Lately, I’ve seen a lot of debate on what is the more successful way to complete a novel: free form or planned structure. I have always been more on the free form side of things, just because I think it works and I’m horribly awful at sticking to plans. But with my latest novel, it is very planned and structured with an outline that I wrote in less than 24 hours and so far so good! Seeing both sides of this debate and trying them both, I would say that the way that is best for you to write depends very much on your writing habits.
For the writer who has trouble finishing a story:
When I say “trouble finishing a story,” I mean, you either get sick of it, realize there is something wrong with it, or just aren’t sure how you want it to end - whatever the reason, your story just never gets finished and you move onto the next one, which also never gets finished. You’re most likely a freeform writer. You write in spurts of passion and the passion dies at a certain point and you can’t get it back. You need to write a structured story. Write a chapter by chapter outline, all the way through to the end. Make it action-packed. You are moving from one shocking scene to the next. This way, if one scene isn’t perfect, you still are looking forward to the drama of the next one all the way too the end. When creating this outline, consider taking into account my tips on the 3 Act Structure, as a basis before moving into individual chapter outlines.
For the writer who keeps revising her outline and seems to do more planning than writing:
Typically, this problem follows aspiring sci-fi and fantasy writers like a shadow. It’s the world building problem! Your worlds are so elaborate and complicated that you lose track of everything else that already makes it tough to write a novel. My suggestion is probably something that all of you will hate, but it honestly helps - skip the world building. Base it on a real place, maybe some place in history like Ancient Rome, the legendary Troy, or Pompeii. Use features from these places or just play around with a map of a town near you. Make it crazy and fantastical as you go so it can be the world you wanted it to be, but focus on the story. If you’re less worried about believable geography, you’re more likely to actually sit down and start writing. Fix it to be the world you want once the first draft is complete.
If you’re not a sci-fi or fantasy writer and you’re having this issue, I think you could use some practice in free form. Pick your beginning, middle, and end and just write it. If it’s not perfect, don’t worry. Just keep going. Write and write and write. That’s the only way to get out of this problem. Just keep in mind that you’re writing one of many drafts. This is not what the publishers will see, this is for you. It might look like crap, but you’ll fix it later.
For the writer who has written 20 k words and realizes he’s missing a plot:
Aristotle did say, “Plot is character revealed by action,” and he’s right. You need a plot. It doesn’t have to be all action, action, action, but there needs to be something that the characters want, there must be some type of conflict to keep the reader going. Actions are so telling of who a person really is, despite what they have to say. For you, I would suggest, taking a look at outlining, or at the very least, check out my page on The 3 Act Structure. Decide what yourThink about Antigone by Sophocles. While there are very few actions in this play (Antigone bury’s her rebel brother against the wishes of her uncle, Creon, the king, he gets angry, has her buried alive, and in a domino effect, his entire family commits suicide.) Despite what either character has said, the viewer is left wondering in the end who was right - Antigone who disobeyed the king or Creon who only asked one rule be enforced.
Those are the main problems I see in first drafts… If there’s any bad writing habits I missed, let me know and I’ll add it to the list!
Real people are incredibly complex beings whose personalities are built on years and years of experiences and thoughts, not to mention societal factors, biological factors, etc.
Obviously, it would be impossible to put all that into your fictional characters, even if you’re an expert on psychology. So how, then, do you give the illusion of real complexity to a character without their traits coming off as arbitrary (at best) or nonsensical (at worst)?
The answer is scale. While you can design a character’s personality based on ALL the traits that makes a real person as complex as they are, you can pick and choose a handful of events in their life and begin to apply them to the way your character thinks, behaves, and makes decisions. Let’s look at a few examples.
I have been on Tumblr for nearly four years and steadily been finding great accounts related to writing. Thought I’d share some of my favorites for other writers or aspiring writers.
The Electric Typewriter I am convinced that Dan, the curator of tetw, has found and neatly catalogued every good bit of writing on the internet. I could be wrong, but check for yourself.
Last Nights Reading Drawings by Kate Gavino with quotes from readings in New York City.
The Rumblr The Tumblr account for The Rumpus. Their posts, reblogs, gifs, and horoscopes by Madame Clairevoyant make me giddy ever time they come up on my dashboard.
Press 53 A publisher of short fiction and poetry collections based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Their Poetry Wednesdays, Flash Fiction Fridays, and 53-story contests inspire many a sentence and story.
Penguin Classics From the editors of Penguin Books and Penguin Classics, they share quotes, photos, and, my personal favorite, Friday Final Lines. Every Friday, they offer the closing lines of a Penguin Classic.
The Paris Review Curated by their digital director Justin Alvarez, the quarterly literary magazine’s Tumblr is full of inspirational graphics and quotes that link to Paris Review articles, essays, and interviews well worth reading.
Button Poetry Even though they have only been around a little over a year, they consistently showcase new (and incredible) performance poets.
Yeah Write Everything creative writing related. Quotes, book lists, interesting articles and graphics
Electric Literatures Recommended Reading Recommended Reading is released on a four week curation cycle: beginning with a story chosen by Electric Literature, followed by an excerpt from an indie press, then an author recommendation, and finally a selection from a magazine’s archive. Each issue includes an editor’s note written by that week’s partner, introducing you to the work and their mission.
Black Balloon Publishing An independent press based out of New York City. They publish fiction, nonfiction, and memoir and “champion the weird, the unwieldy, and the unclassifiable.” They consistently publish great posts like Can You Identify the Handwriting of These 12 Famous Authors and Daddy Dearest: 10 Literary Fathers and Father Figures to be Glad Aren’t Your Own
Fwriction The online literary journal’s blog, “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.”
Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Although the account hasn’t been updated in nearly 5 months, there are several years of archives with words and definitions John Koenig created for emotions that otherwise leave us speechless.
Today’s Document A little history always gets the words flowing for me. The Tumblr for the U.S. National Archives posts one document daily.
Hello You Creatives A collective of humans being creative. Inspiration, inspiration, inspiration.
Creative Mornings/Findings In a slump? Come here for photos, quotes, projects, and more from other creatives.
- BOOK STORES
Strand Books Based in New York City
Powell’s Books Based in Portland, Oregon
Open Books Store Based in Chicago, Illinois
- FREELANCE & PUBLISHING
- RECOMMENDED READING:
**I will continually be adding to the list
Here’s a handy dandy color reference chart for you artists, writers, or any one else who needs it! Inspired by this post x
All I could think of was
"It’s fucking red"
All writing advice is subjective, but there are some mistakes in writing that WILL ensure your novel’s failure, not only to your readers but to those who might be your potential agent or publisher. I’ve never really come across these mistakes when I used to review short stories for my literary magazine (I might have, I just don’t remember), but as a self-employed editor, I most certainly have come across them—and have made one or two myself.
- Happy Beginnings. Many first chapters must start out with some sort of tension. In the first two books of The Stars Trilogy, they start out with heavy tension. Amelia from When Stars Die is terrified of the impending trials that will determine her readiness to be professed as a nun, and she is also seeing shadows no one else sees. That is when this book begins. In the sequel, Alice is slated to be executed for being a witch. In the most recent book I’m writing, the chapter starts out with my teen protagonist trying to get drunk: he is a recovering alcoholic, too. These are not happy beginnings. You don’t want your story to start out with your protagonist having a perfect life. Something that essentially upsets your character must occur.
- Fearless Story. Something needs to threaten the character throughout the book, whether this is the threat of death, the threat of psychologically coming undone, the threat of losing things the character love, and so on and so forth. A story without fear is not a story at all. Throughout When Stars Die, Amelia’s primary threat is the threat of death: her death and her younger brother’s death. Think about your favorite books and what threatened the characters in these books the most.
- Loaded Dialogue. In real life dialogue is loaded, but readers want to read a more concise version of that dialogue. I didn’t have too many issues with loaded dialogue in When Stars Die, but I did in its sequel. Let me give you a few examples of loaded dialogue, and then how to fix that dialogue.
“Gene, can’t you stop drinking just for one freaking night?”
“No, Josh. You just don’t understand me. You don’t understand what this does for me.’
“I might not understand, but I do know this isn’t the best way to deal with your problems.”
“Then obviously you’ve never had problems before.”
“Obviously you can’t handle your own problems!”
Here is a more concise version:
Josh glares at the shot glass. “Shit. Just stop already.”
“Give me a reason.”
“Do you really need one?”
I look beyond Josh, swirling the vodka. ”Your life’s perfect.”
Josh digs his nails into the palms of his hands, the knuckles whitening. “Screw you, Gene. Screw you.”
- Predictability. Sometimes there are some very astute readers who can already tell what is going to happen. For example, I am an astute reader. I already knew who the culprit was in Cheryl Rainfield’s Stained, but that didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. I also had one reader who adored When Stars Die, even though some of the twists were not twists for her; however, many other readers of mine did not see the twists coming. These twists keep your book from being predictable. Knowing what’s coming can kill the tension.
If you’re struggling with making something unexpected happen, come up with a list of outcomes that could occur in certain situations. Concentrate on description, dialogue, and action. Write what could occur with your description. With Amelia’s character, she often describes things rather negatively because of her surroundings, so when she comes across something positive, the surprise lies in the negative she is still going to find. You can create a twist using your dialogue to shock the other character. Refer to my dialogue example above. Josh is put off by Gene’s ambivalent attitude about his drinking problem. As for action, there needs to be unexpected outcomes that occur. For example, in When Stars Die, you think Amelia is supposed to kill a certain antagonist, but she’s not the one who does it.
- Ambivalence. You love the book when you draft; however, when you begin to revise it, you hold a certain amount of ambivalence toward it. You already wrote the book, so you lose your excitement because you think nothing new can happen. But a lot of new things can happen. Delve deeper into your characters. Flesh them out. Find better ways to tell your story. Look at all characters, including your antagonists, and see how you can make them better. Look at sub-plots and find ways to make them stronger. Revisions are essentially about cutting the fat, about making the book much better than its draft, about trying to make the second draft different from the first. I love the process of revisions, because I already know what revising a draft means.
Message me with any questions or comments. Next post will be on writing a novel without an outline, which is crazy, because I can’t do this. This post will be for those who absolutely do not want to outline, even if they are stuck on their stories.
Ohh, “Loaded Dialogue” is a thing I’ve had issues with (in my writing & in what I read) for years without having a term for it. Thanks!
Excellent point! It’s a common misconception that the job of an editor is to correct grammar. it’s the author’s job to turn in a clean first draft, and from there the editor focuses mostly on content and continuity, with very light grammatical corrections if need be. The author does need to have a reasonable grasp of what they’re trying to say.
However, if grammar doesn’t come naturally to you, and you still struggle even after learning the basics, it may suit you to find a beta reader who is willing to go over the manuscript and help you clean it up. Maybe you have a handy friend or relative, or maybe you’d need to hire someone, but help does exist.
Keep in mind that most, if not all, writers have their struggles. Pacing, plot, grammar, a physical or mental affliction that requires a little extra help. Don’t let any one thing stop you from telling your story.
Body Language Cheat Sheet for Writers
As described by Selnick’s article:
Start at the end. What is the very last thing that happens?
Ask “what causes this?”
Work backwards. Work backwards. Just keep asking yourself, “What causes this?”
Keep working until you reach the beginning.
Seriously, trust me on this. This thing saved my life.