Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.Jon Bon Jovi
I’m certain I never would have written eleven novels since November 2015 if it hadn’t been for the wonderful writing software known as Scrivener. It is the best way to simplify the complex process of writing, especially an extensive work. If you missed my Scrivener introductory video, you can watch it here.
My current work in progress (WIP) is a book I’ve titled, The Boaz Slavemaster (for now, this is a placeholder title). To gain a little familiarity with my WIP, and particularly Scene 7, click here.
My purpose for jumping from an introductory video to Scrivener (hands down, the best writing software available) straight into a scene eighteen thousand words into my manuscript, is to illustrate two things: 1) you already possess a ton of skills that can be utilized in the writing of your first novel; and 2) novel writing consists of a million small tasks.
Here’s something to keep in mind as you watch this video. You can edit a draft. You cannot edit a blank page. Of course, these words aren’t original to me, but they’re critical for you to adopt. The foremost aim for you to accomplish in writing your first novel is to complete your first draft. This requires you to put words on the page. What I hope Lesson 2 reveals is a simple process of doing just that.
One final tip. Forget time. Take as long as you want and need. I’ve been working on Scene 7 for over a week. Let’s do some quick math: if you can write 200 to 250 words per day (FACT: you’ve just read around 250 to this point), you can complete a first draft in less than a year. (disclosure: my books are typically longer than this). Said another way, with a twist: develop a writing habit, preferably every day. Take your time, but move forward; adopt the pace that is comfortable for you, the pace that you can keep up.
On to the video. I hope to keep them coming. DO NOT FORGET—you can write a novel.
Click the following to continue.
Whether you are a plotter, a pantser, or a plantser, a basic understanding of story structure is important.
Just like you shouldn’t start the construction of a house without a basic understanding of the required components (foundation, sub-floor, walls, electrical and plumbing systems, roof, exterior siding, etc.), you shouldn’t begin the construction of your novel without some base knowledge.
Just as a properly completed house begins with a blueprint, so does your story. Your home’s blueprint is not your home. Neither is your story structure your novel. This assumes you want to do more than simply string together scene after scene separated by two paltry words, “and then.”
So, what is story structure? In short, it is a framework for telling your story. The definition of ‘frame’ I like best for our context is, “a structure supporting or containing something.” Thus, story structure is the structure used to contain your story.
Famed author Jerry Jenkins says, “structure is to a story what the skeleton is to the human body.” Sounds important, right?
This analogy doesn’t say it is impossible for a human body to exist without a skeleton, but for sure, this human would be unique, to the point one might wonder whether ‘it’ was a human at all. Structure gives story life, without it, we as readers might easily grow disinterested, bored, confused, and, sooner than later, throw the book in the trash.
Before I go any further, I propose a disclaimer. In this blog post you will learn only a tiny fraction about this almost limitless subject. Why? Because there’s no one answer; there’s many well developed structures for you to adopt to ‘contain’ your story. Here’s a few: Dean Koontz’s classic story structure, Freytag’s pyramid, In Medias Res, the hero’s journey, the 7-point story structure, Dan Harmon’s story circle, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method, the Fichtean curve, James Scott Bell’s a disturbance and two doorways, and Save the Cat beat sheet. The list, and the names, are mind-boggling.
I’ve intentionally left out the Three Act Structure because it’s the one I use and am more familiar with. Until I was researching for this blog post, I had never heard of several from the above list, including Freytag’s pyramid, and the Fichtean curve.
Allegedly, Aristotle originated the three act structure. In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” Although here, he was referring to a play, the same principle applies to storytelling no matter the form.
“In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.”George Abbott, American theater producer and director
Here is a list of the key components for each Act. Note, the percentages. These represent the portion of the story each Act contains.
Act I—The beginning (the setup); 25%
The inciting incident;
The key event;
The first plot Point.
Act II—The middle (the confrontation); 50%
Since this Act contains half of the story, its broken into two parts (three, if you count the Midpoint).
Act IIA (reaction)
Midpoint (second plot Point)
Act IIB (action)
Third plot Point at end.
Act III—The ending (Resolution); 25%
Resolution (also called the Denouement)
“The beginning isn’t simply the first in a series of events, but the originating event of all that follows. The middle isn’t just the next event, but the story’s central struggle. And the ending isn’t just the last event, but the culminating event.”Steven James, author and writer
You can see, there’s a lot here. In fact, many articles, even entire books, have been written on each of these components. So, there’s too much to cover today. However, I intend to address each of these in future posts.
Before I close, let’s try to apply the three act structure to our own lives. I’ll assume an average life expectancy of 80 years. It seems reasonable to break our lives into the following three stages (Acts?):
I. Youth (age 0 to age 20)
II. Adult (age 21 to age 60)
III. Senior (age 61 to age 80).
Youth is the setup. We are in our ordinary world before our journey begins. Something happens, let’s say around age 10, that significantly affects our lives. It could be a disease diagnosis (of us or a loved one). It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a disaster: the family farm went bankrupt; a school shooter permanently disables our sister in a school shooting. This is the inciting incident; it causes you or me to become a doctor, a soldier, a politician. This choice is the first plot Point and comes at the end of our youth.
The Adult stage is the longest of the three. It’s our forty years of confrontation. In effect, the first twenty years is a reaction to our choice to become, for example, a doctor. Then comes the Midpoint. We might label it more colloquially, the midlife crisis. For me, it was my ‘need’ to go to law school. This changed the trajectory of my life.
In the second half of the Adult stage, confrontation continues, with new obstacles and antagonists alongside some of the old ones. Then, a moment of victory, before the bottom falls out, mentally or physically. This is the lowest point of your life, when all seems hopeless. One writer calls it “the trough of hell.” I’ll leave this event or experience to your own imagination.
The Adult stage is over. We are now into the last quarter of our lives. You, me, and our fictional protagonist somehow bounces back. At least enough to battle our number one enemy, which can be internal or external. This is the climax and there’s no guarantee we will win. Some will, some won’t. As in fiction, we may or may not have a positive character arc (over the story/throughout life, you, me, and our protagonist are transformed into something better, say, a kinder, more loving person). As in story, sometimes we fail, our enemy defeats us, we become jaded, cynical, mean; thus, our character arc is negative.
Finally, there’s the end, our return to the ordinary world from which we began, although it’s never as we recall. Now, friends and family, those who remain, either love or loath, more or less. With our non-fictional story, like our fictional characters, we have created our own resolution. Our last days are great or greatly grievous.
I will refrain, but we could apply the three act structure more particularly. For example, doesn’t every adventure we’ve taken contain a beginning, a middle, and an end? If the barbecue restaurant adventure (or, the rental property adventure, or the short-sale of Apple stock adventure, or the bi-vocational preaching adventure, or the you-name-it adventure) hasn’t yet ended, will it? And, when? Or, are you only in the Youth stage?
Choosing the right structure to contain our stories is imperative. If we don’t, our stories will suffer. If we don’t, our stories will still ‘live’ in their own container, albeit, unstructured ones.
In my next post, we will look at ‘the hook.’
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At the end of my last post I promised we would explore story structure. I’ve changed my mind. Since we’ve already talked about the ‘why’ of writing a story, I think we should first explore the ‘how’ of writing a story. Here, I’m speaking of your chosen method, although to some writers, method might imply more order than they would admit. Said another way, ask yourself, what type writer do I want to be?
Whether you like it or not, there are only three main categories of writers: plotters, pantsers, and plantsers. But, don’t see these as limiting your choices. There are endless variations of each. The takeaway is there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. What’s important is that you find the method that works for you.
Plotters, pantsers, & plantsers
The plotter. Obviously, this is someone who engages in varying degrees of prewriting. A full-blooded plotter would plan and outline his complete story before he begins to write. He would know his story from beginning to end—every character and every scene—before putting pencil to paper.
The plotter will develop his personal approach to plotting. Many choose index cards, using one per scene. On one side, writing a one sentence description followed by few or many notes. On the other side, listing the characters in this scene. After completing sixty to eighty such cards/scenes, this writer will arrange them any way he wants on the floor, table, or wall, rearranging them as he decides how he wants to tell his story. Many other plotters take a similar approach but digitally. There are several software programs that utilize the index or scene card approach. Two that I’ve reviewed are, Beemgee and Plottr.
Here are the pros and cons of being a plotter. Obviously, it involves a lot of work, maybe months before the first word of the first draft is written. A good thing is this method is singlehandedly the best way to avoid writer’s block: you always know where you’re going. Plus, you mostly avoid getting sidetracked. Chasing rabbits is often a dead end that causes many a pantser to abandon the manuscript. But, a plotter can also create a mess— if he concludes his outline has problems. Redoing an outline in itself is easy. The hard part is redoing the actual manuscript. Normally, a change in one place has a ripple effect, creating work that could have been avoided if the outline had been correct to begin with.
The pantser. This is someone who writes their story by the seat of their pants, trusting their daily imagination to create the needed characters and plots. Thus, he engages in little to no prewriting. In other words, he writes without the aid of an outline or roadmap.
His reason for doing so, most likely, is that he wants to discover his story as he writes (or, like me with God and Girl, he doesn’t have time). This might be grounded in his fear that doing otherwise would squelch his creativity.
There are pros and cons to being a pantser. One of the best things is that it avoids months (sometimes years) of pre-planning. And, as stated above, writer’s block can appear any day. Hopefully, you as a new writer will never experience this debilitating, ‘death’ inducing, malady.
The plantser. This is a relatively new term. Plantsers are crossbreeds, those that are both plotters and pantsers, say, half and half, to suggest one of an infinite number of combinations. For example, a plantser might plan three or four key events in his story before he begins to write, leaving much to his imagination along the long and arduous journey to The End.
As to the pros and cons of being a plantser, sometimes you’ll enjoy the best of all worlds. But, everything comes with a cost.
My own evolution
As to my own writing, I’m undergoing a major transformation: away from being a pantser to becoming a plotter. It has been a gradual process but it is picking up steam. As I hinted at in a previous post, with my first novel, God and Girl, my story idea didn’t involve much planning; in fact, the idea came quickly, shortly before I accepted a challenge. What illustrates me as a pantser more than anything is the context and timing. It was November, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which requires (to be successful) you write a minimum of 50,000 during the thirty day period. In sum, I started my story writing career as a full-blooded pantser.
For me, the main reason I’m transitioning is to avoid (hopefully) black holes, the dark, scary, and inescapable rabbit trail a pantser can pursue that ties his story in knots, those that can only be untied by considerable retreat and rewriting. Don’t question my sincerity here. I have three incomplete manuscripts languishing in a figurative bottom desk drawer to prove my point.
The bottom line
No matter what type writer you want to be, you have to start where you are. The most important thing you can do is to start writing, every day. Learning to write is a journey. The only way you will grow and evolve as a writer, is IF you write.
I encourage you to write something today. Don’t have an idea yet? Then do one of the following: 1) just start writing anything; it’s known as freewriting; set your timer for ten minutes or two, and start writing, or 2) consider a writing prompt. Here are two websites for a ton of options: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/500-writing-prompts-to-help-beat-writers-doubt/, and https://diymfa.com/writer-igniter.
I intend to take up story structure in my next post. I double promise. In the meantime and in anticipation of my next post, I encourage you to daily ponder the following statement I recently found on Beemgee.com’s website: “In storytelling, structure is at least as important as language.” After ten novels, I wholeheartedly agree.
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Take the quiz
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Have a nice day.
In this post, I will attempt to define and contextualize the word ‘novel.’
Novel, story, narrative: what’s the difference?
It’s probably unnecessary to consider this question because in contemporary terms, and for most practical purposes, the three are virtually synonymous. But, having a ‘legal mind’ forces me to start at ground zero.
First, I’ll summarize what I’ll be attempting to say throughout this post. A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.
In other words, a novel is a story. And, you already know a lot about story. It’s simply the telling of an event to a listener and the latter experiences or learns something just because he heard/read the story. A story can be either true or false.
A novel is a particular type of story, one that is ALWAYS fictional (not true in the sense it actually happened). Whereas a story or narrative can be either fiction (false) or non-fiction (true). A novel is always made-up, mostly from the author’s imagination, or an actual event, one either experienced, observed, or learned via reading, hearing, or by some other means.
In my last post, as to what was intended as an actual event, I provided an example of a guy who got snookered by a friend. A novel can be built (via fictionalization) around this, or it can become a memoir (an account of the author’s personal experiences), or an autobiography (a biography of yourself).
Merriam-Webster provides a good definition for the novel: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” Notice that the word ‘narrative’ is used to define the word ‘novel.’
Before we look at ‘narrative,’ let’s flesh out Webster’s words. Invented obviously means it’s fiction. It’s made-up, created if you will. It’s made-up prose. Prose writing is ordinary writing, as distinguished from verse. Here’s an example of prose writing (the last sentence I wrote yesterday in my current novel-in-progress): “By twilight, with the goats fed and my impatience firing, I packed a bag and headed to Lillian’s vacant oasis.”
When I hear ‘verse,’ I think of poetry. Here’s a stanza of mine from a long ago poem:
“You melted my heart and mended my mind.
You gave me love and time,
a once in life discovery.
A unique couple, moonstruck but fiery.”
Not that good, but you get the idea.
One other thing about Webster’s definition. A novel is ALWAYS long—between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Compare that to a short story (another work of fictional prose) which typically runs between 5,000 to 10,000 words.
“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”Lorrie Moore
A novel is normally “complex and deals especially with human experience ….” This means there is a lot going on: the characters (likely, many), most all with differing wishes, desires, and conflicts. Plus, there are usually one or more subplots that are happening, all necessarily related to the main plot. Of course, not all novels deal with ‘human experience,’ but I’d wager that most do. Likely, because most people read fiction for two primary reasons: to be entertained, and to learn from experience without the experiencing part (I’ll leave you to figure that out).
“A novel must show how the world truly is, how characters genuinely think, how events actually occur. A novel should somehow reveal the true source of our actions.”Kevin Hood, Becoming Jane
And, yes, I know there’s a lot more in this component of Webster’s definition that needs attention but today, we just don’t have the time.
Now we come to the word narrative. Recall, a novel is a story, a made-up one. Narrative is simply how you tell this made-up story. It is, “a spoken or written account of connected events,” to quote Google. But, narrative is much more.
A quote from Guillaume Wiatr (Principal and Founder of MetaHelm) excellently encapsulates the difference between story and narrative: “People will pay for a story, but people will die for a narrative.” I think what Guillaume means is that a story can grab our attention, entertaining us for the moment, but a narrative (how the story is told) can change us for a lifetime, “[i]t shifts the way we think, for good or for the worst[,]” again quoting Guillaume. He also says this in different words: “Someone died, and that was very wrong[,] starts a narrative that can turn into a revolution.”
Reconsider my summary definition from the beginning of this section: “A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.” The underlined portion is the heart of narrative. To me, narrative produces theme, it reveals the meaning the writer has explored throughout his entire novel. He’s done this “… [b]y using characters, setting, dialog, plot or a combination of all of these elements[,]” as K.M Weiland says in writing your story’s THEME, a book I highly recommend.
Now that we’ve laid a foundation for understanding the literary form known as the novel, we must look at story structure. Knowing the framework of the ‘building’ you are trying to construct is imperative for writing a novel worth reading. I wish I had learned this much sooner.
We will look at story structure in my next post, but first, you need to understand what you’re getting into (writing a novel) is a challenging but highly rewarding endeavor. With only minor inconveniences as described by one of the greatest writers of all time:
“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” ― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional ProseFlannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
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In my last Post I lightly addressed a number of reasons why people want to write a novel. Since then, I’ve realized that all I clearly did was dance around the issue. Unwittingly, my own example of why I wrote God and Girl, revealed the hardcore truth, but I failed to articulate it in its broader application. I’ll try to do that here.
Earlier today I reread a wonderful article titled, “The Why is Most Important,” by author and book coach Jennie Nash. She deftly captures, in two words, what I was attempting to say in my God and Girl example: ambition and rage.
Ambition, as you know, is desire and drive. You likely are an ambitious person. You can look back over your life—no matter how long or short—and find evidence that you have set and achieved many goals. With each one, you had a desire to do something, along with the vibrant drive to get it done. We could both list many examples, some likely would be the same. For me, at age 39, I wanted to go to law school. I did and it took tremendous effort but somehow I worked my rear off, stuck with it, and graduated in the top 10% of my class. This example represents universal principles. You can apply them to most anything, including medical school, starting a business, building a house (or home; two very different things), or possibly, finding the perfect mate.
No doubt, ambition is a necessary component of your decision to write a novel. I can assure you, it’s not going to be easy. You are going to invest a tremendous amount of time and effort, so you must have the desire and drive, or you’ll likely quit after a few days of solitude (let me assure you, ‘the muse’ is mostly a myth). But, and this is where the rubber meets the road, ambition alone, although necessary, isn’t enough.
In a sense, ambition deals with the external (it likely includes the desire to make a name for yourself). But the most important ‘why’ is to look deep inside and find the internal reason you want to write a book. This is where you will find the rage. More specifically, your rage provides the perfect reason to write a novel. Let’s see why by starting with the definition of rage in its use as a noun.
It is a “feeling of intense anger,” illustrated by “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s also defined as “something that is desired intensely.” Wow, wait, there’s that word again. Desire. The dictionary offers this example: “his rage for fame destroyed him.” Or, said another way, “his desire for fame destroyed him.”
“Why am I compelled to write? . . . Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and anger . . . To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit . . . Finally I write because I’m scared of writing, but I’m more scared of not writing.”Gloria E. Anzaldua
In the context of, “Why should I write a novel?”, I encourage you to ask yourself another question: “what am I angry about?” Or, similarly, “what is the one thing that makes me the most angry?” Substitute passion if you like (something that is desired intensely). Whichever word you choose, your answer likely involves pain, both past, present, and ongoing, along with the desire to strike back, to get even with someone or something.
I’ll close with an example that comes to mind. Let’s say that several years ago you and your best friend started a business. For a while, things went great and future prospects were bright. In fact, the business did phenomenally well. At some point your partner/friend asked if he could buy you out. His offer was more money than you ever hoped to make. So, you accepted and the deal was closed.
A few months later, you learned your partner/friend stabbed you in the back. Unbeknown to you, there was a deal to be made with an international company that, if you’d been an owner, would have netted you a billion dollars. Instead, the partner (no longer your friend) wound up thousands of times richer than you, all because he desired money more than his friendship and duties to you. In essence, you got snookered. And, the years have ticked on by while the old partner’s net worth and community respect blasted skyward, while you have squandered away what now appears to have been a mere pittance of what you should have been paid.
Over these same years your anger has intensified but now, for many reasons, you have no legal recourse, and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in an 8 foot by 8 foot jail cell. So, murder is out of the question. Or, is it?
“Oh,” some might say, “the balm of Gilead.” That’s the soothing physical and spiritual ointment your novel can provide. Yes, it’s fiction (the names are changed to protect the ‘innocent’), but yet, it’s true, or can be for you. This is why you should write a novel.
Find what makes you angry, and, along with ambition, you’ll find the powerful forces that will propel you to the finish line.
Get the ‘why’ right first. Then, you can eagerly pursue the ‘how.’
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”George Orwell
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Because you want to write a book but don’t know how. This means you are a beginner.
That’s exactly where I was five and a half years ago. I’m still a beginner but I have learned a few things from writing ten novels, things you can learn by reading and digesting this blog.
Let’s pause a minute. I declared in my first sentence that you want to write a book. That was a little presumptuous of me. Maybe you would say, “no, I have no desire to write a book.” Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, writer Joseph Epstein says, “81 percent of Americans feel that they have a book in them — and should write it.” This of course doesn’t include you. Right?
I humbly request you humor me for a few minutes and seriously consider joining the huge percentage of Americans who want to write a book?
Thanks. Let me start with my reasons before moving on to more common, maybe universal, reasons. Succinctly put, I didn’t like the local (aka the heart of the Bible Belt) negative reaction to Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), the landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not gay nor did I have a special interest in this subject. What I held sacrosanct was individual freedom, the right to choose one’s own actions absent government and religious interference, as long as the parties do no harm. As expected, the local negative reaction followed a predictable storyline anchored in Holy Writ: same-sex relationships are sin and thus abhorrent to the Christian God.
My idea was to dispel this notion, or more accurately, to explore whether two people of the same gender can truly love each other. It didn’t take long for my imagination to create Ruthie and Ellen, two teens who, well, fell in love, My book title, God and Girl, soon followed.
No doubt there were other factors that influenced my decision to write my first novel. I can think of two: a creative writing seminar over twenty years earlier I’d attended on a Saturday while in law school; and my frustration and tiredness from years of reading craft books on writing instead of actually writing.
That’s about me, and why I wrote my first novel. Now, let’s list (not in any order) a few common (universal?) reasons I believe are worthy of your consideration.
1) To create something from nothing. Actually, it’s not nothing. But, almost. Your imagination is not nothing, but that, along with determination, and a commitment of time, will get you there. No million dollar bulldozers required.
2) To prove to yourself (or others) you can eat the entire elephant. Said another way, that you can complete a complex and difficult task.
3) To leave a legacy. You can leave money and land to your descendants but how will your great grands know it was you, alone, who created that wealth? Nothing but a book is as personal as the story inside your head, or expresses your individual accomplishments.
4) To do something that only a tiny percentage of all people have ever done.
5) To fictionally murder your worst enemy without going to jail.
Personally, I think the following are poor reasons to write a novel:
1) to become famous;
2) to get rich;
3) to get on the New York Times Bestseller list.
These are too ephemeral. You’ll likely bale if one of these is your initiating force.
“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”Barbara Kingsolver
Now, I assume you have at least a smidgen of interest in writing your own novel. If not, you probably wouldn’t have read this far. Let me restate my initial question: “Why should I read The Pencil Driven Life blog?” The answer is simple: to go from wanting to write your first novel to holding in your hand your first novel.
I admit, it might be easier and quicker to accomplish this goal if you availed yourself of my coaching services, but that’s not required. Ashamedly, until recently, I have done it the hard way, without hiring a coach, attending a conference, or enrolling in a course. However, this doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few things during these five and a half years. That’s what I intend to share in my blog.
Things like what writing software to use (no, I don’t write my novels in pencil!), how to choose and develop an idea, how to outline your novel even if you are a pantser (you write from the seat of your pants, without outlining), and how to structure your writing. By the way, my software choice is Scrivener.
Writing a novel takes time, a lot. And it’s difficult. However, from what I’ve learned, it is completely doable even for the beginner. The key is to break the tasks down into bite-size pieces. And take as much time as you want: a year, two years, five years. You decide; it’s your novel. Write it for yourself.
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“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”Ernest Hemingway