After three decades as a professional writer, I woke up one day with an idea for a novel.”Pffft,” I said to my rumpled morning reflection. “Me write a novel?”
With an ounce of prompting from a friend, I tapped out the first 60,000 words on my computer—in two months—then headed to a writer’s conference, where I was sure the agents would climb over each other to represent my work. Did I mention I had 30 years experience as a writer?
Puffed full of confidence, I skipped the classes on the craft of writing. I wanted to know how to sell my fresh and engaging manuscript. After all, I work in a marketing department.
Most of the agents didn’t say why they rejected my novel. Only one offered advice. “Read a book on point of view,” she said. That nugget sent me on a journey to learn how to write a commercially viable product. (In the novel biz, they call that the first major plot point—when the protagonist is finally pulled into the investigation for whatever reason.)
Three pages into the book I bought on POV, I realized that I had misapplied my love of clarity. It’s a novice mistake to explain what’s going on in every head in every scene. Rewrite #1. (We novelists call that the first major reversal, about 1/4 of the way through the story.)
I started this blog, where each week I interview a published author to get advice. I’ve learned a lot from these people who have succeeded in what I’m trying to do, and who have inserted an interesting series of twists and turns into my journey.
“Join the local chapter of Sisters in Crime,” one said. So I did. At their annual conference, a speaker rolled her eyes and said, “Pick a main character.” Rewrite #2. Lots of internal conflict there. I don’t like to play favorites.
And speaking of conflict!
I knew my story was falling short. It lacked verve. I enlisted the help of an editor. She wouldn’t even look at my manuscript until I expanded it to 80,000 words. Rewrite #3.
She liked what I had done but said there was virtually no conflict going on in my story. She, along with numerous bloggers, recommended conflict on every page. Yikes! Rewrite #4 took it to nearly 90,000, but I couldn’t bring myself to have people fighting all the time. That’s not how I roll.
This was what authors call the low point—around 3/4 of the way though the story—when it looks like the bad guys might win.
I’m the quintessential peacekeeper. The negotiator. The one who wedges calm between opposing sides. How could I ever manage to have people arguing on every single page of my novel? Maybe I should hide my manuscript in a drawer and be thankful for the many people who helped me understand that I’m not cut out for this.
That’s what they call internal conflict.
My emotional arc on this journey has taken me from naive confidence to an understanding that my avoidance of conflict is exactly what will make it possible for me to effectively infuse conflict into my story. I’m skilled at understanding the wants and needs of opposing forces and negotiating peace.
My friends at Author Salon taught me that it takes three levels of conflict to keep readers glued to your opus all night when they have to go to work the next day.
- Global – the protagonist’s war against the world (the thing that could cause a problem for the masses)
- Local – the protagonist’s war with other characters (conflicts, both quiet and loud, that arise because we all have our own personalities and agendas)
- Internal – the protagonist’s war against him/herself (conflicting emotions—not “should I turn right or left,” or “will I wear black or red to the prom,” but more like “should I risk my life by telling the emperor he’s walking around naked when he thinks he’s wearing a fine outfit”).
I’m starting to put the pieces together now, carefully evaluating each scene, not as another rewrite, but as the (nearly) final edit that will bring my debut novel-writing journey to the denouement: “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved,” according to Google.
From the many author interviews I’ve done over the past year, I’ve learned that my journey is not so unusual. It’s unique to me, but everyone I’ve spoken to learned along the way as they wrote their first novel. They assure me that the second is easier because you’ve worked out a system by that time.
I’d love to hear about your novel writing journey.