed, and my setting was non-existent.
*Wanted to defend myself but took it graciously instead and digested it for a few days.
*Realized she was right. Scrapped the first three chapters and started over.
*15 chapters in, figured out my plot and revised earlier chapters to reflect this.
*16 chapters in, found my rhythm for plotting out a novel - for me it's a middle ground between "seat of my pants" writing and a meticulous outline (which won't work for me but is another post unto itself).
*Finished the novel by working steadily five days a week (didn't give myself a set word count goal each day but a set time devoted to writing).
*Figured (erroneously) that it was perfect as is.
*Wrote a query and a synopsis and sent it out.
*Got a request for a full from an editor in less than a week and decided that I would have a sale within a month.
*Learned the hard way that publishers move at the speed of sludge and as an untried quantity, I was low-man on every totem pole.
*3 months, and four rejections later, I heard back from the editor who originally requested the ms. and was told it was good but it was 25,000 words too long and that she would take another look if I cared to edit it.
*Couldn't believe it was possible to cut 25,000 words and still be true to my novel.
*Spent three months doing just that and learned a valuable lesson about making every word count.
*Ended up cutting over 30,000 and re-working the begininng for the fourth time (radical surgery this time!)then re-submitting.
*While waiting for a response, queried other agents (all gave rejections, though some were reluctant and asked to see other projects), started SHADOWING FATE series, and entered DTR in the Golden Heart contest and the contest.
*Semi-finaled in Amazon and was gratified to read in my review from Publisher's Weekly that my novel (the one that started with cliched characters, wordy dialogue, and no setting to speak of) had "emminently likeable characters, perfect setting, and sharp, funny dialogue".
*Finaled in the Golden Heart contest and await the results.
*Am re-working a submissions packet to take to RWA's conference with me, although I will be focusing more on submitting SHADOWING FATE and using DTR and it's finalist status to (hopefully!) open some doors.

The journey from idea to completion was long, intense, and often frustrating as my ideas would grind to a halt, the words would dry up, the characters would stubbornly refuse to speak, or I would hit a plateau creatively and need a firm shove from a critique partner or an editor to get me back in the ring, re-writing yet again.

What I've taken from this first-novel experience is this:

1. I am a talented writer.
2. Writing is a fun hobby but a demanding profession.
3. Moving from good to amazing takes effort, time, and a thick skin.
4. I now know how to construct a well-paced novel.
5. I now understand how to create vivid setting, characters, and plot.
6. Sometimes success comes after you're sure you've failed.

Most importantly: Creating a well-written novel is 20% God-given talent and 80% self-driven discipline that refuses to crumble no matter what obstacles it faces.


  1. Can't you just write mine for me? Come on! Don't be a jerk!

    And yes, yes, yes. I agree with it all, in theory, and as I grit my teeth and repeat soothing mantras to myself, I wish yet again - for the millionth time - that I could have chosen something else to be passionate about.

    The dialogue is the worst part for me. I tend to write dialogue that comes accross as either something from a Jane Austen novel or a film noir. I don't know why, but it's the biggest struggle, and there's no happy medium.

    Reading about other writers going through the same type of issues and angst, whether it be their first or 10th manuscript is always somewhat placating though. Thanks.

  2. Lol. =) You'd hate it if I know you hoard your ideas and your characters and even while you curse them you could never part with any of them.

    Dialogue can be very tricky...I'll be posting my take on it soon. =)

  3. Most importantly: Creating a well-written novel is 20% God-given talent and 80% self-driven discipline that refuses to crumble no matter what obstacles it faces.

    And 5% butterscotch ripple! *grins* Don't forget that.

    Awesome post, CJ.


  4. I think these posts are going to be very interesting and it's nice to see the way someone else works.

    First super congrats on the first novel. I didn't know, or forgot, that Dying to Remember was your first novel, that's great, lol.

    Secondly this post was really interesting to me on the way you went about writing it. My first novel will never ever be published, lol, it was fun and after I finished it I was able to write a second [much better one] but even though I love the main character it's very cringe-worthy.

    What I found interesting about the post was this one:

    "*15 chapters in, figured out my plot and revised earlier chapters to reflect this."

    Because for me I can't go back, the novel would never be finished, I don't know why, if I make it past the fifth chapter and the story is going well then I can't go back to the beginning to change things because then it leads to a whole rewrite and I get stuck. Anytime before the fifth chapter I have no problem changing the beginning chapters.

    I am currently on my third novel, the first in a series and now that I have the plot figured out I'm making notes about what will have to change but the last time I went back to fix plot holes I ended up leaving it for about a year to write my second novel then came back and it's now a whole new book.

    [I would love if you did one of these on how you feel about writing a series and trying to deal with the obstacle that will be threaded through out all of the books without making it take over the plot of the book you're currently writing]

    Also, don't know if we can do requests but since I already started, lol, I'd love to see an example of your queries and synopsis, I know the reason I started reading your blog was because of the query you sent in for the fangsfurandfey contest and I think it would be interesting to see how you went about pitching a book that's not in the same genre/style as the SF books.

    Also, settings hate my life and character descriptions are hard. I am about five/six chapters from completing my third novel [which I do intend on editing and hoping to get published] and I realised that the only thing people will know about my character is that she has a love affair with shoes boots and high heels preferably and that she has curly hair.

    Mais oui, agree with the others awesome post and thanks for doing it.

  5. Butterscotch ripple?? Hmmm...I think we all know it's actually Moose Tracks. ;)

    Jage: great ideas! I'm making a list of topics and I'll put your ideas into the mix. Stay tuned...

  6. How did you find the contests? I have submitted my poems to several poetry contests, but I am shifting my focus back to my novels and would like to enter those.


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