Writing a Novel Takes Practice

close up photo of gray typewriter
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

What’s Next on Your Reading List?

Great American Read
Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer

March is National Reading Month

Reading a book is much like going on a journey. You travel along with the narrator or protagonist through numerous ups and downs they experience, which hopefully concludes with a happy ending.

But then, you are faced with a new dilemma: what should you read next? Do you pull a title from your TBR list (to be read)? Or do you search the nearby Little Free Library for something that grabs your interest? Or do you go somewhere else?

There are several ways you choose the books you read. You might go by the author. You’ve read their works before and want to read others because you know it will be a satisfying reading experience.

Maybe genre is more important to you. For example, mystery fans will gravitate toward other mysteries and thrillers, even if they haven’t read the author before.

Then there’s the third option for choosing books: the plot. When you read the inside flap or back cover, you get an idea of who your protagonist is, what conflicts they’ll be facing and perhaps, the possible payoff. You start reading with the promise of a strong compelling plot line and hope for another satisfactory conclusion.

There are a number of ways I choose what books to read. Usually, it depends on my mood. One day, I might be in the mood to read a memoir, then next I might be in the mood to be swept away in a romantic suspense novel. Since I like reading a variety of genres, it sometimes makes it difficult to choose what type of book I want to read next.

Sometimes, rather than choosing the book, I simply browse my shelf and let the book choose me. Here are a few other ways I choose a book to read.

* Someone mentioned the book in conversation. When a friend describes a book they’re reading and their voice is filled with wonder and enthusiasm, I usually see it as a sign that I should check it out too. When someone loves what they read, they’ll happily share their book choice with others.

* I avoid reading book reviews. Book reviews are meaningless to me because they tend to over analyze the story. I think to myself, “You got that much out of that story?” I have never been convinced to read a book based on a review. I prefer recommendations from people I actually know and respect who have already read the book.

* It’s an author I’ve read before. This is perhaps the number one reason people choose certain books to read. If the author has an extensive list of books they’ve published and I’ve already enjoyed reading some of those titles, I am more likely to read other titles by them. Several years ago, I read Kristen Hannah’s Winter Garden based on a recommendation from a Facebook friend. I loved that book so much, I’ve read several other titles of Hannah’s since then.

* I pay attention to book titles. Some titles automatically draw me in because they exude an air of mystery and intrigue. Once in a bookstore, I came across a title in the discounted section with a simply designed book cover – plain orange with classic, somewhat ornate writing. The Places Between Us had no book summary or marketing blurb on the back side or inside the front cover, so I had no idea what the book was about, which only added to its mystery. Strangely, I kept pacing past it. After glancing in its direction several times, I finally picked it up and read the first few pages. I wound up buying it, and it became one of the most fascinating reads, worthy of a book club discussion.

* I find authors or book titles I’ve always wanted to read. For me, that includes some old classics that I never read when I was younger. To Kill a Mockingbird had been on that list for several years. Only after its author Harper Lee passed away did I finally pick it up to read.

* I avoid current national best sellers. I’m sure there are some quality books among the current best sellers, but not all of them. I’d rather choose a book because I’m interested in the plot.

* I look for an intriguing plot or character. Recently, I read What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity.  The plot line is what intrigued me most, though admittedly, I also wanted to check out Moriarity’s work since I had seen her name on bookstore shelves. The main character, Alice, heads to the gym one morning and wakes up in the hospital, only to learn that it’s ten years later, and she can’t remember anything that’s happened to her over that ten-year span. She can’t understand why her relationship with her sister is so strained or why she is recently separated from a husband she adores. The plot compelled me to pick up the book and keep reading, so I could find out how Alice pieces together memories from that missing time in her life.

* I consider bookstore staff recommendations. If unsure what to read next, you can always ask your favorite bookstore employee, or check out the bookstore’s staff recommendations section, if they have one. These folks are avid readers themselves and are happy to share their favorite books with you.

* I refrain from depending on book club choices. Sure, a title might be an Oprah Book Club choice, but don’t make that the main reason for choosing a book. Choose it because the title or plot intrigues you, someone you know recommended it, or your local bookshop owner recommended it. 

Remember, it’s helpful to develop your own criteria for choosing books to read. At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment with new authors or genres. Every now and then, it can be fun to read something outside of your comfort zone. You never know when you discover new talent. 

No matter how you go about choosing a book, it’s exciting to know that we have so many choices available to us, more than we’ve ever had before. Half the fun of reading is deciding what to read next.

The Great American Read Reveals Viewers’ Most Beloved Books

Great American Read

PBS completed its five-month series, The Great American Read, which examined Americans’ most favorite novels. The program was hosted by former Today Show host Meredith Viera. I missed the program, unfortunately, but here is a wrap up of the top 25 most beloved novels, as selected by program viewers.

Topping the list at number one is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It hit the number one spot since day one and held it all the way through. Written and published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story of a young girl in the South who tries to make sense of the cruelty she sees within their community as her father – a local, crusading attorney – defends a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. The story has as much significance today as it did when it was published, which is why it seems to resonate with many readers and PBS viewers.

Rounding out the top five is the Outlander series, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. The top 25 is listed below, followed by a few of my observations, but you can find the entire list of the top 100 on the PBS website.

The Great American Read — Top 25 Most Beloved Books

1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
2. The Outlander (series) — Diana Gabaldon
3. Harry Potter (series) — J.K. Rowling
4. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
5. Lord of the Rings — J.R.R. Tolkien
6. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
7. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
8. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
9. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
10. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
11. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
12. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
14. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
15. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
16. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
18. 1984 – George Orwell
19. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
20. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
21. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
22. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
23. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
24. The Stand – Stephen King
25. Rebecca – Daphne de Maurier

A few observations/assessments:

1. The Outlander series at number two is higher than I expected, even higher than Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia series which have been around longer and have had a loyal readership.

2. The Book Thief, which I thoroughly enjoyed, placed number 14, higher than I expected. Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, behind the strength of its streaming series, was lower than I expected at number 34. I thought Handmaid would be in the top 20.

Of the books listed in the top 25, I’ve read 10 of them. I suppose that’s a good sign, considering I’ve read 18 of the entire top 100. Many of the remaining top 25 are books already sitting on my shelf waiting to be read while others I have heard about and would like to read. Still, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

What about you? As you review this list, what jumps out at you? Are there any books that are missing from the top 100? Are there any titles that were higher or lower than you expected? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One thing about programs and surveys like this, it generates a lot of discussion and debate. But one thing we all can agree on, America’ love of books and reading is alive and well.

Eight Books Worth Reading in 2017

CAM00666

As the first week of the new year comes to a close, I’m still closing the door on 2016. I did a lot of reading last year, getting caught up on books that were lying on my book shelf for months, and in some cases, years.

If you’re looking for a good read in 2017, I might suggest the following titles which I read last year. Some are well known, while others are rather obscure. All are entertaining, thought-provoking reads, guaranteed to stay with you long after the story ends.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman 
Historical fiction set in 70 C.E. in ancient Israel during the Roman invasion of Masada, where 900 Jews held out against the Roman army. According to ancient historians, only two women and five children survived. Five years in the making, this is their story, told by four incredibly bold, resourceful women. The writing is authentic and poignant. At times, I felt I was watching an epic movie unfold. Considered to be Hoffman’s best work, so be prepared to be swept away by her colorful and dramatic storytelling.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book sat on my shelf for several months until I learned of Lee’s death last spring. I can’t believe I waited so long to read it. The writing is authentically southern, so at times it was difficult to follow. But beneath the language lay a story of racial tensions in a small town in the South and one man’s attempt to teach his children to treat all people, no matter how different in color or religion, with dignity and respect. Written from the viewpoint of a six-year old girl, the story is both timely and timeless, and just as important today as it was then.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Long before the Netflix series, Kerman shares her observations and experiences during her 15-month prison term at a federal correctional facility for women in Danbury, Connecticut. She also shares the stories of many of the women who she met along the way. The first-hand account reveals how Kerman and her fellow inmates managed to survive the day-to-day boredom of prison life, as well as their compassion for each other. Fascinating, if not sobering, read.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
McCullers was only 23 when she wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a book filled with humanity and compassion far beyond her years. Like Lee’s Mockingbird, this book also tackles racial tensions with grace and dignity. Even more poignant is how McCullers paints her characters, showcasing their strengths and vulnerabilities, and just how isolated each one is amidst their personal and moral crises. I was most fascinated by Singer, the deaf mute who everyone seemed drawn to, yet who understood very little of what they were telling him. It is through his thoughts and his eyes that we ultimately see how the heart is a lonely hunter, constantly searching for connection with like-minded souls.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Most of us in the free world would have difficulty imagining living in a society that banned certain books and prohibited women from furthering their education. Nafisi was a professor of English Literature in Iran. When Islamic morality squads began, Nafisi had the courage to set up secret gatherings for seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Reading this memoir and their discussions of famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, made me appreciate the freedoms we have in our country as well as the classic writing I have yet to experience.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Genova’s book reads like a memoir, and I suppose it could be. Still Alice is a poignant look at Alzheimer’s disease. The story opens with Alice Howland living a full and active life as a psychology professor at Harvard and a renowned expert on linguistics. As the story progresses, we see her become increasingly disoriented and forgetful. This is her journey and her fight to prolong the onset of the disease for as long as possible. This heart-breaking story will make you think, “Gee, this could be me someday.”

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Another novel that reads like a memoir, An Unnecessary Woman is the story of a book-loving, obsessive and isolated 72-year-old woman, whose belief that she is “unnecessary” in the world is shaped by her upbringing in the Middle East. She used her love of books and her translation work to hide from the world. Despite her efforts, circumstances force her to come out of her shell and interact with the world. The ending gives us all hope that we don’t have to be alone, that we are all necessary to one another, no matter where we live.

10% Happier by Dan Harris
Written with wit and journalistic integrity, 10% Happier is the memoir of Dan Harris, the weekend anchor of Good Morning America. This is his journey into the world of mindfulness and meditation, which at first, Harris fights. What I found intriguing about this book is the journalistic approach that Harris takes in which he interviews numerous high-profile experts about the experience of meditation, from Deepak Chopra to the Dalai Lama. We learn from Harris’s lessons, his experiences. Meditation is not as easy as it looks, and the lessons we learn about ourselves aren’t so simple either.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!