Things I learned Writing Pulse

Tue, Jan 19, 2016

I’m a regular reader of Chuck Wendig’s blog, TerribleMinds, and one of the things he does every now and then is gets guest posters to talk about what they learned while writing a novel. Because I’m not cool enough to appear on his blog yet I figured I’d steal his idea and write about it on my own blog anyway. I’m not going to go into publishing or design at all on this, and try to keep it purely about the writing. Those things can go into another post.

Sooooooo here we go, the things I learned writing Pulse.

1. You don’t have to get it right on the first try

Pulse started as my attempt at NaNoWriMo in 2014. I’d written a lot of stuff for myself before then. I’d taken a course on grammar. I’d read two books on writing, and countless articles and blogs. I had written out a full synopsis for the story. I was ready to go. Then November hit, and I started writing. Two weeks in I’d hit 30,000 words, and while I was happy with my progress I was not happy with my story. At all. I hated it, in fact. I loved the idea, but the story itself just felt rushed to me.

So I decided to restart the novel. Halfway through November I trashed all the chapters I’d written, did a rejig of the plan, and started writing again. I only made it to 10,000 words before giving up. It just didn’t feel right. I got depressed about it, and didn’t want to write. That was my first attempt at NaNo, and my first failure. I was dejected about the story, and didn’t know what to do.

So I stopped writing that story. I sat down, planned out a different story, and a few weeks later started writing that one. It wasn’t until a few months later in January that the solution to Pulse came to me. It’s not a single story. It’s too big for that, and there is no way I could give the proper perspective within only 100,000 words. That was the day I decided to split it out into a trilogy.

But I didn’t start right away. No, I did something else, which leads into the next thing I learned…

2. A complete plan makes writing 1000x easier

In the past I’d written rough outlines, usually in the form of a one page synopsis. I thought this was preparing well. It wasn’t. This didn’t let me know how I was going to fill a book. This didn’t show me the ups and downs of the novel. This didn’t show me character arcs, or sub-plots. So what I did this time, instead of diving right in to the writing, was read. I read as many books as I could stomach on planning, but one in particular held my notice: Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks.

This book has become my bible. While it’s quite wordy and has a few too many examples, the structure inside is the best thing I’ve come across as a tool for writing. I won’t go into details of the plan, you can find it elsewhere online or just get the book and learn it yourself. I also can’t guarantee it will change your writing as it did mine. All I can say is that it worked for me. Well.

Now my plans are thorough. They tell me everything my characters are doing, and why they are doing it. I can now get a lot more intimate with my characters, and know everything about them, and so can have them act in a more realistic and believable way when these obstacles are thrown in their path. I spent two weeks perfecting the plan for Pulse and then dove into the writing.

3. Alpha readers are amazing

Nothing is better than people who read your novel. You need other eyes on it. You’re too close. You can’t be objective. We all get this in beta reading, but what about someone who is picking up your mistakes along the way? What if you’re heading in the wrong direction? This is where the alphas come in. Every time I would finish a chapter I would post it up on Google Docs and share the link with my two readers. Within a day or two I would have comments from both of them on what they thought about it.

This was fantastic not just as a tool for understanding my story, but also staying motivated to write! Nothing stirs the loins of the inner pen like people getting excited to read another chapter. Nothing. I owe the completion of the first draft of my novel to my two friends who did this for me. I doubt I would have been able to finish it without them.

4. Let it rest

I was done with the novel. Finally, for the first time in my life, I’d completed a full novel! I was officially (in my mind at least) an author. This was the first time I’d ever felt like I’d completed something that was worth it. I was ecstatic. I wanted to get it out there. I wanted people to read it. I started to look into publishing. Then I remembered what I’d read many, many times over in blogs and how-to books. Something I didn’t really want to do. Take a break from it. You can barely see the story any more you’re too close. You have to get away from it, and let it breathe.

So I did. I put it aside, and started my next novel. I actually started a few novels, and dabbled writing a few chapters of each. Two months later, I went back and read what would become Pulse and… well I’m not going to say it was awful, but I certainly didn’t love it as much as I had when I’d left it last. I got to experience it fresh, and I saw many flaws with it that I hadn’t seen when it had been my newborn baby. Now that it had grown a bit, I could see the ugly bits poking through.

The good thing about a book though is that you don’t have to keep the ugly bits, so I dropped the first quarter of the book, dropped a few hanging chapters, merged a couple characters, and rejigged the final few chapters. The drop of the beginning of the story was the big part. 20,000 words to be precise. Gone. I then re-planned it how I wanted it to be and wrote hard. Now that I was sure what I wanted it to be it was much easier to burn through the words, and I managed to finish the new beginning (now a new 25,000 words) within only a few weeks. With these changes I also then had to go through the whole book again and change a lot of things to match the changes I’d made to the start. This was a great way to pick up any extra grammar and spelling mistakes too.

5. Beta readers and line-edits are essential

Now that I was happy I needed new eyes on it. My alpha readers couldn’t do it because they were as close to the story as I was. They had seen it grow and change, and to be honest they were burned out. I needed someone new. Enter another friend (who, lucky for me, is an English teacher!) to read the story as a whole and even give me a rough line-edit. I was excited.

What I didn’t anticipate was how awful my grammar and spelling were. I mean, I read all the time! I’d poured over Strunk and White! I’d researched obscure English! I subscribe to Grammar Girl! I’d taken a damn course on grammar!! How the hell was I so bad at this? Apparently I was, which makes me glad I’d not decided to release the story right away. It would definitely not have been my best work, and am thankful I was given the chance to make it such.

Summary

There we have it. A full year of writing from conception to completion. It started out as nothing more than an single-page synopsis, and became the story I love today, and all thanks to the things I learned along the way.

So basically I can narrow it down to five simple things to keep in mind while writing your own novel:

  • Cut yourself some slack
  • Plan
  • Get people to read it
  • Take a break
  • Get new people to read it

Hopefully this helped someone out there, and if so (or if you do it some other way) let me know in the comments below!

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