When I started writing my first novel, I didn’t realize the endeavor would lead to a continual quest for knowledge. Not knowing anything about novel writing, I “pantsed” my story until I hit the proverbial brick wall some call writer’s block. Asking myself questions, researching my story’s subject matter, and researching story structure helped me move forward with plot, and my searches often led me to new informational tidbits I hadn’t even thought of looking up.
Pushing Through the Process
While developing the story, I’d ask myself why my characters were where they were and why they were doing what they were doing. Relevant research sparked more ideas. But when that wasn’t enough to propel the story forward, I surfed YouTube, watching countless videos about writing–how to plot, common mistakes new writers make, tropes to avoid, an interview with Steven King, a video by Alexa Donne saying no matter what, my first novel was going to suck. Sifting through Internet images, I found mapped-out plot points. I printed out one such plot map, and this helped me complete my story, especially after I learned about Scrivener writing software.
Once I imported my document into Scrivener, I set up chapter files. I labeled empty files with plot points, such as “midpoint” and “dark night of the soul,” then created a document with notes on potential scenes—what could or needed happen at that point. Scenes I ultimately wrote often detoured from those notes, but my method worked as a rough guide, helping me complete my manuscript. In the meantime, I’d returned to college, majoring in English, hoping I could learn even more about writing. When I wasn’t reading or writing for my classes, I read young-adult fiction.
editing, pitching, genre, and word count
With my 104K-word manuscript finally complete—I’d edited it countless times—I pitched it at the 2018 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. The few agents I pitched asked me to send them my novel’s first three chapters; however, one of those agents didn’t want me to send them to her until I got my word count down to 90K. I learned that each genre has general word-count guidelines. In fact, Writer’s Digest asserts YA novels should fall in the 55-79,999 range–and yes, you can find exceptions to this rule.
While at the writing conference, I bought more books on novel writing, and I learned about novel-writing-specific editing. (This was different from what I would eventually learn in my college editing class, which was geared toward professional writing. Nevertheless, the required critiques I offered other students in my creative writing classes were, in fact, copyedits.) I managed to drop my word count to 94K, but it grew a few thousand words when I interwove throughout much of the story pieces of one of my favorite chapters. Because action drives the plot, upping the pace, I’m hopeful my readers won’t be thinking of word count.
In Conclusion . . .
It’s been about seven years since I started my first novel. Since, I’ve completed another, and I’m finishing up the first draft of my third novel. I finally earned that BA in English, and recently, I placed my first-novel manuscript in the mailbox of a professional editor. I’m eager to read her feedback, which might lead me to chisel more words from the count.
Creative writing classes in college pushed me to constantly write, forced me to read genres other than YA, and these “workshops” had me critiquing and editing other students’ works; they, mine. Professional writing, editing, and “Grammar and style” classes shed insight on the more technical aspects of writing. But despite the benefits of all the hard work I put into college classes, I don’t think I would have known as much as I know now about novel writing and editing had I not sought novel-writing information so voraciously while writing my first novel.
Treasure trove of Tips
Below I list stand-out advice I found while scouring the Internet, skimming through novel-writing books, studying grammar and style, and attending a writing conference:
- Beginnings are extremely important. They should reflect genre, pull the reader in, enable a reader to connect with the main character.
- Avoid beginning tropes, such as your main character waking up in the morning or looking at themselves in the mirror. Also, avoid beginning with a dream.
- Don’t start too early in the story. How do you know? If “the good part” or “the real story” doesn’t start until well after the first three chapters or 50 pages, you may have started too early in the story.
- If you think you’re ready to query after completing your first draft, think again. If the first draft of your manuscript is 140K words, odds are thousands of words would serve you better on the chopping block, or there they’d fall if a professional editor were to look at it, especially if you’re new to novel writing. You could have plot holes, consistency issues, typos, or incorrect grammar. Edit, edit, edit, until you can’t edit anymore.
- More on editing: Several types of editing exist, including developmental editing, copyediting, and proofreading. No matter how carefully you edit your work, you’ll likely miss a typo, so always have someone else, an objective eye, look at your work before submitting to an agent or publisher.
- Know your genre—readers expect certain plot points (and apparently word counts) for each.
- Usually novels have a three-act structure, and within those acts lie certain events–beats, or plot points–that propel the story forward.
- Dialogue should sound natural.
- Dialogue and description should be well-balanced.
- Don’t go overboard describing setting or characters.
- Show, don’t tell, but that doesn’t mean never “tell.” This is another point that calls for good balance.
- Some writers are pantsers, others plotters, and some are both. Plotters outline so they know exactly where their stories are going. James Patterson advocates outlining, from what I learned from his Masterclass.
- Marketability assessment—I paid for this, and although the experience was pleasant, in hindsight I’m pretty sure it wasn’t necessary, and I wouldn’t spend the money on such a service again. (This route might be more appropriate for big publishers.)
- Don’t overuse exclamation points.
- Unless you’re quite good at it, avoid writing dialogue in dialect.
- Limit your use of adverbs.
- Create sentences with active, descriptive verbs:
- Passive: Jamie was clobbered by fear. (Kind of boring, wouldn’t you say?)
- Active: Fear clobbered Jamie’s confidence.
Read about my current favorite guide to novel plotting in this Nutshell Review on Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.