Friday, January 7, 2011

Pot Holes and Aha Moments in Your Writing Career

File:Newport Whitepit Lane pot hole 3.JPG

A writing career, just like any other kind, starts at the bottom and works its way to the top. It's a journey, filled with pot holes (hee hee, plot holes), and Eureka moments. 

My first Aha moment as a writer came after I penned my very first novel. It took me from 2003 to 2008 to finish it. Yeah. No, I wasn't working on it the whole time. I belonged to the someday-I'll-write-a-book club. My pot hole was that I didn't have any discipline. From August to October, I finally finished it.

In 2008, my Aha moment said, Writing on a daily schedule yields faster, better results.

Duh, right?

When you write every single day, or close to it, your story simply has more cohesiveness, more natural flow, than it will when you put months between each chapter. Not to mention how your writing style will change over time, even if you're not writing regularly. If you want to see what it looks like when 19-year-old me writes Chapter 1 and 23-year-old me writes Chapter 27, I've got a manuscript that can demonstrate it palpably. An unpublished manuscript. A terminally unpublishable manuscript. I will never do that again.

Another pot hole I faced as a writer was my essay training from high school, which told me to seek out the fanciest word to drive home my point. Never, ever use was or said, my teachers said. If you try to take every was and is/were/are out of a paper or manuscript, you will end up with some funky variations on sentence structure and some even funkier word combinations. Or maybe it's just me.

(e.g. It was proven that the chicken pox are contagious. 
becomes--> The researchers found that chicken pox bore communicable properties.)

Stilted much? Yeah, this won't sound good in your YA novel. Thus, my next Aha moment came after my third book (we'll skip right over the sequel I wrote to the first book which had all the same problems as the first, but with a catchier ending).

It said, Stop trying to sound smart.

I am smart. You are, too. But we don't have to prove that to our readers by using words like ruminated where it would sound more natural for the character to say thought or pondered. Sure, if you've got a narrator or character who would use that word, like John Green's child prodigy in An Abundance of Katherines, then by all means, say ruminated all you like. But not because you're too good for boring words.

A meandering hell of word-vomit at the end of that book taught me this:

A rough outline is better than no outline at all.

Which leads me to today's Aha moment. Two books later, I am still learning the importance of story structure and planning in creating the elusive perfect novel. Meandering? Still happens to me, unfortunately. I'm finally frustrated enough to do something about it. Enter Larry Brooks of

"In essence, story development separates into two sequential realms: the search for story… [followed] by the rendering of story."

otherwise realized as...

If it took you half the book to figure out your plot and character arcs, the reader has no hope.

Smart guy, that Larry Brooks.

What Aha moments have you had lately? What road blocks or pot holes have you hit?

If you're about due for another epiphany, check out Larry's article: A Mindset Shift That Can Get You Published, which inspired this post.


  1. What's funny is I never thought about how much your novel can change for cohesiveness if you set it down for awhile, but it makes sense! I also like to use the term "SAT" word. Sometimes when I look at my own work or a critique partners I say, "Mmm I'm not sure I know what that word means and I don't know if a 14yo girl will either." Okay now I just made myself sound a little dumb...

  2. That's a good way to red-flag those smarty-pants words, Magan! SAT words. I like that. You don't sound dumb at all, not to me. There are probably a million vocab words I haven't learned. And even when we're writing for adults, we should probably avoid those ten dollar words unless they're really the best fit. Nothing wrong with ten-cent words!

  3. This is so funny and full of great advice.

    I take exception to one thing -- saying you took a long time for your first book because you didn't have discipline.

    A) It's hard for me to believe that of Katrina!

    B) I think it's hard to finish a first book because we don't know if can do it. Until you write a novel, it sounds almost impossibly difficult (and it turns out it is pretty hard).

    C) When you start to write, it was hard to say, "I am a writer. This is important. I'm going to do this instead of other things that other people think I ought to be doing."

  4. My most recent AHA moment was the realization that the first half of my MS's boring. I hate admitting that out loud. BUT I know how to fix it. And fix it I shall!
    I'm a fan of outlines. Sometimes I have a general one, while others are much more detailed. And I don't always stick to them, but they are very helpful.

  5. My major plot whole was I didn't have a plot, LOL! Srsly, tho, I had to fess up to myself that pansting (although my preferred method) left me with too much revision work in the end. I had to ditch an entire manuscript and start over!!! An outline was needed--once I got that, I had a HUGE breakthrough.


  6. I really should listen to what the professional editors tell me... aha... I don't know it all .. yet ... xx

  7. Kelly, you're too sweet! That first book is hard for everyone, definitely. I'm just glad I found such a great support group. It makes all the difference in the world.

    LS, I hate it when that happens. But at least it's easier to fix a boring beginning than it is to rewrite an entire book, right? Good luck!

    lbdiamond, I'm with you. I still have kind of a romantic idea about pantsing, for all my talk of outlines. It really kicks me in the butt when I don't have a good plan, though. Every time!

    Michelle, wise advice for all of us-- listen to feedback and keep learning. Thank you.

    Thanks for stopping by, guys. Good talk!

  8. This was great advice and this..."A meandering hell of word-vomit at the end of that book..." made me laugh out loud!! :)Good stuff!


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