The following is an essay that Sarah Pekkanen, author of Skipping a Beat and These Girls, wrote for Writer Unboxed, a writing website that I will be adding to my personal resources as I finalize my own novel. I thought her writing tips were very useful – particularly with regard to making sure scenes have lots of tension! You want to make your reader care about the people and the situations in your novel and tension-filled scenarios will certainly help accomplish that.
What I’ve Learned About Writing a Novel
There’s one type of person I always meet at my booksignings: Someone who approaches my table with a mixture of frustration and hope in their eyes. They pick up my novel, but they don’t seem to really see it, because it isn’t my book they want to talk about – the book they desperately want to discuss is the one they’re struggling to write.
They’ve got the best of intentions. They’re smart, accomplished people – but they can’t quite get started. Or they have an idea, and maybe they’ve even written a dozen or fifty or a hundred pages, but then they smash into a mental roadblock. Or they’ve finished a draft, and even they know it’s terrible, despite the fact that their mother loves it. The book they produced is nothing like the book they imagined.
I understand, I always tell them – maybe too well. I’ve been there myself.
For years, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and I penned free-lance magazine articles on the side, but even with all that training, I found writing a novel to be … ahem, challenging. In the same way that running a marathon in high heels, backwards, might pose a slight challenge.
It took me a long time, and a few terrible drafts of books, to pinpoint the source of my problem: I hadn’t studied my craft well enough. For that, I blame conventional wisdom. After all, doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that writers are born, not made? That being able to create a book is a God-given talent, similar to coming out of the womb with perfect pitch? I didn’t know you could learn how to write a book. I figured either you had it, or you didn’t. And I was beginning to suspect I didn’t.
I credit my agent, a sassy New Yorker who doesn’t hesitate to dole out critiques or praise when necessary, with leading me to the light. I’d turned in another terrible draft of a book, and she slogged through it, then she called me.
“I guess I could try to send it out as a character-based novel,” she said. I think it’s accurate to report that enthusiasm was not ringing through her voice. In fact, she kind of sounded like she wanted to shoot herself.
“Let’s wait,” I said. I wanted to give it one more try, and suddenly, I thought I knew how to do it.
Here’s what I took away from that phone conversation: I had my characters down – they were in good shape. What was missing from my novel was plot.
I set out on a quest to learn how to infuse my books with plot. I began by searching for books about plotting, and I bought every single one I could find. The stack still stands on the top of my computer hutch, and if it ever comes crashing down, it might take a few days for them to find me in the rubble – I have that many books. I read every single one, scribbling notes in the margins and folding down the corners of pages when I came across particularly helpful points.
The most important thing I learned is that putting together a novel, for most of us, is difficult – but with certain creative tools, it can get easier. You may never achieve perfect pitch, but you can definitely be taught how to write a book.
The two finest guides I found were Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, andWriting the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read his terrific Writer Unboxed contributions). Here are some key points I learned that helped me write a novel my agent was able to sell:
- Real estate agents have a credo: Location, location, location. Here’s the writer’s credo: Tension, tension, tension. Fill your novels with it. Stack tension into your scenes until it’s as high as my wobbly tower of plotting books. You can never, ever have enough tension.
- Learn the rules for writing a successful commercial novel. Start with a likeable protagonist, give her a goal, throw obstacles in her way, throw bigger obstacles in her way, and then see her through to a bang-up finish. You need to start strong, and finish stronger.
- Turn the books you love into writing courses. Take some novels you admire, a stack of index cards, and a pen. Re-read the books and chart out every scene – the character and the main action – on index cards. Lay the cards out in order and study them to figure out how the author constructed their brilliant works. You’ll demystify the process.
This is just the beginning; the books by Bell and Maass taught me so much more, and every time I re-read them, I come away with new tips. The best part of all? Now I have three novels of my own on bookstore shelves, and I’ve just turned in the fourth to my editor. But it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t learned to plot – and for that, I’ll always be grateful to the authors who took the time to show the rest of us how it’s done.