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Greetings! Over the last several months, I toiled to complete my first fictional novel. I spent a lot of time editing. It was a challenge to fulfill the word count but other writers that I know don't have that problem. What inspired me? I was watching the movie "Adaptation" and came up with a few "what ifs" of my own. What if a woman got married but was tempted by another man? What if she acted on it? What would be the cost? Then I started thinking about romantic plotlines, lovers' triangles and unique twists which might make my novel different from other romance novels. I decided on a basic story arc and character types.

I sat down at the computer and quickly wrote the first chapter to develop a hook and an introduction that would attract the reader. In my first draft, I concentrated on the characters and events I wanted to include. I condensed a lot into one chapter. It was the bare bones but provided a good foundation.

On the second draft, I was able to break down each paragraph and expand. I slowed down the pace to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the characters illustrated through their thoughts and actions. I had to get into those characters' shoes and express what they were sensing and thinking in each scene. Also I gave more detail about the settings and events. I desired to create drama and emotion. I established an omniscient point of view but decided to begin and end the story with the female lead's perspective.

Novels give writers room to dwell, meander and explore themes through literary tools. Use those analogies, metaphors and similes. Engage your reader with your unique writer's voice.

One fellow writer said that it's best to have a chapter-by-chapter outline before one begins to write. Previously, in short stories and novellas, I would dive in and start to write, hoping the story would evolve independently. However, I learned part of novel writing goes into the preparation before you begin to write your story. Research and organization are tools that can improve your writing. During the writing process, you may introduce new ideas or twists that compliment your original plotline.

One fellow told me the first part of a novel puts characterization and conflicts in place. The second part of a novel moves toward your conclusion or planned outcome. There are many ways to reach the same destination but a well-told story is about the journey.

Lee Masterson is a freelance Australian writer and the editor-in-chief of Fiction Factor. In an article that she wrote, she outlines the following breakdown regarding word counts. She states first-time novel writers should aim for 70,000 words. (see Resources below for more details.)

Micro-Fiction up to 100 words
Flash Fiction 100 - 1,000 words
Short Story 1,000 - 7,500 words
Novelette 7,500 - 20,000 words
Novella 20,000 - 50,000 words
Novel 50,000 - 110,000 words
Epics and Sequels over 110,000 words

You may benefit from a detailed plot grid, showing each ongoing plotline or subplot and the relationships and developments between different characters in the book. Screenwriters may use a grid to establish consistency and continuity.

Well-written novels shouldn't be black and white or written with absolutes. Introduce the grays, the shades of good vs. evil and love vs. hate. Make it specific in detail rather than vague which will add credibility. Use intrigue and clues rather than explanation. Don't spell everything out.

If you were in a singing competition, you would strive to show your best. You would choose songs that were entertaining and had powerful lyrics and rhythm. The same goes for writing. Make the everyday dramatic and use words and rhythms that are effective and interesting. The way you tell it may make or break your story.

Let the ideas flow, be disciplined and diligent, and I believe it will pay off. Setting up a writing time schedule may be helpful. A weekly schedule might be based on time (such as two hours a day) or quantity (like 1,000 words a day). Prioritizing means making time to write if you are serious about it.

Having said that, if you hit a block in writing your novel, take some time away and do something else. Solutions may pop into your head, or you might see or hear something that triggers your thoughts or inspires you in the right direction. I had lunch with a friend and she wanted to hear about my book. She gave me some great suggestions and ideas, which I incorporated into my writing.

After you've written a draft from beginning to end, let the manuscript sit for a while and come back to it with fresh energy and objectivity. Having a fellow writer read your manuscript may be valuable to point out things you may have missed.

You can pay an outside party to edit your manuscript but I wouldn't recommend it for every writer. I would utilize writers forums, classmates or writers groups to get initial feedback. Also you can read their work and learn from them as well.

My idiom of the month is "pack a punch" in your writing. Let your muse work for you. Go for the gusto. Hard work equals success. Good luck!


dmoz Writers Resources
Lee Masterson's article on word count article on plot outlines

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The following comments are for "Musings: by Sandra Yuen MacKay"
by sandra

re: Musings
Excellent essay, Sandra. You've done an admirable job of laying out the bones of novel writing.

I'm sure you know this, but for anyone reading- while this is the most common set of methods, it's not the *only* one. The purpose of learning the rules is so that when you break the rules, you know what you're doing. Be that as it may, once you learn them, you *can* break them. Myself, I don't do a complete plot outline for my novels. I have a sense of where things are going, and I ride that. Whether this works or not isn't for me to say, but once the basics are down, play around and find what works.

But learn the basics first.

Cheers, Sandra. Excellent work.

( Posted by: Beckett Grey [Member] On: June 25, 2009 )

@ Beckett
Thanks Beckett,

Good points you made! Everyone drives their own bus a little differently!
Maybe some stories work best if they are told in black and white. It depends on the writer and the audience.


( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: July 1, 2009 )

back burners and such
I'm glad I found this article. It is especially sage advice for me, since I specialize in partially completed projects. It can be difficult to find the right formula for style, since what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another. Still, I resonate with the idea of getting all the story into what you called a single chapter, and then expanding the paragraphs into more details and subplots. As for one thousand words a day; that's definitely the HARD part!

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

Thank you!
I agree that the writing process is different for everyone. What I suggest here are things that have helped me but I stress everyone is different. For me, the "what ifs" were a springboard, the first chapter was where the writing began and it evolved into something bigger. The 'first chapter' I talked about didn't include the whole story arc (I was a little misleading in the article) but it put things in place that would arise later in the book and I knew at that point where I wanted the story to go generally. If I write something into a story, I think it should have a reason for being there. Yes, I had problems in the middle. Diverged from my outline but the ending remained the same with some changes.
Regarding incomplete manuscripts, sometimes I would write myself into a box. I had to backup and see where my story veered and stagnated. I would go away and do something else or talk to people and come up with an alternative viewpoint, which sometimes meant cutting out some good dialogue for the sake of the overall storyline.
In Stephen King's book "On Writing" on page 149, he says he writes 10 pages (or 2,000 words) a day which is 180,000 words in 3 months which he calls the first draft. I don't know how he does it! Of course, I'm not Stephen King!
As an aside, when I paint I might repaint a large section if it isn't working. For writing, not every word is sacred once I write it down. Editing is a lot of what I do. But the outline helped me stay consistent and on track.
I hope that adds something to what I said before.
cheers, Sandra

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

On writing the novel
Sandra, I missed this and was pleased at finding a treasure.

I just finished a novel and I'm in the grinnnndinnnngly difficult process of shopping for an agent. My thing, for ten years, as been short story writing and humor pieces - probably based in a 40 year song writing trek. The way you go about writing is interesting. Every writer has to find some kind of individual groove to do what we do. Hemingway was said to hate writing so much that he wrote standing up at his dresser - somehow creating a work ethic through suffering, I suppose. :) ( Who here can't identify with that.) When I decided to write longer work. I started with novellas, so I could master expanded plots. Money wasn't really an issue, so I took it on as a schooling process. Now I'm pitching all those pieces.

Then I took the position that I must suffer and get to 100,000 words. That novel was just terrible and sidelined me in a long depression. An author friend pulled me up and started me on this last project. She also acted as my mentor and editor - an incredible blessing - three edits and three rewrites -so far. Whether this 200,000 word epic sells, or not. I clearly have gotten my chops up, to a point, where I know I can sit ,lonely, but engaged in a remarkable and worthy effort.
It would be intersting to have writers, here, share thier process.
Thanks very much,

( Posted by: jonpenny [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

On writing
I came dangerously close to reading Stephen King's On Writing a few years back. I scored a small grant for a writing workshop, and one of the books we purchased was On Writing. Sadly, I moved away before getting a chance to read it. It never hurts to find out how they do what they do, I suppose.

( Posted by: brickhouse [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

Hi Ken,
I'm a little similar to you. I started off in shorter pieces like poetry and short stories and moved into novellas. I'm proud to say my scifi novella "Hell's Fire" is to be posted at at the end of the month. They post a chapter or two a week.
I found novellas hard to shop around unless they are part of a collection. I too finished 2 novel-length pieces, including a memoir and a fictional story, and am also am looking for agents or publication. Let me know how it goes with your search and maybe we can learn from each other. Ochani is a great resource if you need advice or support. When I told him I completed a novel he said, "The question is not if you will get published, but when you will get published. Congrats, you are a novelist!"
Right now I write because I want to. Money is nice but isn't the main issue with me either. Good luck and keep me posted.

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

more on writing
I thought Stephen King's book was quite insightful. I read an interview of his too. He said something like he'd have to stop writing someday because he doesn't want to repeat himself. My first novella took 10 years to write, my first fictional novel took closer to 3 months. I guess I learnt as I went.

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: July 10, 2009 )

ON writing
Well, I did finally write a decent query letter and they are off. Whether they invoke a positive response - we will see. The process is interesting and perhaps we will both master it and share what we have learned. I'll let you know how it goes.

( Posted by: jonpenny [Member] On: July 13, 2009 )

@ jonpenny
Hi Ken,
Congrats! So you took the leap and sent out your queries! Ochani says there's 2 types of writers, published and unpublished. He said, there's a lot of good writers on this website that could get published. I really encourage you to keep on. After Ochani signed his latest writing contract, he was almost immediately immersed in a new writing project.
I'm taking a breather right now. I want to see how my queries go. I didn't send out a lot. Maybe I should have sent out more but couldn't find many companies that were a good fit to tell you the truth. Some publishers don't want genre fiction and many Canadian publishers focus on regional literature.
Ideally, I'd like an agent, but they are as hard to get as a publisher. So I'm working down on my list, top to bottom.

( Posted by: sandra [Member] On: July 13, 2009 )

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