Personal, Writing

How Not to Write a Novel

I will admit that when I started working on my first novel, I really had no idea what I was getting into. I’d written plenty of novella length pieces before, generally between 25-30k words, and I naively assumed that my process for writing those would work for writing a longer form piece. Boy, was I wrong.


Generally, for my shorter format pieces, I don’t think all that much about plot, at least not in a detailed sense. I get a general feel for where I want the story to go, and then I start writing. If there are tweaks to be made along the way, then it’s a relatively easy process to adjust the story to fit the changes. I also tend to write linearly, so first scene, second scene, etc. For shorter pieces, that’s fine. You can basically keep track of all the details in your head, you don’t need to worry too much about the complexity of it because you’re looking to tie everything up in about 20,000 – 30,000 words, and it’s quick to review and edit.

So, my standard procedure was:

  1. Develop a plot line, and tweak as I go
  2. Start writing from the beginning of the story and move towards the end
  3. Edit as I go

Burner was primarily written during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). With NaNoWriMo, there’s an emphasis on getting your word count for the day. In order to reach the goal for the month – writing 50,000 words of new work in November – you have to write around 2,200 words a day. Since I had my plot line roughed out, I started writing those pieces that were well defined. The first scene I wrote was the first scene in the novel, but I quickly figured out that, in order to get my word count for the day, I needed to write the scenes that I knew already. Transitory scenes, ones that weren’t exciting, or ones that I hadn’t mentally fleshed out before starting to write were dead ends for me. I’d sit and write, then delete paragraphs of work and start over. I’d struggle to get a hundred words, much less a thousand. I was losing ground fast. So I ditched my usual habit of writing each scene as they came, and instead started writing what I knew I wanted in the novel. I was skipping around all over the place, but I was writing huge sections of text. That worked for the first couple of weeks, but by the end of week three, I’d run out of stuff that I knew I wanted, and I was still behind on my word count.

So I stopped editing. I started writing like the start of A Tale of Two Cities: twenty words where one would have worked better. Restating points and scenes, spending extra time on things that were unrelated to the plot and unhelpful to the main story. I didn’t care that what I was producing was garbage, I was hitting my word counts. I finally hit 50,000 words the day after Thanksgiving, writing a frantic 3,000 words on the car ride between Chicago, where my folks live and where we’d gone for the holiday, and Indianapolis, where I live. I remember feeling a huge sense of relief that I’d done it, and I put away my laptop feeling pretty content.

Or at least I did until I opened the novel up again a few weeks later. I’d hit 50,000 words, but as I started reading through what I had, I realized that I was miles away from being finished. The scenes didn’t flow, the characters were inconsistent, and there were huge sections that I just deleted, they were so poorly written. I’d finished NaNoWriMo, but I was far from proud of what I’d written.

On top of that, I was burnt out by the process. My daughter was just over a year old, and I was splitting my time between work, my family, and trying to get writing done. It’d left me little time to relax or do any of the many hobbies I enjoy. I felt wrung out by the end, like I’d never be able to write another word again. It was a grueling, intensive process that, at the end, I found I didn’t enjoy.

Here’s what I learned from the process:

  1. Creative energy is an expendable resource and, for me, not readily renewed
  2. Writing from the seat of my pants, without a well-considered plot, led me to make bad decisions about the story and the characters
  3. Jumping around from scene to scene had created a disjointed story with little flow or cohesion
  4. I basically hated everything I’d written

I now had a huge obstacle to overcome: myself. Tomorrow’s post will be about how I got over the hurdles I created for myself and how I learned how to write a novel in a way that worked for me.

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