Wednesday, September 25, 2013

One Simple Way You Can Make Your Next Book Better

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.

On Monday I talked about how after you finish writing your book, you have to decide if it's a book you're interested in publishing or if you want to shelve it and pursue another story idea. (There's also the option of self-publishing, a writer brought up, which is true. For simplicity's sake, I'll focus on traditional publishing during this series. If you're curious about my views on teens/new writers and self-publishing, you can read them here.)

Before I talk about agents and the pursuit of publication, though, I want to spend one more day camping out on the whole writing the next book part.

I've said this on here before, but as a young writer, I bounced from story to story quite a bit. If I was bored with one, I abandoned it for a new flashy idea. And when that one became boring, I did it again. I never stopped to figure out why a book idea felt boring or why I couldn't seem to write much more than a chapter or two.

I didn't grow as a writer until I became critical of my own process. When I mustered the courage to look at my failed stories and ask why they had failed. 

The first time I did this, I was 20. At that point, I had written five full novels and one half novel. (There had been countless partial manuscripts over the years as well, but these 5 1/2 are books that I had worked on much more than the others.) At age 20, I stepped back and tried to figure out why those stories felt flat, why the idea hadn't produced a great book.

After some consideration, I noticed they were all stories about me. Not me me, but a variation of me and my life - what if that guy I once liked had actually liked me back? Or another, what if my parents moved me to this awful tiny town in Oklahoma that I hated visiting?

That was when I decided to write a book with a main character whowas completely different from me. The result was a really horrible draft of a book that (after a few complete rewrites) became my debut novel, Me, Just Different.

Because I had taken the time to evaluate what hadn't worked in my old stories, I was able to fix the problem and achieve writing a bigger, better story. I now take time after every story to evaluate what worked and what didn't.

Here's an extremely brief summary of what I've learned during the last five years during my evaluation time:

The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series
This was the first series I had ever written. Even though I'm very pleased with how it turned out (and extremely grateful to my editors who helped me along the way) I could have made life easier on myself if I had:
  • Done some very basic plotting about how the characters would grow over the course of the series.
  • Kept a calendar of events. There were some serious continuity issues in those early drafts!
Before It Begins (unpublished)
Because of how crazy scary it had felt to write the Skylar Hoyt series with no outline, I tried to incorporate a bit of structure to this book. I wrote a synopsis early on and that worked really well for me. I'm sure this book has some problems, but it remains one of my favorite books I've written. I decided to always write synopses for my books as part of my brainstorming process.

The book that became The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet
But in the first draft Chase didn't exist, Ellie wasn't at a writer, and at the end she moved to Kansas so it can hardly be considered the same book.

Because I had already written part of this book before (only it was a adult contemporary novel) I ignored everything I had learned about writing a synopsis early on. This was a big mistake. (I was also pregnant with Connor, raising a 2-year-old, and promoting the Skylar books ... so I'm not sure how clear headed I was at this point. I probably should have spent that writing time napping, now that I look back on it.)

When I finished writing this book, I decided that I needed to plot out novels. I went crazy with Randy Ingermanson's famous Snowflake method. I had barely ever outlined and now I had charts and spreadsheets and pages and pages of notes when I tackled my next project, which was:

The Teenage Chef book that I never could title (unpublished, obviously)
When I finished writing this book, I decided that I was not a Snowflake method girl. About halfway through the book, I had given up all my spreadsheets that I had painstakingly made. I decided, "No, I'm not a plotter after all. I'm going to embrace my inner-pantser and I'm not going to plot books anymore!" Next I wrote:

The Girl In The Bookshop  (unpublished)
I had the best time writing this book. At first it was an idea I was just playing around with, and then I hit this big plot twist that I absolutely loved, and I wanted to write the whole thing. But I did NOT think this book through (I did not write a synopsis like I had once planned to do for every new book I wrote!) so there are some major plot holes that I need to fix. I decided that for my next book, I needed a wee bit more structure, and that I should try James Scott Bell's method of plotting a few big scenes.

My Dystopian Book (unpublished and, sadly, abandoned)

Remember that first book I wrote after The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series? The one where I decided that I should write synopses for brainstorming purposes? Well, I finally remembered that and decided to apply it to this book. It was awesome. And because I had taken time to study structure after the previous book, I did a better job of making sure all the important story elements were in my synopsis and first draft. I like this method.

The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet
This was the next full novel that I wrote after my dystopian. I used a method that I now hear referred to as sign post plotting, where I made a list of the big scenes in a book (Beginning, inciting incident, dream realized, etc.) and then made notes on the side about those scenes in the book. This worked very well for me, and I intend to do it for my next book.

After you evaluate what went well and what didn't with your last manuscript, consider identifying a few new things you want to try on your next book. Like you could try using Jill's scene plotting charts, or dedicate a week to brainstorming your story, or try out a different POV to tell the story. Trying new things will ensure that you're a writer who gets better with each book.

What's something you've tried that's worked for your stories? What's something you've tried that hasn't?


  1. Plotting is something that does NOT work well for me. I know the main plot of the story--and sometimes some events--but there are always those surprises that pop up. So I don't often plot. But I need to see that snowflake method again-i've seen it before, but I cant find it...arrggg!

    Another thing, CHASE WASNT IN YOUR STORY??????? HOW DID YOU "MEET " HIM? ANDCSHE WADNT A NOVELEST????? I'm clearly shocked! :)

    1. Ugh! That second to last sentance is supposed to say :


      Sorry for the typos. :p

    2. Isn't that crazy to think about? Ellie really was just doing homework the whole time. And after the first scene where Chase (whose name was Brian) embarrasses Ellie, he was never again mentioned in the book. (Such an obvious mistake, it's almost embarrassing to admit!) And then he pretty much stole the show once I realized he should be mentioned more than once.

    3. I'm sorry, I just burst out laughing thinking of Chase being called Brian. That name makes me think of a skinny, nervous computer geek with coke bottle-glasses and messy hair. Brian! About as different from Chase as you could possibly get. Then again, who am I to talk? My main character was one of the few people who didn't go through three name changes, and she went through a complete personality change. Now I realise if I'd written the novel from the POV of old-Alyssa, NOTHING would have ended up the same. Nothing. And I thought I was writing a plot-driven book! Pah!

    4. He's so not a Brian, is he? When I figured out that he liked Ellie, I'm like, "I gotta change this guy's name." I had in my head that Ellie would wind up with Palmer, but I thought that would be super obvious to the reader if one guy was named something cool like Palmer and another something fine but ordinary like Brian. And then I changed his name and the whole story ran wild. (For the better, I think.)

  2. I always figure out the big scenes in my story before I start writing. I make a timeline of events, and then use that as a road map. I just connect the dots between scenes as I write. Unfortunately that gets me a ton of extra fluff and pointless prose which has to be edited out, but I'm working on it.

    1. I think you're on the right track, though. That's great, Hannah!

  3. Yes, I've had the same journey.
    It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I recovered from the whole "switch to a different novel" kinda thing. I decided that whenever I got an idea, I would work on that idea until the first draft was done. I wouldn't give up when I hit a roadblock, I would try to fix it.

    Thanks for the post! It is really helpful!

  4. I write mostly character driven plots, so when my characters fall flat, so do my stories. And when my stories fall flat, my writing stops. So to fix the problem I take whichever character is giving me problems and write a short (Generally 1,000-2,000 words, it's short enough to write in a day) story about some moment in their childhood/past that helped shape them. And not just the emotionally scarring ones, the happy ones too.

    Like... I just wrote about my one character going to an amusement park with his family. It never comes into the story, and really he's not even that big a character, but it helped me learn a little more about who he was and gave me a break from writing the actual plot. Idk if that would help anyone else though.

    1. Thanks for the idea.

  5. I used to be a Pantser, then a Planner, and now I'm a Plantser and use your "Sign-Post" method (without calling it that). It works very well for me, too.

  6. It's funny that you mention this, Stephanie, because I feel like I've learned more from studying my procress than any other thing, lately. I've learned that not knowing my story world is awful, and that doing all kinds of pre-planning helps. I like to know things like my characters' schedules, so I know where they are at all times. I like to outline, otherwise I feel like the book will go in circles. I still feel like my side characters aren't as delveloped as they could be, but I'll keep experimenting until I figure that out. ;)
    I don't know, I feel like I haven't made a ton of progress on a practicular book this year, but I've learned and grown a lot, which is worth it. :D

  7. This was a really interesting post! I have a question though: did you really truly "finish", as in all edits etc, the novels on that list that are unpublished? Would you still go into all that detail polishing a work you were certain wouldn't work? Because on one hand it's editing practise, and you can identify the things you did wrong, but on the other hand you're using up time you could be spending writing and idea that would work. So do you force yourself to write every novel to utter completion, or do you just write the first draft?

    1. Great question, Hannah. No, I didn't do full-on edits for all of those. Usually I intended to but got called away to work on another project. (Usually it was another revision of The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, so it's good that book finally got published!)

      Like you said, it could be valuable, but editing takes a lot of time. If you don't think anything is going to happen with the book, I'm not sure it's worth the time investment. Just my opinion.

    2. Are you every going to try to get some of those published? Like the dystopian book and the "Girl in the Bookshop" sounded cool.

    3. Thanks for the advice, Stephanie. And I agree with Samuel. We'd all buy any book you write!

    4. You guys are so sweet :) Thank you.

      Yes, I would love to try to get some of those published. Contemporary YA isn't a hot genre right now, so it can be a tricky sale. And I adore dystopians (and had SO MUCH FUN writing mine) but they're also "out" with publishers. So I don't know what will happen with that one. There's a lot of "wait and see" involved in being a writer.

  8. This was cool to read and a little funny. "The Teenage Chef book that I never could title"--ROFL! I almost died laughing at that, sorry. I've actually done this recently with my "books." It was really neat to see what I'd tried/learned that was different with each story. The simplified list goes something like this:

    "Leader in Disguise"--tried first person present and loved that. To this day it's my favorite POV style and comes the most naturally to me now (I'm writing my current WIP in past and sometimes when I'm not paying attention, I slip into present...haha). However it needed some refining as I've found out...and looking back on it, I know historical fiction's not for me to write; too much research! ;)
    "The story that eventually became Different"--I laughed when I read about Ellie Sweet, because this book underwent some HUGE changes as well. Totally different story now. LOL With this one I learned to get the character's goals in place before I tried to write, so there was some point to the story...and looking back on that first draft now, I'm really wishing I'd done more than that plot-wise because it's sort of left me a mess to clean up.
    "Living Rain" & sequel--I'm trying two POVs for this one, and a new genre, aaaaand I tried Mrs. Williamson's plot chart (decided it was a bit too detailed for me and switched to the one in the GTW book, which is working wonders)! So far I'm adoring dual-POV. Gives me two unique perspectives, which really helps. Also I'll be figuring out how to do sequels...and antagonists, gah! Never had much of a real one before. As in a person.

    Anyway, that's what I've a bit long, sorry!

    1. That is, my first person present needed some refining. I used way too much "I say." A lot of that has been eliminated in Different now, because of the action beats thing! Yay for that!

  9. I've never really been one for plots, I usually just get an idea and write it down the moment it comes to my head, then I build from there.
    I do have some sort of direction I want the story to go, but I haven't exactly used any exercises to help sort it out, yet.

    Thanks for the post! : )


  10. First two books I wrote I had zero outline, just a general idea of where i wanted to go. Finally in the third book I took time to write out a step by step outline during school's study halls when I had no homework. That worked really nicely and I didn't have trouble with filling in scenes. And I could still add things to the book (encouraged even, by myself) and it didn't throw me off.

  11. I like trying new things for every new novel I write. How will I know if something really clicks with me if I haven't tried it?! ;) So far, though, I've learnt I don't do well AT ALL with zero outline or idea where I'm going. I like to have a few pages written out of what I want to happen. I've gone the whole hog with detailed outlines before, but they bog me down. It's a tricky medium.

  12. I've tried pantsing twice and the both stories totally lost form. Now I plot A LOT and actually find outlining quite fun (I know, I'm weird). What's nice about plotting is that you get it right the first time instead of spending months on the first daft.
    Plotting gives you a better story structure; it is a pain from time to time, but is actually enjoyable.

    Nothing against pantsing - I just prefer plotting.

  13. Hi Stephanie,
    Just a couple of quick questions. How do you know if you have too much dialogue? Also, is it OK to have parts in your story that aren't really important but might show some different things about the character's personality or relationships?

    Thank you,

  14. I love pantsing. I admit it gets tiring, but I still love it.