Lessons from Writing a Novel

Here is the tale of writing not one novel but five. My intent is to share my thinking and processes as the evolvednot to say you should write a novel or series the way I do, but simply to offer one option. If you are a writer and storyteller, you need to find your own process, what works for you.  As  counter-example, I know one writer who writes the dialog fro a scene, then she goes back and writes the stage directions, then goes back and writes…making four or five passes over the same scene.

It took me about four years to write The Tower of Dreams.  For those of you who have read it, the character of Anton came to me firsta kid from the slums who grows up stealing and fighting. Then he finds a way out.  After Anton came Kala.  I wrote a novelette about the two of them meeting, but it didn’t work so well.  My writer’s group wondered why Anton was even there. So I expanded Kala’s portion and covered her journey to become the Tigress at the end of what is now book 2, Oathbound Sisters.  At 25,000 words, it proved too lengthy for ordinary markets, so I thought a while, and decided that if I leafed in Anton’s story, and maybe a few other characters, it could become a novel.  Thus, Magnus and Carlota joined the frayI had never intended to write about them.  Magnus let me break a trope: the king, in my epic fantasy, is not a warrior. He also led me to a beginning of the Dendalen culture. I asked a question: why would a nation hold winter court in the mountains and summer court on the plains? (Sometimes it’s strange the way an author’s mind works. The Tower of Dreams itself came about as a result of that question.)

While writing the story, someone in writer’s group said I had missed some storytelling opportunities.  Thus, I added Asmund (who would have shown up in what was then book 2 anyway), because I needed a priest on the wrong side. I added Joao and Edric because I needed soldiers to show battles Kala did not see.  With Joao I discovered something else I do, making it up as I go along. In what is now chapter 4 of Oathbound Sisters, I had Kala ask some men, other soldiers, for help. When I needed a battle scene for chapter 2, I thought, “Why don’t I use that guy?” And Joao became a recurring viewpoint character who shows up whenever I need a soldier who is not Kala. It’s happened other timeswith Asmund, as I said. Once I gave him chapter in The Tower of Dreams, he came back again and again, even though he’d originally been scheduled to first appear in An Uncivil War.

I created the magic system as I went—originally, I thought the magic would be subtle and off stage. I created the culture as I went—figuring out the languages, the dual-culture in Dendalen, all the ceremonies and rituals, etc. A lot of the ceremonies came when, as I wrote a chapter, and needed something for Magnus and Carlota to do.

As I wrote, I had to rearrange things, split chapters up, move things around, change the timeline, and more.  Somewhere in that long process, things changed for me as a writer.  The short stories I wrote after I finished The Tower of Dreams are better than the ones I wrote before.  I now can tell good from bad more easily than before.  For instance, one story I wrote after The Tower of Dreams did not work. I like the idea, it has a good opening, but it does not go anywhere worth going.

Then came November, 2014 and NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).  The challenge is to write 1667 words a day for 30 days50,000 words in one month.  In 2014 I didn’t succeed.  I picked a novel (not part of The Dreaming King Saga) that I’d been thinking about for a long time, and I thought I knew the story.  It turned out I knew the beginning and the end.  So, during NaNoWriMo, I made it up as I went.  Working full time, taking care of my family, and making up the story as I went, I managed about 43,000 words.  Not badespecially since I had no idea I could do anything like that.

Back on The Tower of Dreams, the editing process introduced another wrinkle.  The Tower of Dreams was 155,000 wordstoo long, my editor said, for one novel.  So we split it up.  I wrote some additional material, rearranged chapters again, and now The Tower of Dreams is followed by Oathbound Sisters.

Splitting up the first novel also forced me to write another prologue.  And that gave me an idea; I had another story to tell from many, many years earlier.  I’d thought of writing a prequel, perhaps as book 4.  Instead, I am writing it in the prologues5 prologues that relate to The Dreaming King Saga and tell another story.

The next book, An Uncivil War, began in 2015. Although I did it in two writing periods 6 months apart, I wrote An Uncivil War, in 10 weeks105,000 words.  The ten weeks included NaNoWriMo 2015, when I did make the 50,000 words.

When I finished An Uncivil War, I realized that I could not simply skip from there to the last book. I had left too many things unresolved, too many complications that needed their own resolution.  Thus, book 4, On Black Mesa, came into being.

It took talking to and listening to other authorsGary Jonas and Kristine Katherine Rusch in particularto learn all the lessons from NaNoWritMo 2014.  What did I learn?

  1. I am a better novel writer than I am a short story writer.  (The shorter the story, the worse I get.  My flash fiction is downright awful for the most part.)
  2. As Kris Rusch said of herself, “I have the attention span of a gnat.”  I enjoy making up the story as I go.
    1. If I outline, I no longer want to write the story.
    2. In college, I got inspired and hand-wrote 100,000 words in 3 weeks.  Years later, I read the manuscript and kept saying, “Wow, that’s a good story,” and “Wow, the writing sucks”.  So, as I had read it should be done, I made note cards to outline the story as I wanted to write it anew.  After I finished, I never even started the novel.
    3. Now, still more years later, I intend to go back and write that story, because I’ve forgotten the outline.
  3.   I can write at the pace of 1000-2000 words per day.
  4. Thus, a 100,000 word novel should take me less than 100 days, meaning I can potentially write 3 novels a year.
    1. To give you an idea, The Dreaming King Saga is now at around 415,00o words and I’m half way through the 5th book.
    2. That pace does not include revisions and editing, however, so 3 a year might be a little ambitious.

No two writers use the same process.  What works for me may not work for you.  Learn your own process. Remember, however, stretching and doing things you don’t think you are capable of can teach you a great deal and make you a better writer.