Is it worth it to print out your entire novel for editing?

My friends, I used to be a doubter about printing out the novel. But now, I am a firm believer. Although it took me a while to get there.

The first time I printed out my entire manuscript, it was useless. One pack of paper and toner cartridge later, I realised the novel needed some major structural changes. These changes included (but weren’t limited to) writing new scenes, extending entire chapters into more chapters, developing characters, inventing new characters, and deleting huge sections of plot.

And I didn’t need to print out anything to determine these changes were necessary. Reading the manuscript on my screen was sufficient to conclude that I needed to blow that Popsicle stand. The changes were so big, they were obvious. It wasn’t an entire rewrite, but it was close.

So, to save paper, ink, and time, I have the following suggestion: If you know what changes to make in your manuscript, don’t print the thing. If you know what prevents your novel from reading like a novel, don’t print the thing. If you have structural edits to make and not line by line edits, don’t print the thing.

Instead, wait.

Wait until you’ve reached the point writing your novel where you don’t know what to do to make it better. When you’ve done the best you possibly can.

Okay, so now your novel is at the point where it’s chilling in some kind of document on your computer completely edited and you have no clue what to do with it next.

And now we print?

No. Put that sucker away. Don’t look at it. Don’t work on it. Do something else. Send to some beta-readers for a fresh perspective. Wait some more. Wait a long, long time, until you can no longer recite the entire manuscript from beginning to end and recall the exact contents of every chapter.

Once you’ve acquired some distance, you can return to your manuscript. But don’t read it on the screen like you have been for these past million drafts. Now print.

I did this last week and it’s been so worth it this time round.

I don’t know if it’s the time away from the manuscript, or looking at it in a different format (on paper instead of on the screen), or what, but mistakes just are popping off the page for me. I believed this wouldn’t happen because I grew up with computers and I have no problem reading stuff on the screen. I didn’t think that the printing copy would take me to a place of editing enlightenment.

But it has.

Since printing my manuscript, I’ve found stuff that sounds awkward, small nit-picky errors, and other hard-to-classify improvements (like wouldn’t it be more logical for the protagonist to think x instead of y in this situation). And even though I’ve read and played with many sentences a million times, the new format is allowing me to pick up how to strengthen sentences I believed were as strong as they could be.

Now my only question is after this draft, will I have to print out the novel again?

My answer: Probably.

As all writers know, it’s never over.

 

Scrivener: A Writing Software Review

I should preface this review by saying that I bought Scrivener with my own coin using the discount given to all winners of Campnanowrimo way back in 2015. Scrivener did not solicit this review and all opinions are my own.

I’ve been using Scrivener, a writing software, for nearly three years now. Originally, it was recommended to me by someone in my university writing club. Once I started using it, I never went back to Word.

Before using Scrivener, I wrote a first draft of a story using Word. However, once I switched to Scrivener, I never went back. Here are some reasons why:

1) Scrivener encourages you to divide each chapter into a folder and each scene into its own file. It is very easy to navigate from chapter to chapter and scene to scene, which is great for editing. Say goodbye to the massive scrolling option that Word would force you to do to get to a pesky little scene in the middle of your manuscript.

2) With Scrivener, you can easily swap the scenes into different orders (say you realise something is better suited at the beginning than in the middle) with a simple drag of the mouse.

3) There is a cute cork board option that lets you outline each scene and move it around.

4) Perhaps most importantly, there is a snapshot feature. This feature allows you to copy and save old versions of your scene indefinitely. And if you don’t like what you’ve currently written to revise the scene, you can roll back to the previous version. I must admit that I very rarely review my previous versions of a scene, because once I know something needs to be changed, it needs to be changed for good. However, my copious snapshots act like a security blanket. It’s nice to know that I’m not just deleting all my previous work and can come back to it. It makes it somewhat easier to edit relentlessly.

5) Formatting with Scrivener is pretty easy. You just hit compile and it compiles your document to a word or pdf (your choice), and then you can see your work in its glory. It will have a header, the page number, and the chapters labelled halfway down the page. Basically while you work on your book, you can read it like a book ought to be read. You don’t have to waste much time ensuring the formatting works and fiddling around with spacing or what have you. Scrivener will do it for you.

Of course, there are some cons to using Scrivener.

1) For the most part, Scrivener is fairly intuitive. However, sometimes it has glitches. Fortunately, the site itself and the general online community have plenty of tutorial guides and how-to fixes. Usually a quick google search will clear up “Why is my header always upside down” and “Why does italicised text compile as underlined text” and the like.

2) Scrivener compiles for word and pdf formats admirably. I just tried the ebook format and it seems like it should work, you just might need to play with the settings to make it look fantastic. Some even more obscure formats don’t seem to work that well. So if you really want your book to compile to LaTex, you might want to look into this. Or just write it in LaTex directly, which if you’re writing a more symbol based book (like math or physics or comp sci or something), you probably already are doing. If you are writing a standard novel, it should work fine.

3) Once I tried to write a university assignment in Scrivener. This worked well until I needed a bibliography. Scrivener doesn’t have a bibliography function. If you need a bibliography that is cited in the text, don’t use Scrivener. Instead, use Word.

 

 

10 Things I Learned about Writing in 2017

1) Beginnings are the hardest part. You have to figure out where to start your story (right as the action is about to happen) and how to seduce the reader to commit to more. And the blank page is intimidating as hell. You might spend more time on the first chapter than anything else, and that’s okay. Once you get over it, it gets much better.

2) Endings are the hardest part (unless, of course, you are talking about beginnings). Trying to wrap up an entire plot is like wrestling a rabid bear. Just as you think you’ve got subdued the beast, tied up all the limbs and muzzled the jaw, a giant paw will lash out and a mouthful of sharp teeth will bite you in the butt. And you’ll have to wrestle the bear some more and now your butt is aching and now you have rabies. Thanks bear.

However, one tip that saw me through my ending was realising that my protagonist had to step up and become the hero. I’m not a huge fan of disappointing endings full of setbacks. Or worse, endings where the protagonist is in the same position as she was in the very beginning (I’m looking at you, second books of trilogies!). That meant my protagonist had to rise to the occasion and triumph (at least sufficiently).

3) You have to get over how people who know you will react to your writing.

For instance, my husband teased me relentlessly about the kissing scenes. It was embarrassing even though he’d directly inspired those scenes (perhaps that’s what made it especially embarrassing). It was mortifying. I turned bright red.

On the other side of the coin, you also have to get over the scenes that people who know you will be shocked by. Since I’m a very anti-violence and anti-gun person, the intensity of my action scenes might surprise those who know me. Oh well.

Also some of your writing will touch on issues that people may interpret oddly. Obviously, your story exists independently of people and events that happened in your life. However, your experiences do impact your art. Still, your story isn’t a carbon copy of your life in the real world. Unless of course, you’re writing a memoir–in which case, good luck!

4) Three things need to be happening in every scene. This advice changed my life. If your scene just is there for one reason, like only setting or only characterisation or only plot, it isn’t good enough. Or worse, if nothing happens in your scene at all! Like your character is sleeping or sitting around being bored. When you first start writing, you may think that your novel should mimic real life as closely as possible. You might end up with tons of these habitual scenes, since you’re trying to understand your protagonist as a human being. Fine. But those scenes are boring. Novels need to be dramatic!

For example, in one scene, you can push the main plot along, hint at an upcoming romantic subplot, and describe an interesting setting. All that together becomes compelling. Suddenly your story begins to read like a real book.

5) Every sentence has a purpose. This only comes along in later drafts when you have the whole work banged out in one document, but it’s important. One sentence needs to lead to the next, which then needs to lead to the next, and so on. If you have two to three sentences saying the same thing, condense them into one. Your writing becomes more focussed, and then the plot moves forward. When a novel has too many filler sentences, it is hard for the reader to ground themselves in the story and know where the story is taking them. Your sentences have to flow like the current in a river, pulling a reader along to the rising action or, at least, the focus of a scene. If you have too many sentences saying the same thing or nothing at all, the writing is stagnant and the reader doesn’t know what kind of journey the book is taking or why they should care. Harsh, but true.

6) Your novel probably will deal with some sensitive stuff or some emotionally charged topics. In the politically correct world we live in, it can be tempting to leave these topics alone for fear of not doing them justice or offending someone. Don’t. This sounds like your story’s about to get real. And that’s what art’s for.

Your characters won’t always make the morally correct choice (if such a choice exists) and sometimes they will be downright offensive. Your characters, like people, are flawed. They make mistakes.I’m not saying to write the most offensive thing possible because you should try to totally get away with it. I’m saying, if your characters aren’t always PC and seem somewhat limited in their views, you as a writer can do a lot with that. Talk about things that are real in a real way. Our world is full of ugliness. Your readers know this. Show them the ugliness, but do it for a reason.

Sometimes you won’t be able to show every aspect of a social issue as in depth as you’d like. It’s only one story. Just do the best you can with the story you have.

7) On a lighter note, this year I learned how to use commas. At least, I learned how to use commas better than I did in days of yore.

Does anyone else struggle with with commas? If we ever covered commas in school, I wasn’t there–either physically or mentally. I vaguely remember some teacher saying “you put a comma where you take a breath.” This works on some intuitive level until it doesn’t.

So, I pulled out the Chicago Guide to Style and read the entire section on commas. Although I’m not claiming to have become some mythical comma guru and mastered every case in the universe, I have become way more confident about their placement. In fact, I’m going to do a series of posts about how to use commas correctly to help others who also get confused about whether to comma or not.

8) Writing without an outline can brings great joy. It’s fun to watch the characters make decisions of their own and come to life in the document and surprise you. However, writing without an outline can lead to drafts without direction and purpose.

Outlines have their time and place. Eventually, as unromantic as it seems, sometimes you have to go through every scene and figure out what has to happen so that you can reach the end. But there is a balance. Spontaneity is valuable. If you have an intuitive feeling that you are heading the wrong direction, you probably are. Hit the drawing board, re-evaluate, and try again.

9) Writing routines are great, but it’s okay to take breaks sometimes. All over the internet, there’s loads of advice about the virtues of a writing routine where you write everyday and don’t wait for an elusive inspirational moment to come. I agree with this. The problem is, I FORGET TO CHILL.

A creative process takes a lot out of you and if you keep working everyday if you are tired, you will burn out. So, you need to unwind. Some people have personalities where their default state is one of chill. I envy these people. They know to watch lots of TV and play video games and don’t take things too seriously all the time. They don’t stay up all night with insomnia worrying about random stuff. They turn off the lights and fall asleep immediately. If you’re one of these people, please. Tell me your secret.

See, I don’t tend towards procrastination. I have the opposite problem. I try to do everything at once. I need to schedule time where I watch bad TV, play Kirby’s avalanche, and google endlessly whether it’s better to own a rabbit or a guinea pig even though I can’t own either because my apartment doesn’t allow pets. If I don’t schedule these things, they don’t happen. And then my life isn’t balanced.

Anyway, if you have my personality type and you read these articles about writing constantly, it’s okay. If you take a breather to chill, you aren’t procrastinating. You actually are helping your writing by making sure you don’t burn out.

10) Twitter has a large writing community. I was hesitant about joining Twitter this year, because of its spammy nature and my shyness and paranoia about posting stuff to strangers on the internet. However, I’m so glad I did. Twitter has a huge writing community where people are at all stages of their journey, and they share their progress and their struggles. It’s great to connect with other writers that are going through the same things as I am.

Minor Characters Aren’t Reference Manuals!

There’s a common character trope that I often read in middle grade and young adult novels. The smart minor character who knows everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

Let me give you an example. This example obviously doesn’t exist in a real novel, but it should give you an idea of what I mean. So, we have a character. Let’s call her Geraldine. Now twelve-year-old Geraldine is really smart. So smart she has a photographic memory and she can memorize everything, including plenty of pointless and not so pointless trivia. Geraldine is usually a friend or ally of the main character and isn’t the star of the show.

So the main character and Geraldine and the rest of their gang are on a boat, and they need to navigate to the treasure buried at the bottom of the sea. How ever will they figure out what to do?

Cue Geraldine.

Geraldine knows all the polar coordinates (she memorized them one afternoon while she was still in diapers) and how to read the stars, so she can navigate them from any point of origin to a mysterious South Pacific island. When the characters finally arrive at their destination thanks to Geraldine, they have to scuba dive down to the treasure chest on the ocean floor. But don’t worry, Geraldine will know exactly how deep they have to go within 10 meters to the bottom to avoid getting the bends. And when they reclaim the treasure chest, and the volcano explodes on the island, Geraldine will conveniently know that the melting point of gold is 1,064 °C  so that the main character knows to dip the chest back into water to save the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo before it is destroyed.

Okay. So maybe like some kids, Geraldine has some obsessions. She is obsessed with the ocean, with geography and maps, and maybe chemistry too to explain her knowledge of melting points. Maybe Geraldine gets nervous and can’t perform physical feats and her nerd glasses break under pressure – all the typical nerd character flaws.

However, besides Geraldine’s not-so-random obsessions that totally serve the plot and nerd character flaws that are totally cliché, she has no personality. There is no reason for her to be friends with the main character – they have nothing in common. She most certainly does not tell jokes. She never makes mistakes, unless she forgets to round to the proper significant figure in her calculations. She doesn’t serve an emotional purpose that connects with any other characters besides the author telling us point blank that they are friends.

This is because Geraldine isn’t a character, she is a reference manual.

“But Geraldine was integral to the plot!” you cry.

No, no, Geraldine was not.

When Geraldine navigated the crew to the island, she could be replaced by a GPS.

When Geraldine knew the dangers of the bends and the melting point of gold, she could be replaced by Google, an encyclopaedia, or a text book.

If Geraldine made a calculation (like how fast the boat could travel in a harsh wind or something), she could be replaced by a calculator.

Characters like Geraldine don’t just serve as some means for main character to achieve their goal. Characters, even minor ones, have their own purpose and goals in the plot. Maybe they want romance. Maybe they want the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo for themselves, muahahaha. Maybe they don’t even want to be there, but they have to be or else the main character will use the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo to enslave their family.

Please notice I’m not saying that smart kids and teens don’t exist. Some kids and teens DO have photographic memory. And some smart kids and teens without photographic memory CAN memorize an obscene number of facts. However, they have other aspects of their personality as well.

Because smart, bookish, nerdy characters are people too! They have passions besides facts they’ve memorized. They have failings. They connect to others. Sometimes they also like things that are incredibly mainstream like popular radio, or cute animals, or reality TV, or epic Youtube fails. They don’t just nerd, nerd, nerd all the time. They don’t.

So, if you must have a character that can recite pi to fifty decimal places, just remember, they are more than that. They are a human being with their own wants and desires, their own strengths and flaws. And if you can replace your character with a GPS, a smart phone, an encyclopaedia, a calculator – whatever – they aren’t fully fleshed out as a character yet. Find out what makes them tick besides your need for the main character to have a walking, talking reference manual. Please. Your readers will thank you.

How I’m Spending This Nanowrimo

This November I decided not to participate in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month). Does that mean I’m not working on my novel? Certainly not. I’ve been working on my novel this month like crazy. All November I’ve been working towards a huge novel-centric goal of my own. It just wasn’t Nanowrimo’s goal of writing 50,000 words in a month.

Nanowrimo’s goal is great for when you are writing a first draft and want to write it quickly. And I love Camp Nanowrimo in April and July because you can set a more flexible goal that can either be the total words you write, or minutes you spend working on your project. The supportive online community of writers in both Nanowrimo and Camp Nanowrimo motivates and inspires me.

However, I have to say this:

I am definitely a fan of Camp Nanowrimo. But the November Nanowrimo itself has never worked for me.

There are a few reasons for this:

 

  1. I’m usually not ready to start a new novel in November. I’m working on another novel in progress. I can’t just write a novel in November and call it a month. I’ve been working through my current novel for many, many months.
  2. Word count goals don’t lend themselves towards editing where progress is slow and the delete key sometimes feels like the only key. I log my progress by the number of minutes I write in a week.
  3. I could write 50,000 words in a month, but I guarantee they will be garbage. And that’s okay if you want to get your thoughts all out in one full swoop during a first draft. Sometimes you have to wade through garbage to find diamonds in the rough. But if I’m just going to have to do a complete rewrite anyway, I’d rather write my novel methodically instead of at the speed of light.

 

This isn’t to bash Nano too badly. If it works for you, it works.

My goal this November is to edit my current novel into shape so that I feel ready to send it to some beta-readers at the end of the month. This has led to some pretty intense rounds of edits. I figured out how to turn my main character into a hero. I figured out my ending. I sat down and analyzed what had to happen to make the book work.

Once I’d “finished,” I gave it to my husband to read. Then he gave me feedback. Now I’m working on strengthening a few more points to improve the ending before I show it to more people.

My goal isn’t a goal of 50,000 words in a month. I have more than 50,000 words for a while now. It’s making sure those +50,000 words are the right ones and fit with the right plot points. It’s rewriting some of those +50,000 words to make them belong to a whole.

Will I make my goal?

Well, November 30th is coming around really fast, but I think I will.

Fingers crossed.

Thoughts On How To Edit Your Novel Part 2

Last week, I wrote down some thoughts on how to edit your novel. Since I’m still editing myself (it never ends!), I have more thoughts on what I’ve learned about the process that I’d like to share in hopes that they help someone else. Of course, everyone’s creative process is different, so do what works for you.

1) Editing takes time. This is perhaps the most crucial lesson I’ve learned from tackling my manuscript. Sure, you can write a first draft in a month or two, but fixing that draft is not easy. You will have to answer questions such as are you consistent? Do you switch days in the middle of a scene? Is your character wearing mittens and suddenly swaps them out for gloves mid-discussion with the abominable snowman? Those sorts of silly things.

Then come the more complicated questions like are your characters consistent? Do they seem to switch personalities part way through the story in a way that can’t be attributed to character development? In one of my drafts, a character ripped his jacket and I had him moaning about a replacement, which didn’t make any sense because he was ridiculously rich. So. Those kinds of things are important too. Character consistency also comes from examining if your character is driven by the same goals throughout the story or if their goals change they make sense.

And then there are more complicated issues like “I want a helicopter search party in the ending, but nobody can drive a helicopter/where does the helicopter come from/how does this scene fit with the others/is this even a good idea.” This sort of issue is difficult because it is vague. You can’t figure out how to write the scene because you aren’t totally sure what the scene is and how it fits with the whole novel. These are tricky. These issues take time to solve. You can’t just happily type in a helicopter search party in ten minutes if you don’t know what the heck is going on. Sometimes you have to think about what best serves your novel and although your instinct might be spot on, orchestrating everything together might only happen after days, weeks, or months of thinking it through.

Also, these character, plot, or general manuscript problems require solving like any other problem. It can help to treat them like a tricky question on your high school calculus assignment by which I mean try, try again, try ten million times, swear, crumple the paper in a ball, moan about how stupid you are – just kidding. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is, mull over the problem in the story. Scribble down a few solutions. Discuss solutions with another person if you’re stuck. If you get frustrated with the problem, put the manuscript away, do something else, get a good night’s sleep, and try again in the morning. Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I put my manuscript away for an entire week. This has never failed me. Once the week is over, I usually can solve the problem with a fresh mind. See my article on the importance of breaks during the creative process for more information.

2) Stuck about whether something sounds good? Read it aloud.

This method is kind of dorky and embarrassing, but sit alone in your room and read your work out loud. Things that are awkward and odd will sound strange and you can figure out how to fix them.

This is especially useful for dialogue. If you can’t say what you’ve written on the page out loud, neither can your character. Speaking your character’s lines will show you what works and teach you how to recognize their voice.

However, this method isn’t just limited to dialogue and is extremely useful for prose as well. The only thing I’ve found better than reading my own work aloud is having someone else read my work aloud. Hearing it in someone else’s voice makes repetitive words and awkward phrases that much easier to pick out. Of course, finding someone willing to read your full +50,000 word manuscript is a pretty tall order, so I mostly end up speaking by myself in my room.

I’ve heard that having the computer read it aloud for you also can work wonders. I haven’t tried this myself (the complete lack of inflection kind of scares me), but I’ve heard that it works for a lot of people.

Since this post is getting rather long, I’m going to stop here. Stay tuned for part three next week!

Thoughts On How To Edit Your Writing

As always with the creative process, there is no right or wrong way to go about editing. However, I’m sharing my thoughts on editing in hopes that they can help someone else. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s great too! Just polish your work to the best of your ability.

When I first starting writing as a kid, I thought that you whipped out a good first draft and then edited for spelling and then ta-da! You were finished. Although this might work for some school assignments, this is NOT how you edit a novel.

Of course, spelling and grammar are important. But when you finish the first draft of your novel, you probably won’t edit those at all for a long, long time. It’s more important to flesh out your characters and plot first and make them the best that you can. This is probably the hardest part about editing your own work: finding your story, staying true to it, and ensuring that it reads like a real book. It doesn’t make sense to waste time with the spelling and grammar if you’re going to rearrange and rewrite entire sections, perhaps even the entire novel.

I’m currently working on the fifth draft of my novel. Over the long process of this project, I’ve deleted entire characters, introduced new characters, and shifted the plot around adding more beef and tightening the themes. When I compare my current draft to the first draft, they barely resemble each other. Sure, the kernel of idea that lead to the novel is there in all drafts, but in very different guises. Of course if I’d planned my novel before jumping into the first draft this might not have been case. However, part of my writing style comes from spontaneity. Sometimes in order to write your novel right, you have to write it wrong first.

When I edited these drafts, I had to ask myself hard questions and rip open the guts of my story. I had to figure out what about the story really mattered. What was the essence of the story? When my reader read my story what did I want them to feel, how did I want them to respond? Readers are always free to feel differently, but it is worthwhile to consider your hypothetical audience and how you hope they’ll feel.

Some writers moan about “killing their darlings.” Each time I had to redo hours of work to rewrite a scene, delete a sequence of chapters, or think out a plot point that didn’t quite work, I didn’t feel devastated. Instead, I was happy that I was strengthening my novel. Once I uncovered weaknesses, they didn’t seem very “darling” to me anymore.

In terms of plot, if you feel that something is lagging or boring, it probably is. I’ve heard it said that each scene should have at least three purposes. So in one scene you could have something that advances the main plot, something cool about the setting, and some key characterization or relationship development for example. Any scene where your characters are doing nothing: brushing their teeth, staring at the wall, doing daily routine type things – combine it with something else or delete it!

It’s common to add these types of scenes, because you want to know everything about your character and show that they have a life like everyone else. However, art doesn’t mimic daily life precisely. Arts accentuates certain aspects to make a plot. Art flourishes on a bit of drama. It’s okay for your story not to read a hundred percent like real life. You want your novel to be exciting, to make your reader gasp in surprise, and to seem somewhat heightened all around.

The story structure of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and conclusion is in itself artificial. It’s your job as a writer to seduce your reader along for the ride. It helps to think about what you like in the books you read. How do you like these books to make you feel? What keeps you turning the pages? Now, I’m not advocating copying other writer’s plots. However, I am advocating copying the feeling you have when you read them through your own writing. How do you do this? It’s up to you.

How To Prepare For Nanowrimo

For those of you ready to plunge into Nanowrimo this year, I’ve provided some links to articles that will help you write your novel. Since churning out 50,000 words in a month is not for the faint of heart, it’s great to have some tips to add to your tool kit.

First, how to start? Starting a novel is one of the most daunting prospects of writing a novel itself. Not only does the page look especially blank at this stage, you can’t build from the last sentences from your last chapter. Instead, you have to create something from absolutely nothing and convince the reader that your story is one worth sticking around for. This is no small task.

However, don’t panic. You’re just writing a first draft. There’s no need to overthink things too much. You will come back and edit the beginning, perhaps more than any other part of your novel. Try writing something. It can always change later.

Here are some great articles on how to start your novel, in case you’re stuck on how to begin:

1) Writer’s Digest’s How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips

2) The Write Practice’s Three Ways to Start A Novel

3) Kim Graff’s Struggling Start: Problems and Solutions for Your First Chapter

3) Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things To Know About Writing The First Chapter

All of these posts provide suggestions on how to make a strong start to your novel. Some provide common problems with beginnings and suggest solutions.

“But wait a minute!” You might think. “First chapters! I don’t even know my story yet! This isn’t helpful at all!”

Well, this depends on your writing style. When you write are you a pantser or a plotter? That is do you write anything you want without planning by the seat of your pants, or do you plan everything out to the last letter? I prefer to pants my novel, since often through writing I get my best ideas. However, I’ve had to learn to plan out my plot somewhat otherwise I end up writing myself up the ying-yang and let me tell you it doesn’t end pretty. Now I do a pantsing-plotting hybrid that serves me well.

How you plan (or don’t plan) a novel is very much a personal choice. However, brainstorming and planning can help you learn about your novel better so that you are prepared once November begins to make your word count goals.

Here are some articles to help plan a novel:

1) Chuck Wendig’s highly comprehensive 25 Ways To Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story

2) Dan Well’s 7-Point Plot Structure

3) Although I’ve never used this method personally, I’ve heard from others that they enjoy using the snowflake method.

4) Stuck for ideas? Check out my post on how to come up with an idea for a novel.

And last but not least, an article after my own pantsing heart that argues against planning:

1) NY Book Editors say Planning to Outline Your Novel? Don’t!

In the end, don’t get stuck in technicalities. Nanowrimo is for a quick first draft, editing comes later. Write frequently, write about what you care about, and write because you love writing and you’ll have written an awesome first draft. I guarantee it.

How to Come Up With An Idea For A Novel

Coming up with an idea for a novel seems a binary notion: either you have an idea of what to write about or you don’t. Once at a party, someone repeatedly asked me how my ideas for my novel popped into my head. Describing how an idea came to me felt like describing how to catch a falling star, abstract and impossible.

However, at some point if we want to write a novel, we need to have an idea to work with and we want to make sure it is a good one. So how do we capture these pesky ideas to begin with?

1) Think about what you like. You are going to have to work on your novel for a long time to finish it, so you want to make sure that your topic is something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, it’s going to be even harder to maintain stamina to cross that finish line.

Try writing a list in a notebook of topics that you like the most. What you like can include your hobbies, your interests, your areas of expertise, and any issues that you feel passionate about. Do you skate? Do you play soccer? Are you crazy about dogs? Do you enjoy obscure indie bands? Do you feel strongly about the environment, or small businesses, or rights of minorities, or workplace opportunities, or gay marriage, or accountability in the justice system, or reducing the stigma about mental illness? Some stuff may be deep, some not so much.

Certain interests can belong to your characters, others to the theme of your novel. For instance, if you really like break dancing, you could write a novel where a break dancing competition plays a key role. On the other hand, if you don’t want to write an entire novel about break dancing, a character could break dance as one of their activities.

Of course, your characters and your novel won’t be a complete clone of your life. For those interests that you don’t know much about, you will have to do research. The point is to write about something that you are passionate about, so that you also are inclined to do this research as well.

2) Think about what you like to read the most. Since I like to read YA novels, I’m writing a YA novel. Don’t settle to write a crime novel if you love reading romances. If you really like both genres, then make a decision between the two.

When you are reading (because you are reading, right?), you should pay attention to things that really work in books and things that really don’t. Do you like fast-paced action sequences? Swoon-worthy romances? Mysteries? Humour? What about your last favourite read made you like it the way you did? What aspects from that book can you use to inspire your own writing?

3) Look to other art forms that aren’t just books. Many writers find music deeply inspiring. It doesn’t have to be super highbrow either. Since I write about teenagers, I find that boy bands suit me perfectly well. Gets me in the zone. Some writers make playlists to match their entire novel and although I’m not that into it, I can see how that could help.

Also, visual arts can be very inspiring as well. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series takes direct inspiration from paintings and compares the setting to different artists’ styles. This works with her main character whose mother was an artist. So try engaging with other art to create more art.

4) Think about what you want your novel to say. No matter what genre you work with, there is some underlying message to a novel. What do you want your reader to think about once it is over? How do you want the reader to feel when reading your novel? Even within escapism, there is a general feeling about a book. Should the reader be sitting on the edge of their chair the entire time? Should the reader feel more empathy towards a certain issue or event? Should the reader feel a certain connection with the work, and if so, what?

Of course, your reader may respond differently than how you anticipate, because that’s art. But the point is to envision how you want people to be affected and from there find the tale you want to tell.

5) Keep a notebook. Often inspiration comes when you are distracted. Sometimes you will be out in the world, going for a walk, on the bus, at work, whatever and it will hit you. You will have a great idea. Write it down before you forget so you can use it later.

Often, the best ideas come to me minutes before I fall asleep right before dreaming. I have to wrench myself awake, switch on a light and jot them down in a notebook by my bedside. When I start my writing routine in the morning, I’m very glad I did this indeed.

6) Don’t romanticise ideas. All good ideas have been repeated in art many times over. The originality in your novel may not come from the idea itself, but from how you use the idea.

Think of all the novels about love. Either the couple ends up together or never can be together. Only two options exist really, yet so much different art is out there about this topic. Or the basic but satisfying plot of hero beats villain. It’s not just that the hero beats the villain, but who the hero and villain are, as well as how the hero manages to save the day. The details colour the worn-out plot into something new.

You will put your own unique spin on your idea, so sit in a chair and think until it comes to you. Don’t worry. Eventually it will.

On The Importance of Breaks During The Creative Process

I grew up learning the value that if you weren’t working, you were doing something wrong. This value isn’t all bad, it’s given me an excellent work ethic and a tendency to treat procrastination as the source of all evils. However, what do you do when you’re stuck on a difficult problem with your project?

This problem could be a tough calculus assignment where you just can’t solve question six. Or you could not know how to go forward in your scientific research – what technique should you use next or why is the technique you are using not working the way you planned? Or you could hit a plateau with your musical instrument where no matter what newfangled warmup or exercises you try, you aren’t getting better at the rate that you desire.

Writing problems aren’t any different. Despite sitting down at your desk every day at the same time and following your routine to the letter, some days you won’t see any progress. Maybe you can’t figure out a particular plot problem. Maybe your craft is suffering and every sentence sounds like it was written by someone in grade two. Maybe you just hate everything you’ve written and feel like you’d accomplish more if you spent your writing time writing CRAP CRAPPED A CRAP-CRAP-CRAP over and over again.

It happens.

So what are your options?

1) Stick to the writing routine and hope it gets better.

2) Take a break.

Now, I see the first option championed everywhere across the internet all the time. If you stick to a writing routine you will see progress. You need to work through the bad days to gain bulk to your manuscript. Blah blah blah.

It’s very true. I didn’t see my book get bigger until I committed to working on it regularly. A writing routine does ensure that you will improve through consistent practice and build stamina towards completing your projects.

However, I’m not talking about those days where you’re like “Hmmm, I have some spare time should I write/play video games/watch TV and eat chips/read/clean the house/cook dinner/pick those socks up off the floor behind the table who put their socks there anyway/call my friend/watch youtube until my brain only outputs youtube videos instead of normal speech/tweet about writing instead of writing… huh I choose all the options that aren’t writing.”

Those days happen to me often enough, and yes, those are good times to fight and adhere to a writing routine. If you frequently give in to distraction, you won’t see progress.

I’m also not talking about when you are using the first draft technique where you just write ANYTHING no matter what and see where it takes you. That’s fine. Charge full ahead with the writing routine.

I’m talking about when you’ve been stuck on your manuscript for so long that it’s been weeks. I’m talking about when you think about your novel and you feel exhausted. I’m talking about when you’ve been editing and last month you wrote six chapters, but this month you can’t even finish chapter 13. I’m talking about when you really need to find a way to kill the villain but you don’t know where to begin and haven’t for months.

In this case, you’ve been applying the writing routine and it’s simply not working. Why not?

Because your brain is tired.

If you go to the gym and lift heavy weights one day, you can’t expect to lift a ton of heavy weights the next day. The rest and recovery is just as important to lifting heavy as the actual lifting itself. In fact, if you do, you’ll probably injure yourself. If you keep doing heavy lifting with your brain when you’re tired, you risk burn out.

Think about baking bread. You have to let that sucker ferment and rise for a couple of hours otherwise the final product is going to be flat and hard as a frisbee.

Writing is the same way.

If you adhere to your routine when you are stuck, and nothing has improved after several days, you are wasting your time. It’s equivalent to banging your head against the wall.

Take a break. Maybe a couple of days. Maybe a whole week.
Rest.
Let your ideas ferment.

Afterwards you will have the added benefit of approaching the manuscript with fresh eyes. Your brain will have the opportunity to approach the problem at full power. You might find that your productivity increases after a break. In fact, you might find that the break doesn’t destroy your writing routine, but restores it instead.