Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

The Three Stages of the Novel-Writing Journey

One writer’s journey from dream to publication, with all the lessons and setbacks and turnarounds that dot the broken road we travel.

 

A guest post by Jennifer Blanchard

 

Let me guess, you dream of publishing a novel; of your book reaching bestseller status and having raving fans. You dream of being able to make a living from writing and publishing novels.

I get you, because I’ve had those same dreams since I was 13 years old. But getting there isn’t quite as easy as you dream it’s gonna be.

My journey to publishing my debut novel has taken 18-plus years—7 of those years actively working on it, 2 of those years spent on the story I published.

Over the course of my journey so far, I’ve found there are really three major “stages” that you go through:

• Stage 1: Oblivious Dream
• Stage 2: The Backtrack
• Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Sadly, most writers spend their lives in Stage 1, refusing to believe that storytelling has a process and principles that need to be in play. They just keep dreaming, keep writing, oblivious that they’re heading nowhere.

You’ll also find a good number of writers in Stage 2, where they spend most of their time learning what it takes to write a novel. But never actually writing. Or if they do write, they don’t finish. They don’t go all the way.

It’s Stage 3 everyone strives for, but few actually get to. Because it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, sacrifices, practice and letting go.

Here’s how my journey unfolded over the three stages:

Stage 1: Oblivious Dream

I spent a good 13 years of my life in this stage.

This is the stage where you’re enamored with the dream: being a bestseller, having a book signing, going on a book tour. The stage where you have no idea what you’re doing, but you either don’t know or don’t care. So you sit down and start writing, to see what comes out.

I did this hundreds of times over the 13 years. Starting, stopping, starting over again, starting something new, never getting anywhere.

Back in 2008, I wrote my first novel. Pantsed the whole thing. And then I spent another year writing and rewriting and rewriting. Still not getting anywhere.

I was frustrated. I was pissed off. I had a ton of stories bouncing around inside me, but I couldn’t figure out how to make any of them work on paper.

I so badly wanted to get my stories out there. So I decided it was time to learn what I was missing.

Stage 2: The Backtrack

I call this stage the Backtrack because this stage is really step one in the novel-writing process. But 99 percent of writers skip over it and think they just intuitively know how to write a novel.

This is the stage where you make it your mission to become a student of story. To go back and learn what it takes to write a novel you can publish.

I had taken every fiction writing class I could get my hands on. Read every book under the sun about writing novels. And yet I couldn’t make my stories work. So I knew there had to be some vital information I was missing.

At this point in my journey, around the beginning of 2010, I went on a hunt.

And that’s when I found an article by Larry Brooks on story structure. I swear I heard trumpets in my head. It was like all the gaps and holes left by my previous fiction education got filled in.

All stories must have structure, they must have specific plot points occur at certain times and places in the story. Boom.

A life-changing moment I will never forget.

For months I studied every article, every eBook, everything written by Larry Brooks that I could find. I immersed myself in story. I dedicated myself to it.

I watched movies every day, sometimes twice a day, breaking down the structure, the scene missions, and really trying to wrap my head around the whole storytelling thing. I read books, studying the structure.

And toward the end of the year I had a thought: I need to teach story structure to writers, so they didn’t waste years of their lives writing stories that go nowhere.

Even though I was still learning, I knew I was a step further than the writers who were coming to me for help. And I kept expanding my education, reading more books by Brooks and anyone else I could find who aligned with Larry’s teachings (Randy Ingermanson, Syd Field, etc).

I even hired Larry to analyze two of my story plans, to see if I had anything viable yet.

My first story needed a lot more development, but he said my second story could work and be interesting, if I fixed my Premise.

Stage 3: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

This is the stage where you’ve learned enough and absorbed enough storytelling information and had enough practice at writing, where you are now able to turn out stories with publishing potential.

I spent three years in Stage 2, before I was able to move into Stage 3 (and I’d add that you never really leave Stage 2, because storytelling is a life-long journey, and you have to be committed to always being a student of story). Larry’s analysis of my story is what allowed me to move to Stage 3.

Because now I was getting somewhere. Now I had an idea that was viable, if executed properly.

I spent the next two years working through how to properly execute this story. But for the first time, I didn’t write several drafts in order to find my story.

Instead, I used a specific story planning and development process that allowed me to work through all the details of my story, including structure and scene architecture.

Once I felt really good about my story roadmap, then and only then, did I sit down to write the draft. When I finished it two short months later, I knew I finally had something with potential.

Of course, there were still edits and tweaks that were needed, but I was close. Much closer than I’d been previously.

I worked through a specific revision process to make sure the story worked, beginning to end. And then I gathered a team of people to help me with the final polish: an editor and Beta Readers.

I did it, I made it to the end. I finished a story.

And the story was actually good.

On June 16, I released this story into the world. My debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available on Amazon. Jennifer proper cover

I credit this achievement to my willingness to move out of Stage 1 and work through Stages 2 and 3, the ones that most writers never get to.

There’s a hell of a lot more to writing a publishable novel than you even realize. My entire process, from story plan to published novel, only took me about 7 months.

But I had 17 months (plus 16 years) of fear, doubt, Resistance, perfectionism, procrastination and distractions to contend with. All of this wrapped around the 7 months it actually took for me to finish this novel.

Is my debut novel perfect?

No. No such thing. There’s always something you can do to improve it. Always some way to make it better.  But it’s a novel from my heart, shaped with a keen understanding of craft, and my beta readers tell me its good.

Some say, really good.

At some point, you have to call it done.

You have to say, I’ve made it through all three Stages, this is my best work to date and I know my next one will be even better.

Some Super-Secret Tips No One Ever Talks About

As you’re working through these three stages of the novel-writing journey, here are some super-secret tips to help you out. These tips come directly from my journey to publishing my first novel.

These tips relate to things no one ever really talks about, but that are a huge part of the novel-writing process:

Work On Your Mindset—writing a novel takes strengthening your mindset, because if you don’t believe in yourself or believe you can do this, no amount of effort will bring you success. You have to make your mindset match your goal, your desired outcome.

Writers tend to have a lot of negative, limiting beliefs about what’s possible, and you have to transcend all of that to get where you want to go.

Set Intentional Ways of Being—when it comes to your writing goals, you have to be intentional. You have to know where you’re aiming to come even close. And you have to take consistent action every single day. Intention is a huge part of being successful.

Commit to the Process—because it’s definitely a process. And you won’t get it right the first time, the second time, maybe not even the third time. But if you’re committed to the process, you’ll eventually get it right.

So many writers give up when things get hard, when all they have to do is take a step back, reevaluate and be willing to let go of what’s not working.

Have Tools for Busting Through Fear—and distractions, and self-doubt, and perfectionism, and procrastination. All of these things are gonna come up while you’re working through your novel-writing journey, and if you don’t have tools to help you deal with them, you’ll get stopped in your tracks.

What stage are you at on your novel-writing journey?

Jennifer proper cover

About the Author: Jennifer Blanchard is an author, award-winning blogger, and story coach who helps serious emerging novelists write, revise and launch their books.

Her debut novel, SoundCheck, is now available. Read more about it HERE.

Want to know what it takes to go from Story Idea to Published in 7 Months? Contact Jennifer through her website to register for my upcoming webinar.

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Let’s Talk About Dialogue

A guest post by Art Holcomb.

 

Here is a truth about human beings . . .

Before there was writing, there was talking.

Dialogue is the most trusted and most human aspect of story. Sure, we love the action and the conflict, but what we seek in a story in order to make it real for us is what the characters actually say to each other. We often skip to that part in a novel because we find it the most relate-able part of any story. It’s what we most naturally connect with.

Dialogue is the vital part of every narrative.

Without it, all you have is description.

As a writing instructor, I spend an extensive amount of time going over the dialogue in my students’ work. . . . Because dialogue IS tough.

Common questions are:

• “How do I make it sound less like writing and more like talking?”
• “How do I decide what needs to be said and when?”
• “How do I manage the subtext?”
• “Is dialogue where I put in all the exposition?”

What’s important to note is that these are all issues which plague writers at every level. Getting the dialogue just right is the difference between a story that grips the reader and one that gives them a reason to lose interest and slip away.

But exactly what is dialogue’s role?

Let’s start with what I think is the single most important tool you can have on the subject:

The Purpose of Dialogue is not to TELL the story.

Because dialogue is really the vehicle for character, theme, mood, plot conflict, mystery, and tension.

Instead of using dialogue to try to spin your tale, we talk about dialogue as the way to:

Deliver the character: We learn more about a character by what they say and how they say it than anything other than their ACTIONS. Dialogue fills in the sketch of whom these people are and why we should care about them in the first place. Perhaps the most important decision a writer makes is not just what the individual characters say, but also when they say it and whether they should say it at all.

Entertain: Think about the last book you read or movie you watched. I know I often skip past to the dialogue when I find myself losing interest in the writing. I think I intuitively think that dialogue offers me the best chance to RECONNECT with the story.

Dialogue is how we hear the humor and the angst, the way we access the emotions, the way we gauge tension, and understand the level of conflict at any point. All these things add to our enjoyment of the story. Dialogue is the equal partner to action; it is the way we fill in the blanks about the characters we long to understand and bond with.

Point to subtext: Dialogue hints and insinuates. It informs and enlightens. It persuades and sways. It whispers its little secrets to our willing ears. And it confirms or denies our judgments about what we’re reading in a more powerful way than action ever could.

Create anticipation: Dialogue is one way the audience is made to “work for their supper”. No story wants to give the reader everything. Mysteries, clues and innuendos are so often first offered through dialogue. And that keeps the audience guessing about what’s coming next.

And if they’re engaged, they’ll keep reading.

So, I have my students keep in mind the following:

1. Each bit of dialogue must have a mission and a goal within the scene. If it’s not doing one of the four points above, CUT IT!

2. Less is truly more. You need to learn how to make your words powerful. Choose just the right word at just the right moment and you’ve made that important character/audience connection that will keep your fans coming back time and time again.

3. Dialogue should seem easy and natural, but that’s not the same as simple. It takes much more workmanship and craft to write a short, potent passage than a long one. If more writers understood this, we’d probably have less mediocre trilogies and more powerful individual novels.

4. Always make it accessible: write “said” and “asked” most of the time, instead of using hissed, begged, stammered and the like, and use the accompanying action to reinforce your meaning. It will make a much greater impact.

5. Dialogue often controls the pace of the story. Just as shorter narrative sentences produce a sense of urgency, short dialogue moves the story along. Short dialogue also increases the tension in the same way that mystery and suspense can be produce by drawing out the conversation – it’s another way of making the audience work for the experience. Dialogue can be your story’s gas and brakes – use them to your best advantage.

6. Exposition is like cinnamon. In small amounts, cinnamon is a delightful little spice. But did you know that, in large doses, cinnamon is a deadly poison! Treat exposition in the same way. Don’t let one character carry the exposition ball. Toss it around and let it be truly conversational. Your characters should never be eager to give their precious information away in one speech. Remember: a little can go a long way.

7. “On-the-nose dialogue – where the character says exactly what he feels and exactly what he wants – is the antitheses of subtext and can ruin a story. Meaning should always exist just beneath the surface. Each time one of your characters speaks, there are always these twin questions:

• What did s/he mean to say?
• What did s/he really mean?

8. Good dialogue is almost always more about what’s not being said than what is. And the best use of character is revealed in what the character DOESN’T WANT TO SAY versus what he is willing to reveal – what vital tidbit is s/he keeping from us? Remember: what the reader really wants to know is EXACTLY what the character doesn’t want to discuss.

9. Character is also exposed to the reader by the manner in which one character talks to another. The relationship and the depth of characters should always be at stake within these individual exchanges.

10. You can always learn a great deal about the character being spoken to by the way s/he is being addressed by others. It tells you what the speaker thinks of the other person, and that informs you about their relationship.

11. Each line of dialogue contains the voice and personality of the speaker, just as in real life. The way the character speaks should give the reader some of the information that they crave on that vital subconscious level.

12. Make your characters carry the theme – since theme is always important to them in one way or another. Often, the writer doesn’t really understand the theme of his/her own work in the first or even subsequent drafts. When you’re lost about theme, go back and see what arguments your characters are making. Are they advocating for something, challenging a stance or just espousing a position outright? Each story is really an argument of a sort, and the different characters often represent different aspects of that argument. Let them talk– and learn from them.

13. While dialogue itself is not action, the act of speaking is. And all characters are undertaking some kind of action while they’re speaking. They’re kicking the dog, sharpening a knife, pointing a sword, looking shiftily at the floor or staring deep into the other character’s eyes! Use that to inform, punctuate, re-enforce or even deny the truth of what’s being said;

14. Remember: Each character, in his or her own way, demands to be heard – and everything in their voice contributes something to the story!

15. As the prolific writer and teacher Chuck Wendig reminds us, Story has its own secret laws. One of them is that dialogue needs to be authentic but not necessarily real. Dialogue must sound real – genuine, and convincing – but is never the same as the way that people actually talk – with their long pauses, hems and haws and “you know what I mean” phrasing.

16. Regardless of whether you are a novelist, short story writer or a screenwriter, every work you create is essentially a conversation that YOU are having with one person – the reader! Write like you’re talking directly and honestly to that other person and your writing will never sound like . . . well, like writing.

17. Most important, know where to end it. Dialogue has a beginning, middle and end. Learn to know which is which.

I’ll be teaching more on dialogue as well as giving the Keynote Address at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society Conference in Los Angeles on June 26-28, 2015.

Go HERE for more information.

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