Secrets to Writing a Novel ... Or Not

secrets to writing a novel woman writing

I've been doing this writing thing for more than fifteen years. You'd think I would have an airtight process by now. You'd think I could write a book like “how to write a book.” Right? You'd think I wouldn't flounder with each new project as if I were the first one to wonder if a round stone could roll. Because really, this isn’t my first rodeo.

I wrote my first novel, a mystery, in 2000 in a spiral notebook (two), by hand, with a fairly detailed plot outline to guide me.

I wrote my second novel, fantasy this time, similarly, but made scene sheets to keep track of the story as I went. My plot outline was more of a suggestion, but it was fairly complete and I added/subtracted/altered it as I went.

Third novel, another fantasy, mostly the same though I was less happy with my plot outline. I figured I'd see what worked as I wrote and I more-or-less did. The two fantasies placed in a reputable contest, despite having some very very difficult-to-take critiques. One particular critique was from my own brother and his wife who made mocking comments in the margins. Always helpful. Another was from a fellow then-unpublished-now-published author who shared details of her disdain for my book on social media. Which I saw since hello, it's social media. This was also helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I then set this book aside for *more than a decade.*

On the other hand, another friend offered to send that same book to a friend at HarperCollins because he loved it so much, which goes to show ... stuff.

My fourth novel was actually my first novel re-conceived. I changed the plot outline, major elements like, oh, the premise and the antagonist and the ending and stuff. I moved things around, re-wrote a good bit of it, but not all of it. I should have started over from scratch, but I didn’t. It placed in a big contest, and I revised with an editor but alas, not enough. I was young and idealistic and stupid and didn't realize that when the editor suggested something change she meant that it really needed to change even if I didn't think it needed to change.

My fifth novel had a base of autobiography so I didn't need a tight plot outline, or so I thought. But readers found it depressing and the protagonist not very engaging (I was sort of copying a trend of banal, bland protagonists, so yeah, I get it). But once I got over the sting, I tightened it up, rewrote it as a screenplay using the Save The Cat formula, then re-rewrote it as a novel with the new, tighter format. I also tried to make it funny. Which only worked so well. And so my agent sent me back to the drawing board with a comment like, "Pick funny or sexy and push it harder." Still thinking about this.

My sixth novel I wrote in prose and I sort of loved it, but no one would look at it because who wants to read a novel from the point of view of a young child about a really dark subject matter? Uh, yeah me. And whoever published Room. But no one else apparently.

And then, then I started the MFA program. I rewrote my sprawling stream-of-eight-year-old-consciousness novel into verse and had reader after reader fall in love with it. But the market, oh the market. What respectable teen would read a book about a little kid? Teens, being the ignorant narcissists they are, will only read books about other teens. (Please read that last line with a heap of sarcasm.) So. I tried rewriting it as a book about a teen by setting up a clever frame (to save the heart of the story) but, again alas, it was not enough.

So on to my seventh novel. A light-hearted middle grade mystery, or so I thought. I made a tight outline, or so I thought, based on a mystery-writing help thingy I found online. And I wrote a tight draft, or so I thought. And sent it eagerly to my agent and heard again that it's bla bla bla and blah blah blah. The points were valid. They were true. I shouldn't have used the stupid internet help outline. I made a new sort of outline and I plan to rewrite it from scratch without so much as glancing at the original draft. I started, but didn’t feel inspired, so it sits, neglected.

Instead I rewrote my sixth novel to remove the objectionable/horrific parts to make it palatable for the middle grade audience. Some editors really liked it but most weren't keen on verse novels. So I rewrote it again, back in prose this time, and received more feedback. Eliminated 10k words, sent it again, more feedback. Another rewrite which added 10k (entirely different) words but got rid of at least two characters, and now? *Fingers crossed.*

secrets to writing a novel by rebecca grabill

Presently I'm thinking about rewrites of my fifth novel. And wondering if I should maybe just start over from scratch on my first/fourth novel. I do love the premise. And I'm wondering what to do with my second and third novels. I finally did send them to my agent, because I happen to love the characters, setting, stories, and she loved aspects of them too, so now I have a long list of things to consider as I revise.

Wow, what happened with this post? I was going to talk about how I started off writing by hand, then switched to composing on screen, and now do a bizarre hybrid involving copious amounts of scrap paper. No wonder it took me I-don’t-even-know-how-many tries to write a publishable book!