One year into the novel: my writing then and now

I started writing my novel on July 1st of last year and wrote the first draft within a month as part of Camp NaNoWriMo. I’d hoped to have it finished within a year, but it turns out there was a lot I needed to learn about writing.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a paragraph taken from something I wrote about a year ago:

She grabbed two bottles from the 12-pack they’d picked up the night before at the grocery store but failed to make much of a dent in yet and rejoined him on the porch.  They sat close together on the porch swing watching the sunset over the tree tops continuing their conversation from before and alternating with periods of silence where they just enjoyed their proximity to one another.  After they finished their first beers, they each had another before they went in to make dinner.

Here, I’ve revised the paragraph (FYI, this is not from the novel):

Melissa grabbed two beers from the fridge and then walked back to the porch. Brad sat on a wooden swing, staring out across the hilltops.

 

“Here you go.” Melissa handed him a beer.

 

“Thanks.” He shifted to make room for her. “It’s a beautiful night.”

 

She sat down and took in the view, rolling hills shaded blue, the sky awash in waves of pink and gold. She’d heard life described as a series of peaks and valleys. This was a mountaintop moment.

 

She turned to Brad. “I’m happy to be here with you.”

 

He smiled and put his arm around her, drawing her tight against his side. They sipped their beers and watched the sun slip below the horizon while night collected in the sky. A quiet settled between them, a silence unlike any she’d ever experienced, one that stretched beyond comfort to intimacy.

 

Only when the moon had reached its full brightness did she mention dinner, and it was still several minutes after that when they abandoned their perch for the warmth of the cabin.

I hope you will agree that the second version does a better job of transporting you the scene. What have I done? I’ve given more detail about the physical space (the porch and their view) as well as their position in it (sitting next to each other on the swing, his arm over her shoulder). I’ve eliminated weird prepositional phrases that undercut the action (e.g. “After they finished their first beers, they each had another before they went in to make dinner.”). I’ve added dialogue. I’ve adopted Melissa’s point of view and relayed her thoughts. Most importantly, in my opinion, I’ve conveyed why this moment should be included in the story: Melissa has never experienced an intimate silence like this before. There’s something special about her relationship with Brad.

I’ve yet to complete a second draft of my novel with a coherent storyline, but I have made some critical advances in my writing style. Here are what I consider to be the three most important lessons I’ve learned this year:

1. Don’t solve conflicts too quickly

I’ve written about this before, but to summarize, in my initial draft, I would set up a problem in one chapter only to disregard or solve it in the next. This led to a story that was not very compelling, characters who weren’t given a chance to fully develop, and hypothetical readers who would have been insulted by the way I undercut the conflict. In particular, if I ask readers to believe something in one scene only to throw it out the window in the next, they aren’t going to trust my story.

2. How to write in third person

I was working in a coffee shop in November of last year when I realized my novel needed an entire rewrite.

I texted a friend: “Novel editing in Columbia, SC, today. Wishing I would have made stronger choices about point of view in my first draft and initial edits. Whereby stronger choice, I mean a choice. So confusing.”

Despite being a long time reader and having read at least one book on writing, I didn’t understand how to write in the third person before beginning my novel. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of both of my main characters, but instead of choosing one of them as the viewpoint character for a particular scene, I would go back and forth between the two in the same scene, doing what is known as head jumping. When I began to grasp how to write in the third person, my novel improved dramatically. Suddenly, I knew where I was in the scene, inside the head one of my main characters, and it became much easier to describe what was going on because I was filtering the scene through their eyes. Whereas before I was afraid to go too deep into my characters’ thoughts, now I was able to share what my viewpoint character was thinking, and in particular, how they perceived the other character. My romance story began to feel emotional and intimate!

3. Showing versus telling

Last week I planned to do some quick revisions to earlier chapters in the novel. I began my edits and realized right away these scenes weren’t scenic enough. It seems in the past few months I’ve finally begun to understand how to show rather than tell. While my earlier chapters were interesting, they lacked immediacy. Instead of unveiling the events as they unfolded and transporting the reader to the scene, I’d summarized them (similar to the old version of the porch scene above). Now, some summary is necessary, especially to keep the book moving along, but there were parts where I was cheating the reader out of a good scene.

I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about the things that I’ve done this past year to become a better writer, but for now, I’ll recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King to those looking to improve their writing. I read this book last month. I wish I would have read it much sooner.

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