Although I knew writing a novel would be hard, I’m going to be honest and say I didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would really be (stupid right?!). Before I embarked on my writing journey, I assumed that, as long as I planned, outlined, and did a little character development, my novel would just fall into place. I was wrong. Obviously.
Now, a year and one and a half drafts in, I am realising that my character arc is weaker than I would like, my subplots are one-dimensional and my main character is, well, boring. BUT, only through actually writing, growing and learning, have I come to this realisation. Sometimes, you just need to make mistakes, to realise where you are going wrong.
With that said, I thought I would put together a short blog post detailing some of the major things I’ve learned, in the hopes that I and others won’t make these same mistakes (again).
1. Character development in VERY important
Although I knew some character profiling was necessary, I became so excited and bogged down with my storyline, my setting, and my three act structure, that I cast aside arguably the most important aspect of novel writing; character development. Your characters are key to your novel as they are the driving force behind the plot. Likewise, character arc, character relationships and characterisation all deepen and add layers to your story, which, without these elements, will fall flat. Don’t make the same mistake I did! Spend hours, if not days/weeks figuring out your characters. Trust me, you will thank yourself later.
2. Writing the first draft is actually the easy bit
Vomiting up 2000 words a day is actually not too bad, because as long as they hint at your plot, who cares how bad they are. And they can be REALLY BAD.
A first draft is meant to be awful – it’s merely a vessel for you to throw down all of your ideas and thoughts. It may not be as coherent, deep or well crafted as you want it to be, but it will be a very good starting point for you to develop from. The following drafts – the ones where you start to look at your novel critically – are where the hard part begins!
3. That being said, just because you have a first draft doesn’t mean you have a good story.
I repeat. It does not. In all honesty, when I began my second draft, I ended up cutting about 20,000 words, deleting what I thought would be my main scenes and adding in another 20,000 words and several new plot elements. And I am still unhappy with the shape of my story so far. Sometimes, you can get so bogged down with certain scenes and characters, that you want to keep them in, even if they are irrelevant. Don’t. They add nothing to your plot, and although you spent hours writing them, they will only hinder you in the long run. Oh well, onwards and upwards!
4. No amount of planning and research will leave you fully prepared for the task at hand
I’m a list kind of girl. I like to be organised, often to the point that it cripples me. There are so many elements to writing a novel, that it can feel overwhelming and frustrating, so it’s tempting to go into full planning mode and try to micro-manage everything. Which is impossible. As a first time novel writer, you can’t learn absolutely everything by reading articles or books, or writing lists, outlines and templates. Yes it can help, but the only way that you will actually learn is by writing. I have learnt so much this past year, and although I’m feeling disheartened by my novel so far, I know that this is a necessary learning curve that will only make my writing stronger. I’m also super excited to explore all the possible ways that I can make my novel better!
5. Time and patience will lead to objectivity
Don’t worry if you go through days, weeks or months where you lack the motivation to work on your novel. Having a break from it can sometimes be a help rather than a hindrance. It’s easy to get so attached and over-excited about your novel that you overlook major plot holes or problems. Having a break from your novel can help you distance yourself, thus allow you to analyse your novel for possible problems more objectively.
6. The drafting process is not always clean cut
I always thought that I would have a first draft, a second draft, a third draft and so on, but this isn’t how my journey has panned out.
My first draft was 55,000 words, because I stopped short of the ending (I had too many plot holes to write a coherent one, hence wanted to fix these before continuing. I did have a rough idea of how it might pan out though).
The second draft, of which I am now 33,000 words in, has highlighted to me numerous problems that need fixing before continuing with the drafting process. I have therefore decided to stop mid-draft, and return to the outlining and character development stage.
So, In essence, I am, let’s say, only one and a half drafts in, even though I am on my second pass at writing. It’s likely that you will pick up on major errors as you write your drafts. Don’t feel the need to carry on until the end. Sometimes it’s better to iron out the problems, than to carry on just for the sake of finishing a draft. Whatever works!
Of course, I have learnt an awful lot more than the above, but it would be almost impossible to highlight every single one, as I am learning new things every day. I hope that reading this post will encourage you to keep going with your novel, even if you are somewhat disheartened with it. Mistakes, wrong drafts, major plot holes and errors of judgement are all part of the journey. We will get there in the end!
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015
“Two women; two different worlds.
Emma is a struggling mother who has put everything on hold.
Nina is sophisticated and independent – entirely in control.
When the pair meet, Nina generously draws Emma into her life. But this isn’t the first time the women’s paths have crossed. Nina remembers Emma and she remembers what Emma did . . .
But what exactly does Nina want from her?
And how far will she go in pursuit of it?”
Although I bought Her at a recent book sale, I first saw it advertised on the tube on my way to work. I was instantly attracted to the intriguing tagline: “You don’t remember her, but she remembers you.”
It is pegged as a thriller – my current favourite genre, so when I saw it at the sale, I picked it up immediately and bought it without even reading the blurb; rebellious, I know!
The design of the book is awesome, but sadly, the ‘highlighter yellow” doesn’t photograph well. I did my best though…
The tagline is metallic, hence you can’t see it very well in the photo, but it looks great in real-life. The inside cover is as cool as the outside, with reversed out quotes on the left and the publisher logo printed on the right.
The book is written in stunning first-person present, which results in a fast-paced, immediate and wholly absorbing narrative. Set in modern London, the novel focuses on ‘frenemies’ Nina and Emma, two middle-class women whose lives are soon entwined, no thanks to Nina and her relentless lust for revenge. Lane’s writing evokes perfectly the bourgeois lifestyle, complete with snobbery, and the often-destructive need to keep up appearances.
The novel is narrated by both Nina and Emma, in alternate chapters. Often, Emma will narrate a scene, and immediately after, Nina will narrate the same scene but from her P.O.V. One would be wrong to assume that this re-telling gets repetitive and boring; quite the opposite is true. It is interesting to see the contrast between how the two girls feel toward one another and how they feel about certain events. It also offered a chilling insight into Nina’s mind. By structuring the novel this way, Lane manages to portray Emma’s ignorance toward Nina’s true motives, resulting in steadily rising tension, as she is dragged further and further into Nina’s web of deception.
Although Lane’s style is quite wordy, the words are well chosen, and the description is vivid. She manages to evoke perfectly, not just setting and character, but also the superficial, poisonous society in which the women live. When I first began reading the book, in one of the earlier chapters, Emma lists off lots of (rather fancy sounding) names. At first, this annoyed me – I was never going to be able to remember all of these names, let alone keep up with what was going on in these character’s lives. BUT I soon realised that Lane had cleverly used this to further emphasise Emma’s hectic, and often shallow lifestyle.
Lane does an amazing job at creating tension throughout – often, I couldn’t put the book down as I was desperate to find out the awful thing that Emma had done. The one (very tiny) criticism I had when I initially finished the book is that this ‘awful’ thing, the one that had inspired Nina’s eventual retribution, seemed very minor, and not very awful at all. I didn’t understand why Nina hated her so much, and I definitely didn’t think it warranted Nina’s horrific final act of revenge. Despite this, the more I think about it, the more I realise that maybe Nina wasn’t as mentally stable as I first believed. Perhaps Emma’s actions had affected her more than I initially thought. This is the only way I can justify her overreaction to Emma’s wrongdoing.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Her. I loved Lane’s writing style, the book was fast-paced, absorbing and un-put-down-able. I would very much recommend this novel and look forward to reading more of Harriet Lane’s work!
Has anyone else read this book? Let me know what you think!
Hodder & Stoughton 2015
“Four days into a five day singles cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, the ageing ship Beautiful Dreamer stops dead in the water. With no electricity and no cellular signals, the passengers and crew have no way to call for help. But everyone is certain that rescue teams will come looking for them soon. All they have to do is wait. That is, until the toilets stop working and the food begins to run out. When the body of a woman is discovered in her cabin the passengers start to panic. There’s a murderer on board the Beautiful Dreamer… and maybe something worse.”
When I stumbled across this novel at a book sale recently, the overall design of the book (my copy has fancy purple-edged paper, an attractive design, and a matte finish cover), along with a quick read of the blurb convinced me to add Day Four to my (already heaving) shopping bag. Although the above synopsis suggests that it is a murder mystery novel, one would be wrong to classify it as such – the murder mentioned is only one small element of this paranormal thriller.
Second image sourced from http://carabas.co.uk/tag/monthly-book-recommends/
Only after I bought the novel, did I realise that it was the sequel to Lotz’s previous book, The Three. Although it is marketed as a ‘stand alone’ story, (reviews suggest that the links between the two are loose), I debated long and hard as to whether or not I should buy and read the latter first. The decision to dive straight into Day Four was made mainly because the blurb intrigued me so, but also because I wanted to figure out whether or not it was worth spending more money on an author that I had no previous experience of reading.
The book is mainly written in third-person, which happens to be my least favourite tense. Despite this, Lotz’s writing style is enjoyable – she writes simply, and her use of description is vivid yet sparing, with no unnecessary words or extended descriptions. Lotz sets the scene well and I found it easy to imagine the cheap and cheerful Beautiful Dreamer. Unlike a lot of novels, the pacing was perfect – the sense of despair aboard the ship increases gradually as life on-board begins to get more and more unbearable.
Although I enjoyed the overall narrative of Day Four, Lotz’s use of characters disappointed me somewhat. Instead of having one or two main characters, the novel had several, all of which took it in turns in being the view-point character. Each protagonist had several chapters dedicated to them throughout the novel, which made it hard to follow what was going on. Just as soon as you got into one character’s storyline, the chapter ended and another began, along with either a new character storyline or a continuation of one which had happened several chapters back. Thankfully, each character has a nickname which appears at the beginning of the chapter (‘the Devils Handmaiden’ for example) which helped in navigating the chapters, and also added another level of characterisation.
Because of the extensive character-hopping, I found it hard to become attached – I didn’t find myself ‘rooting’ for anyone in particular. Although each of the characters seemed ‘fleshed out’, their development and backgrounds appeared to offer no real depth to the plot. I believe the novel would have been equally as entertaining, if not more so, if it had focused on only one main character.
Day Four is my first experience of reading a supernatural thriller so I was excited to see how Lotz would interweave supernatural into the novel. Overall I was a little disappointed – although the sporadic paranormal events were creepy there was very little build up to them. I had read some reviews where reviewers had described the book as ‘terrifying’ so was really expecting to be scared out of my wits! This didn’t stop me from enjoying the book as a whole though.
The twist and the ending had promise but were not as chilling as they could have been. I was left feeling a little confused as to what had actually happened. This could well have been intentional – the ending is perhaps meant to be ambiguous and echoes the confusion aboard the boat.
Although some of the elements of the novel were a little disappointing, I really enjoyed reading Day Four, so for that reason alone, I would recommend it. I looked forward to reading it, and it had me hooked right up until the end. I also enjoyed Lots’z overall style, and have read some rave reviews about her other book The Three, so will be purchasing and reading that in the near future!
Has anyone else read this book? Do you agree or disagree with my comments? Comment below!
When you first begin your initial research on how to plan and write a book, there are countless useful blogs (listed at the bottom of this post) and articles on the elements that make a good story, in particular:
- The three act structure
- The use of three disasters
- Conflict (of which there are many types)
- Character arc and premise
- Goals (story goals, life goals and scene goals)
In isolation, the theories relating to the above are pretty digestible, however, they do not work on their own. Each theory interweaves with the intention of coming together and creating a well thought out story with a clear purpose. The complexity of this is overwhelming and personally made me want to tear my hair out.
Being a designer, I like to visualize things, so one morning when my head felt like it was going to explode, I whacked out a pen and began to scribble. I was on a mission to work out how each of the following theories slotted together to create the bigger picture, and to find a way to convey this in the simplest way possible. This is what I came up with. (Please note, this is based on the three act structure).
And this is it jazzed up and redesigned a little for you guys…
This graphic aims to give an overall picture and act as reference for those of you who need a friendly reminder of how all your planning fits together. Further planning tools and printables will be provided for each of the sections to further assist your planning process at a later date.
To those of you who are new to the writing world, I will dissect and explain the graphic in more detail below to aid understanding. Those of you who are already familiar with what it all means, feel free to take it and use it whenever you need a little reminder or clarity.
Acts, disasters and scenes
The three act structure is generally the main structure that your novel will follow. It is a well known and respected structure, used often in novels and play writing. Each act has a specific ‘purpose’ which will be discussed in further detail below. Each act is also made up of smaller scenes. Each scene takes the protagonist one step closer to the story goal. Within the three act structure there are the three disasters. The disasters again have a specific purposes.
Act 1 and first disaster– Act one is roughly one quarter of your story and should set up the story and introduce the reader to the characters and the world in which they live in. It should also introduce us to the problems that the protagonist needs to solve.
At the end of act one comes the first disaster. This disaster acts to commit the protagonist to the story (he knows what he wants, his goal and he goes after it) and bring him to the point of no return.
Act 2 and the second and third disaster – Act two takes up approx. 2 quarters of your novel. The first half of act two (the second quarter of your novel) should see your protagonist’s reaction to the first disaster and begin his quest to the goal. The second disaster strikes at the end of the second quarter (half way through the second act). This disaster is bigger than the first one and acts as a major set back to the protagonist reaching his goal. The third and final disaster comes at the end of act two. This forces a decision/ a change of mind-set that will set up the third and final act.
Act 3 – Act three presents the climax, resolution and presents whether the protagonist reaches his story goal. It is not always a bad thing if he doesn’t, as throughout the process he could realise that what he thought he wanted, is not what he needed. Act three ties up lose ends.
There are three kinds of goals; story goals life goals and scene goals.
The story goal is what the protagonist wants the most and the problem that he needs to solve. This could be an external physical achievement such as graduating, or internal such as a change of mind-set or attitude.
The story goal does not only affect the protagonist. it is likely to affect the rest of the characters too. For example, if the protagonists goal is to save the life of his wife, but he fails, her family, friends and children will also suffer the consequences. When the stakes are high, the readers care more about whether he achieves it.
The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal. For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist. He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.
Each scene within a story must have a purpose. This is where scene goals come in. In each scene your character must want something, which is then met with conflict (see below). Each scene acts as a step towards the story goal.
The role of conflict
As the graphic suggests conflict comes not only as the three major disasters, but is also present at scene level. Scene level conflict is directly related to scene goals, because it acts as the opposing force.
Conflict could be one of two things: internal or external. Internal conflict may mean your character is battling internal emotions or feelings. External means he is up against something physical such as another person, the weather, time etc.
Also bear in mind that conflict does not have to be anything huge. It could be as minor as your protagonist missing the bus – even such a seemingly insignificant event will produce a setback, pulling the character further away from his story goal.
Be sure that your character does not lose or win all battles. There needs to be a mix of both highs and lows to ensure tension and avoid predictability.
Put simply, your characters arc is the journey and changes your character makes between the beginning of the story and the end of the story. Your characters begins at point A, and ends at point B. ‘Stuff’ must happen between these points that incite and create this change. If there is no journey, you will find it hard/impossible to progress your story.
Veronica Sicoe offers a detailed explanation of different types of character arcs here
James R Hull offers an interesting insight into the difference between growth and change here
K.M. Weiland. explains in great detail how to write different types of character arcs here
What is a premise? There are diverging opinions on premise, what it is and how useful it can be. The following explanation is my own interpretation of it and what I see it to be. The premise as I understand it and as I refer to it in the graphic, is what the protagonist learns throughout the book – the end result of his character arc. Examples such as ‘Lifes too short to worry’ ‘If you love her let her go’ or ‘I am good enough’ to name a few.
It is important that you don’t get too bogged down with trying to find a premise that is moral and deep, or forcing your story to fit around a premise from the start. You may start with the premise and go from there, but equally you may not even know exactly what your character learns until you finish the book. What is certain and important is that your character will go through changes throughout the course of the book, and this change is a vital element to consider in the greater context of your novel’s overall structure.
I hope you find the graphic useful, and it would be great to hear your comments!
Everything I know I learnt from a variety of valuable sources (listed below). Undoubtedly, I will be returning to many of these sources time and time again for further guidance. Check them out!.
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.
An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.
This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.
This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:
- Your novel as a whole
- Each of your three acts
- The chapters and scenes within the acts
By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.
You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.
I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.
You can create your own outline by following the following steps.
- Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
- Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
- Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes or chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference.
- Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to your novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should, however, have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
- Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.
Once you have figured out all of the above, grab a large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on Word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign.
And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!
There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:
- You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
- You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
- You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!
Any questions, feel free to comment below!
We’ve all done it; you’re casually browsing in a book shop (online or physical) when suddenly, BAM! You spot a book that instantly draws you in. That looks like my kind of book, you say to yourself. A read of the synopsis confirms your initial thought. Perfect. This book is exactly my cup of tea! So you buy the book (along with another five or six because you struggle to choose a favourite).
Why should I care what my book cover looks like? My writing speaks for itself.
Granted, you might think the quality of your book and writing is what sells – and of course, you aren’t wrong there. But let’s not forget – your reader has to actually read your novel in order to realise how good it is. In order for them to get as far as reading it, they must be attracted to your book in the first place.
Got a jaw-dropping and intriguing synopsis? Great! But remember, people will only scan the synopsis after they’ve been drawn to the jacket itself. This, along with the name of your book are the first things that potential readers will interact with. Only if both of these elements are appealing will they read the synopsis, and then buy the book.
Cover design can help to place your novel in a genre, thus make your book appeal to your target audience
Next time you’re in a book shop, go to the section of your favourite genre and have a look at the cover designs. Chances are, although they are not identical, they will look similar and will have particular graphic elements. For this reason, although not a hard and fast way of differentiating genres, a lot of books can be identified through their outward appearance.
For example, crime novels often have large, sans serif type, ominous photography and dark colours. Romance novels generally demonstrate pastel colours, script fonts, and images of women or a couple (see below).
How often have you picked up a novel in a book shop purely because it looks like one I’ve read before and enjoyed. By placing your novel visually into its intended category, you are more likely to appeal to those who are most likely to want to read it.
Bad cover design will make you look amateur
Self-publishing a novel is hard, hence it’s easy to finish the writing and editing stage and think you’ve reached the finish line of your journey. I mean, your book’s written (FINALLY), it’s void of spelling and grammar errors (well let’s hope so ay) and it’s ready to be exported and uploaded. But then you realise. Your book needs a cover. Oh, i’ll just whack something out on Microsoft Paint, that will do the job, you say to yourself.
So you quickly bash out a cover and publish your novel. Hooray! You sit back and wait for the millions to roll in, along with emails from hundreds of agents and publishers who want to publish your next novel. But no. Nothing happens, and you wonder where you went wrong.
Although I do not condone the mockery of other peoples book covers (it’s a bit mean) there exist countless websites dedicated to mocking bad book jacket design. Much like being on the worst dressed list as a celebrity, no writer wants to find their designs featured on these sites. It is bad publicity and can lower your credibility.
Put bluntly, even if your writing and editing is flawless, a bad cover design will make you look unprofessional. And if the cover looks amateur, people may assume that the writing and content are also below-par.
When self-publishing a novel, you will be aware of the need to market yourself and your novel. In order to do this, it might be helpful for you to brand yourself. Take the bestselling author John Green as an example. Below are a selection of his books.
Not only do they instantly highlight his writing style (humorous yet personal), they all look very similar, which may inadvertently lead to more book sales. If I’m a John green fan in a book shop and I see a book that looks like his, I’m more likely to be drawn to it, thus buy it.
If you are intending to write several self-published novels, all of a similar genre, it could be a great advantage for you to have a consistent cover design style (by using the same typefaces, layout and illustrative style). This is especially important if you intend to write a series, as you will want all of the books to hang together visually. Author branding isn’t necessarily as complicated as it sounds – it could be as simple as placing an author logo-type onto all of your e-book covers (like Karen Rose’s books below).
If you do this, with any luck, readers who have previously read your novels will recognise the style and author brand, hence automatically assume that they will enjoy reading this novel as much as they did the last.
Free advertising – mention other books by you
Again, if you’ve written or intend to write more than one novel, the cover of your new novel can be a great place to market your other works. A simple ‘Author of INSERT NOVEL NAME HERE” or “New novel from the author of NOVEL NAME” flash can direct readers to your other works, which may be of interest to them. You can even include a link to your author website or social media pages. Free advertising FTW!
People like pretty things
How often have you bought something just because you think it looks nice? Too often? Don’t worry, you aren’t on your own! Chose a notepad purely because it had a cute picture of a cloud with a smiley face on (even though it’s one of those perfect bound ones that are hard to open)? Definitely done that! Bought a cupcake just because it will look nice on Instagram? Definitely done that too!
People do the same thing with books and will often buy a novel because they think that it will look pretty on their bookshelf/nightstand/Instagram.
And some other points…
Thoughtful cover design can help reinforce themes/foreshadowing/the twist
Although not necessary, you can utilise the cover design in order to strengthen some of your underlying themes. You can even use it to foreshadow the twist.
It will look good on your author website
This point speaks for itself really – make sure your cover design is something that you would be proud to put on your author website.
Put simply, designing a cover is fun. You’ve spent days, months and years crafting your perfect story, so go for it and spend another few hours creating the perfect book cover. As a self-publisher, you are lucky – many authors who are published traditionally, don’t have any say in what they want their book jacket to look like. So embrace the freedom, challenge yourself and create something that you are well and truly happy with. You might even surprise yourself with your creativity!