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Ten Things I Have Learned About Writing Novels

Yesterday, the protagonist in my new novel broke out of her comfort zone and attempted something difficult, but failed. She was absolutely certain that she would succeed.

Upon reaching out to her mentor for wise counsel she asks, “What now?” However, her trusted friend gives priority to another question, “What did you learn?”

Life is a great teacher. If it doesn’t break you it will make you.

Since, my friends Angel and Molly are continuing this conversation today, I thought I would turn the tables and ask myself a similar question. “What have I learned so far about writing novels?”

  1. Be consistent and persistent. Write every day. My first career was as a musician. A trombonist to be exact. Developing that skill taught me discipline. To be good at anything…music, art, sports, birdwatching… you have got to work your tail off. This principle means so much to me that it has surfaced in my new book. Molly Sanders is a concert pianist. Practices 8 to 12 hours a day. Think that’s crazy? How good do you want to be? Is a 1,000 words a day too much to ask of yourself?
  2. Ask a lot of questions. A good story begins with a simple action statement. She is on the run. –  He is heartbroken. –  They can never return. Then start asking questions. Oh, that first journalism class when who, what, where, when, why, and how were drummed into my mind. Still works for crafting a good story. Question every event. Interrogate every character. Investigate every scene.
  3. Follow an outline but loosely stick to it. Build a roadmap to get you from point A to B. It’s not important to know how your story ends. A general idea will do. In the early stages of a project, refer to the outline often until it is internalized. Don’t be afraid of those unplanned twists and turns that pop into your mind. Just make sure that your fresh ideas enhance/enrich your plots and subplots.
  4. Welcome your characters into your family and share them with others. At the conclusion of every day, I read the latest developments in my story to my wife. We talk about the characters as if they are family. Since these characters are family, reach out to them. Today, I have got to find a way to help Molly see past her disappointment. There’s a bigger picture, a brighter future. How can I help her see that? Oh, and yesterday, that arrogant Merlin Lewis. I had to put him in his place. Just seeing him get a dose of his own medicine felt so good.
  5. Conceptualize what you visualize. Many years ago, when I was working on building a career as a radio personality, I developed a habit of practicing play by play commentary on everything I saw while driving ALONE in my car. The purpose was to develop the ability to ad lib. Applied to writing, I consider how what I see or hear can be put into words. I watch a lot of movies and think about word descriptions for scenes, action, emotions, expressions, etc. As you observe your world, give thought to how you can put it into words.
  6. Become a story teller. Beyond the elevator speech or painful synopsis you’re expected to compose about your book, become so intimately involved in your story that you can tell it to others. Great stories are retold. If you can’t tell it with emotion and excitement then you would do well to find something else to write about.
  7. Be a sculptor. There is a commonly held theory that you should blaze through your first manuscript and then go back and rewrite. I take a different approach to that practice. I begin my writing day by reading what I wrote the previous day. That’s when I rewrite, shape, alter, delete, add, strengthen. This technique makes it easier when the manuscript reaches completion. Consequently, I perform the first edit on the first time through which makes the second edit much easier.
  8. Analyze the writing of others. I watch a lot of movies. If a character, scene, or plot is strong, then why? What did the writer do to make it work? Conversely, if something didn’t work, why not?
  9. Write first. If you don’t, something will get in the way. Beware of the marketing curse, especially social marketing. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like. DISTRACTION. Checking stats- book sales or lack thereof, website traffic, comments on your blog. TIME BURNER. These things keep you from keeping the main thing the main thing. Write first.
  10. Never give up. Back to my current protagonist. She just lost a major competition that she was supposed to win easily. “Now what?” Quitting is an option but the wrong one. Just WRITE whether anybody is reading it or not. It’s who you are.
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