Thoughts on Writing My First Novel

It’s been well over a year since I’ve posted anything on my blog. Every time I felt the urge to write something, it seemed like the wrong time. I was too busy, or I’d stared at a computer all day and my eyes were tired, or I just didn’t have anything meaningful to say.

So my blog went dark.

But there’s another reason why I’ve been silent here. Whenever I actually managed to get into a writing mood, I made a deliberate decision to channel that creative energy into writing my first novel.

In my high school years, I played around with novel ideas and started a few chapters, but I don’t think I ever got past Chapter 5. Then life happened, and I left the dream behind.

This year, I decided I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from picking it up again. I didn’t care that I had a demanding day job and family obligations. I’d been carrying around an idea for an urban fantasy that was lighting up all the corners of my brain, and I needed to get it down before life happened again. The only question was whether I would have the staying power to achieve it. After all, I didn’t have a good track record.

It helped that I forced myself to set aside a weekly writing time. If I wasn’t going to be able to write during the week because my eyes were tired from all the computer work, then I was going to get my butt in the chair every Saturday morning and try to write one scene. One scene over the weekend, and I was off the hook.

So I wrote. And plotted. And bought Scrivener. And crossed my fingers that my idea wasn’t going to fizzle out. Was this a real book? Or was I just fooling myself? Had I lost any storytelling capability I’d ever had? Could I really fill a bunch of blank pages with 70,000 readable words?

When I reached 16,000 words, it hit me: This was turning into a real book. I started to get excited. But there was so much to still figure out. It helped that I’d come up with some plot milestones to write towards, based on Save the Cat. Without going from Point A to Point B and then to Point C, I don’t think I would have been able to make it. Even if things changed later, those story beats were beacons that helped illuminate my path forward. (Honestly, I have no idea how you pantsers do it.)

I kept writing. And reached 25,000. Then 35,000. I was at the midpoint! I had written half a novel!

Of course, then I had to figure out how to write the second half. Ha ha. The characters had changed the plot I had originally planned, and now I needed to adjust everything. My original ending wasn’t going to make sense. Now what? I started to be afraid again. Was this it? Was this all going to end up being a colossal waste of time?

Then the best thing happened. I went on vacation.

Suddenly my mind was freed up for two whole weeks. I had time to write, and think, and plan, and then came a wonderful moment. I thought of one idea, and then another, and then it all popcorned into a bunch of related ideas. Kernels of ideas everywhere! I scribbled everything down, and by the time I was done, I’d figured out the path for all the remaining chapters in my book. Hurrah!

Now I’m at 46,000 words, and I can say with confidence, enough to finally post this on my blog: I believe in this story. I LOVE this story. And I’m going to finish it. It’s happening.

And then I’m going to let it sit for a little bit. And then review and edit it. And get it beta read. And professionally edited. (Yes, I am an editor, but it’s a true fact that no one can edit their own work.)

I have a personal goal now to self-publish my first novel by May 2020. I can’t believe I just said that!

What I was realizing today is that I never would have made it this far without being part of this blogging community. Writing my creative communication posts was a labour of love that sparked the creativity in me, something that I had worried was dead. And reading all your comments gave me the courage to take this leap.

So thank you, everybody. I might be going dark again for a while, but I wanted you to know I’m still thinking of you. And I would like you to be the first to read the draft logline for my book, even though it won’t be out for a while:

On the verge of losing her day job, a grieving singer who desperately wants success makes a wish that magically turns her life around; but when the path to her dream gig goes horribly wrong, causing chaos in her hometown and hurting the ones she loves the most, she must face the truth of her family’s past before everything she cares about is destroyed – including herself.

Thanks again for being there for me. I wish you success in your writing, and I really hope to see you again sooner rather than later. (But not until I’ve finished this draft. Otherwise it will never get done!)

All the best,

Sue

Seek Out Your Writing Intention…and Engage!

Have you ever read through to the end of a book and still couldn’t figure out what it was about?

Chances are you probably gave up long before that happened.

When assessing any kind of manuscript, the first thing that an editor looks for is the author’s intention. What is the author trying to accomplish with this text? It’s a simple question, but it can be a challenging one to answer.

As an editor, I have found myself lost in the deep space of a manuscript with no apparent way home. I’ve completed first reads on manuscripts that were trying to pack everything into 250 pages. I understand the writer’s need to include all of their favourite shiny bits. But this makes the editor’s job more difficult. Before I can provide any meaningful advice on what to change, move, remove, or add, I need to understand the intent of the work.

While reading through a chaotic manuscript, I was reminded of the classic Star Trek: TNG episode “Darmok.” In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise are trying to establish relations with the Tamarians, who communicate using metaphors. One of the Tamarians, Dathon, tosses a dagger to Captain Picard while saying, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” Picard interprets this as a request for the two of them to duel, and refuses. Dathon was actually referring to a story of two warriors who met and became friends by fighting a beast together on the island of Tenagra. He wanted to forge a relationship with the Federation by fighting an enemy together. Picard had completely misunderstood Dathon’s intention.

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together...

Dathon and Picard intend to confront the beast together…

An author’s intention can be as mysterious to an editor (or to a reader) as a Tamarian metaphor. Please don’t force your reader into a tragic experience. You need to get to the heart of your story and find the core that your audience can recognize and engage with. To help you on this journey, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about various elements of intention. Just think of yourself as the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, where you need to find out your mission before the story can begin.

Overall Purpose

A good starting point for defining intention is to identify your overall purpose in writing the work. There are four main reasons for writing: to inform, to instruct, to entertain, or to persuade. You need to think about your primary purpose. There may be a secondary one, but your primary one helps you determine the best structure and appropriate content for your work.

Most fiction stories (like those on Star Trek) are there primarily to entertain the audience. But they can also serve as moral instruction, or as a method of persuading people to accept a point of view. The trick is to make sure your secondary purpose does not overwhelm the first.

Audience

Who is your ideal reader for the book? What experience are you trying to provide for that reader? You need to construct your work according to your target audience’s expectations so they can understand your intention. Thinking about the age, gender, interests, reading habits, and knowledge of your readers will help you refine your approach.

From a practical perspective, the broader your work’s appeal, the more likely you are to have success in selling your manuscript. So think about your secondary readers as well as your ideal ones. Star Trek has had multi-generational success because it appeals to a large audience (and not just to sci-fi geeks like me).

Logline

A logline is the one-liner description of your work. Blake Snyder discusses how to create a marketable logline in his excellent book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He stresses the need to be able to answer the question “What is it?” in one line. According to Snyder, a good logline is emotionally compelling, creates an intriguing mental picture, and attracts the target audience.

Think about the logline for your work. It’s difficult, I know. But if you can’t explain your story in one line, you may need to look at all the threads and think about how to focus your intent.

Here’s an example of a logline from the Star Trek universe to help get you started:

War breaks out across the stars as the Klingon and Romulan Empires fight for supremacy… with the Enterprise caught in the middle.

(Can you imagine having to write a logline for every single episode of the television show? The mind boggles.)

Personal Intent

I’ve saved the most important piece for last. There was a reason why you chose to spend hours of your life writing or typing rather than surfing the internet or chilling out on the couch. Why did you write? Was your intent to write a famous story that would sell millions of copies? Did you want to tell everyone about a cause that matters to you? Or did you simply want to put your thoughts on the page, and say you have written a book?

Everyone’s intention in writing is ultimately a personal one. Knowing this will help you determine your direction. Maybe you don’t care about marketability, and only want help in writing clear prose. Maybe you want to make sure that your theme is coming across to a wide audience. Know what you want, and tell your editor. Then you’ll be able to collaborate together and create a work that both you and your readers will love.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, stated that “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

Even the fictional crew of the Starship Enterprise had a clear intention: “To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

So what’s your intention? Seek it out, and you’ll be ready to engage.

***

How do you deal with intention? Do you find you have a clear idea of what you would like to accomplish before you begin, or do you figure it out as you write? What helps you to focus your writing?