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The Why & How of Writing a Novel (Part 1)

Since I’ve started telling people that I wrote a novel, the questions I get asked most often (besides, “What’s it about?”) are “Why?” and “How?”

It’s really amazing how much those three little letters can capture – as in, “Isn’t that incredibly difficult?  Do you really think you can be successful as a novelist?  Do you really want to deal with the rejection and public humiliation which could come with putting yourself out there like that?  How do you even get started on such a massive undertaking?”  (Okay, perhaps those are my own insecurities reading into things, but please, I know what you people are thinking!  Authors are crazy, we understand.)

So as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the answers to these questions. 

Obviously, every author has their own motivations and methods, but for me, it comes down to a few simple things.  Let’s start with the easy part – the “How.”

Okay, writing a book is not exactly easy, and quite frankly, I spent much of my life being completely daunted by the idea.  I remember one time in middle school I sat down and decided to write a book, and then 30 pages later my story ended and I was just like, “Oh.  Well, I guess it’s a short book.”  What I learned then is that writing a novel – much like anything else – is as much about planning as it is about doing.  You have to be organized, you have to know where you’re going, and you have to have plan for how you’re going to get there.

For me, this translates into a very detailed outline.  It’s a strategy I’ve used all my life for term papers and projects, and even managing my everyday life (I love to-do lists!).  When I have something huge that I need to get done, the only way I can do it is to break it down into manageable pieces and attack them one by one, until finally, one day, miraculously, I’m done!

So when it came to Stitch, the first thing I did was plan.  Who are these characters?  What are they struggling against, both internally and externally?  What is the world they live in like, and how did it get that way?  What are these characters ultimately trying to achieve?  What’s going to get in their way?  How are they going to overcome these challenges?  These questions gave me an idea of what I wanted to see happen and the overall arc of my story (which in this case is planned to be a trilogy, so I was looking both at the big picture across all three books, and more specifically at what happens in Book 1).

Then to prepare to write Book 1, I first broke that few paragraph synopsis into milestones – Rising Action, Turning Point(s), Crisis, Twist, Climax, Resolution, etc.  Then I broke them down further into chapters, e.g., “Ch1 – Alessa’s in the library studying, she can’t concentrate since (as usual) she’s thinking about the ghost.  Also introduce features x, y, z about her character.  She gives up on studying and decides to go find Janie.”  I did that for EVERY CHAPTER.

And here’s where I made my first mistake – I didn’t plan enough.  When I wrote my outline, there were some sections in the middle of the book and at the climax that I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with, and so I was vague in the outline and just figured I’d know what to do when I got there.  And guess what – I didn’t.  So these parts of the book ended up being the weakest parts, which required me to later revise heavily to fix them.  In retrospect, I should have waited to start writing until I figured it all out.

Also, another thing I wasn’t specific enough about in my outline was timing and schedule.  I had planned a pretty thorough outline of what happened to all of the characters before the book began, but for some reason, I thought the timing of the rest of it would be clear as I wrote.  Well, it wasn’t – I kept having to go back and check on which days Alessa had which classes, and how many days had passed between event A and event B to make sure the timing was right, etc., etc., and sure enough I later found some inconsistencies which drove me nuts and were difficult to fix since I now had 300+ pages to dig through to figure out where I went wrong.  Lesson number 2: put days and times on everything that happens in your chapter outline.

So besides those two roadbumps with not planning *quite* thoroughly enough, once I had my outline, things were smooth sailing.  I wrote Stitch while working full time, so each week I would devote my entire weekend to writing 3-4 chapters, then I would send them out to my beta readers (thank you guys!!) and implement their revisions the following week whenever I had time in the evenings.  In this manner, I was able to finish the first draft in a little under 4 months (I did my planning over the Christmas holidays and had a completed manuscript by April).  Then I gave myself a few weeks to decompress and try to forget my writing so that I could came back to revise with fresh eyes (and in the meantime I caught up on reading 15 of the best YA books from the past two years over about 2.5 weeks disguised as “market research” – it was a fantastic couple of weeks!).  Now here I am in June, finishing up my fourth draft after some big revisions (which could have been avoided with better planning!!) and getting ready to launch this thing.

So that’s the “How.”  And since we are pushing 900 words already, I’m going to save the “Why” for next time…

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