Novel Construction 101

A new year, a new course! I’m excited to dig into what should be a meaty, essential year-long look at novel writing. In 2012, we spent the year delving into the heart of your story, with deep lessons that showed ways to tap into that heart via every component of your novel. Last year you were introduced to and drenched with cinematic technique that gave you tools to help you bring your story alive visually.

When pondering what theme and emphasis I wanted to share with writers in 2014, I sat back and thought about the hundreds of manuscript critiques I’d done in the last year—novels of just about every genre and subgenre. I pondered long and hard over the issues and elements that seemed to be the most difficult and daunting for most of my clients.

Think about Construction

It didn’t take long for the “usual suspects” to rise to the surface. Meaning, most writers—particular beginning novelists—get tripped up and struggle with pretty much the same things. And rightly so. Writing a novel is not easy, despite what some say (and usually it’s the people who have never written one who say that).

Unfortunately, I get the feeling, when I start in on various critiques, that the client I am trying to help did not think it important to first take the time to learn as much about novel construction as possible. Many manuscripts I critique seem to be written off the top of the head, the scenes just thrown onto the page without forethought. So few novels seem to be actually constructed. Or if they are constructed, they are done faultily, doomed to failure (and often by the end of page 1).

The concept of construction is nothing new. However, I’m a building contractor’s wife, and since I’ve spent many long hours nailing siding according to blueprint nailing specifications and cutting two-by-fours carefully to the sixteenth of an inch in order for all the studs to fit precisely in framing up a house, the word construction has a rich and evocative meaning for me. As does the word blueprint. Any builder who attempts to construct a complex house without engineered plans would be rightly called a fool.

How Much Time Do You Want to Waste?

Of course, “building” a faulty novel won’t endanger anyone’s life (we hope), but it can sure be a lesson in frustration and aggravation, and a very big waste of time. That’s not to say practicing writing is a waste of time; it’s not. But, well, it can be if there is no end to the means. If you write randomly and learn nothing, does it really benefit you? Sure, exercises like participating in nanwrimo (National Novel Writing Month) teach you admirable things like discipline, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness (yep, that really is a word!). But those qualities alone will not improve your writing skills or turn you into a novelist.

To use a different analogy, I could spend three hours pouring random ingredients into a big bowl and stirring, stirring, stirring. That doesn’t guarantee that when I pour it into a pan and bake it, a delicious and beautiful cake will emerge from my oven. In fact, it’s akin to the old line about setting a million monkeys down in front of typewriters and believing that eventually, some thousands of years down the line, one monkey will accidentally and perfectly produce the Bible word for word. Truthfully? Most novels that I critique are a lot like that bowl of random elements. And it’s really hard to take a finished product like that yucky baked cake and turn it into something palatable, let alone delicious. If only the writer took the time to find a solid, time-tested recipe and followed that. A recipe is like . . . a blueprint. Which brings me back around to building construction.

If you haven’t figured me out yet, let me just say I am all about not wasting time. Life is short, too short. Some of you have read my polite rants on plotting and learning this craft well so as to not waste time. Time is the most precious and valuable commodity we have. It is a limited resource, and life demands we spend the increments of time on so many things. If I wrote down everything I did in a day, every tiny little thing I did requiring a measure of time, I would probably be shocked. We have to divide up our time into little bits in order to take care of the many responsibilities we handle.

That’s not saying we should be neurotic and never waste a second. But why waste time if we don’t need to? And when it comes to writing novels, I am astounded by how much time writers are willing to waste, basically stirring that bowl of ingredients day after day (and even year after year), without first taking the time to find the right recipe and then following the directions using the required ingredients.

I know I’m jumping back and forth here between baking a cake and building a house. But building and constructing and baking are all about the same thing. Some of you can’t relate to being on a construction crew and framing up a house. But most of you can relate to following a recipe and cooking something, right? Even if it’s just one of those box cakes that say all you have to add are water, an egg, and a half-cup of oil. Simple, but you still need to do what it says or your cake will come out awful. All in all, for just about every task we do in life, we follow some sort of instructions in order to succeed. Change the oil in your car. Upload a picture to Facebook. Whatever. So why is it so many writers think they don’t need to follow instructions when constructing a novel?

Different Techniques but the Same Engineering Principles

Here’s one reason: there are lots of different blueprints (or recipes) out there regarding novel construction. So many different techniques and styles. Some writers throw their hands up thinking that since that’s the case, it really doesn’t matter what method they use. Clearly anything goes. You take all those basic ingredients of plot, character, dialog, and theme and throw them into the mixer and, voila! A novel!

Well, here’s the thing. If you ask great writing instructors about this, they will tell you there are time-tested rules or principles to novel building. Just like with a house. There are myriads of houses—of different sizes, shapes, layouts—many made of very different materials. But there are basic principles that tie in with the natural laws of physics and engineering. Materials have stress loads and limitations. Those factors have to be considered by the engineer designing the blueprints. And the building contractor has to follow those blueprints to ensure the house will be sturdy and safe.

In the same manner, novel construction requires acknowledging the scope, function, and limitations of all its elements. There are structures that have proven to be solid and others flawed. Regardless of genre, writer’s voice, or premise, there are some construction basics that apply to pretty much every novel—unless you are going with something experimental and you don’t really care if the whole thing collapses. But most novelists want their novels to stand the test of time and stand up to the scrutiny of their target audience. They attempt to “build a house” their fans can inhabit and enjoy, which is the dwelling place of their story.

I’ve spent a lot of time already talking about the concept of construction, but next week we will start diving into this course called The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. You can already see where this is leading to, I’m sure. Last year I had you put on your filmmaker’s hat to be able to shoot your novel. This year you get to wear a hard hat! Yes, bricks are going to fly! But my aim is to help you become a terrific building and engineer, and by learning what these 12 essential pillars are and how they support your story, you will become proficient in novel construction. No more throwing a bunch of materials into the mixer and hoping a great book comes out. Novel construction doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) guesswork.

Which gets back to my earlier point about wasting time. The main point to all this is to avoid wasting time and energy stirring and stirring and producing nothing palatable. By following established blueprints for novel construction, you can use your time wisely and write a terrific novel and still have time to do all those other things you want and need to do in your life, including stopping and smelling the roses.

So get ready to load up that tool belt with construction tools as we look deeply at the 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction.

Photo Credit: Cayusa via Compfight cc

16 Responses to “Novel Construction 101”

  1. Kent DuFault January 1, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    It sounds interesting. I can’t wait to get started.

  2. Caroline Starr Rose January 1, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    This sounds wonderful! Every new books feels like starting over for me. I have spent a lot of time this last year studying plot, and I’m not sure if it’s rubbed off on my yet. Always interested in a new approach.

  3. Adam Blumer January 1, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Looking forward to following this series. Thank you! I’m hoping also to get into story mapping and could use more visual examples, if that might help future direction. I’m intrigued by the idea, just not quite “seeing” it yet. Can hardly wait to learn more and streamline my plotting process, which can easily get bogged down.

  4. henya January 1, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    As you know that would be me. So…I’ve learned so much from you and continue to do so. Novel number three is beginning to follow this route. No choice. I’ve wasted seven years writing two episodic novels. A learning experience. (Not complaining)

    Happy New Year, Susanne!

  5. Ekta Garg January 1, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    Can’t wait for this series! It’s exactly what I need for my writing goals this year. Thank you!

  6. Mary Gottschalk January 1, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Susanne

    I’ve very much enjoyed your film series, and have used quite a bit of it. I look forward to your 2014 series, although it will be too late for my current novel, which is at the editor’s as I write. But there’s another story in the wings, and based on the hurdles I had to master in this first one, your pillars should be of great use!

    • cslakin January 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

      Thanks, I’m just getting started developing this whole idea so glad you can do the journey with me!

  7. Laurie Evans January 1, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    I can’t wait! I enjoy your blog and feel like you explain things in a way I can understand. I need help with story structure, so I’m really looking forward to this.

    Enjoyed last year’s posts on movie methods, too.

    • cslakin January 1, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

      Thanks so much. I’m trying to sell Shoot Your Novel to a big publisher, but if it doesn’t go through, I’ll publish it myself this year!

  8. Rebecca Vance January 5, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I was just given your blog address from a friend, and I just signed up so I won’t miss any of your posts. This is just what I need right now! I have been trying to plot out my debut novel for months and I am missing something. I think I am on the right course, then some plot hole comes along and I fall right in. Several of the “pantsers” have told me that I should just sit down and start writing. I honestly don’t see how that can work. I would like to have an idea of where I am going. If not, I think I would just end up back where I started anyway. So, I am so glad that I’ve found this site, and I am excited to get some pointers on constructing this novel! Thank you so much for the help! 🙂

    • cslakin January 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

      Hi Rebecca, I’m glad you’ve jumped in. Honestly, I’ve yet to see a great novel written in a pantser fashion. A few amazing writers with years of experience may write that way but already have ingrained in them the keys to structure and do it automatically. But I critique hundreds of manuscripts a year and even most of those that have been carefully plotted out have a lot of problems. Writing a novel is very complicated and it’s like juggling twenty plates in the air at once, so without very careful planning, the lack of cohesive shows and the book fails. Be sure to read through all the posts in the category The Heart of Your Story. The first five months is on just the first scene and what is needed to set up the novel. It will be coming out in book form soon!

  9. Sue Jeffels January 6, 2014 at 4:39 am #

    This looks fascinating can’t wait to get started

  10. Joseph Stoll January 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    This sounds like it’s going to be a really good series. I could use the perspective.

  11. Charlotte Young Bowens August 21, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    This blog post is essentially an answer to my prayer, a kind of tough love sermon I needed to hear and I want to say thank you because although I knew that construction was essential, I was also being stubborn, thinking that my creative process was somehow beyond that (a whole bunch of wishful thinking).
    It started in the car last night while I was driving home from my writers group, I was just thinking about the critique that I was given and I really had to ask myself, why do I keep getting the same feedback or the same questions about my writing. And before laying my head to rest, I made an earnest prayer with tears filling my eyes, I told God, I need some help, please help me. And then somehow by the grace of the holy spirit, here I am.
    I look forward to reading the other blogs but I feel armored to do the work I need to do to create a well constructed novel. Thank you once again. I love the analogy about mixing various ingredients and expecting something good, SO TRUE!

    • cslakin August 21, 2014 at 7:28 am #

      Charlotte, I’m so glad these posts are helping you! Pursuing a writing career is a daunting challenge and there is so much to learn. You might want to read some of the posts on my blog on success and setting goals (you can put these words in the search bar), as those might also encourage you!

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