Tools for Writing a Novel

I’ve been to many conferences were successful writers share their tools for writing a novel, and I now have my own set to share. I am working hard to get my current manuscript done – and basic proofreading corrections made – before February 26.

The novel is called DNF (Did Not Finish) and it’s middle grade contemporary fiction. Maybe I will post a teaser when it’s out on submission.

Because I love checklists and measuring my productivity, I’m using a checklist log to record my daily activity.

tools for writing a novel

 

This isn’t a word count tracker, although I do have a handy little Numbers file that can function as a word count tracker just like the one NaNoWriMo provides on its website. I decided not to focus on words for this draft of my manuscript. Instead I focus on WHEN I am in the timeline of the story.

Paper Tools

I needed some other tools for writing a novel, and because I’m focusing on WHEN, I needed a calendar. My main character is a runner, so I use a training plan. And because this story has a large cast of characters (many more than in Dare Club) I needed a character list.

Each one of these tools helps me stay on track, minimize confusion, and prevents the kind of writer’s block that isn’t about ‘not having ideas’ but forgetting where you are in the story. I’ve found the calendar to be especially helpful.

Online Tools

My story takes place in a specific year, I use Weather Underground‘s website to find the weather for each of my key scenes. I also look online for popular baby names of the year 2000, and for popular songs, apps, and television shows. I’m sort of a stickler for minimizing anachronisms.

What tools for writing a novel do you use?

 

Details, Details, Details – Details Matter in Novels

“Sometimes I read your stories and I like them, Mom,” said my middle son. “But sometimes, when I read some of your stories, I forget I’m reading. That’s when I know they are really good.”

He’s right. And that’s all thanks to details.

Everyone know the phrase ‘devil is in the details’ but I don’t really like it. It makes details sound like a trick or a scam. Details are super important. And I know that. But sometimes it is so hard to make sure my novel has really good details. Maybe that’s the devil’s fault again, but I think it’s really just mine. It takes a lot of work to check every single detail. But if you love what you do, isn’t it worth it? I think it is, no matter what you’re doing whether it’s writing a novel or building a robot or cooking a meal. The results are worth it.

Details Matter

Here, take a look at these photos from my recent house renovation. These are examples of how our excellent foreman has a keen eye for detail. He takes his time, he does it right, and the results are worth it.

Photo 1 is a close up of the top of some cabinets. The ceiling is sloped just slightly enough that the moulding wouldn’t fit. So the ceiling needed another thin layer of plaster. It took a little more work, but now the moulding will look smooth and clean.

In your story, you want every sentence to read smooth and clean. Where do things slope too far away? Could you add some details to even things out?

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Here’s a photo showing the precise markings of some blocking that will support our floating shelves. The shelves will look like they are just floating magically against the wall, like magic. But it’s really careful math and science.

What parts of your story do you want to feel magical but haven’t given them enough support? Are there details you can add so that the entire plot has a good foundation?

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Here’s an example of some wall outlets. It’s a bad photo, so just trust me. These wall sockets aren’t aligned. Our foreman didn’t put these in and I know he’d never install wall sockets without lining them up.They were put in decades ago, and they look bad. They disrupt the lines of the wall.

What parts of your story just don’t line up? What details can you add to get things into line?

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Here’s a rather amazing example. After laying new floor and installing a new door, our foreman noticed the crew had to chip a tiny hole out of the floor to get the door frame to fit. Our foreman knew right away this hole would bother us every day, since it’s right at the top of the stairs that we use to enter the house. He left a note to himself to fix it.

What tiny plot holes have you left gaping open that you need to close? Is there one detail you can fill in to make the story feel complete to readers?

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Details can be added as you hammer out the first draft, but are also a big part of revising.

Details are connected to our senses, so as you’re revising, think about how things look, but also how they sound, smell, feel and taste. One of my favorite details in my manuscript is the sound of cicadas. That sound is part of the Maryland summer soundtrack. I also want to add in the smell of hot tar on a parking lot, and the taste of honeysuckle.

These are all small examples, but details are small. As you read through your favorite books, take note of the details that mattered and how small they are. Then go back through and add them to your story.

Five Focal Points for Revising A Manuscript

I am training for a triathlon. That means I have to practice three different ways of racing: swimming, biking and running. Each one requires me to work on my form for that sport. But the form for each sport has lots of moving parts: arms, legs, head, neck, spine. When you’re practicing any of those, it’s hard to think about your entire form all at once. So I think about it parts. When I’m swimming, I’ll think about elbows one lap, or keeping my neck loose. When I’m biking I’ll work on relaxing my shoulders and leaning forward for a half mile at a time. When I’m running, I’ll work on my forward lean for 2 minutes, then knee lift for the next two.

The same goes for writing and for revising a manuscript.

It’s hard to think about all of it, all at once. So try breaking it into parts.

In May, I attended an agent workshop hosted by my local SCBWI chapter. I spent the most time with Vicki Selvaggio from the Jennifer de Chiara agency. In final presentation of the weekend, she suggested each of us go back through our manuscripts and read it over five times. Each time through, she offered a different focal point for us to consider. Because it’s hard to revise your manuscript and think about all the important pieces all at once.

Here are the five focal points she suggested for revising a manuscript:

  1. Make an X in the manuscript whenever you get bored, a character says the same thing more than once, you’re confused, or you see a tell vs. a show.
  2. Make an X if a scene, page or chapter doesn’t move the story forward, if it doesn’t end when the story is over, if there’s a main character change or if the theme isn’t clear.
  3. Make an X if it’s not written in a unique voice, if someone doesn’t have an important role, if they dialogue tags are too visible (“said” is just fine).
  4. Make an X if your story is missing sensory details, if the story feels like it’s in a void, if you haven’t mentioned how things look, sound, smell, taste, feel, if you can combine setting details with action.
  5. Make an X where you start paragraphs the same way, if you can avoid “-ing” verbs, if you can avoid double verbs, if you can remove adverbs, or other weak words.

Before you tackle this, she suggests letting the story sit at least a month. I’m well overdue for revising my manuscript, so I have to get started making x’s right now!

 

Read it five separate times. Revising a manuscript

Read it five separate times!

How to Find An Agent For My Novel

critique groups

Drafts & Revisions

Earlier this year, I finished the first draft of my middle novel, Dare Club. Once the draft was done, I dedicated the rest of the year to revision and to find an agent for my novel.

I knew that it would be tough to find an agent for my novel wasn’t going to be easy and would need the strongest possible manuscript, which is why revision was a huge part of ths. In order to tackle the revision process, I downloaded Kate Messner’s book Real Revision. I attended a writing retreat hosted by the Western PA region of SCBWI. I worked online with Margo Dill, a.k.a Editor 911. And I put in hours at my desk and laptop alone.

With revision underway, I needed to get out there and meet agents, both in real life and online. In May, I attended the Pennwriters Conference and pitched to four different agents. At the writing retreat, I put my first chapters in front of an editor. In September, I participated in Brenda Drake‘s Pitch Wars and in her Twitter-based #PitMad party.

And I crossed my fingers.

And somewhere along the line I realized how pitching and revision go hand in hand when it comes to writing the best possible book and in the search to find an agent for my novel. When I wanted to really hone in on the essence of my story and create a compelling pitch, I thought long and hard about if the 50,000 words on the pages actually told that story.

I sent my queries out there and posted my pitches on Twitter and got some interesting, thoughtful feedback that will help me revise even more and hopefully help me not just find any agent for my novel but to find an agent for my novel that is the right one. 

Have you ever sent a query out? And gotten a rejection back? I’ve received tons of rejections but I thought I’d share the ones relevant to my novel here.

Rejection 1: “Thanks so much for sending your novel along and for your patience while I considered it.  I’m sorry but I’ve decided to pass.  I think the concept is really strong, but I wasn’t drawn in by the writing, which felt a little too young in a way.”

Rejection 2: “Thank you for the opportunity to consider DARE CLUB. Though I really love this premise and you show a lot of talent as an author, I didn’t quite buy into the relationship between Tony, Inky, and Mara—the dynamic felt, at times, a tad too flat, and I’d like to have known more about Mara in particular. I am afraid that I don’t have the vision for this project—but I wish you the best of luck in finding an agent and a publisher for DARE CLUB. It’s a great premise, and with the right editorial guidance I think you could have something here.”

Rejection 3: “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to choose DARE CLUB. In this case it really came down to voice, and I just wasn’t personally connecting.”

Rejection 4: “Thank you for sharing your Pitch Wars entry with me! I received a lot of submissions, and unfortunately, I didn’t choose yours to mentor.I really enjoyed your entry, which made this a tough decision! You’ve got great MG voice, strong writing, and an intriguing concept. I think the one thing I wanted more of was Tony. He’s narrating the story, but I couldn’t get a good grip on who he was as a person (besides the fact that he likes challenges and hates his nickname). It might help to add a few more thoughts/emotions on his part as he narrates in order to shed more light on him as a character — things that give insight into his family, things he likes to do, other friends, pets, goals/desires (aside from getting to know Mara better, that is! 😉 You definitely don’t want to info-dump this kind of thing, but just adding a little here and there as it relates to the conversation or Tony’s observations would help flesh out his character. I hope that helps! I definitely think you should query this (if you haven’t already started), and enter it into some more contests. You should also consider doing the #pitmad pitch party on Twitter on the 9th–you’ve got a great hook, which is a must-have to get agent attention in 140 characters. 🙂 Best of luck to you.”

Something amazing just happened as I read those rejections in the process of posting them here to help inspire fellow writers to keep working on their dream novel. I felt inspired again. I wanted to let other writers know that rejections aren’t always filled with negative comments or with cursory dismissals. Rejections can help, especially when the agent or editor provides a useful critique! I know that’s rare enough these days so these kinds of rejections should be treasured all the more.

I’m still trying to find an agent for my novel. And I’m not giving up yet!