Four Resources to Check Out for Building a Better Novel

Right now, I'm ALL about story structure. These four resources are transforming the way I look at storytelling in general, and my trilogy in particular. Want a more awesome story? Click through to check them out! |

For so many years, and to so many people, I said that learning to write a novel was like learning to build a house.

On your own. From scratch.

I LOVED using this metaphor. There are so many aspects to creating a finished home, let alone a livable home, let alone a charming home that someone would willingly purchase.


You've got to deal with electricity and roofing, windows and foundations. You need to have the gas hooked up correctly and you need to get the insulation in. 

Kind of like dealing with conflict and theme, characters and setting. So many elements, so many systems. It takes a lot to create a quality product.

I loved saying this to people, because it seemed that they understood, then, why I could take so dang long working on these manuscripts.

It got me off the hook. That's what I'm saying.

Want to hear something embarrassing? The person who missed the biggest and deepest aspect of this metaphor was... me.

Because, for all my layers of comparison, I didn't realize that a house, at its essence, is a structure.

Take away the roofing, the carpet, the doors, the wallpaper, the electricity: a house is a system of walls and floors and ceilings. It's a structure.

Guess what a novel also boils down to. STRUCTURE.

How conflict and plot and theme and character all fit together. It's a story system. 

And there are strong, predictable similarities, from one story to the next. Kinda like how houses have a similar structure.


Understanding that sooner would have saved me, um, some time

I mentioned in the last post that I've been asking myself some major focusing questions when it comes to writing. I've realized that, yeah, I want to write dozens of novels in my lifetime. 

Like, maybe a hundred. (I know, I know. Dreaming so small.)

And when I thought about which core skill would take me the furthest, which would make the biggest difference: it all came down to structure.

If I understand story structure, if I get it down, then I'm in a really really good place to write this trilogy, and then a seven-part series, and then, you know, ninety more.

So now I'm taking serious aim at understanding novel structure, and I fell in love with these four amazing guides. I'd love to introduce you to them as well:

1) If you haven't met The Story Grid yet, it's time to fix that.

This summer, I came across Shawn Coyne's invaluable Story Grid, which is AMAZING.

I've read it through at least three times: there are flash cards and sticky notes all over my work space. I'm working to absorb every bit of it.

Seriously, it'll change the way you think about stories. At every level.

Spend some time on the Story Grid website, and see if you don't learn something within the first five minutes.

2) And then, you need to meet this cat that's worth rescuing.

Next up: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. 

Yes, it's about awesome screenwriting. But that's another way of saying: it's about awesome storytelling. I highly recommend this one for a bit more of a birds'-eye view of story structure.

It's a quick read, conversational, funny, and immediately applicable.

And the fact that it's about screenwriting instead of noveling doesn't really make a difference. (Besides, it's a lot faster to watch a bunch of movies and analyze their structure than it is to read a bunch of novels. Whew!)

I also took the entire section on "beating it out" to heart: I finally have a huge board up on my wall, littered with story beats and scene ideas.

... Why didn't I do that sooner?! Now I can literally trace the flow of my story, as it moves from act to act. It's amazing. I feel like a very swanky story maker.

(Which I totally am. You are too. High five.)

3) Tie it all together with a book/workbook one-two punch.

Between The Story Grid and Save the Cat, I was feeling pretty clever. I had the macro-to-micro all-weather all-purpose manual from Coyne, and the screenwriting, beat-sheet perspective from Snyder.

What more does a new structure convert need?

K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel and the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.

Honestly, when I picked up these two, I figured "I'll just give them a quick read through, but basically, I've got this."


By the third page of Structuring Your Novel, I realized how much I NEED this book: I slowed way, way down and took a TON of notes.

Because Weiland's two resources are amazing. She filled in all the structure gaps that I didn't even know I still had, explaining how everything weaves together and flows toward the climax.

And the workbook! I usually have a "meh" opinion about workbooks, but this one asked the perfect questions to help me translate the ideas to my story: Reading it was like taking a structure class expertly tailored to my novel.

Which now feels so much stronger. And more doable.

4) So now we'll just go get awesome, yes?

I know it's possible to go way overboard on new resources. I could overdose, and keep grabbing structure books off the shelves, and keep chasing knowledge. 

But I feel really strongly that these three writers have given me everything I need to know for an incredibly well-built trilogy.

I feel ready, y'all!! And crazy excited.

And I cannot recommend all these resources enough.

They all mesh well together. And yet, thanks to their three different perspectives, there isn't an unbearable amount of overlap, either.

They each cover structure from a unique angle, and when one doesn't answer the question I have, another one will.

Together, they are giving me an incredible masterclass on a part of novel writing that I had (shockingly) overlooked. 

My trilogy is freaking out about this. All the characters are thrilled: it's a very happy Christmas already in my brain. 

I'm super energized for a new year of writing!

And I'm finally confident that I'm building a structure that will last.

Today is another chance.

Every day, you get a new chance. So begin again. |

I love the truth in this: every day is a restart button. Every writing session can be better than I thought.

And why wait for a new day? Why not use every break to reset my thinking? Coming back after a meal, after an errand, after any extended interruption: it's a chance at new words. Better images. Cleaner sentences.

This is an especially good quote for me, since I'm revising one of my manuscripts. And it is all too easy to stare at my old paragraphs and either think: Hey, that's not so bad, I'll leave it, or, Oh my gosh, am I really that bad at this?

Today's my chance to do a little better. To take what was already decent, and turn up the volume, make it shine. To take what was crappy, and make it, well, at least mediocre!

Mediocre? I'm totally joking. Today I'll make it awesome. 

With each new dawn, every writer gets a second chance to write well. -- Eric Maisel

All marathons have a finish line.

Today is a marathon work day! Can you feel it? That urge to get into a groove and catch up a big project. Keep the caffeine coming! All hands on deck, all systems go, everything marching forward!

Because I totally am doing that.

Except for falling asleep on top of my work, and then distracting myself with the Internet, and maybe also staring at the ceiling a lot.

But otherwise. Otherwise, I'm telling you, I'm totally rocking it.

Every draft is a necessary step. Keep writing. |

Okay, in all seriousness, it's a good day for writing. It's raining here, and for the most part, the words are coming steadily. I am having a marathon revision session, and today's quote is my happy cheerleader: pointing me toward the goal of all this good work, all the clarifying, the search for better words. 

I'm building toward (or muddling toward) the draft that works. The final one. 

The one that takes the best of my original vision, and all the best of everything since then.

The one with the sharpest conflict, the highest stakes, the brightest characterization, the most memorable settings. And hopefully, all the right words.  

Barbara Abercrombie's quote comes from her book A Year of Writing Dangerously, which I highly recommend for any type of writer. It's packed with clever advice, much-needed encouragement, and (you know I love 'em) quotes from other writers.

Best of all, it reminds me that I'm normal. That all the weird little tics of my writing brain are so similar to the other writing brains out there.

It makes me think of all the other writers today, turning phrases one way and then another, refining one draft and turning it into the next and then the next. Some of us maybe napping in the midst of it.

All that scribbling, typing, clattering, mumbling out loud, staring into space, reaching for a better word.

It's a good crowd. 

And I think they're telling me, it's time to get back to that manuscript.

What we need to do is think of all our failed drafts as simply steps toward the final one, the one that works. -- Barbara Abercrombie