by: Whitney Jones and Julie Tyler
Writing our first novels taught us each ONE BIG LESSON that we will carry into writing a second novel, and that we’re sharing exclusively with Writer’s Dialogue readers! We hope that you can learn from our mistakes so that your novel-writing experience is less… ahem… bumpy than ours!
Hi, this is Whitney and Julie–the gals who run the writing blog FromNothingToNovel. We’re friends from grad school, exercise enthusiasts, writing buddies, and (sound fanfare) debut novel writers!
We are currently on the hunt for literary agents (a process we write a bit about on our blog), but whatever happens, we’re most proud of the simple fact that we did it. We each wrote a debut novel. Whitney wrote a middle grade fantasy, and Julie an upmarket romance.
Phew! It was a wild adventure for both of us, which was full of discoveries, struggles, and triumphs.
I began writing my first novel a month or so after I defended my dissertation and the morning after an odd dream. I woke up and ran to my computer to capture the images before they dissipated into a pre-coffee fog. What I wrote was a dream, yes; but it was also a sort of love letter to the books and poetry I’d written about in my dissertation. This resulted in a story that was an unfocused mess.
It took a REALLY long time to get the draft from dreamy philosophy to an actual narrative structure. I had half of the novel written and had no idea what was going to happen in the second half. It wasn’t until I forced myself to write a novel synopsis, to actually organize and outline my plot, that the novel began to come together in any sort of comprehensible way.
I won’t fall victim to this little (read: HUGE) mistake again.
While I’ve already jotted down a few pages of action and dialogue for my second novel, I’m holding off on writing more until I figure out the actual plot outline. All I know right now is that I’m writing a contemporary adaptation of The Twelve Dancing Princesses for middle grade readers.
To take control of plot, structure, and pacing right away instead of waiting for them to develop on their own (what was I thinking?!), I’ve created a three-step plan, which I’m sharing with you guys!
- List my protagonist’s primary goal as well as small goals for each third of the
- Plan clear narrative action that helps my protagonist pursue her goal in each third of the novel.
- Identify how the protagonist’s emotional growth is influenced by the action and pursuit of goal in each third of the novel.
I don’t want my outline to get any more detailed than this because I like a little bit of wiggle room for my work to grow and develop organically. I suppose that’s a symptom of my fascination with coming-of-age stories. I like to see how protagonists grow and develop into who they were meant to be, and the same is true for the books I write.
My first novel sprung out of an interview I conducted with a close friend three years ago. After typing up interview notes, I started what I thought would be a straightforward process of bringing into being a narrative about two lovers from different cultures who put their ambition before their relationship. Although I imbued their romance with passion and conflict, I forgot to do ONE THING as I wrote:
Distinguish the Characters’ Voices From One Another.
You’d think doing so would’ve been a no-brainer, given their differences, but no. I didn’t think at all about voice until 90 percent of the way in. What was the result?
- One, the characters sounded bland and failed to draw readers in emotionally.
- Two, they sounded like the same
Had it not been for feedback from readers and agents, my manuscript might still be a voiceless mess.
My second novel is about eight people, who share only one thing in common—a thyroid disorder. This time around, I’m pledging to work smarter to create distinct voices for each of them and hopefully save myself from a lot of writing pain.
Before I write a single scene, I’m going to go through these steps:
- Draw up a character profile for each main character: what’s his/her predicament, worldview, goal, age, gender, etc.
- Experiment with dialogue and narration for each character: what “voice” works best for each character?
- Add “voice” descriptions to each character profile: diction, catch phrases, ways of putting sentences together, tone,
- Try “voices” out in actual scenes and tweak as needed
At some point in the drafting process, the voices will become second nature and I’ll be able to set the character profiles aside. But knowing MORE about characters and creating VOICES consciously will lead to a less frustrating experience than I had with novel #1.
But wait, there's more! The best parts of going through the writing process? Going through it together. And the best advice we could give any new novel writer (or writer in general) would be to find a writing partner to share the experience.
We’ve spent hours reviewing each other’s scenes and chapters, exchanging feedback, discussing revisions, going back to our drafts, and incorporating what the other suggested. We even started our blog to explore the craft of writing fiction in more depth and connect with other novelists going through the same process.
Pretty much on a daily basis our Facebook IM exchanges look something like this:
“Girl, I think you should try X.”
“Alright.” [clackety clackety] “What d’ya think now? Is it better than before?” “Girl, yes.”
Without these impromptu conversations, plot and voice might still be plaguing our novel #1 manuscripts. So while we’ve each made a plan to avoid these issues in novel #2, others may crop up. What will we ues to arm ourselves? Our constant IMing system!