Tuesday, March 22, 2011

35 Secret Recipe for a Novel

"A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway."
 ~ Junot Diaz
The other day, I called one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and suggested the story she loved, the story she was ready to query that weekend, wasn’t ready. The words were polished to a shine, but they covered a weak foundation. The story wasn’t going to stand up to close examination, much less the rigors of a market as competitive as this one.

I agonized over making that call, thought about chickening out and sending my notes by email, then told myself to stop being a baby. It wasn’t the kind of news I would want to get by email, so the least I could do was let her vent and ask as many questions as she wanted.

The problem was, I knew how she was going to feel. I’ve been there. I'm always afraid I'm still there.

Facing Reality

You've been there, too, haven't you? It's soooooo tempting to send that novel out the second you finish.

But we don't. We hold out, read, reread, fiddle with words. We find a few friends and other novice writers to read it. We make some changes, and bask in the glow of hearing how wonderful it is and much everyone loves it. And then we send it out and...

Get smacked by rejection.

Learning about Story Structure

So then we read blogs by other writers. These tell us to expect 100 rejections before we make any headway. So we eat chocolate and send more queries. And more, and more.

But meanwhile, we are reading, and learning. The blogs we go to for support and agent info also provide posts on craft, and list books to read, and conferences to attend. Before we know it, we have learned enough to realize it isn’t the words we write that matter.

Words are just the final layer of the process that is writing.

Baking a Cake

Writing a good novel is like baking a delicious cake. Before Buddy the Cake Boss can create one of his edible works of art, he sits down with the customer to plan. They bounce around ideas, tweak them into better shape, and sketch them out until they are perfect for the audience the cake is intended to feed.

Before Buddy heads into the kitchen, he already knows where he’s going.

In essence, Buddy’s process looks like this:
  • Choose a concept.
  • Pick a flavor.
  • Collect the ingredients.
  • Create a framework.
  • Mix enough ingredients to fill the framework.
  • Bake the cake.
  • Let it cool.
  • Stack the layers with compatible filling to serve as glue.
  • Carve or tweak the layers into shape, eliminating excess and providing structural supports as needed.
  • Add a crumb coat of frosting to even things out.
  • Add additional frosting for flavor.
  • Cover with fondant to create a smooth and polished surface.
  • Add additional decorative elements as needed.

That’s a pretty logical process. So why is it that as writers, we think there must be a thousand different ways to bake a cake?

Pantsers versus Planners

Sure there are pantsers who succeed. But for the most part, those pantsers are either amazing geniuses whose IQs are so high I can’t do the math to get there, or people who have learned story structure so well they do it by instinct. Or—most probably—the pantsers have spent so much time revising they’ve written several different books in the course of producing one.

You know who you are. Stand up and be counted. Hello, my name is Martina, and I was a pants-a-holic.

Pantsing Through a Novel

If you’re like me, the process for your first novel might have looked something like this:
  • Pick a flavor.
  • Collect the ingredients.
  • Mix ingredients.
  • Bake the cake.
  • Let it almost cool.
  • Stack the layers.
  • Ignore the fact that they're a little crooked.
  • Add a crumb coat of frosting to even things out.
  • Add additional frosting for flavor.
  • Add more frosting, in case there wasn’t enough before.
  • Cover with fondant to hide the pits and leftover crumbs.
  • Polish the surface.
  • Polish the surface.
  • Polish the surface.
  • Polish the surface.
  • Add additional decorative elements as needed.
  • Add more decorative elements.
  • Add more decorative elements.
  • Marvel at how pretty my cake looks.
  • Hold my breath until everyone tells me how pretty it is.
  • Polish the surface some more.
  • Add more decorative elements.
  • Send it off expecting everyone to love it.
  • Watch sadly as half the cake falls over. 

Finding the Courage to Start Over

And there I am, backed against the wall by a dilemma. Do I throw this wonderful book I love away and start over with something different? Do I try to patch it, cobble it together into something better? Or do I start all over again with a rewrite?

It isn't the ability to complete a first draft that defines us as writers and helps us grow. It’s what we do once the first draft flops. It’s how we pick ourselves up, and start over, revise or rewrite, or start something new in a more logical, thoughtful way.

Fiction Has to Be More Logical than Reality

In fiction, we can’t just add elements willy-nilly. Readers expect fiction to make more sense than real life, and the farther we get from contemporary and mundane events, the more everything in the story has to be absolutely logical and believable. Because the second the reader doubts one thing and starts to question, she's gone forever.

To see what’s wrong with a story, we have to look beneath the words. We have to examine the concept, the shape, the balance of the layers, the way the flavors come together, the texture, and yes—the artistic quality of the frosting.

There are a million stories out there waiting to be written. We all have drawers and notebooks full of ideas. And there’s nothing, nothing, that says we have to rewrite the first book if it doesn’t sell. But we shouldn’t ever give up on it without first taking the time to break it down.

Examining the Structure

If you are at that point, if you are getting ready to query or if you’ve met with less success than you had hoped, consider the following objectively:
  • Concept. Can you state it in a sentence? When CHARACTER(S) encounter INCITING INCIDENT, she must OVERCOME CONFLICT to ACHIEVE GOAL.
  • Originality. Is your story different enough from what’s already out there? Is there some unique twist in the concept that makes it specific and exciting?
  • Character. Examine your main character. Is she novel-worthy? Is she slightly bigger than life? What holds her back? What flaw keeps her from getting what she wants? What does she want and why does she want it? What does she actually need, without realizing that she needs it? How are those two opposed to create conflict for her? What's her character arc? What does she learn? Who is the antagonist? How does the antagonist keep the protagonist from achieving her goal? Is the antagonist every bit (or more) as smart and determined as the protagonist? Who are your supporting cast? Are they each unique? How do they complicate things for the protagonist? Have you built (at least for yourself) a backstory for each of your characters and used it to add conflict to the choices they must make?
  • Theme. What does your story mean? How will it touch your readers?
  • Structure. Do you follow the classic four-part story structure? Do you have a great opening and closing image? Does your rising and falling action make sense when you map it? Is it logical? Do your story milestones fall in the right places and have you set them up well enough? Do you have a solid hook, high stakes, a compelling call to action, and is it your main character who responds and actively makes things happen? Do you have enough sub-plots? Too many? Do they all tie together and do you resolve them all by the end? Is every element tightly woven into the fabric of your work, or have you cheated by using devices the reader will resent? Is there enough conflict overall?
  • Scene. Is every scene necessary? Is there tension on every page? Does every scene have its own goal, motivation, and conflict? Does every scene have rising action? Does every scene start and end with a hook?
  • Setting. What are your setting and background? Have you made these as interesting and unique as possible? Is there anything about them that would make things even more difficult for the main character and/or highlight parts of her struggle?
  • Point of View. Is the point of view you are using giving the reader the best platform for understanding what's going on? Is your story told from the point of view of the person experiencing the greatest conflict? Do you avoid head hopping? Is each point of view unique?
  • Voice. Does the voice of each character reflect her world view and backstory? Does she take a stand on what she sees, hears, feels, and experiences? Do we understand her from the things she says? Can we connect to her? Can we differentiate her from the voice of every other character?

The above isn’t a complete list by any means, but it’s a start to get  you thinking about your story in new and deeper ways.

Believing in Your Story

The most important thing when you face a writing setback is that you must not give up. Don't get discouraged. If you believe—BELIEVE—in your story with every sleep-deprived, unwashed, and family-estranged fiber of your being, then you CAN take it apart, add to it, delete from it, and make it into something bigger and better. More memorable. And more saleable.

It won’t be easy. It may not happen the first time. Or even the second time. As we grow, our critique partners grow. We find new critique partners who are further up the learning curve too. We learn to get more beta readers for a wider range of opinions. We read more, learn more, and see more things wrong with our stories, more things we can change from good to great.

By then, we may be sick to death of that first manuscript. We may go on to write something different. Everything we’ve learned will transfer into that new story, and we’ll learn even more. But if that first story haunts us, we’ll dredge up the energy somehow to go back to it.

Don't Give Up

They say it takes ten years to get truly good at something. Well, it takes a whole lot more than that if we give up when the going gets tough.

Don’t. Give. Up. Never give up. We'll all get there together.

To help you get there faster, we're giving away a copy of STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks. Just complete the form below by 3/28 and tell us your favorite writing tip in the comments. We'll announce the winner next Tuesday.

Happy writing,



  1. Martina, thank you so much for your post! I am feeling low about my revising my novel at the moment, because I wanted to be finished soon and I see more parts of my "foundation" that I need to change. Your post is inspiring!

  2. Martina, this is a fabulous post. You know I'm raising my hand. You've made me feel so much better about my decision not to give up on my manuscript. I think we all have to be realistic that those first manuscripts will take many revisions to get right. At least for most of us. My best writing tip is "Never give up. Never surrender."

  3. This is a great post. It's so hard to know when a book needs work and when it will never work. That's pretty much where I am right now.

  4. I'm bookmarking this. I've been torn. I've never queried and have put my first on the back burner. I was stuck in revisions. I've started a new story which I'm in love with, but I don't want to completely throw number one away just yet.
    Thanks, I really needed the never quit.

  5. WOW, this is an incredible post, Martina! It's full of solid, solid advice and thinking.

  6. My favorite piece of writing advice is: Writers write!

  7. Coming from a pantser who is trying to convert to a plotter, I can totally relate with the revising your book so much that it's like you've written 3 or 4.

    Great advise and like so many others I've been reading lately. I'll book mark this one.

  8. Argh, that must've been hard, telling another writer you didn't think his/her ms was ready. Hard to hear, hard to say.

    My fave tip was the list of things to check about story structure. It's easier to include interesting details or characters than to make the story stick together right. At first glance, I say yes, yes, yeah, yeahyeahyeah to all the questions, but if I really ponder them, I start getting little nagging feelings that some things are lacking. ;o)

    It's all about answering those honestly, I think. (Altho sometimes we're too close to tell.)

  9. Great post, I love the thought you put into this article. Hmm, favorite writing tip? I read once that Aprilynne Pike always sits down and comes up with 60 plot points before beginning a novel, thus giving her plenty of twists and turns. If she can't do that, she doesn't move forward. That is what I aim to do. I can't answer for her of course, but what I've found by doing this is that I don't use all 60, but by coming up with that many, I force myself to think outside the box and dig deep. I come up with much more intricate and interesting twists than I would otherwise. Also by coming up with so many, I can add little twists in that flavor the scenes and chapters, just adding to the 3 dimensional creation of the characters :-)

  10. Love this quote. Whenever I get overwhelmed by the process, I remind myself that revision is where I get to be BRAVE--dive into the book, destroy stuff, rebuild stuff, risk everything. It takes courage to write the best book you can. The way to find that courage, I think, is different for every person. Thanks for a great post!

  11. Amazing post, Martina. And I love this:

    It isn't the ability to complete a first draft that defines us as writers and helps us grow. It’s what we do once the first draft flops.

    SOOOOO true!

  12. Trying to fix my first novel, I realized that what I needed from it was distance. I couldn't see the flaws right away. So I set it aside for a few months and wrote a second one. Then I went back to the first, and I could see where it needed to be fixed.

    But my favorite tip is to write everyday. Even if it's a few sentences of a scene concept. It helps keep me sane.

  13. I must now go bake something!! But the best is to never give up. Always believe in yourself.

  14. Great post, Martina. Very good advice, as always.

  15. Thanks for the encouragement, everyone! Rachel, I love that idea from Aprilynne Pike about the 60 plot points. I'm going to have to try that on my next idea. And Stasia, I love the comment about writers writing. It's so true, too. And we have to write within our genre, not just about the process of writing or about not being able to write.

  16. You know, I think there is a lot I do on instinct, but this comes after a writing education and many years of writing and reading about writing. And STILL, I can't fully pants it. I mean, I've tried, for sure. But without some kind of initial planning, I end up with a lot of editing and rewriting heartache and I usually scrap so much of what I've written. But I think we all have a process that works best for us. It can sometimes take a long time to figure out what that process is--and what a joy it is when that happens! So you hang in there. Every draft is one step closer to something beautiful. You learn so much every step of the way, about the process, about yourself, and who you are as a writer. The ones we think are lucky because they seem to have skipped a few (or a lot of those steps) will often find themselves falling hard because some of those steps (rejection and rejection) are not only crucial to a writer's self-discovery, but to the process. If we aren't rejected now, we'll almost certainly be rejected later, and it will only be that much harder facing it further down the line if we've never faced it before.

  17. Great post! Writing a book is a complicated process and we can't just assume we inherently know how. We have to work for it. And if we don't want to do that, we shouldn't be a writer. :)
    Thanks for the great advice!

  18. I love that Junot Diaz quote! Favorite writing advice is to take it "bird by bird"--break it into manageable pieces.

  19. Nice post! I can't write a thing without planning it out first.

  20. This was an awesome post! Great list! And Larry Brooks story structure is so helpful. I like how you have summarized everything.

  21. fantastic post! So helpful and full of brilliant advice. This is bookmark worthy.

  22. Really fabulous post. And I think being honest with your friend was the nicest thing you could have done. Telling someone their work isn't ready is HARD to do. But how much harder is it to sit back when they're rejected over and over again, knowing you didn't speak up when you should have?

    When I get to the revision stage, I find myself kind of blind the the major flaws in my writing. Like pacing/characterization. I think because I've worked so hard on them in the planning & writing phases that they're cemented in my mind. So I REALLLLLLY depend on my CPs and Betas to straighten me out! Thankfully, they give it to me straight and really help to open my eyes to everything that I need to fix/rework/rewrite/etc :)

  23. Thank you for the great post! A good piece of advice I heard: Butt in the chair. :-)

  24. This is an amazing post!! I love that you compare writing to putting together a cake ... I've often thought that my cake decorating experience has helped me with the query process because once you spend 60+ hours making a wedding cake and you watch someone slice that cake into 200 pieces, it's a bit easier to shrug it off when an agent or editor suggests you rewrite half your book. For anyone reading these comments, if you don't win the above mentioned contest for a copy of Larry Brooks book, Story Engineering, buy it!!! It is well worth the investment of money and reading time. I literally rewrote 2/3 of my manuscript before my agent offered to sign me, and ALL of her suggestions are covered in Larry's book. His other e-books are fantastic, too.

  25. This post makes me extremely happy that I'm not a panster, but I did love the image of half the cake falling over. You apparently have seen my attempts at baking birthday cakes. ;)

    Great advice, even for those of us who swear by the outline. We still need to know the basics in order for our outline to work.

  26. I clicked through to your blog from a post on Kristen Lamb's blog. So glad I did. Thanks. My recipe was calling for a dash of courage and you gave it to me.

    Drudging through the middle of my novel, I see some places where I have been icing over the crumby bugger and I really just need to re-bake a layer or two. It's time I "pick [myself] up, and start over, revise or rewrite". Better now than later, even though I have read that revising before it is finished isn't a good idea. In this case, it just might be the right thing to do.

  27. I LOVE that you think this is bookmark-worthy! Thanks, you guys! ((((HUGS)))) It just occured to me as I was talking to my friend that we all (okay, except maybe for Lisa Gail Green who turns out book after fabulous book in ONE FRIGGING DRAFT) go through the same thing with the first novel.

    Sara, you are so right. And I've learned the hard way that if you burn through agent queries with a less than stellar manuscript, you're going to regret it! I'd hate for anyone to go through that.

    Carolina, yes!!!! You're right that nothing is wasted. SPeaking for myself, I know I learn a lot from every draft. I figured out fairly quickly that I have to write three chapters with no game plan just to find out what the story's about, and then I go back and do my complications worksheet. But even with that, there's a lot of pantsing left and the microstructure of scenes and transitions, the balance of action/reaction/complication is still very hard for me. That's not a question of pantsing as much as learned skill.

    Gina and Karen, I loved the Larry Brooks book, which is why I want to share :D

    Hi Michele! Welcome. I love Kristen Lamb's blog, too. Isn't she awesome?

  28. This is a wonderful post! I'm definitely going to link to this entry in my blog. It's great advice for outline-writing especially.

  29. I just shared this tip with a CP I found from this blog, so I think this is appropriate :):

    Never withhold information from the readers in an effort to create mystery. Let the reader know everything your character knows!

  30. There is so much brilliance in this post! This quote is getting blown up and hung on the wall as a reminder:

    It isn't the ability to complete a first draft that defines us as writers and helps us grow. It’s what we do once the first draft flops. It’s how we pick ourselves up, and start over, revise or rewrite, or start something new in a more logical, thoughtful way.

    PERFECT inspiration!

  31. Excellent post, and timely too, LOL. I just ran into a problem with my novel. When I reached a major plot point, the action my character took didn't make sense. It left me asking, "Why? Why wouldn't she just turn around and go home?" I realized that I'd lost sight of her goals and motivation. My problem is right there, first in your list: Concept . . . my "achieve goal" part got fuzzy.

    If I hadn't caught it, I would have been in the same position as the writer you described: polished novel, structurally flawed.

    So now maybe I don't hate revision as much as I used to, lol.

  32. I love this!

    Never give up! Never surrender!

  33. Interesting. I am somewhere in the middle of pantsing and plotting. I start with an idea, know roughly where I want it to go - I know the key landmarks, I guess. But then I let the rest of the story evolve naturally as I flow from point to point.

    Seems to work so far, anyway. ;)

  34. Yes, all too familiar. But then again, everything worthwhile in life is painful to attain in some form or another. My tip for writers is have an open mind, a thick skin, be flexible and oh...lots of good red wine:-)

    Suzanne Kiraly


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)