Writing a novel is hard. Tapping keys is the easy part, the struggle comes from all the battles with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, over a number of aspects of story telling. I’ve pulled together a list of issues I (and other writers) constantly run into. I would argue if you haven’t written a fiction story before and want to, you’ll need to be aware of, and address, these areas at some stage in your writing journey.
Here’s a list:
- volume (quantity/experience)
- quality (of language)
- idea (Quality of Story)
Let me go through these one by one. You can then assess where you are and what you need to focus on. Note: these are not in any particular order, so address them whenever they arrive.
Volume proves you’re not procrastinating. If you’ve got the word count (any word count) then you’re already good. Writing a lot gives you experience of your narrative voice, point of view, themes, and judgement. It allows you to ‘feel’ when something is right or wrong.
How do you know if you’ve got a problem which volume can fix?
You can’t see how your writing can be improved. Writers who have written a lot can always see how to improve their writing.
Your use of language must be good. By language I mean, you can spell, understand punctuation, grammar, and syntax. You don’t need to know what these terms mean, you just need to know an error when you see one. Just don’t confuse Quality of Language with Quality of Story. If you’ve got a good handle on language, your problem might just be related to Story
How do you know if quality is a problem?
Spellcheck/Grammar check. There’s no excuse these days with software to put out work full of language errors. Word will cover your work in red and green squiggles and you can use free tools like Grammarly to help you out. It’s just laziness if you don’t check and fix things!
This is about research, information, and experiences. We write what we know, even if we’re making everything up to write fantasy, we still construct everything from the sum total of our experiences! A lack of good ideas, might mean you need to live a little more.
How do you know if knowledge is your problem?
Feedback will point out areas lacking accuracy; or you might also feel stuck in your story. If you find your fingers aren’t flying over the keys, you probably just need some brain fuel. Your imagination has run dry.
You need to get your writing evaluated, sometime, by anyone. Reader response is critical in producing good prose, so… do you have someone to validate your work? If not, it’s time to seek out a local writing group.
How do you know if you need critique?
If you aren’t being read, somewhere in your pre-publication process, then you absolutely must. You can publish independently without critique, but be aware that no writer (successful, and/or worth their salt) publishes without critical feedback. Get some! It’s not optional.
Environment contributes a lot to successful writing, because it contributes to your mental state. Your mental state is key to writing. If you can’t think your fiction, you definitely can’t write it.
So, where do you write? Do you have the space to do it? Further more, is the space fruitful for you? If not, this becomes a priority which you need to address quickly. Do your research on writing spaces and writers tips for creating a good writing environment. Your chair shouldn’t hurt your back, your fingers shouldn’t strain on the keys, your time spent writing shouldn’t be interrupted, your mind should be ‘in the zone’.
How do you know if Place is a problem?
Because you’re avoiding writing, citing being ‘uninspired’ and don’t know why. Look closely at your writing place and ask yourself, Do I love sitting here?
Quill and lambskin? Pen and ink? Chalk and board? No? Me neither. Most people type, and type on a computer in Microsoft Word. You probably don’t care, but it’s important to type somewhere beautiful and enjoyable, just as much as it is to live somewhere beautiful and enjoyable. Maybe you need something lightweight like Evernote? Or full featured like Scrivener? Maybe you type best on your iPad or Phone? Whatever you use, it must disappear from your focus. You should never be thinking about a pen or the paper when you’re handwriting, likewise, you should never be tweaking your software either.
How do you know if Tools are a problem?
Because you’re constantly adjusting, changing, and tweaking things, as something isn’t right or annoys you. Your Tools must blend into the background and become invisible. If you’re focusing a lot on them – they are broken: fix it.
Idea (Quality of Story)
You need to have an idea (a story) which you’re either itching to write about, or can maintain your attention for as long as it takes. Whatever your idea, it still needs structure: a beginning, middle and end. There must be a compelling story, a journey of rich characters, and climax (no matter how big or small). You want your reader to hop-aboard and enjoy the ride you create for them. Have you got that? Good.
How do you know if your Idea is a problem?
Feedback at the premise stage. Take your idea and sum it up in a sentence. If the person in front of you isn’t interested or intrigued to read it, then you’ve either spoken to the wrong person, or your idea needs work.
Tip: if your idea is wrong from the start, your story will always be wrong throughout until the very end!
If you’ve already written/published your story, idea problems manifest as bad story feedback, low sales, or reviewers not getting back to you (because they haven’t read it).
Tip: ask reviewers to make a note of where in the story they stop reading, and bug them to get their feedback returned to you.
You must finish. Most writers start and never finish. It is the finishing which makes you a writer, not the starting, the intentions, or anything else. Do you finish things? If not, why not? Do you fear the finalé and the judgement of the finished work? Whatever it is, you need to find a way around it.
If you cite your story as just needing more work: you have a problem. Good art is never finished, but abandoned. Otherwise the creative will be adjusting their work forever. Get it done and get on to the next. Or, you may have doubts about your idea, get bored with it, and start another. Beginnings are great and easy. Middles are tricky and slow. The simple solution is to trust on your idea and find a way of making the middle the most exciting part of your story. If you’re excited to write the middle (because it’s full of twists, and challenges for your protagonist), then the beginning and end will write itself.
How do you know if Completion is a problem?
Because you will have started but never finished a story. If you’ve never outlined a story much beyond the opening, try planning the entire thing. Go as granular as you wish, but make sure every scene is essential, and you can’t wait to write it. Alternatively, if you are a planner you may have an issue with spontaneity. Maybe all that planning has killed the joy? If so, start something new and let your imagination control the story. Just be aware that you must not only push through the slow bits, but cut them out altogether. If you can’t easily write the story, think of a more enjoyable scene to write. Whatever you do you must get to the end. You could also try joining a Nanowrimo online community to spur each other on and finish a 50k word story in a month. I’ve completed them 5 times and can vouch for their effectiveness in finishing.
Okay, that’s a good start.
What now? Create a writers wheel.
Draw a circle on a piece of paper, divide it into semi-circles, then quarters, then eighths. Now consider the centre point of the circle being 1, and the outer edge being 10. Plot a point on each segment (representing each element of writing listed above) where you think you are with each. Eg. You have a brilliant story idea – identify that as 10 (or shade in the entire segment), and if you identify ‘Place’ as being a 1 because you don’t have anywhere to write, mark that point on the ‘wheel’. Continue for each of the eight elements listed until all are filled or plotted. If you shaded areas, your strengths and weaknesses should be clear. If you plotted points, just join them all together with a line to easily see your strengths and weaknesses. See the featured image here for an example.
How to read the ‘wheel’: now you know where your strengths and weaknesses are you can address them.
What can you do to make pull the low ones up and focus less on the ones marked as a 10? If your Volume is 10, take your foot off the accelerator, and take time to work on something 2 or 3?
The goal is not for them all to be at ’10’, the goal is for them all to be (roughly) even, and preferably not at 1 on the scale 😉
Hopefully this makes you aware of some hurdles before they hit you and helps find a way through your writing woes. If it doesn’t let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear what questions you have, or what you’re struggling with.
Mark Mapstone is a skateboarder, a writer, and author of the Ethan Wares Skateboard Series books.
Follow Mark on Instagram: @7plywood
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