Feb 27

Novel Writing Advice

My friend and fellow Clarionite Justin sent me an email the other day, asking for advice on writing novels.  He had just finished the first three chapters of his novel, and it wasn’t going well, and he wanted my advice on finding beta readers to set him on the right path. I got a little long-winded in my reply, but he said it was helpful, so here’s what I told him.



Your first three chapters may or may not be terrible, but they are probably not as bad as you think. Stop reading them and keep writing. I don’t show anyone my novel until the first draft is done (and by first draft, I mean that each chapter has been written 3-4 times). Now, bear in mind that everyone has a different writing style, but it will never be good if it’s never done. Done is more important at this point.  Give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.”  You can fix a lot of it in the rewrite.

Here are some things you may find when you get farther along.

  1. The first three chapters are just throat clearing, and you will need to cut them (Or maybe not).
  2. After you cut the first three chapters, you realize that all that was good stuff, just in the wrong place, and you’re going to splice it in later in backstory.
  3. That weird scene that didn’t seem to go anywhere and didn’t seem to have any point now has the seeds of THE VERY THING you need to solve a CRUCIAL plot problem.
  4. The reason those two characters sound alike is that they fulfill the same role, and they should be combined into one person.
  5. This was supposed to be a dark, moody piece, but it’s turning funny instead. (or vice versa)
  6. You get the picture.

Get it down, fix it in the rewrite.

My writing process is probably not the same as your writing process, but I’ll tell you what I did for this latest novel.  I wrote an outline (7000-8000 words) and I put it in purple text.  I usually don’t do this, but I was having trouble seeing the big picture, and I figured if I could get down an outline for the entire novel, I could have a rough guideline of where it was going to go and I wouldn’t feel so lost.  Here’s a chunk from the outline I wrote:

They give her the Chinese herb, and Sophie comes back.  It won’t last forever, so they tell her to make a ward against possession.  Sophie says fine, but she doesn’t want to make a big one, and she needs to make sure that she’s closer to the bathroom because she saw what this herb did to Lenny’s digestive tract.

Then, when I went to write it again, I wrote it in orange text. Orange text says to me “not real draft.”  I have a bit of perfectionism, so if it’s orange, my perfectionism knows that it’s not my “real” writing, but just a present-tense outline. Here’s an example:

The client shows up.  She’s a skinny, blonde septegenarian who looks as though she’s been botoxed into a rigid masque.  Her liver-spotted hands have enormous diamond rings on them, and the legs under her leapord print miniskirt are cloaked in opaque tights and shoved into spiked heels.  She looks at Fiona as if appraising a used car.

When I write it again,  I rewrite the whole thing in black text. Sometimes while writing the orange part, I slip into past tense, and occasionally whole sentences are usable as-is.

“No, I just needed some money. Guy knew that.  I had some debts I needed to take care of.  They wanted someone to practice on, said that they’d take care of my note if I agreed to lie down in a lawn chair for fifteen minutes.  Next thing I knew, I had feathers.”

“So what happened to your original body?” Marcello asked. “Can’t you just get it back?”

I usually start my writing for the day by turning orange text into black text. That is, taking it from rough outline draft to real draft.  If I find I have too much trouble with this, it means that my orange text isn’t detailed enough.  After I do that, I’m more into the story, and I can usually start the next block of orange text because I have an idea of what will happen next even though I’m not ready to flesh it out perfectly.  It’s like painting in the sky before you paint the branches of the tree.  You block in the large areas before you work on the details.  You can get the story down and not be bogged down by details such as character names and descriptions.  That way if you know where the plot is going to go, you can say:

They go to the used car lot and meet Ernesto’s old boyfriend. Describe the used car lot.  Ernesto’s old boyfriend [need name, something white-trashy] tells them about the missing girl and gives them some clue that points them towards searching the warehouse where the trailer was found.  On the car ride to the warehouse, Detective Hottie confesses he has feelings for Adrian and asks him out on a date. Detective Hottie also explains what happened at the party, and mentions the missing dog subplot.

(I just made that up. That’s not from my novel.) You get the bare-basic facts of what happened, so the movie of your mind keeps running, but you don’t  have to slow down to look up what name Ernesto’s boyfriend has (US Census information, based on the birthdate of the character and their ethnic background FTW.) You don’t have to think of what the road to the warehouse looks like (google satellite can show you pictures!), and you don’t do a “final product” that isn’t up to your standards because you don’t have enough time right now; you put in a slug and fill it out later.  Also, I find dialogue to be one of the hardest things to rewrite, because of the way that conversation flows from subject to subject, so if you have a bullet point list of every piece of information you want relayed in a dialogue scene, you’re less likely to have to splice it in later.

Another nice thing about using orange and purple text is that it’s easier to scan and see which parts need a rewrite.  If you are really stuck on a scene, you can leave it in orange and come back to it later, and because it’s not black, it’s easier to spot at a glance.   If you have good software that’s designed for manuscripts, you may have a tool that helps you better than this, but I use boring-old word, so I need tricks.

Another thing I do occasionally, when I need a “running start,” like if I’ve been away from my manuscript for a week, is to re-read some of the earlier chapters (and yes, I touch-up edit as I go). Usually at least once during the writing I’ll start reading from the beginning and read the whole thing before I get to the new part.

One problem I had with the novel I just finished is that the purple outline turned out to have a flaw in it. I took the timid route with the characters, and it shortened what should have been a novel-length plot into a novella-length plot. (ie. I was 2/3rds of the way done with the story and only had 40,000 words)  I had to get rid of 5000-7000 words’ worth of scenes and rewrite them. I was able to use some of the details, but the scenes contained a character who was no longer present in the story (in the new version) so I couldn’t use the text as it was, I had to cut it and write entirely new scenes. This hurt.  A lot.  I usually don’t change the course of my novel unless I’m stalled for no good reason, which was the case here.  As painful as this detour was, It was necessary, and it made it stronger.  A good outline can help with issues like this.

If you’re the kind of writer who can outline the entire novel and use that as a sketch for the rest of it, then do so.  Some people can’t, but even if you’re not an outliner, you should try it once just to make sure you’re not an outliner. If for no other reason, editors often want to see an outline of a project before they pay you.  Some people make great, creative work with no outline, and others make hot messes.  Nobody says you have to stick to the outline, but for me it’s less painful to write 3000 words of outline that you’re going to flesh out into 50,000 words than it is to write 3000 words of a scene that’s going to end up in your scrap file.

If you don’t want a synopsis-type outline, there’s also mind-mapping software, or if nothing else, a good old piece of paper and a pencil so you can map out your main plot and minor plots. This can literally be a line from beginning to end, and a dot indicating at what point in the story you want such-and-such to happen.  You could have three or four parallel lines, the top with the main plot and the ones underneath with the minor plots.

“Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” by Lawrence Block talks about this theory.  He says a novel generally has five acts, and at the end of the first act, you should know what the main problem is. At the end of the third act, you should have encountered all the main characters, and have reached the tensest point for the plots.  Sub plots generally end sooner than main plots, and when the main plot is at an end, try to wrap the novel up quickly after that.  Of course, I’ve gotten the comment that my stuff ends too quickly, so maybe you should ignore that, but read Block’s book.  I found it useful.

One thing I have found about voice and character is that you often don’t know what the character’s real voice is until you spend some time with him/her.  Imagine you’re making ravioli from scratch. The first ones are going to look ugly, and it’s tempting to tear them apart and redo them, but if you want a batch of good ravioli, it’s better to just keep making them until they start to look good and then throw out the bad ones (or reuse the bits that aren’t bad.)  Only by making ravioli can you get good at making ravioli.  When I first started my recent novel, everyone sounded like me. I knew it, and I knew it wasn’t acceptable, but I left it for the time being.  Later I had to go back and re-write the first half of my novel so that the main character’s voice sounded more authentic, which is annoying and a lot of work, but it wasn’t until I’d spent 40,000 words with her that I really understood who she was.  Some people have the voice perfect in their head before they start.  Bully for them. I ain’t like that.  I have to get it over time.  There are ways, I suppose. A nice trick is to “interview” your character, as if you’re writing their dialogue when you talk to them, but I’d say don’t worry about it until much later, like December. This is second-draft stuff.

Shoot for 80,000 words.  NaNoWriMo is great and all, but 50,000 words isn’t a novel, it’s a novella.   If it’s “done” and you’re at 60,000 words, you probably need more subplots.  If it’s “done” and you’re at 250,000 words, you probably either have two novels, or you have too many subplots, or you really like to heap on the description. (I don’t think you’ll have this problem.)  If you’ve outlined it, and you’re halfway through the plot of the outline, and you’re at 40,000-50,000 words, you’re on the right track. If you’re at 30,000 words, and you’re 2/3rds of the way done with your outlined plot, you probably have an issue.  It’s a learning curve, so you probably won’t get it right the first time, or the third time, or even the fifteenth time, but the learning is part of the fun. If writing a novel was easy, anyone could do it.

I seek beta readers at two different points.  First, when it’s “done.” That is, I’ve gotten a past-tense, decent draft (in black) that’s at or near my desired word length, and I’ve covered all the plot I wanted to cover, and it has the ending I planned for it.  The best beta readers like your stuff, but understand that you need criticism. If you just want them to tell you they liked it so you can feel better, that isn’t un-valid.  Seriously.  Sometimes we just need encouragement.  You could hold off on giving it to your beta readers for a few months after you finish it so that when they critique it, you don’t feel like your identity is wrapped up in it.  If at all possible (if you’re sensitive) hold off getting feedback until you have done another project in the interim.  Having someone tell you your novel sucks and is going to need several months’ hard labor is harder to bear when you’ve been busting your ass working on it for six months and are exhausted just thinking about it (where I’m at.)

That said, I managed to last a grand total of two days before giving it to my beta reader. One, because she asked for it, and Two, because when I finally get to the “done” part, even though I know it needs a good read-through, I’m just sick of it, and I want it out there.  If she emails me feedback, I might just stick it somewhere until I’m ready for it.

Try to find beta readers who know and like Justin Whitney’s stuff.  You want people who are going to compare this to “the body of Justin Whitney’s work” and tell you where it lies along that spectrum than people who are going to compare you to “writers I like better than Justin Whitney.”  Choose beta readers carefully. In short: assuming you write the book you would like to read, you should find beta readers who like to read the kind of books you like to read.

Let me tell you a story.

I got hurt by comments a friend “SE” made about my stuff, because she said that none of my novels she read were any good. Mostly, she says I tell when I ought to show, that I don’t trust the reader to make decisions about what’s going on, and that I sound like I’m writing for children even when I’m not.  That hurt a lot, because I’ve gotten that comment before, and I have worked to correct that (though to be fair, the novella she read really was written for children.)

At this point, I  had to decide if she was:

  1. Completely right. I suck, and all those editors who say they like my stuff are lying to me.
  2. Completely wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with my novels.

Of course, option A can’t be right, because many editors have said they like my stuff, and I don’t think editors say they like it when they don’t.  But option B smacks like denial and arrogance, which my perfectionism huffs at. My perfectionism insists that every negative thing someone says about me must ergo ipso facto be true, because my perfectionism knows all of my flaws and shouts them at me, and if I’ve missed one, my perfectionism says that I should have noticed that as well. So therefore A must be true.

But I have one novel that I thought was my best because I fixed all those “problems.”  I do much more showing than telling. It’s paced more like a literary novel, and it gets all those things right that everyone says I get wrong. But another beta reader, BB, who likes my stuff, says that THAT novel was my WORST, because it’s less like me and more like all those pretentious literary novels she hates.

Then I remembered that SE lent me a David Mitchell novel, said that he was a genius writer, and held him up as a near-paragon.  He’s a good writer, and I can see the cleverness and effort and research that went into his novel, but he’s also tedious and overly intricate, and I found his novel more work than pleasure.  Someone who loves David Mitchell is not as likely to think that Kater Cheek is a good writer.

BB loves white space on the page, dialogue, clear prose, action, and not a lot of description. BB likes my stuff.  SE loves novels that take work to read, that immerse you in another culture, that have accurate and well-researched historically accurate dialogue, that aren’t obvious and take much reflection to really puzzle out. She likes works that you read a second time because you want to catch stuff you missed the first time.  BB wants to read work a second time because only because it’s fun, because if BB didn’t get it the first time, BB thinks the writer didn’t do his/her job.

In the end, I decided to

  1. Trust myself.  I DO tell more than show, and I DO “not trust the reader” because I like to read books that tell fun stories quickly, and don’t try to play cutesy clever games (because I hate it when I didn’t “get” something) But despite these flaws and because of these flaws, there are going to be people who like my work. For example, me.

BB is my better beta reader.  BB has read enough Kater Cheek to know where my recent novel (PARASITIC SOULS, working title SLOW MAGIC APOCALYPSE) fits in the scheme of Kater’s body of work, and isn’t trying to compare me to someone I’m not. SE is a good friend, and a nice person, but her idea of a “good” novel is a novel that’s more like David Mitchell (intricate, slow-paced, heavy on the description, well-researched) because that’s her taste. That’s fine, she doesn’t have to like my novels.   But if someone thinks the perfect car is a minivan, and you’ve made a convertible coupe, they’re going to try to get you to make your car bigger, and add more doors, and make it taller, and maybe put in a dozen cupholders and a cargo net, etc.  They mean well, because they have the image of “perfect car” in their mind and are trying to guide you towards that, but a convertible coupe with a non-motile cover and a sliding door on the side and a 60” height is not going to be a good convertible coupe. It’s going to be a bad minivan.

Pick people who like your stuff too, because reading a novel and critiquing it is a big imposition and if it’s not fun for them, they’re going to want to charge you money, and this will not be a small sum of money.  Asking someone to beta-read your novel is like asking them to have sex with you—if it’s not something they’re doing because they want to, you’re going to have to pay them a lot (either money or karmic obligations.)  Otherwise, get friends who owe you big favors.  A good piece of advice for beta readers who aren’t writers is to ask them “what popped out at you, good or bad” and “what questions do you have” and “did you think of any ‘what if?’ scenarios I didn’t consider.”

Remember that when you’re “done” with your novel, you’re not really “done” with it, and there is going to be another long road ahead of you. But getting done with the first draft is like getting to the end of a trail.  You still have a long way to walk back again, but you’ve still worked hard and deserve a beer and a rest.


  1. Don’t show it to anyone until it’s done.  Preferably don’t show it to anyone until it’s as good as you can get it.
  2. “As good as you can get it” now is not going to be the same as “as good as you can get it” six months from now when you start the rewrite, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  3. Writing a novel makes you a better novel-writer.  The first three chapters are the first three ugly ravioli.  You will be a better novel-writer when you’re done, and you’ll be in a better place to make the first three chapters good when you’ve written the whole novel and know how it needs to start.
  4. If your beta readers propose major changes, consider that they might be right, because sometimes second drafts need major changes. That doesn’t mean you should have made those changes while you were writing the first draft.  Do you edit a movie before you’ve shot all the footage?
  5. Choose your beta readers carefully, so that their major changes are trying to make a sporty convertible into a better sporty convertible instead of a convertible mini-van.
  6. Take a break after you’re done with your novel. You may need several months before you can objectively asses its quality.  You will probably also be sick to death of it. This does not mean it sucks.
  7. I like to finish a second novel before I go back and rewrite the first one.  If an editor isn’t waiting for it, you might as well take as much time as it wants.

You can do it, Justin.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  And a map. Maps are good.

1 comment

    • Jerome on March 9, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Awesome advice, especially the who makes the better Beta Reader. (This has the makings of a tongue twister). BB is the better Beta Reader, reading better books by radder readers reading …..

    Actually, it’s really good, Kater.

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