What I Learned About Writing a Novel

From my novelist mother, that discipline and persistence pay. She wrote every weekday morning for four hours, from the time I was five until I graduated from high school and left home. A-ha moment for me: No one else will make you get the work done, but they’ll be perfectly happy to distract you.

From my screenwriting instructor, that if you put a gun in Act I, it has to go off in Act III, and other principles of three-act structure. A-ha moment for me: Every story belongs to someone, and When Harry Met Sally is Harry’s story.

From my thesis adviser, that theme is what happens while you’re busy telling the story. Where you leave the reader always makes a point. A-ha moment for me: If Hamlet had gotten his act together sooner, it wouldn’t have been a tragedy.

From my critique groups, that sometimes a cheerleader is more useful than a critic, and sometimes a critic is more useful than a cheerleader. A-ha moment for me: You need to surround yourself with both cheerleaders and critics and know which the moment calls for.

From reading 160 romance novels in a year, that no matter how artsy you think you are, genre writers have a ton to teach you about storytelling. A-ha moment for me: When I realized that it wasn’t just coincidence that the heroine and hero always had great sex halfway through, hit a brutal obstacle at the 3/4-mark, and got their act together for the last time at 9/10.

From my friend Brad, that ignorance and arrogance are two indispensible traits if you want to get a book published. A-ha moment for me: When I realized that the daughter of a novelist needs to forget everything she thought she knew about the probability of success in publishing and just write.

From listening to audiobooks, that books are fuller and richer and more visual than I ever dreamed possible. A-ha moment for me: Discovering that when I read novels, I skip the description and all the dialog tags (blocking), and that it was showing through in my writing.

From Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days, that outlining isn’t nearly as terrifying as I thought and that all that great stuff that comes out of your mind when you’re brainstorming can actually get organized so you don’t have to store it in your head. A-ha moment for me: When I made my first scene-by-scene outline and STILL loved writing the book.

From Randy Ingermanson, particularly his restatement of Dwight Swayne’s advice on scene-writing, that structure is fractal, and each beat of each scene is like a tiny version of each scene which is a tiny version of each chapter which is a tiny version of the story as a whole. A-ha moment for me: There are rules that govern every aspect of the craft of writing, and even if you choose to ignore some of them some of the time, you should sure as heck know what they are.