5 Lessons Learned From Writing 3 Novels

I’m currently writing my third novel, so this post is interesting to me as I have learned some similar things so far. I believe editing is crucial to a fantastic finished product and I am indeed a chronic note-taker! Today, guest writer Scott Bartlett shares what he has learned on the journey.

red journal for writingAre the laws of fiction as immutable as the laws of physics?

I have my doubts. In fact, I’m skeptical there are any hard-and-fast laws of fiction—and if there are, then masterful fiction writing is the practice of artfully breaking them.

That said, while there may not be any universal fiction-writing rules, there are definitely things that work and things that don’t.

I’ve produced some incredibly bad writing during my 10 years of aspiring-writerdom. But I’ve also spent literally hundreds of hours poring over my writing, figuring out what makes it weak, and finding ways to make it stronger.

(1) Only writing will make you a better writer.

The only thing that will improve your writing is writing—a lot.

Reading the sort of thing you want to write, reading about the craft or the business of writing, taking writing classes, joining writing groups, thinking about writing—all these things will supplement your writing, and may help you figure out some things faster than you would have otherwise. But only actual writing will bring you closer to getting read, winning an award, finding an agent, securing a book deal, or whatever your writing goals may be.

Are there textbooks for writing fiction? Well, yes, actually, and they contain useful tips. But there’s a reason it’s clichéd to say experience is the greatest teacher.

(2) Every novel’s origin story is different.

I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s On Writing, which is half memoir, half writer’s tool kit. But I’ve always taken exception to his suggestion that there’s only one proper way to complete a novel.

King compares writing to an archaeological dig: he sees stories as found objects, excavated from the literary ‘earth’. And so King doesn’t outline—he starts off with an unusual combination of ideas, and lets his writer’s instincts carry him from there.

This clearly works for him. But my experience writing 3 novels defies his defense of one ‘true’ way to write fiction. I wrote my first novel in grade twelve over a period of several months. My second novel, I wrote in the 18 days preceding a contest deadline, basing it on some short stories I’d started writing in high school. And I wrote 70,000 words of my third, scrapped them all a couple years later, and wrote the first draft again from scratch in a three-month period leading up to yet another deadline.

So don’t be afraid to experiment. Try something different with the next story you write. Write from an outline, or scrap the outline and write from your gut. Aim for a competition deadline. Expand an old short story into something longer.

(It’s interesting to note that King admits he did write one of his novels using an outline—The Dead Zone. He also admits that it’s one of his favorites.)

(3) Vibrancy comes from writing every day.

If your writing sessions are weeks apart, you’ll forget what you were trying to accomplish. The intricate nuances of a character’s motivations, the causal thrust of the plot, even the story’s tone—these things will grow dim with time.

I let my latest novel languish for years, allowing months to pass between revisits. I wasn’t happy with the result. The characters were one-dimensional and the plot was cookie-cutter. Only when I started writing every day for those three months was I able to breathe life into my story.

To keep your characters alive on the page, you need to spend time with them daily. Cory Doctorow writes his novels at a rate of one page of day. His rationale? No matter how busy his day gets, he can always find 20 minutes to write one page. As a result, he stays in close contact with the people populating his stories.

(4) Become a perpetual note-taker.

Your mind is a colander with large holes—if it functions anything like mine does, that is. Life’s experiences flow through, and, you being a writer, they probably generate some great fiction material in the process—snappy lines of dialogue, incisive observations, beautiful snippets of description, et cetera.

But if you don’t install some sort of filter to collect these nuggets, you’ll lose most of them. Technology is a great help, here—whether it’s a smartphone or a notebook and pen you take everywhere. Personally, I use a smartphone, chiefly because I can never remember to carry paper with me.

By the time I sat down to write my third novel, I had a Word document with 60,000 words worth of ideas. I arranged them in the order they would appear in the story, and presto—I had an outline. Many of the ideas went unused, of course, but it proved to be an invaluable document.

(5) Every novel’s first draft needs editing. A lot of editing.

Hemingway had some choice words for first drafts. I won’t repeat them here, but the upshot was that they universally stink.

I wrote the first draft of my humor novel Royal Flush in the 18 days preceding a competition deadline. The writing came easier than anything else I’ve written, with the exception of a single short story I wrote in high school. I completed the manuscript at 5 AM on the day of the deadline and submitted it, optimistic about my prospects.

I didn’t win the competition, of course—I didn’t even make the shortlist. And when I received my novel back from the judges, I saw why: it was rife with spelling, grammar, and continuity errors. Over the course of five years, I went through 10 more drafts. Four drafts in, I submitted the book to another competition, and it won the H. R. (Bill) Percy Prize.

If you don’t properly edit your manuscript, you risk your reader getting unceremoniously yanked from the flow of the story, by an error that could easily have been fixed.

Do you agree with these? What have you learned from writing fiction? Please do share in the comments below.

royal flushScott Bartlett has been writing fiction since he was fifteen. His recently released novel, Royal Flush, is a recipient of the H. R. (Bill) Percy Prize. Click here to buy the ebook ($3.99) or to order the print book ($12.99).

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  1. says

    Great post. Totally agree that the way to improve writing is to write and to write every day. Other rules of writing that are not rules might include:
    A writer needs humility to recognise that sometimes criticism is correct. I love the saying; “If one person tells you you’re a dog you can ignore them, if two people tell you you’re a dog ask yourself why are they saying this, if three people tell you you’re a dog buy a kennel, because you are a dog.” If more writers understood this they might be able to improve their writing.

    • says

      Thank you, Christopher! I agree with your addition, too–in fact, it sort of makes me wish I’d added a six ‘rule that’s not a rule’. Feedback has certainly been central to my writing process. Over 100 people read Royal Flush before it was published–friends, family, co-workers, online acquaintences, competition judges, writers-in-residence, writing group members, etc.–and it benefited enormously from their constructive criticism. I’ve come to realize that in order for me to consider a project a sucess, I must seek substantial feedback for it.

  2. says

    Writing as much as possible is important. Variety helps. The research reports and journal articles I write for my day job in academia require different skills, techniques, and vocabulary from fiction, but the experience has been very helpful. I’d say it’s equally important to get feedback about your writing. Peer reviewers pointed out habits and tendencies in my writing that I hadn’t noticed. The writers in my critique group do the same thing–and point out my tendency to get a little academic in my fiction!

    • says

      That makes sense to me, Michael. I consider any writing at all valuable to my fiction writing–even if it’s just exchanging emails with friends. I’m not sure how seriously I take Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to develop a world-class skill at something, without exception. But I certainly cherish the excuse to do any sort of writing at all, and think of it as an opportunity to advance my prose.

      This comment, for example! :)

    • says

      I get quite a lot academic in mine as well Michael :) Even once I cut out substantially in editing, I still find passages of extensive narration about really interesting stuff. I think it adds character :)

  3. says

    All five points are excellent. I write every day, but no more than 1,500 words per session. Even though I’m slow by comparison to many other writers, I find consistency is more important than word count.

  4. says

    Good article. Writing every day and reading as much as possible has always worked for me. Usually don’t count word count because more often than not, I write longhand first then type it up when the novel is ready to come together. My ideas flow faster, more real with a pen in my hand and it relaxes me.

    • says

      I’m obsessed with word count. I don’t know why, but as I write I repeatedly glance at the word count at the bottom.

      Cool that you write longhand. I’ve tried to get into it, and I’ve written some things I like that way, but generally I’m most comfortable using a word processor.

  5. says

    Funny you bring up King’s character driven stories. Why so much resistance to outlining? It’s a lot more efficient to have major and minor things collected and worked out, the villain needs to have a weapon here, the hero finds this clue there, and so on. I’ve put down some great ideas in outlines (such as dialog in a particular key scene) that was better than what I came up with after writing free flow, sometimes I come up with a great idea in free flow that I mash together with brainstorm ideas hanging in the outline getting a hybrid. The outline keeps me from writing the characters into dead ends that I have to back up, throw out days worth of work, and start again.

    • says

      I’ve spoken to some writers who feel stifled by outlines–that when they try to write around events they’ve sketched out ahead of time, they run up against blocks, but when they have no clue where they’re going, the prose flows freely.

      I’m with you, obviously–outlines have worked for me on more than one occasion. That said, I tried an outline for the first novel I ever wrote, and I had an experience very similar to the one I described above.

    • says

      At Thrillerfest I was interested to hear Lisa Gardner (amazing writer!) talk about how she used to use outlines but after a number of books is now a pantser. I wonder if the ability to outline gets embedded somehow so that a written one isn’t needed by some people or after some time of writing. I like a kind of unstructured outline at the moment, but I think I might speed up if I used one in a more rigorous way.

  6. says

    Loving these tips, and totally agree, too

    I compare what I know now to a year ago and woahhhhhhhh

    The scary thing is, I still have SO much to learn. This is both exciting and worrying :)

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • says

      Haha, I know exactly what you mean. That’s true for other areas of my life, too–not just writing. Pretty much since junior high I’ve looked back on each year and thought to myself, “Wow, I was an imbecile a year ago!”

      And yep, it’s a little worrying!

  7. says

    As a fellow writer, I enjoy reading about writing, the writing process, and most of all, about other writers’ writing processes. Must be a comrade-in-arms kind of thing. Your list captures the essence of what it takes to truly become a better writer – daily attention, focus, dedication. Keeping notes of ideas, observations, phrases, plot concepts, storylines, etc. is important; your subconscious is telling you something creative, useful or (ultimately) both.


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