So you’ve come for the magic elixir! You want to know how the sausage is made and how to do it in one ingredient. I got you. But before I give you the secret, the sauce, the coup de grâce, (i.e. what you came here for), let’s back up a bit. I know, I know, you want to skip to the end but it won’t do you any good as I have sufficiently buried the lede. I suspect this will either encourage you to keep reading… or that other thing that must remain unmentioned and undone.
(Please step away from the close button!)
Where was I? Oh, yes. I was backing up like a driver who missed his freeway exit and the next one isn’t for another ten miles. (Admit it, you’ve done this!) Let me tell you a bit about my story. Which reminds me of another story…
But that’s not relevant here, so let me just tell you about…
All the times I gave up writing
When I was a kid, I remember writing stories on the cover of my school subject packets. You may have heard of the adventures of Dr. Eng and Mr. Lish? I’m not sure why they had a spaceship. Upon reflection, that particular story may have been more appropriate for Mr. Math or Dr. Science. But that was long ago when the only rules of writing were to use a pencil and have an eraser nearby.
Lessons Learned, So You Don’t Have To
The first real book I started writing and was a memoir of my childhood and early adulthood. I have the outline and first 13 pages written and, I gotta say… this just may need to be finished someday. Just for fun, take a look at my outline – with a bit of explanation:
- Totally Vehicular – My exploits with a 2000 pound weapon.
- Up the Creek – The time I stalled in the creek.
- Don’t Pass Me By – I think this is about the time someone “threatened” me on the freeway.
- Last Ditch Effort – The time I put my car in a ditch.
- U-Haul me Away – The time I tried to put my SUV in the back of a U-Haul truck. No joke!
- Workin’ For a Livin’ – On the job follies.
- One Man Stans Alone – This must be about a guy I worked with named Stan. No clue.
- Battle of the Bands – My radio battle with my boss. Spoiler: I lost but he broke a toe.
- Cash Withdrawl – Let’s not talk about this.
- Be True to Your School – The dreaded years.
- Joke on History Final – I’m the joke here but don’t remember why.
- The P Word: No P-ing in the Classroom – Would have been a great chapter if I could remember.
- Life of the Party – When I showed up to a school Valentine’s Day party drunk on non-alcoholic beer. I stress the non-alcoholic part.
- Big Bad and Ugly – Something about a guy named John. Probably the only fight I ever got into.
- Tic, Tack, Tush – When I glued tacks to my teacher’s chair. Horrible, I know.
- Overflowing with Homework – When I threw my schoolwork in the river so I wouldn’t get caught.
- Cheaters Never Prosper – That moment when I DID get caught.
- Girls – apparently I liked them. Who knew.
- Winners Always Win – Spoiler: if you give up you lose
- Aimee vs. Star Trek – Spoiler: she lost.
- Spin City – The date that ended up in a different ditch. NO, NOT THAT ONE!
- Dribble, Dribble – Something about a girl and basketball. I remember the girl, but not the story.
- First Shall Be Last – My first kiss at Bible Camp.
- Stupid Stunts – Self-explanatory, no?
- Balcony Jump – When I broke my wrist jumping off the church balcony. I’d do it again.
- Rigged Bike Jump – My brother thinks this is funny. I have a different memory.
- Giving Mom the Finger – The time I cut the tip of my finger off (they weren’t able to glue it back on.)
So what happened to this book? The answer is quite simple: I gave up writing. Life got in the way.
Not long after I gave up on Lessons Learned, I started writing a book about the story of Queen Esther. I wrote three chapters in total. Here’s the opening:
“WATCH OUT!” ELIHU shouted to his friend.
Mordecai, a young Jewish man in his late 20’s, was standing 30 feet away, frantically looking for his cousin when he heard the familiar voice. Without hesitation, Mordecai spun around. He had just enough time to raise his battered bronze shield above his head before hearing the clash of the sword coming down on top of him.
Mordecai was above average looking with a strong build and neatly trimmed long black hair. Sweat poured down his sharply defined face from the stagnant, sun-baked air. The force of the blow knocked him off balance, forcing him to a knee. His knuckles dug into the stony ground bracing himself from falling backward, while still clutching tight to his own sword. Moving almost as with instinct, Mordecai quickly kicked his leg out under his opponent, swiped it back behind him hooking his opponent’s foot, and then pulled the soldier’s leg forward. Pain shot through the soldier’s groin as he did a one-leg-forward-one-leg-back split.
With his opponent temporarily immobilized, Mordecai pushed the man off him with his shield and plunged his sword up under his opponent’s armor into his belly. Fresh blood spilled on Mordecai’s already blood-stained clothing.
If I remember correctly, I got bogged down in edits. I kept going back to the early chapters trying to perfect them, preventing me from making progress. Hey, that’s another lesson learned!
This is a story I conceived that is a bit heist, bit thriller, and a bit murder mystery. I still might actually finish this someday as I love the concept. This was also my first attempt at writing in first person present. Sorry, no spoilers but I will drop my first couple paragraphs, which need work:
I am released from the hospital with a prescription for Vicadin and a strongly worded recommendation to get plenty of bed rest. I plan to, but other matters must be attended first. With no one to drive me home I walk down Memento St. and find the nearest bus stop. A light walk feels good after being hospitalized for nearly two weeks. I never had high regard for public transportation but am happy it is available to me now. I have two twenties and change in my wallet, enough to get me around until I leave.
My first stop is home, or what once was home. Formerly a place of security, contentment, and happiness, it no longer holds those values to me and I spend only as much time here as needed. I take a quick shower and put on some fresh clothes. Clean socks, underwear, solid-colored t-shirt (the only kind of shirts I wear, save for church), and some jeans. They feel good against my body after two weeks of nothing but a hospital gown. The sweats I left the hospital wearing, purchased in the gift shop, I discard in the dirty clothes hamper in the closet. I quickly realize the futility in that as no one will ever be home to do laundry. These were a replacement for the blood-soaked clothes I wore when I entered the hospital. The nurse politely threw those away at my request.
I completed a full outline and the first 25 pages before giving up. That was roughly 20 years ago.
About ten years ago I started writing a guide for dating couples on how to have a happy marriage. Kind of like Lessons Learned, it was intended to be less of a how-to than a what-not-to. I’ve got plenty of outline and about fifteen short sections written.
And then I gave up.
This isn’t a book but an idea for a TV show about an up-and-coming rock band juggling family life with life on the road. The title has dual meaning. Obviously regarding the rock group being a “band” but also as the wedding band that some of them wear. I never took the time to develop this idea, so I guess you could say I gave up before I even started.
(If you want to develop this with me, give me a shout.)
The one time I didn’t give up
I’m sure giving up is a familiar story to many writers. We start project and don’t complete them. Sometimes it’s because a new idea comes or life just gets in the way. But of all the times I have given up, let me tell you about the time I didn’t.
The big idea
About ten years ago I got the idea for a time travel story, A Crossed Time. I loved the idea as it’s one that I don’t think has ever been explored in sci-fi. At least not quite like how I intend. But for years the idea never went anywhere. There were aspects of the story that I didn’t know how to get past, namely how to deal with foreknowledge.
If you watched Bill & Ted Face the Music, you see some of this in action when they encounter their future selves. It makes no sense that their future selves would be who they became based on what their present selves accomplished. Most time travel stories get around this by allowing alternate universes (Michael Crighton’s Timeline), or for travelers to change the course of history (Back to the Future 3) or change history without changing the present (Avengers Endgame).
I don’t like any of those solutions.
Because I couldn’t get past this in my head, I never move forward with my story. Then, one day it all changed. I went on vacation packing a fresh download of a zombie novel series. I read them all on the beach and they were… mediocre. But it was that mediocrity that made me realize, that if this guy could publish books then I could too.
Putting pen to paper
I came home from vacation and put serious consideration into my book. One day, the pieces came together. I also realized it was not one, but three novels. And then I started writing.
I wrote about 20k words before I came across a writing course by one of my favorite authors. No doubt, I needed this!
Putting my writing on pause, I embarked on the month-long course. Mind blown! I had no idea writing was so hard! Fresh off the course I “started over” on my story taking all my fresh knowledge into account.
As part of the course, I had access to the author’s editor. She would look at the first 10k words of my story. I waited until I perfected it just so before sending it. I just knew my story would blow her away.
Revise, revise, revise
She came back with her thoughts and I spent the next week curled up in a ball crying. Criticism is always tough to hear. But, if I am going to write a great novel, I needed to hear it.
After I uncurled from my corner, I set out to revise based on her feedback. This is where I learned that I can take feedback and turn it into a better result. At least as a writer.
I submitted my revisions to the editor one more time. The feedback was immensely positive. I was now on the right track to telling a much-improved story.
I spent the next 12 months writing and finishing my book. When I wrote the last sentence I was ecstatic. This time, I didn’t give up and as a result, I wrote a full novel!
But I wasn’t done.
I then moved on to my revisions. At the time, I thought that meant Spelling and Grammar. Boy was I wrong.
Sometimes it pays to pay
I hired the (same) editor to give me overall story notes on my novel. At the same time, I also gave my book to about 10 beta readers. They all spent a month reading the book and making notes for me. The feedback from the beta readers was incredible. They all loved the story. Sure there were some edits needed but all-in-all they universally gave it an A-Plus.
Then I got the editor’s feedback. Great story, but it needs work. I took her feedback and got to revising. My contract gave me access to her for six months. I was determined to make all the revisions based on her feedback within that time. She told me I was the first novice writer she worked with that did so.
That’s me, not giving up.
The editor and I went chapter by chapter improving my story. When we were done, I went through another round of edits or two before I was ready to start submitting to agents. I think I submitted it to 70 agents and was rejected by all of them. Only one gave me feedback. They simply said there was too much passive voice.
Taking action on action verbs
I also realized that I used too many boring verbs. He looked, they turned, she ran, it got, etc.
At this point I stopped submitting and went back into edit mode. First, I went through and tried to take out all boring, non-descript verbs and replace them. Books like The Emotional Thesaurus, 1000 Character Reactions, and especially, 1000 Strong Verbs were transformative to my writing.
But I didn’t give up there. I hired another editor who I instructed to help me root out all passive voice from my novel and improve not just the story, but the actual writing. We spent months going through chapter by chapter editing, revising, and improving. She was relentless, which is exactly what I paid her to be.
Because of her, my novel got 1000 times better. And I never exaggerate.
Back to the pitching mound
So I’m back to pitching again. And back to more agent rejections. But you know what, I don’t care, because I know I have a great novel. Is it perfect? No. Am I open to further improvements? Absolutely. And do you know why?
Because I won’t give up.
I may never get an agent or land a publishing deal (I still believe I will). If not, I’ll be perfectly content to self-publish when the time is right. Why? Because I’ve seen what happens when I give up. I have a backlog of unwritten books. But now I have one finished, and more on the way.
Oh, so back to my post title: How to write a novel in one easy step. I don’t think I need to tell you what that step is. I think you know.
But if you’re still unsure, don’t give up, you’ll figure it out.