Author, Marlene M. Bell Logo

Eight Years to a Debut Novel

Writing is hard.

Toiling on STOLEN OBSESSION for nearly a decade felt insane at times. It never occurred to me to give up on the project or stop learning the craft as the years ticked by. I love a challenge, but honestly, birthing a novel was the hardest chore I’ve ever undertaken. And I raise breeding stock sheep! I thought that was tough. Being an artistic person with a paintbrush or camera ought to have helped me tackle a creative project like, the novel. I was sure of it. How hard could writing fiction be? Think of a story, dig through personal memories and cherry pick the best ones. Layer the juicy episodes between characters and create a great read. Easy, right? If you’ve written a novel to the end, your laughter stings my ears.

Would I tackle STOLEN OBSESSION the same way if I could shave off some time? C’mon, eight years is an eternity in front of a computer. I’ve asked myself that question many times and wondered what my story would’ve looked like without the stops and starts. Pretty rotten and unreadable, I’d say. Here’s a link to the press release for STOLEN OBSESSION if you’re interested in how my 8-year project turned out. Novel Release Date: 3-20-2018.

In case you’ve considered writing a book, or have entered the deep, squishy end of your work in progress, I’ve listed 9 areas of frustration I had to learn the hard way:

  • Crack open books on how to craft fiction before writing the first paragraph.
  • Lots of reading = the greatest chance for stellar writing.
  • Debut authors should outline the story ahead of time.
  • Critiques and edits are ALL subjective.
  • Know what genre or sub-genre your story falls within.
  • Network with fellow writers.
  • Budget for the expense of a good developmental editor, (or two.)
  • Most novels need tons of rewrites.
  • There are writing rules. Read from famed authors at great peril.

Crack open books on crafting fiction before you begin.

Writing fiction is a constant development of the craft. It’s not enough to tell a story. Readers don’t want to be told a story, they want immersion into another world—an escape from their mundane, everyday lives. A painted picture of setting, interesting dialog and vivid insights into your characters’ inner workings is what the reader is after.

When I began my novel in 2010, it carried the title of my main character. I called the story, ANNALISSE. Sitting at my PC for two years, I banged out the first draft with a word count of 150,000. Never mind that I hadn’t a clue what a romance must accomplish to be considered genre romance, and how most publishable romances for new authors should be kept around 80,000 words. I had made no effort to research how to write fiction, and I’d stopped reading novels for fear of plagiarizing other writers. (I’ve heard the no-reading part is a common beginner’s mistake.) I was cursed from the beginning, but went forward oblivious to what my writing future would bring.

I recall how excited I was to finally hand over my completed manuscript to a professional editor. When his 20-page form letter arrived with the ream of sparsely marked-up pages, my enthusiasm quickly dampened. The editor was old-school and had insisted on printing all 450 manuscript pages at my expense. The 12-point courier font I’d used (that he’d recommended,) added pages and more money to his competitive $1800.00 fee. The sum was a bunch of money to drop on a blind first draft.

Although his fee had sucked down my bank account, I have to thank Mr. Garrett for that lackluster first edit. He’d sent me to the books to learn sentence structure. Those books sent me to more books, and those to even more in-depth views on writing fiction. I read volumes for eighteen months allowing the dreaded manuscript to marinate on my desk. At least 50 books on the craft later, I jumped back into the second draft of ANNALISSE.

Two primers that helped me the most in those early days were written by one man, James Scott Bell. No relation. He has a writing style for instruction that’s easy to understand. His books, Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-Editing have a place of honor on my go-to writing book shelf. I still refer to them. It’s never too late to study different aspects of penning fiction! Break into a few more books on the subject. You’ll be stunned how your writing will transform.

Lots of reading = the greatest chance for stellar writing.

No one writes well without reading. Whether its non-fiction or fiction, reading both will help you become a more prolific writer. When I struggled with my first case of writer’s handicap, the dreaded blank page, I took the advice from bestselling authors. Simply put, reading another author’s prose unlocks words in your brain. Words flow evenly onto the paper or a Word document when you get a feel for another writer’s voice. Reading seems to jiggle things upstairs in the mind of an author. When I’m stuck, I put the manuscript aside and grab a book to read. This practice isn’t meant to copy prose, but look at it like teetering on a three-legged stool. Add the fourth leg (reading,) and whala, writing stability.

Read inside your genre and out. I’ll explain more about genre later. Memoirs are a nice break from fiction, too. Change up your gender preference in authors and read from both men and women. The styles are a dramatic difference! I write in third-person but find myself drawn to novels in first-person for variety and a much closer POV.

Debut authors should outline the story ahead of time.

The first drafts of ANNALISSE had developed so many sub-plots and sub-genres, my editor told me to pick one story line and stick with it. Oddly, I’d managed to rewrite the novel three times and never thought to outline a scene, let alone the novel’s beginning, middle and ending. I’m a structured person in every aspect of what I do on a daily basis, except when it came to writing my novel. How did I miss that? If I’d laid out the scenes in detail ahead of time, the extra plot lines would’ve shown their ugly feelers. There’s nothing like confusion to jerk the reader out of the main story and compel them to close the book. It took a damned good developmental editor to bring my novel’s serious flaws into the sunlight.

My characters had turned unlikable due to wandering sub-plots and so much story movement. My romance read more like women’s fiction with a bad guy boyfriend and a snarky protagonist. This was not the way I wanted to portray them—without a chance of a happily ever after ending. Writing from my head had jumbled the message. My solution was to change the love interest’s name, give him a different vocation and do this with most of the characters throughout the book, including parts of my main character, Annalisse. In a sense, I had to write my book again from scratch and convert the title to change my mindset. I learned the importance of using an outline five years into the process.

Critiques and edits are ALL subjective.

Everyone has an opinion. If you’re a typical debut author, we seek acceptance into the novelist club. Just one positive comment once in a while makes us happy. Elated, in my case.

Each time a modification is made to an opening paragraph or first chapter, we want our beta readers or online critique partner/agent to tell us how much they loved reading the revision—how they were drawn into the scene and wanted to know more about our POV character. I can’t remember EVER having a super critique experience. The chapter was never good enough. No matter how many times I wrote, rewrote, or broke down sentences word for word, my critiques always came back with opinions of what was needed to fix this section or that one. Writing and reading are subjective. It depends upon the person’s preference. Don’t expect applause.

After years of trying to please everyone and pleasing no one including myself, it dawned on me. Every story affects each reader differently. Someone may be drawn to your characters where others might not like a personality in one of them, or hate your writer’s voice all together. Deep within 30 agent query submissions for STOLEN OBSESSION I heard different versions of this: “I didn’t feel a connection to the writing. It didn’t grab me.” When hundreds upon hundreds of query letters hit agents’ inboxes each week, and mine is but one in the pile, I get that. But being on the receiving end of general, unhelpful comments after years of work, kinda sucks. I’ll save the story of querying agents for another time.

Try not to get discouraged, and never take criticism personally. Please yourself with the reader in mind. Write as clearly as possible. Use everyday words in your manuscript, and hire sound editors who will shape your work in progress into a finished product.

Know what genre or sub-genre your story falls within.

Stolen Obsession book cover

I didn’t understand “genre” until I’d finished my 4th rewrite. If I’d studied different genres in the romance category early on, I would’ve saved myself lots of badly written drafts.

Enter the unread novels in my past. Without reading, there’s no way to know what certain genre structures must look like. Why is it important to keep your novel to a certain structure? For your readers. Avid readers typically prefer certain kinds of stories. If they read a lot of romance, as an example, they expect novels to end one of two ways, happily-ever-after, or happy-for-now. That’s it. If your romance ends any other way, like a protagonist dying or a cliffhanger ending, you’re certain to garner some hostile book reviews. The same holds true for other genres. Every genre is structured in a certain way because the author or publisher knows what their readers expect—and what sells. Deviation = doom.

The exception are genre-mix books. STOLEN OBSESSION is one of those genre mixes. I read a ton of romantic suspense and structured my novel accordingly, but a heavier sense of mystery seeped into the final version. I settled upon a sub-genre of romantic mystery which better explained to readers what they’d find inside. Readers aren’t easily fooled. Slapping on a beautiful cover that doesn’t match the story will make readers upset. Be careful with covers. Look at the top selling books in the genre you’re writing and make careful notes of the similarities. Take into consideration print placement, hunky dudes, or lack of, and subtle background noise to begin with. How do historical romance covers differ from modern romances? Book buyers do look at covers before they purchase. Just like story structure, your genre cover should belong to that group.

Network with fellow writers.

With a full-time sheep operation and mail order catalog gift line, I’ll admit I don’t network enough as I’d like with many authors. It’s extremely helpful to join a writer’s guild nearby and if you can swing it, go to a writer’s conference. I did manage a writer’s retreat a few years back, only because it was located a few hours from our ranch. That single outside experience hooked me into some fine writers and editors, and it was fun! Facebook writer’s groups and other social media outlets can be helpful also, once the all-about-me book promoters are weeded out. There are quite a few honest and helpful bestselling authors who are willing to answer novice writer’s questions in the Women’s Fiction Writers Group (WFWA.) Check them out.

Budget for the expense of a developmental editor, (or two.)

Going in, I knew I’d need an editor. What I didn’t know, was how many times I’d need one! Once the first draft is written and you’ve self-edited grammar and spelling, hand your manuscript over to a beta reader and let them look at it. A different pair of eyes will certainly point out areas of concern with recommendations to address those portions of your story. If you have the luxury of several beta readers in your midst, by all means, give others a chance to weigh in. If more than one reader-partner notes the same poorly written or confusing areas, those places should be addressed first.

Online workshops and agent critiques like those from Writer’s Digest are helpful. With a caveat. If you ask for a critique often enough on first chapters, as an example, the process will make you crazy. That subjective thing comes roaring back. I paid for critiques of this kind too often in my early manuscript drafts. If you are struggling with opening paragraphs, these critiques are helpful to move you over the hump.

By the second or third draft, I would recommend researching good development editors. If you can get them to send you a sample edit, that’s better yet. Many developmental editors won’t sample edit since they are more big-picture people. The better editors will have references online. Make lists and contact those editors who have glowing client reviews.

Copyeditors typically offer to edit a few manuscript pages for a sample of their work. Developmental editors look over the entire story and tell the writer what works and what doesn’t. If your work has plot holes, wandering sub-plots, and character issues like mine did, the developmental editor will note this. Copyeditors usually go line by line checking for clunky sentences, repetitious words, fixing word choice and things of this nature. The copyeditor is the last editor prior to proofreader.

By the time STOLEN OBSESSION had entered the 5th draft, I had paid two developmental editors to dissect the manuscript, not including the first-draft-nothing-edit. Prices for developmental edits can run you thousands of dollars. Most editors charge by the word. Expect $2,000.00 to $4000.00 as a good average for an 80,000 word manuscript. The wordier your piece, the more an edit will cost. Most highly sought after editors have a waiting list to add to the frustration. Expect to wait at least 2 months if not more to get on their schedule. Most need 3-4 months. Full payment is typically expected up front, but there are exceptions. I had one editor ask for half the payment up front with the remainder due upon completion. Once final payment was made, the fully edited manuscript came back to me with recommendations and notes.

Unless you are a gifted wordsmith and writing comes second-nature to you, I wouldn’t recommend skipping the professional edit of your manuscript. Edits are pricey, but so worth the money once your book is published, or if you plan to attract an agent for your story.

Most novels require several rewrites.

When I hear authors tell their followers they put out two full-length novels a year, I’m amazed, and a little jealous. There are fast writers who do a terrific job on their work with little or no edits involved, but those authors are rare. I’ve always been on the other side of the spectrum. I self-edit too much which is a huge time-waster. STOLEN OBSESSION needed four developmental edits! The second book will come much sooner having made so many mistakes on the first one!

Your book may not need eight rewrites like mine did, (hopefully it won’t,) but I’d be surprised if it didn’t require at least two or three. Expect this. Get awesome help. Make your budget the most generous in the editor department. The more frank and direct your editor, the better. It hurts to hear sharp criticism, but their tough love will drive you to become a smarter writer because of their frankness.

There are writing rules. Read from famed authors at great peril.

Some may disagree, but I made a huge mistake picking up renown, bestselling authors to read during the eighteen months I read steadily. I gobbled up books by chart-topping romance authors and suspense writers. What I came away with, was a ton of soaring metaphors and hyperbole in my own manuscript. Clichéd phrases had also entered into my second and third drafts as a result. The pretty, purple prose I loved so much in favored novels I’d emulated in my own. To the detriment of my manuscript.

Critique agents hated my chapters! Beta readers told me to stop with the hyperbole because the mixed metaphors pulled them out of the story. But I’d read tons of this in bestselling books! Why not add this to my work? Smile. Because celebrity authors can do things and we can’t. At least, not until we’re bestselling authors and have a large fan base waiting for our next book. Well-known authors may break any writing rule they wish. We notice the broken rules as a reader learning the craft, but no matter, they have the name we don’t.

Color within the writing-rule lines and venture outside a little while writing the first novel. There are exceptional new writers with a unique voice who luck-out breaking the rules, but for the first book I wouldn’t advise making a habit of it.

Let me know what you think! Feel free to comment below.