Like many writers, my very first attempt to write a novel began with one scene. I saw dust motes floating through sunbeams, framing a woman sitting at a bar made of antique wood. Over the years, I’d wonder about that woman. Who was she? Why was she sitting at a bar all alone with nothing but trickles of sunlight to keep her company?
These are the kinds of questions and images that set authors on the journey of writing. But the more I tried to figure out who she was, what the story was, the more elusive it all became. This woman became the symbol of my creativity. Sitting in isolation, stuck in a liminal backdrop that refused to budge. The encouraging voices telling me I could write and should pursue it were drowned by a much louder, far more formidable force: doubt.
I had heard successful authors talk about worrying about what readers think or how their book would be received. But as someone who couldn’t seem to string more than a few thousand words together, it felt like the kind of humble fodder they touted as a way to be relatable. It wasn’t until I joined the book community on Instagram, or bookstagram, that I really started to understand how universal and true this struggle was.
There, I met not only readers but aspiring writers. I saw people just like me worrying about their characters, deciding where to take their story, and wondering if their prose was any good. But even more powerful, I started seeing other successful authors post and talk about how much their journey’s and struggles. Take a look at this Facebook post from bestselling author Pierce Brown:
Brown received more than 140 rejections before his debut novel Red Rising was published by Del Rey Books. It went on to reach No. 20 on The New York Times bestseller list. Even for great writers, progress can be slow and success can take years. Churning out a perfect first draft and finding instant acclaim is something that happens to fictional characters but rarely to real people.
If you are struggling with your first draft, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone struggles, and there are a plethora of tools to help you improve. These books and ideas have helped me organize and improve my ever-evolving methods as I continue to self-edit and draft more science fiction and fantasy novels.
To Be a Writer, You Have to Write
This might seem obvious, but doubt can be crippling and fear debilitating. Some of the first books that helped me overcome my fear were from authors I admired.
Stephen King’s On Writing is not exactly a craft book, but it is a book about craft. He talks about his career, his struggles, and the lessons he’s learned over time. The first time I read it, I remember being struck with the idea that Stephen King, the master of horror, had once been rejected. That he struggled. That he may never have finished his debut novel, the iconic Carrie, if not for his wife’s belief in him. You may not like his books, but if you’re struggling with where to start or how to move forward, On Writing is an excellent book filled with a ton of writing advice all grounded in his own experiences.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was another book that helped me see that writing is a process. In the first thirty pages or so, Gilbert addressed the fear she felt so clearly, it was like she had jumped inside my brain. But she also helps guide you, again through her own experiences, through that fear and doubt, and into the courageous beauty of embracing your creativity. Not everything she wrote resonated. I don’t believe ideas have expiration dates, but here was a woman who seemed to share some of my inner-most thoughts and landed on the side of success. Her book was invaluable to me in that aspect.
The last book that helped me overcome my fear and start putting words to paper was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. This is a book I’ve read multiple times, sometimes opening the pages at random to find advice and inspiration. Art isn’t easy, but sometimes the hardest part is starting. More than a book on writing or art or creativity even, this is a psychological strategy guide on how to overcome your internal battles.
Finding Structure for Your Novel
At this point it had been years since I had tried to write about that woman at the bar. But when I sat down to start writing again, she was as elusive as she always had been. Surprisingly though, other ideas bubbled up and I took the advice from the books I had been reading and simply let myself create. And I did it. In three months, I had written a 99,000 word novel.
It wasn’t great. It wasn’t even good. But it was finished.
The problem wasn’t that it was bad, it was that I had no idea how to fix it. But I did know a few things. Everyone writes bad first drafts and books can be shaped. That was emphasized in all the books I mentioned above. What wasn’t mentioned was how to actually edit. They were fantastic for getting me back into writing, but the advice was more general versus the nuts and bolts of writing. One thing they all did agree on, though, was if you’re a writer write. Learn by moving forward.
It was halfway through drafting a new project that I found another invaluable resource. My first critique partner felt like a light in the dark. They talked about writing as a craft and helped me understand that a story needed structure to satisfy a reader.
My first craft book was Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Like many, I was excited to dive into a book promising to be the “last book on novel writing you’ll ever need.” In its pages I learned about things like story beats, character motivation, and genre conventions. If you want the down and dirty on how to figure out what your story is, where it’s going, and why it should go there, this book is a must read.
At this point, I had shelved my second project after querying went nowhere and was well into my third. I was also still writing without an outline. Structure was still something I struggled to find. I had the idea that writing to an outline would feel formulaic and predictable. That’s what I said out loud. But the truth was, I wasn’t confident I could plot a novel ahead of time without exploring the edges of the story first.
I found Writing Into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith. It’s a short but powerful book filled with tips, tricks, and advice on how to approach writing with a plan that isn’t an outline. It’s less about planning and more leaning into your intuition as a storyteller. There can be a lot of joy in discovery, and if you can draft quickly, this might be a process to embrace. It worked for me as far as getting me to the end of another manuscript, but beta readers kept pointing out that I was missing key elements of the story arc. I needed a plan.
Before I go on, I want to emphasize that everyone’s process is different. You might not need help with confidence or overcoming doubt. Or maybe you come to outlining naturally or have a strong instinct for story the first time around. There is no right or wrong way to draft a novel as long as you make it to the end. The truth is, you don’t know what you don’t know until you need to know it. You can read all the craft books, but until you stumble onto a specific problem, the solution might not seem obvious.
For me to learn what elements I was missing, I needed to go deep into structure. I had to understand what story beats were expected and how to craft those elements into the genre I was writing. These are the books that helped me the most.
Great Books on Story Structure
If you only get one book on story structure, get The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. This book is a plethora of information from an editor who spent his career shaping story’s into marketable products. With a wide array of examples, in-depth analysis of books and movies, you’ll walk away feeling like you can build a draft scene by scene and beat by beat. I was able to take a very messy draft, break it down, and reconstruct it into a story that had consistent pacing, solid story beats, and a story arc that made sense from beginning to end. If you are looking for an organized, methodical way to approach drafting, or even editing, I can’t recommend this book enough.
To further drive home the lessons I learned in The Story Grid, I found Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks. This book breaks storytelling into six different components, and what it takes to master each one. With specific items to ask yourself and focus on, coupled with exercises, checklists, and more, Story Engineering is a comprehensive guide to understanding what elements readers are looking for in a novel and how to deliver. It’s a very direct book with a lot of actionable advice and helped me really “get” structure.
The third book that helped me plan my novel from scene development to character depth was Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot by Jane K. Cleland. Again, this book breaks drafting down into key components that you can utilize as you draft. Each chapter has exercises and questions to consider about your manuscript that adds layers to each aspect of your story, making them more compelling to the reader. Her outlining process is a blend of plotting ahead of time while allowing a lot of room for exploring the story and can be changed to fit your specific process easily.
There’s No Wrong Way to Write Your Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novel
I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: There is no wrong way to draft a novel. The only thing you have to do is finish. Some writers prefer to approach drafting in a methodical manner so that the editing process is less daunting. Others love digging into a messy draft and shaping it into a sharply written story. Story structure helped me build my boat and find my crew. It was my map and my compass, and it helped me learn how to write better stories.
I’m currently in the middle of revising a novel while slowly creating a detailed outline for another project. Neither of them involves the woman at the bar. She’s still there, sitting, waiting. But I wonder if she was ever meant for a story at all. Sometimes I think she’s me, or my creativity, anyway. Maybe she isn’t waiting for anything but is instead dreaming of worlds and characters and adventures I have yet to discover. Maybe she was the spark I needed to set sail on the journey I couldn’t yet see.
If you’re new to writing, find the thing that connects you to your creative spark, your muse. Let it sit in the quiet until it’s ready to whisper in your dreams. I promise, it will. Be open to writing terrible drafts and starting over. Be willing to learn and grow and constantly change with every new story. But no matter what, always keep writing.
Featured photo: Aaron Burden / Unsplash