What I’ve Learned About Writing a Novel

PhotobucketToday’s guest is Sarah Pekkanen, the internationally bestselling author of three novels. Her latest, These Girls, a richly woven tale of friendship, was released April 10th and has received praise from authors Jodi Picoult and Jen Lancaster.

“Sarah Pekkanen’s latest celebrates the healing power of female friendship for three very different young women sharing a New York City apartment. At turns bittersweet, laugh-out-loud funny, and painfully real, you’ll wish you could move in with these girls.”
– Jodi Picoult

“In These Girls, Sarah Pekkanen again proves her innate understanding of women’s relationships. With a style that’s both wry and heartfelt, readers will absolutely recognize themselves and their friendships on the pages. These Girls is lively and engaging and ultimately satisfying, so get comfortable because you won’t be able to put it down!”
– Jen Lancaster, New York Times bestselling author of Bitter Is the New Black

Sarah Pekkanen is with us today to share her invaluable insight on what she’s learned about how to write a novel that sells. Enjoy!

What I’ve Learned About Writing a Novel

There’s one type of person I always meet at my booksignings: Someone who approaches my table with a mixture of frustration and hope in their eyes. They pick up my novel, but they don’t seem to really see it, because it isn’t my book they want to talk about – the book they desperately want to discuss is the one they’re struggling to write.

They’ve got the best of intentions. They’re smart, accomplished people – but they can’t quite get started. Or they have an idea, and maybe they’ve even written a dozen or fifty or a hundred pages, but then they smash into a mental roadblock. Or they’ve finished a draft, and even they know it’s terrible, despite the fact that their mother loves it. The book they produced is nothing like the book they imagined.

I understand, I always tell them – maybe too well. I’ve been there myself.

For years, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and I penned free-lance magazine articles on the side, but even with all that training, I found writing a novel to be … ahem, challenging. In the same way that running a marathon in high heels, backwards, might pose a slight challenge.

It took me a long time, and a few terrible drafts of books, to pinpoint the source of my problem: I hadn’t studied my craft well enough. For that, I blame conventional wisdom. After all, doesn’t conventional wisdom tell us that writers are born, not made? That being able to create a book is a God-given talent, similar to coming out of the womb with perfect pitch? I didn’t know you could learn how to write a book. I figured either you had it, or you didn’t. And I was beginning to suspect I didn’t.

I credit my agent, a sassy New Yorker who doesn’t hesitate to dole out critiques or praise when necessary, with leading me to the light. I’d turned in another terrible draft of a book, and she slogged through it, then she called me.

“I guess I could try to send it out as a character-based novel,” she said. I think it’s accurate to report that enthusiasm was not ringing through her voice. In fact, she kind of sounded like she wanted to shoot herself.

“Let’s wait,” I said. I wanted to give it one more try, and suddenly, I thought I knew how to do it.

Here’s what I took away from that phone conversation: I had my characters down – they were in good shape. What was missing from my novel was plot.

I set out on a quest to learn how to infuse my books with plot. I began by searching for books about plotting, and I bought every single one I could find. The stack still stands on the top of my computer hutch, and if it ever comes crashing down, it might take a few days for them to find me in the rubble – I have that many books. I read every single one, scribbling notes in the margins and folding down the corners of pages when I came across particularly helpful points.

PhotobucketThe most important thing I learned is that putting together a novel, for most of us, is difficult – but with certain creative tools, it can get easier. You may never achieve perfect pitch, but you can definitely be taught how to write a book.

The two finest guides I found were Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read his terrific Writer Unboxed contributions). Here are some key points I learned that helped me write a novel my agent was able to sell:

    • Real estate agents have a credo: Location, location, location. Here’s the writer’s credo:  Tension, tension, tension.  Fill your novels with it. Stack tension into your scenes until it’s as high as my wobbly tower of plotting books. You can never, ever have enough tension.
    • Learn the rules for writing a successful commercial novel. Start with a likeable protagonist, give her a goal, throw obstacles in her way, throw bigger obstacles in her way, and then see her through to a bang-up finish. You need to start strong, and finish stronger.
    • Turn the books you love into writing courses. Take some novels you admire, a stack of index cards, and a pen. Re-read the books and chart out every scene – the character and the main action – on index cards. Lay the cards out in order and study them to figure out how the author constructed their brilliant works. You’ll demystify the process.

This is just the beginning; the books by Bell and Maass taught me so much more, and every time I re-read them, I come away with new tips. The best part of all? Now I have three novels of my own on bookstore shelves, and I’ve just turned in the fourth to my editor. But it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t learned to plot – and for that, I’ll always be grateful to the authors who took the time to show the rest of us how it’s done.

Readers, you can learn more about Sarah on her website; and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Temari 09

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Comments

  1. says

    I’ve heard good things about both of these books before, so I’m guessing that everything that’s been said is true. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. Tension, I have found, is a good element to include in any type of text; written, filmed or performed. I learned that from being a drama and media student.

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  2. Redbear says

    Howdy Sarah: Tension, so much tension I don’t know where to start. I found your post at just the right time, now I know where the main weakness is in the first half of my own poor efforts. I must admit that that plots and sub-plots are not my strong my strongest suits(?). Your post pointed me in the right direction and gave me just the kick where the fabric meets the saddle that I need. Hopefully my stack of reference books won’t bury me as I have precious little storage space, but I’ll start off with your your recommendations. Thanks for a great post and I’ll be an avid follower of your posts from now on. See ya on your web site.
    Happy trails: Redbear

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  3. KC says

    Great advice! I especially love the idea of turning favorite books into writing courses. Would you mind describing that process in greater detail?

    Thanks again for the helpful post,

    KC

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    • says

      KC Google Alexandra Sokoloff. she has written many posts on how to do this with books and movies both on her own blog and at murderati.com.

      Sarah, great post. I’ve been freelancing and working as a copywriter for 15 years, and trying to write a book still makes me feel like I know nothing at all!

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    • says

      Sure – I just read a scene, then highlight the important characters and actions on an index card, like: Bob meet Jill at the park. Jill kicks Bob in the shins. Bob cries. By distilling the scenes down to their very basics, it helps me see the bones of a book.

      (PS Clearly I spent the day at the playground with a group of kids!)

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  4. says

    This next novel I’m writing will be more “plot oriented” than previous novels, and I was so discombobulated thinking about that, since I’m a character-driven sort of writer. However, when I recognize/realized that I’m going to write the way I always write, be who I am, create how I create, it helped me to relax. I just have a stronger sense of a “synopsis” to this book than I did for some of my novels.

    I do want to read those books you mentioned, though, so going to check them out – I believe we should never stop learning! Never ever!

    great post.

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  5. David says

    This was a nice post. I, too, have read and been affected by both of those books.

    What’s great about your points is that now that I’ve gone the infusion-of-plot-route, I worry a little that I’ve prostituted my manuscript.

    Your story is comforting.

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  6. Redbear says

    Howdy again Sarah: Just finished reading your bio. I love the sense of humor that your biographer uses to tell your story. Now I know why my wife slapped me after giving birth to our first born. Looking forward to being a regular reader.
    All the best to you and yours.
    Happy trails: Redbear

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  7. says

    Sarah —

    It’s no secret: I’m crazy about you, crazy about your books… and crazy about this post. No matter where we are in our careers it’s ALWAYS important to keep studying the basics and make sure we remember the bones of what makes writing succeed. I just added the Bell book to my Amazon wishlist and look forward to reading it… after I read These Girls!

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  8. says

    Sarah,
    Thanks so much for this post and congratulations on your third novel. I am also a former newspaper reporter and I thought I knew how to write a novel. How wrong I was! It wasn’t until I wrote two really bad novels that I bought some of the same craft books you did. In addition to the excellent books you named, I also liked Elizabeth George’s Write Away, which among other things is one of the best books on describing the importance of setting and how to create a realistic setting that works with the characters and the story. I also recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. I probably made every rookie mistake a writer could make, but I’m better off for it. Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

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  9. says

    ‘Tension, tension, tension’ is my new mantra. I definitely need to do more of that. I’m too ‘polite’ a writer always wanting to infuse some historical perspective into my work. Must be a miscast teacher or something. Thanks, Sarah, and thanks Redbear for the ‘fabric/saddle’ analogy. Luv it!

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  10. says

    Thank you SO much!

    As somebody who’s just finished her first novel (ever!) and had it accepted, I agree with every word you say. I used to show every finished scene to my own mother and she’d return it to me saying: “Well written, but it drags! Too slow! Give me tension!” So I added tension and more tension, and now everyone compliments me on a “fast-paced” first novel!

    Maass’s books have been a lifesaver for me, too. You’re so absolutely right. Writing isn’t a God-given gift we’re born with; what we’re born with as talent and now we need to add a lot of hard work studying the craft. And, as my mother would agree, beautiful writing comes second; tension comes first. :)

    THANK YOU!

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  11. says

    You just made my Monday morning! Great advice, some of which I’m already doing, much of which I’m not. Thanks for the great plotting book suggestions and key points. I’ve got lots of work to do…

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  12. says

    Thanks, Sarah.

    I could’ve written this!

    Even with my sicth novel about to hit shelves, I carry around a tattered copy of Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel.”

    I still study my craft! My favorite way, though, a way that feels almost like cheating, is to read fellow authors’ novels!!!

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  13. says

    Great advice! Tension. You are absolutely correct. No matter what genre, a good book lures a reader along with superbly crafted scenes of tension. ::sigh:: Another thing to add to my revisions list for my next draft.

    I’ll admit, my shelf of plotting and revising books is near capacity. Some copies are worn and tattered from my heavy usage, others I picked up second hand and well loved. I always wonder why someone parted with the book — did they give up on their novel, their dream? I try to suck in each and ever little morsel of advice I can absorb.

    Nice to see you here. I loved Skipping a Beat, and I can’t wait to devour These Girls.

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  14. says

    Thanks for taking the time to share this great advice.

    Since I have started to seriously plan and write a novel in the past two months, I have discovered some of these truths myself. what I learned is that I am strong with words and description but never really learned the art of telling a story. I’m diving into that right now, kind of learning as I go. Fingers crossed!

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  15. says

    I recently picked up Plot & Structure, but I’ve long loved Writing the Breakout Novel. (I’ll need to sink into P&S to find out what I’ve been missing!) Thanks for sharing these wise tips with us, Sarah, and best of luck with your new book!

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  16. says

    Hi!

    Thanks for the informative post. I think there’s always room to improve one’s craft.

    I’m still in the process of writing my first novel, but hopefully it will reach completion soon(ish). I appreciate all the helpful tips.

    Thanks for the recommendations on reference books, too. I’m working on building a small library of them, so it was nice to have two more to note.

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  17. says

    Tension! And something I learned about it: it comes in all sizes. Tension doesn’t have to mean a gun pointed at someone’s head. It could. But it could also mean a spilled cup of coffee, or a rip in one’s pantyhose.

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  18. Sarah E.A. Fusaro says

    Sarah,
    Wow! Thank you so much. I definitely will check out those two books (already have Plot & Structure, but need to break the bank on the Breakout Novel).

    The last two of your suggestions were stellar! I’ll have to try them out. And I would ad: You have to make writing a priority in your life. Otherwise, your wonderful novel will forever remain a nebulous idea hovering in your heart, just beyond the grasp of readers everywhere. :)

    Thanks again. Very encouraging post.

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    • says

      Sarah, agreed! If you wait for the perfect time and place to write – when the kids are grown, when you can afford a week by the ocean to start your novel in solitude – you may never begin. What’s more, you may put so much pressure on yourself that you might continue to delay as you search for the perfect circumstances. Just plunge in and write!

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  19. says

    “Tension, tension, tension,” sounds also like something straight out of James Fray’s “How to Write a Damn Good Novel,” which was the first how-to-write book I ever read.

    While I haven’t yet started the mammoth task of trying to sell my work (one novel complete–first draft, and halfway through my second novel; they are eagerly putting on their Sunday best), I also found Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” to be immeasurably useful.

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  20. says

    Great post, Sarah. When I decided to pursue writing a novel, I essentially went “back to school” by reading many books on craft. “Plot and Structure” and “Writing the Breakout Novel” were among my favorites, as was “Stein on Writing.”

    There’s a learning curve in any profession, right?

    Best wishes to you!

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  21. says

    Sarah, thanks for the kind words. Your story warms my the cockles of my heart (wherever those are in an ex-lawyer), but I love what you say here:

    “It took me a long time, and a few terrible drafts of books, to pinpoint the source of my problem: I hadn’t studied my craft well enough.”

    Exactly. Why do published writers sometimes tell unpublished writers this craft can’t be learned? (Or “shouldn’t” be because it’ll harm your “voice”)? Would we tell that to a plumber or a brain surgeon?

    You did it. You showed it can be done. And so have countless others.

    Thanks again for the shout out. That Maass fellow seems pretty sharp, too.

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  22. says

    Everyone takes a different path; in my case it was endless scenes and plot-sketches before I wrote my first novel. And, yes I had Writing the Breakout Novel, along with the Writing Great Fiction series, beside me as I wrote and rewrote. In my case, being a seat-of-your-pants writer, I write my way to the end with only a general goal in mind, then go back and tighten scenes and ladle on the tension, cut, drop, add as necessary. It all comes to the same thing: the protagonist must have an anvil hanging over their head or a sticky task they must accomplish in every scene. If a scene feels slack, its back to Donald Maas and others as I try and scene-doctor it.

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  23. says

    Hi Sarah, thank you so much for your advice!

    Although I have published a couple of short story collections, I’m working on my first novel now and it’s so much harder. :) Every day, I’m trying to improve my writing but your article appeared at just the write time as I struggle with this new project. Tension, tension, tension, huh? I’ll work on it. :) Your advice about giving the protagonist a a goal is dead on. I came to this conclusion a few days ago while plotting, and I asked myself the same question: What’s the character’s goal? It makes me feel better knowing that I just might be moving the in the right direction ever so slowly. Thank you again.

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  24. says

    I’ve mentioned it before, but I will say it again: “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Maass is an excellent book. I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about structure and plot.
    Steve

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