Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
Developing an idea
Structuring the external plot
Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
Writing effective scenes
Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
Revising your work
Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.
What are writers to do when they have an idea and the ambition to write something they’re not yet skilled enough to write or don’t know how to tackle? How do you know if your capabilities are inadequate or you’re simply not working hard enough?
Kyle Winkler posted these questions on Twitter the other day, and they intrigued me enough to write this post.
When your literary reach exceeds your grasp
As readers first, writers can comprehend and appreciate writing at a level they’re not yet capable of producing. If you conceive an idea and attempt to write the piece but can’t pull it off for one reason or another, you’ve tried but may not have the skills to complete it or to fully realize your intention for it. Or you haven’t yet stumbled on how to approach it.
This doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough; you’re simply working to the limits of your capabilities at this point in your career. Stephen King wrote Carrie first and The Stand later.
There’s also a difference between knowing something’s not right and knowing what’s not right—and how to fix it. This only comes with experience and continuing self-education and practice.
Enter the writing process
I recently developed a writing process I hope to perfect so that I’m always producing work. The phases I still find challenging are Ideation, Brainstorming, and Plotting—developing an initial idea into a workable plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. (Character development and theme also fall into these stages.)
“Working hard enough” may mean you shelve a piece, continue to write other things and study writing craft—for years or decades—before you get back to the piece with the increased capabilities to identify what’s wrong or what’s needed and then go on to fix it or otherwise fulfill your initial creative vision for it.
Development of a novella
For instance, I originally got an idea for what I thought was a supernatural horror short story back in September 2004 after reading William F. Nolan’s 3000-word story, “Diamond Lake.” The earliest draft of my story I produced, tentatively titled “Kissing Cousins,” was also 3000 words, dated March 2005.
But the story didn’t work, and I didn’t know why. I sent it out for critique and comments, much of which I incorporated in further drafts. It still wasn’t right, and I was at a loss to discern why.
More edits and another critique in 2007. Still not right.
In 2008 I workshopped this story at Borderlands Writers Boot Camp in Baltimore. I got some great feedback (altogether a terrific workshop experience that really boosted my writing at the time—I can’t recommend it enough), but I still couldn’t make the story work. I vaguely remember another participant saying, “The story should be longer.” That was helpful yet simultaneously frustrating because I didn’t know exactly how to do that—should I pour more words into it simply for the sake of making it longer? (This was the beginning of progressing from something’s wrong to what’s wrong.)
One of the many problems with the piece was that I relied on a lot of “telling.” Looking back on it now, it was an indication that, instead of the narrative of an actual story, I had the narrative of an outline of a story. (This is when I progressed from knowing what’s wrong to knowing how to fix it.)
In 2008, I completed a series of worksheets I’d previously developed from helpful writing texts. This got me closer to the story I wanted to tell, which I’d retitled as “Oddington.” From that process, I expanded some of the outlined portions into dramatized scenes and grew the piece from 3000 words/13 pages to 13,000 words/60 pages. I now called it “Dinosaur Rock.”
I was getting closer but, nope, the piece still didn’t come together. I shelved it for over adecade.
The missing puzzle piece
I wrote no fiction and read little in 2020, especially the second half. Terrible time with health problems compounded by COVID isolation. But at the beginning of 2021, I got back into reading writing-craft books and came upon three by K. M. Weiland: Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel. (Character Arcs was new, but the other two I’d had on my shelves for five years and never read.)
What I learned in these books wasn’t new (I’ve read and studied hundreds of craft books in the past thirty years), but it crystallized a portion of my writing process. Along with the study of theme (The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams, Writing Your Story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland, and Writing Deep Scenes by Alderson and Rosenfeld), developing a workable process to get from Idea through Outlining enabled me to fill in the story’s holes so I could get to the Drafting stage. I developed many more worksheets/questionnaires that are now part of my Scrivener project template that I copy to begin a new book.
How I proved my writing process
I codified my writing process and cultivated a new idea received January 21 (for which I highly recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel) into a Plot with a beginning, middle, and ending. Using the new worksheets I developed from the Weiland books, I co-developed my protagonist’s internal character arc with the external story/plot arc into a somewhat detailed scene-by-scene outline in a month. I spent another twenty-nine days Drafting. I finished April 18 with the first draft of novel #7, a 40,553-word horror/mystery. You can read more about my stats at Novel #7 Finished.
The previous paragraph is here simply to prove (at least to me) my process works.
While #7 gelled before I began Editing, I wanted to get to work on something new. I toyed around reviewing my ideas file but, clicking through my FICTION folder on my laptop, I came across the dusty “Dinosaur Rock,” and a bloody flower budded in my twisted little mind. Forgetting everything about Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick, I reviewed the old worksheets and reread the 60 pages I’d written back in 2008.
I was convinced this piece still had potential and that finishing it was imperative because I had something important to say. (Certain pieces nag you for a reason—don’t give up!)
Even though part of my work was done years ago, in that I’d completed a few worksheets, I went through my entire, newly developed Brainstorming, Plotting, and Outlining stages and completed all of my current worksheets.
Lo, and behold, missing pieces showed up, and I began to see what was wrong as well as how to fix it.
I Outlined those plot holes, Drafted the dramatized narrative, and plugged the results into my Scrivener project. I compiled and printed, Edited it, and sent it off to a beta reader last week. “Dinosaur Rock” finally came out to 17,800 words/71 pages, a novella on the shorter side.
It took nearly twenty years, but because I intended to finish the piece, continued to study writing craft and occasionally worked on the story to apply new things I’d learned, I was able to move from something’s wrong to what’s wrong to how to fix it.
Certainly, I have more revision and editing ahead of me, but this piece is finally realized. And I now have a new perspective on “abandoned” ideas and Inspiration in general.
Knowing your process helps get you from something’s wrong to what’s wrong, and perhaps even how to fix it.
The prescient power of ideas
Second, not to get all religious or metaphysical (well, maybe metaphysical), inspiration takes faith as well as hard work to realize.
Have you ever had an idea for a book, but either didn’t know how to execute it or didn’t get around to writing it, and meanwhile someone else published a book based on that same idea? (I’ve kicked myself more than once over this.)
I believe that Inspiration in the form of Ideas is “out there,” seeking any and every channel to be communicated to humanity. Those with sensitive receivers (a.k.a good old-fashioned imaginations) pick up on these Ideas. Fewer have the capabilities and skills to develop these ideas into a Plot that can be encoded as narrative (Drafted). Others who have studied their craft and developed a process are able to realize those ideas into a finished product (Marketed).
Ideas are like seeds that seek to propagate themes in the soil of humanity’s minds. Inspiration, whether it comes from the Divine or the Collective Unconscious or your own creative brain, needs a process to materialize Ideas into marketable material that can be consumed by the reading public.
Some writers are fortunate enough to realize this process early in their careers. And some are blessed enough to have it internalized. I ain’t one of them.
I took AP English in high school. I earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction. I attended many workshops and conferences and classes, read hundreds of books on writing craft, and wrote a lot of unpublishable stuff. It took me fifty years (I started writing horror fiction in second grade) of grueling work to identify and codify a process to generate fiction from Idea to Market.
Inspiration doesn’t take your present skills into account. If you’re open to receiving an Idea, you’ll get it. Your ambition may outpace your capability at this point in time, but ideas and ambition have a prophetic influence on your career: They give you something to work toward and live up to; they call you to develop your art and skills so that someday you’ll be able to realize your literary visions.
Never criticize your capabilities. They are what they are at this point in time. And that’s good reason to keep working hard, reading fiction and writing craft, studying, trying, burying and resurrecting, and trying again. You can’t force professional development, but you can get better over time if you apply yourself.
How to nurture a big idea
If you’ve conceived a story you don’t yet have the ability or know-how to write, the first thing to do is set your intention that you will write it. If you can’t be positive about it, at least remain neutral; anything else is unproductive.
Recognize it will take a while until you get to it. Know that you’ll need to think about it, consciously and subconsciously, until things percolate. Understand you must continue to study and practice to get to where you can write it.
Then do what you can on the project today, even if it’s creating a folder on your computer, starting a Scrivener project with your working title, and making a bulleted list of possible ideas for the piece. (Again, I recommend Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel for its chapter on turning your idea into a plot.)
In some small measure, you’ve moved from thought to materialization. Even if you don’t touch the project for a year or a decade, you’ve begun. As further inspiration comes, be sure to capture it.
Granted, not every idea you receive or generate will become published material. I have a slew of ideas I’ve recorded over the past thirty years that remain seeds. A few will someday germinate; others may never progress to Brainstorming. Some might make it to Plotting, where I’ll lose interest in them.
But there are certain seminal ideas that will not let you rest. They may frustrate or disturb you. They haunt you and won’t let you go.
If you’re in possession of one of these, nurture it. Though you may be unable to fulfill that vision today, don’t give up. Set an intention for fruition. Remain neutral and receptive. Do what you can do today. Develop your writing process. Study. Learn. Apply what you’ve learned. Try again.
One day, you’ll find the missing pieces that let you complete the puzzle and see the big picture.
Ideation: This is generating a story idea. I do this purposely several times a week on Twitter. For example:
You open the front door to get the mail. In the mailbox is a severed hand. Who put it there and why. How do you find out?
Brainstorming: Great idea. (I’ll write it someday.) But it needs a little—okay, a lot—of work. Here’s where I go through a process of answering questions about my character and his or her goals. I do a lot of work before I tackle structure. After all, I need events and motivation to plot.
Plotting: I develop character arcs for all my major characters and conform the brainstormed material into classic story structure. More at How to Write Stories that Sell.
Outlining: Here, I sort the information into a sequential scene-by-scene list from which I’ll write. I like my ducks in a row so that when I plant my butt in the chair, I can write without interruption.
Drafting: Using my outline, I write from beginning to end, incorporating all the information from my brainstorming, plotting, and outlining. I use Scrivener to build my manuscripts.
Editing: After one or more days, I’ll print the draft and edit it, making sure all the necessary information is in place and that I’m using the best language to tell a story. I go through at least five drafts before I consider the story ready for the reading public.
Marketing: I now have everything beta read. (If you’re a published writer and are willing to beta-read my fiction, contact me.) After final changes, I submit it to markets. If I don’t place a work after a while, I publish it myself.
This is my process, and I hope to perfect it this year so that I’m regularly churning out story after story, novel after novel. Expect to see more published this year. If learning about my process has been helpful to you, please leave a comment. I’d like to know your process, too.
I will write faster. Having planned and plotted stories beforehand, I will be able to write them at least 2500 words per hour.
I will write to market each chance I get. Having mastered the art of storytelling and writing much and more quickly, I will write stories for open calls to increase my chances of getting published (instead of writing only my ideas and trying to place them offhand in markets).
I will write flash fiction. I will turn poems I’ve written into flash pieces or short stories.
I will develop and write a self-editing text, reading and compiling source notes, outlining, and writing chapters until I’m finished. I will submit a proposal to a publishing company.
I will revamp my backlist so that I win steady sales. This will include creating new covers for my one-off short stories and shorter collections.
I will learn how to market books on Amazon, including placing ads.
I will read a book on writing craft monthly. I will continue my writing studies, reading at least one craft text each month.
I will redesign my website and launch it. Leeallenhoward.com needs a facelift! Stay tuned.
I plan to make progress on all these goals in 2021. Have you set goals for the new year? What would you like to accomplish? Perhaps more reading? 🙂
WE WRITE! Creative Writing University to Hold Writing Workshop at Monroeville Public Library
WHO: Pittsburgh writers:
Lee Allen Howard
Monroeville Public Library reference staff WHAT: WE WRITE! Creative Writing Workshop WHEN: September 21, 2013 – 9:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. WHERE:Monroeville Public Library WHY: Writers of all levels learn from experiences of published Pittsburgh Writers and experts HOW: Registration at library
WE WRITE! Creative Writing University @ Monroeville Public Library will conduct the second in a series of an ongoing series of workshops for writers of all genres and skill levels on Saturday, September 21, at the Monroeville Public Library. This event will feature two Pittsburgh authors: Lee Allen Howard, professional editor and author; and Sharon Lippincott, author of five published books, teacher and layout consultant; and Mark Hudson and Marlene Dean, professional reference librarians at Monroeville Public Library.
In session 1, Self-Editing for Publication, Lee Allen Howard will explain the importance and demonstrate basics of effective self-editing. Structured exercises will reinforce his points.
In session 2, Research Tools for Writers, Mark Hudson and Marlene Dean will demonstrate library and other resources to help writers track down crucial details that breathe life and authenticity into stories of all genres and eras.
In session 3, Make Your Pages Picture Perfect, Sharon Lippincott will demonstrate the basics of page layout, demystifying styles, as well as page setup tools, selecting readable fonts and more.
The event runs from 9:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. at Monroeville Public Library, located at 4000 Gateway Campus Blvd. in Monroeville, PA. The cost is $30, which includes lunch. Registration is required, and seating is limited. Register early to ensure your place. Please visit or call the library at 412-372-0500 for further information and to register.
I finished ahead of schedule, completing the first draft the evening of April 4, 2013, at a total of 51,167 words—very close to my revised goal of 52,500. I was ecstatic! Since the beginning of 2013, I’d been spending two hours almost every weekday evening, and three to six hours on Saturdays and Sundays, plotting and writing. My all-time daily writing record was 2528 words on 3/26; my weekend writing record was 5024 words on 3/29-31; my daily average came out to be 1339/day.
I forced myself to let it cool for a week (well, almost a week) while I worked on getting DEATH PERCEPTION ready for release (next month). Today I exported THE BEDWETTER Scrivener project to a Word file and printed out the entire draft: 241 pages. I will begin my read-through tonight, making notes in the margin. Here’s a peek at the first draft. 🙂
I’ll keep you updated on my progress. In the meantime, drop me a line!
When you’re an independent author or self-publisher, you get to wear all the hats and do all the work, so any advantage is a plus. Here’s a terrific tip to help polish your work for e-readers.
You’re in Charge
I’m a big believer in self-editing. Even if you submit your work to a traditional publisher, you can’t count on a quality in-house edit. So it’s up to you.
Reformat for a Fresh Perspective
I write my manuscripts using Microsoft Word with a template I’ve devised especially for fiction, but I do most of my editing on paper. When I get to the point where I’m ready to publish my work (or submit it to an editor), I import my manuscript to Adobe FrameMaker to format it like an actual book. Then I print it again and do another edit.
It’s amazing how changing the format will help you spot improvements to make that you didn’t catch previously.
You don’t need to import your work to another program to take advantage of this trick. Simply make a copy of your manuscript file and either attach another template with different formats, or select all the text and change the font.
E-format for a Fresher Perspective
Now that I’m publishing for e-readers, in addition to reformatting my printouts for editing, I now send my final manuscripts to my Kindle for a last edit. I urge you to do this if you want to give your work the ultimate spit-polish.
You can send a Word file to your Kindle email account, but the file converted and sent to your device may still look like a manuscript, and you don’t want that. I recommend converting your manuscript to a MOBI file (or EPUB for Nook) using a conversion program such as Calibre.
I save my Word manuscript as Filtered HTML, drop the HTML file into Calibre, and then convert it to MOBI. I send the MOBI file to my Kindle email address and then sync my device to download it.
E-dit on Your Device
On my Kindle, I review the manuscript one final time. I’m always surprised at what I find. Things I’ve read a dozen times on paper suddenly stick out like a sore prehensile digit. The need for shorter paragraphs becomes evident.
I use the notes feature to make comments and corrections. When I’m finished, I copy the MyClippings.txt file from my device to my PC and then consult the entries there to search my Word manuscript file, where I make the final corrections.
As I said previously, I urge you to try this out and see what a difference it makes in your published e-books. It’s a step you won’t regret.
If you found this article helpful, please share it with others. And if you have any questions or tips of your own along this line, please leave a comment. Happy e-diting!
MANY GENRES, ONE CRAFT Now Available for Purchase!
Editing is the art and craft of shaping and refining a manuscript into a publishable book. But gone are the days of a publishing house editor doing this work for the writer. For editors, buying books they think will sell has, of necessity, become the first order of business, and often takes most of their time.
So, before you submit your work to a publisher, introduce yourself to your very first editor: you!
That’s the start of my article about self-editing in MANY GENRES, ONE CRAFT: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction (Headline Books, 2011), an amazing anthology of instructional articles for fiction writers looking for advice on how to improve their writing and better navigate the mass market for genre novels.
MANY GENRES, ONE CRAFT gathers the voices of today’s top genre writers and writing instructors affiliated with Seton Hill University’s acclaimed MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction. This hefty book is like a “genre writer’s workshop in a bottle”! Every contributor is a seasoned veteran in the industry or an up-and-coming writer. Many are bestsellers who have won multiple literary awards for their potent and entertaining genre fiction.
More importantly, these contributors know how to teach genre fiction. They are all trained teachers, visiting authors, or published alums from the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program offered by Seton Hill University—the only grad school dedicated to writing commercially-viable genre novels of quality.
One of the things that prevents otherwise good storytellers and writers from achieving publication is an unpolished manuscript. In my article, “Your Very First Editor,” I teach practically how to hone your prose and make it shine, increasing your chances for sale.