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.
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 their goals. I do a lot of work before I tackle structure. After all, I need events and motivation to plot. This stage may include incubation—time away to let my subconscious work.
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.
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.
How You Can Constantly Improve Your Indie-Published Work
When traditional publishing ruled, once a book was printed, it was set in stone. That’s why they employed editors and copy editors to improve the story and ferret out all the mistakes: once the book was typeset and thousands of copies printed, it couldn’t be corrected. But we’re in the digital age now.
If you’re an indie author, you’re responsible for everything: the writing, the formatting, the editing, the publishing, and the marketing. It’s hard to guarantee perfection at every step. The good thing is, nothing’s set in stone. In today’s publishing world your books are tantamount to software. If you didn’t get it right the first time, there’s always version 2.0.
At one point I debated whether this was ethical. After my initial release of a book, should I change it? I was still recovering from the bircks-and-mortar bookstore/paper tome/traditional publishing paradigm. Now I think, If you know it needs to be corrected or can be improved, can you ethically not give your readers the best product you’re capable of providing?
If you discover you need to make corrections to a work already published, you can do so and simply upload a new version to your favorite sales portal. Along with the power of having your own digital Gutenberg comes great responsibility.
As a technical writer 25+ years in the software industry, I adhered to this principle in the millions of pages of documentation I wrote and published: If it needs fixed, whatever the reason, fix it and republish ASAP.
Going the extra mile is in your favor. If you get a less than spectacular review and the reader complains about something you can change, do so as quickly as possible to prevent others from jumping on the bandwagon. For instance, if a number of reviewers (precious few nowadays) bitch about how much they hated the ending, REWRITE IT.
Like the in-house Quality Assurance department, your beta readers don’t always catch everything before you publish. Once your work is in the hands of the public, you become Helpdesk and Support Services, fielding complaints and logging issues for product improvement. Your product.
I’m not advocating changing your fiction at the whims of your readership. If you made a decision that you know is right for your story, stick with it. Yet if it concerns some other issue you can rectify, do so. Reminder: it pays to take your time and ensure you’re putting your best out there the first time.
Sure, some readers will always own 1.0. These are the breaks. But some of your readers getting an improved pub is better than all of them getting version 1.0 with all its bugs. It’s just not necessary with digital texts.
Amazon lets you notify readers that a new version is available. I did this once for a classic I had republished because an OCR scanning error turned into a factual error that I didn’t catch. I don’t recommend you do this unless absolutely necessary. Especially with fiction, once it’s read, it’s read.
But if you get a chance to improve your published work—whether it’s to correct typos, smooth out a scene, fill in a plot hole, or post a new cover—by all means, do it. Constant improvement is the professional stepstool to greater sales.
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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!
About two weeks ago, I got the idea to revise my Seton Hill University thesis novel, DEATH PERCEPTION. But that created a dilemma for me: revise an old project, or work on a new one? Here’s how I came to my final decision.
Since graduating from the Writing Popular Fiction masters program in 2006, I had made several rounds of revisions on the book, a supernatural crime story. I would go through it and make a lot of changes, then I’d bury it again. I never felt it was complete. Certainly not good enough to be published. And frankly I was so sick of it I couldn’t gain any perspective. Am I improving it, or am I making it worse? I could never tell. After its mouldering in the grave for a good three years, I unearthed the manuscript once more, scraped off the decay, and decided to take another look.
I was suprised. Sure, there were a couple chapters that were clinkers, churned out under the pressure of a term deadline nearly a decade ago. But most of it was good. Really good. At one point, I thought, I can’t believe I wrote this…
Perhaps my skills and judgment have matured. More so, I think I’ve gained confidence in my abilities. Somewhere during my continuing studies and coming out process, I gained that perspective I needed to be able to judge my own work with a more objective eye.
And I discovered something uncanny. Those frustrating holes in my manuscript that I didn’t know how to fill in past revisions were suddenly waiting like placeholders for knowledge I now possessed. Someday I plan to blog about the prescient and prophetic aspects of fiction writing, but for now I’ll say that not only with THE SIXTH SEED, but also with DEATH PERCEPTION, plot situations that I wrote about years ago have come to pass in my personal life. Let me explain.
DEATH PERCEPTION is about a young man who operates the crematory at the local funeral home. He discovers he has a gift for discerning the cause of death of those he cremates. Not a big deal since they’re already dead. However, when what he discerns differs from what’s on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers.
Have I started to cremate the deceased in my spare time? No. (But the onsite research was fascinating!) Yet the abilities my protagonist Kennet Singleton develops—powers I wrote about from pure imagination a decade ago—I am now experiencing in my own life.
I’ve been planning a new novel, DEAD CEMETERY, working on setting, plot, and characterization in my spare moments the past few months. I’m itching to spend more time on it, but am constrained by my spiritualism schoolwork. When I received the idea (actually, an intuitive prompting) to revise DEATH PERCEPTION, I felt it would only further postpone my work on the new book (which, of course, it is). But once I got into DEATH PERCEPTION, I realized that I might be able to finalize revisions and actually get it published.
So that’s what I decided to do: revise and publish DEATH PERCEPTION so that I will have something to market while I work on DEAD CEMETERY.
With the help of Spirit, I’m learning to spin plates like a real writer. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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.