Monday, August 5, 2013

How I Wrote a Novel This Time

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

The page I created awhile ago - How To Write a Novel - continues to get a lot of traffic and comments, but when I glanced at it the other day, it made me wince a bit. Not just because it links to a lot of posts that I wrote before I got a good feel for blogging, but because I'm not sure how I feel about the title. It's not necessarily how a person should write a novel, and it's not even how I write my novels. Really, it's how I once wrote a novel.

Once upon a time I thought that when I became a published author, I would have My Perfect System. I would have the steps I always followed to produce a novel that I was proud of. But I've now been a published author for five years, I've written roughly a dozen books, and I still don't have My Perfect System. I keep finding new techniques I want to try, or something about my schedule prevents me from brainstorming/writing/editing the way I would like to.

Instead of having a well organized list, I feel like what I have is more of a tree full of branches.

There trunk is full of my "always" things. And after that, I find myself grasping at a variety of branches. Some are strong because they're techniques I use most the time, and I'm comfortable with their results. Others are weaker branches, branches I'm not yet sure can support my weight.

I've just finished the first draft and my first round of edits on my fall release, The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet. Here's "how I wrote a novel" this time, and an evaluation of how these methods worked:

1. Since it was a sequel, I didn't need to spend the kind of time I normally would researching my setting and determining who my characters would be and stuff. But I did need to make sure that I was consistent with the story of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, so as I did my final proofs on the first Ellie book, I jotted ideas for what could happen in the next book. Many of these made it into the book - Aunt Karen meets somebody. But not all of them - Chase's little brother gets in trouble.

2. After I made my possibilities list, I tried to apply some structure to it. I had just taken a class from Susan Meissner that taught me how to plot a novel in "30 episodes." (I'm unable to share a link because the method belongs to Susan.) I was eager to try this because it seemed like something that would help me create a stronger first draft. I printed out the list of scenes she suggested coming up with and set to work figuring out my inciting incident, my big middle scene, some complications, etc.

I think this method worked really well for me, and I will definitely do some form of "signpost plotting" again. While I still wound up with a few gaping holes in my plot, overall the structure of the first draft was much better than previous first drafts.

3. I tried to figure out what lie Ellie needed to conquer. I wrote on my sheet, "Ellie equates a successful book launch with love." But I don't think that came out in the story at all, really. So apparently I strayed from my intended lie. I still think it's a very valuable exercise, though.

4. I wrote my first draft. I started February 1st and finished April 13th. It was the longest first draft I had ever written, which is partially because I had a clearer idea of what was going on, so I didn't have to add as many scenes in the second draft.

5. I was only able to take a - cringe - two week break from it before I started revisions. I prefer to take six weeks off, and as I look back, I believe this hurt me a lot. I was still very close to the story and didn't catch some glaring plot issues that should have been obvious to me. Next time I need my six week break.

6. I sent my book to my Kindle to read. I liked this and will do it again. It was nice to be off my computer without wasting paper, and it kept me from being tempted to edit as I read.

7. During micro-edits, I kept a blank calendar next to me so I could fill in dates and make sure I didn't have too many 9-day weeks scattered throughout. I filled in all my GIRAFFEs and sent dozens of questions to my grade school friend who went to Redwood High, still lives in Visalia, and is kind enough to tell me when I get things wrong. I'm still happy with doing all of this in the second draft stage because I think if I allowed myself too many "field trips" during the first draft, it would take me an eternity to write. I imagine I'll need to adjust this if I take on the historical fiction project whirring around my head right now.

8. I timed myself during the micro-edits. Whenever I had a full page ahead of me, I started the timer on my phone. At first it was just because I was curious to see if each page really was taking as long as I thought, but then it became a way to help me stay focused. I wasn't racing through my edits or anything, but it helped keep me off email and Pinterest until I finished a page. I'll definitely do this again.

Right now I'm making a few big content changes before I send Ellie Sweet 2 off for proofreading, and then I'll scour my writing books and figure out which novel writing techniques I want to incorporate into my next project!

How about you? Are you still refining your process? Are there a few things you always do? Are there things you want to try with your next manuscript?

Also, two other things that might be of interest to you:

It's my week on the Playlist Fiction blog. I'm talking about how to be "dream chaser" and how one of the reasons I like teen writers so much is how wholeheartedly you guys pursue your dreams.

Also, I know many of you are artists as well as writers, so I thought this contest might appeal to some of you:

Do Art Write is launching a new contest on August 2nd. The Allegory Contest is for writers and artists. Enter it alone or with a partner, it's your choice. The contest has four parts which include two writing segments and two drawing segments. The final goal is to write an allegory of your own and then to put it into a short story comic. Each phase will have a winner and fun prizes, but all contestants can move on to complete all four parts of the contest. The Allegory Contest is open to anyone 21 years of age or younger. For more details, check it out on


  1. I love it how writing each book can be different. I love this post! As I keep reading GTW I find all these new tips and tactics...ahhhh! I just need to write more books so I can try them all. ;)

    I like trying new writing-processes, because it makes every book more interesting. I used to be a hardcore plotter, but I quite like pansting too. My next book I'm tempted to write backwards. Just for kicks.

  2. Interesting...but I've totally noticed this too. Every time I sit down to write, the writing process is different. Some books I outline in tons of detail, some only a rough page of current WIP ( which is just a fun project) has no kind of outline at all - I don't even really have any idea what my plot line is haha. Kind of figuring it out as I go, which I normally would NEVER do...but it's kind of fun. :P

  3. Interesting. How do you send your book to your kindle and is there a way to do that with a nook? That would be really helpful to me once I finish my manuscript b/c I could pretend it is just another book I bought plus I could work on it at Speech and Debate tournaments and I wouldn't have to worry about anyone bothering me :). Most of my friends know to leave me alone if I am sitting in a corner with a book in my hand.

    1. Do you have an iphone or iPad? Because for my kindle, I just downloaded the app on my iphone and then email the document to myself. In my email, once I click on the document, there is an option to open it in the kindle app. I'm not sure if you can do it that way with a nook but it's worth a shot.

      Kelly Ann

    2. I have a nook, you can do it. First save your book as a PDF. Then plug your nook into your computer using the USB cord, open it as a folder, and drag your PDF into one of the sub folders. I'm not sure what it's called, I don't remember, but you'll recognize it when you see it. It's probably something like PDFs or Documents or Books or something. Sorry that I don't remember. You can also just leave the PDF in the overall Nook folder, that should work too.
      Hope that helps. :)

  4. This was awesome to read because I've followed the blog so closely since you started "write now". I love knowing that I'm not the only one that gets confused and changes and evolves. I hope my changes are for the better, Idk yet. Right now, I'm in a weird spot with writing :( I don't know if its because of other life things at the moment but I just haven't been writing. I want to try again but even when I think about writing and realize I have a chunk of time I don't have the motivation. Everything else is bogging me down, maybe? I pray that changes soon.

    1. I was having that problem too. During the last few months of school I barely ever wrote. I found that if I sit down and set a timer and force myself to just write for that time (anywhere from 15-30 minutes) I usually end up being able to get a lot down on the page. Sometimes I would even keep going after the timer stops!

      Kelly Ann

  5. I'm excited for when I get to take a six-week break from my manuscript. . .of course, that means I need to put some extra effort in to make it seem worthwhile!

    I'm looking forward to the writing retreat and advent of the second 100-4-100 Challenge!

  6. Nice process! For my next story I want to do a mite more planning than I usually do. I'm not an outliner person (takes too much time :\) but I need to learn how to put a story together more than I am. Anyone else similar to me? Or am I the only one.... ;) But seriously, things have been going better in the planning department, and I'm so thankful for this site.

  7. Love this. :) It's so fun to compare others' ever-changing methods. :) And thanks for debunking the My Perfect Method lie, Stephanie.

    {And may I say how excited I am that you have a historical fiction project whirring?}

    1. Thanks, Rachelle! I love my husband - when I told him the idea one of the first things he said was, "I don't think you'll be able to 'plants' that one, honey." Big time husband points for that one!

      James Scott Bell told me he continues to try new things as well. That made me feel so much better about not having The Perfect System figured out yet.

  8. As I am only working on my first novel, I haven't really had the time to try other people's techniques, but what I've found is that it really helps to do planning before writing. Even if you loose the planning, always keep a clear idea in your head of where you are going.

    Mrs Stephanie, this was an awesome post. I love learning about the different ways authors do things in the way of actually writing novels.