Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Nail Your Novel

Dear readers: Can't finish writing your books? Do you habitually get stuck on word 5,000 of that 8,000 word short story? Is there a pile of abandoned manuscripts threatening to bury your dog? Then I have a solution for you.

Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, to give the full title, is a little book by Roz Morris, an author who runs a blog by the shorter name. It is not a manual on how to write well. It does not dwell on the best ways to improve your characterization, your settings, or your plot (well there's a bit of that, but not much).

What Nail Your Novel does do, and it does it very well, is give you a structure for writing a book or short story or whatever you want. It lists of series of steps you need to take, from before you put word one on paper to the moment you send a pitch off to the agent/editor, to get the job done. And it does it in a clear, easy to follow style that you can absorb and put into practice quickly.

I tried out the Nail Your Novel method for my latest short story pitch. Before, my writing process was something like this:

  1. Come up with an idea.
  2. Write an outline based on the idea.
  3. Write as much of the story based on the outline as possible - usually 2,000 to 3,000 words.
  4. Revise the text I need to include in my pitch.
  5. Mail out the pitch on deadline day.
  6. Pray. And drink.

Note the thing I wasn't doing: finishing the damn story. I'd get enough together for a pitch and send it out, undoubtedly overlooking massive structural problems I couldn't see in the parts I hadn't written yet.

After using the methods detailed in Nail Your Novel, I have a big pile of (virtual) index cards with character, setting, and plot points listed. I've got an outline, but also a beat sheet, which sums up every character's story arcs and the dramatic high and low points in the story. And most important of all, I have a finished first draft of my story, straight from beginning to end. It's rough (I haven't revised the whole thing), but it's complete.

I cannot overemphasize how much of an improvement I saw just from working out the structure of what I wanted to write in advance. I wrote out nine excellent short scenes, then cut them because I was able to recognize that they didn't connect to the rest of the story. And one of the major plot twists in the story became ten times better after I was able to look at the characters' story arcs properly. Prewriting and structuring don't raise your word count, but they are absolutely vital.

NaNoWriMo is coming up next month, and if you have trouble finishing your books, I recommend it as the ultimate motivational deadline (that doesn't involve money or death). You'll have fun, you might get your 50,000 words, and who knows, you might even publish the result. But if you want to learn good writing habits that will help you finish your work on a regular basis, pick up Nail Your Novel. You won't regret it.

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