Do you ever wonder what the writing process is like for other writers? Or if they run into some of the same challenges or traps as you do?
In this post, I'm giving you a glimpse behind the scenes and sharing some of the key takeaways I learned from coaching writers this year. And although there's no theme to these takeaways, they’re all things I see come up for writers of all experience levels, across all genres.
My hope is that you'll be able to reap some of the benefits of these lessons so that you can move forward with your writing in the most efficient way possible.
#1. Don’t be afraid to try new things when it comes to your writing.
One of the writers I worked with this year wanted to write a very specific type of story, but she wasn’t sure if it would be very commercial. So, one day, she said to me, “I really want to make a career out of this whole writing thing, so what if I just committed to writing really commercial romance? What do you think?”
This writer likes commercial romance, so in a way, this idea was kind of exciting, even though it wasn’t totally what she had in mind at first. Fast forward to a few months later, this writer had a fully fleshed-out outline of a commercial romance novel—and then she wrote an entire first draft… and we both liked the story she came up with, but it didn’t really light her up inside.
So, then some things happened in her personal life and she had to put her writing on hold for a month or so, and when she came back to work with me, she said that she wanted to scrap her whole commercial romance novel and go back to working on her original idea. Now, this writer could have chalked those months up to wasted time—I mean, she did stop working on her original story to veer off into romance land, but she didn’t. Instead, she gleaned some really important lessons from this experience.
First, she learned that although she loves reading commercial romance, writing these types of stories doesn’t really light her up. And that’s really important because now she knows what kinds of stories she doesn’t want to write. And because of that, she can focus on the kinds of stories she does want to write instead.
She also told me she learned so much about writing romantic relationships, and that she envisions all of her books having romantic subplots, so this will definitely help her writing in the future.
But the biggest thing that came out of this experience was that while working on the commercial romance idea, she had a huge a-ha moment regarding her original idea—and who knows if she ever would have had this lightbulb moment were it not for trying something different. So, I think that’s pretty cool.
The second writer I want to tell you about had her sights set on traditional publishing until she started researching timelines and profit percentages and speed to market, things like that. She decided that she would start prepping her book for self-publishing while querying agents, just to see what happened, but then very quickly became so super excited about self-publishing her novel that she went all in.
And I’m telling you, this writer is having so much fun with the whole self-publishing process right now! But on top of that, her book is about to exist in the world—she’ll be able to hold it in her hands in just a few months. And who knows what would have happened if she kept querying.
She is so proud of herself and it’s so cool to see how much has changed for her since she made the decision to go all in on self-publishing. It’s really very exciting. So, she’s doing something she never thought she would do, and she is just loving it. I’m really excited to follow her journey, and I’m planning to have her on the podcast next year, so you’ll get to hear from her soon.
But long story short, don’t be afraid to try something new. This can apply to so many things, so I encourage you to take this advice and run with it.
#2. Writing interiority is hard for almost every writer—start learning more about writing interiority no matter where you’re at in the process.
The second thing I saw this year is that a lot of writers have a hard time with interiority, or getting their character’s inner-life on the page. And I saw this across writers of all skill levels, and across all genres, so it’s definitely something I’m going to tackle in a future blog post. But beyond that, I think this is one of those things that almost every writer can and should actively learn about and work on.
So, in case you don’t know what I mean by interiority, let’s define that real quick.
Interiority is basically on-the-page access to your protagonist’s psyche as they process information. It’s their conscious and unconscious responses to things.
By conscious response, I mean things like memories, impressions, opinions, and questions—basically, all things that the protagonist is consciously aware of.
By unconscious response, I mean things like auto-reactions that your protagonist probably won’t notice, but readers will. So, they’re unconscious responses to whatever’s happening in the story present.
But basically, I think writers have a hard time with this because we’re so used to watching movies and TV shows—and when it comes to watching movies and TV shows, there are a whole lot of people involved in making them. Actors, directors, producers, etc. There’s lighting, music, settings, and all that stuff that helps us feel things as we watch a movie or TV show.
Writers don’t have any of this. All we have are words—little black marks on a page. But this is also what makes novels amazing, right? Our words can take us deeper into a character’s psyche than any movie or TV show can. And I think that’s why we like to read novels—we like that close access to the protagonist as they navigate the story.
So, anyway, one of the things I’ve been doing with the writers I work with one-on-one or in my Notes to Novel program—and you can do this, too—we’ve been focusing on first making sure the protagonist is not neutral.
And what I mean by that is you want to make sure your protagonist has opinions, values, preferences, and their own unique worldview. This is what makes a character interesting.
And then everything that happens will be filtered through their values, preferences, and unique worldview–they’ll make decisions and take action based on how they process things that happen.
So, if you have trouble with this, start there. I also recommend looking at published novels and highlighting all the instances of where a character is processing something in a subjective or partial way—you’ll probably be surprised at just how much interiority there actually is in your favorite novels.
So, that’s the second big takeaway from this year—many writers have trouble with interiority or getting their character’s inner life on the page. And I think this is something we need to talk about more in the writing community. We talk about character and plot and theme, etc. but not that much about interiority. So, let’s change that!
#3. Fast drafting could be the key to your success. Try it!
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know I’m a fan of fast drafting to get your ideas and your story down on the page, right? I think it’s really important to just get everything out of your head, and into some kind of story shape, even if it’s messy and doesn’t make total sense. Once you do that, you can see the big picture of your story, and figure out what you need to tweak or fix from there.
In episodes 71 and 76 of the Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast, I talked to two different writers who basically fast-drafted their stories, so if you want to hear how this idea of fast drafting benefited real writers, you can go check those out:
Fast drafting is definitely worth a try if you’ve never done it before. There’s something about the fast drafting process that teaches you to be less precious about your ideas—and it almost teaches you how to be more courageous about trying different things.
Think about it this way… A lot of writers think about drafting a novel and they assume it will take a long time, let’s say 12 months. So, they think about spending 12 months on their draft, and they end up wanting to make it pretty darn good because that’s a lot of time to spend on something, right? But that way of thinking can lead to a lot of stress and overwhelm, and it opens the door for perfectionism to come in.
So, instead, imagine if you had it in your mind that you were just going to outline and write a messy draft in like 3 months. Suddenly, it feels different, right? You’re only dedicating the next 3 months to getting words down, and you know they can’t be perfect words. It’s like you’re giving yourself 3 months to explore and discover your story—and when you think about it that way, it sounds kind of fun, right?
The other day, a writer in my Notes to Novel program told me that she goes through each of the exercises as quickly as she can—so, in the program, you watch videos where I walk you through what to do, and then you do exercises to actually make progress on your story, so that’s what she’s talking about. But basically, she said she does the exercises by writing down whatever comes to mind, and then she moves on. Then, once she got to the end, and before she started outlining, she went back to the beginning of all her answers and started tweaking things based on what else she had learned about her story.
So, for example, she did exercise one, let’s say it’s about theme. Weeks later, when she came back to her answers about theme, she knew so much more about her story (because she had gone through all the other exercises), so she was able to tweak her theme statement to start making things more cohesive. And this is all before she even started outlining.
So, I tell you all of this because sometimes moving fast through the initial draft of things can actually be beneficial. I really, really like the idea of exploring things or discovering things, and just taking the pressure off this initial phase of exploration or discovery.
So, whether that be character sketches, outlines, or even first drafts—you can call these draft zero if you want… But basically, it’s this idea of getting things out of your head and onto the page so that you can see the big picture of your story and your ideas. And then, you can refine things from there.
So, if you haven’t ever done this kind of fast drafting or fast outlining or whatever it is, maybe give it a try. Who knows, you might really like it!
#4. Don’t be so precious about writing the beginning of your first draft.
Many of the writers who seek out my help often tell me they’ve been stuck on the opening scenes or pages of their novels forever. I see so many writers stall out when they’re in this section of their story, and it’s a total bummer.
Like I keep saying, you have to get to the end of your outline or your first draft to see your story in its entirety before you can know what kind of opening will be best. When I work with writers 1:1 or in my Notes to Novel program, I tell them to focus on getting the bones of their beginning section down, and then just keep going until ‘The End.’
Once you get to the end, you can come back around and either shape your beginning to better highlight the external and internal arcs of change or you might realize you need to start the story in an entirely different place, or things like that. You just won’t know what kind of beginning will make the most impact until you see the end of your story.
So, let me quickly tell you about a writer I worked with at the beginning of the year. She was writing a romance novel and she could not get past the first few scenes of her outline. So, I said okay, what if we just don’t outline the first 3-5 scenes? How would that feel? And at first, she thought I was a little crazy, but I said, “Look, we know by the end of act one, your characters need to have met, and they need to be stuck together somehow. Do you know what that looks like?” And she did!
She knew what their first meeting would look like, and she knew that going into act two, her characters would be in a fake relationship—so, shoutout to all the romance readers who like the fake relationship trope, I know that is definitely a thing and it’s alive and well in the romance world. But basically, she knew those two key moments, so I told her to just start outlining acts two and three and to see what happens.
Long story short, she flew through the rest of her outline, and then came back to the beginning section full of ideas because she already knew what she had to work with, or what was coming later.
So, whatever you do, please don’t let yourself get stuck in the opening section of your outline or first draft. You might think that if you sit in that section long enough, you’ll figure out the perfect opening or the perfect details, but trust me, you won’t. Try your best to keep making forward progress, and the answers you need will come.
#5. The a-ha moments always come—trust the process!
I saved this takeaway for last because it’s my favorite. I worked with a writer this year who basically downloaded everything she knew about her story and everything she wanted her story to be, and then trusted me to guide her through writing a book that matched her vision.
So, every time we’d meet, I’d reflect on the big picture of what we were doing to her and she’d say “Okay, Savannah, I trust you, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I know you can see things that I can’t, so I’ll trust your advice.”
She told me that sometimes it felt like walking through a dark tunnel and she was just trusting me when I told her that one day, she’d see the light, and she’d start to have these big a-ha moments or these revelations where it felt like her story was really coming together. But to get to those moments, she had to keep going.
So, she got all the way to ‘The End’ of her first draft, and I asked her to go back and update her outline so that it matched what she wrote. And I like to do that because then, we can use the outline as a way to capture the changes we want to make or the things we want to set up that will pay off later.
Long story short, she did all the work, and updated her outline, and then… She started having all these big a-ha moments, and it was truly amazing to see. In her outline, she wrote notes to me about her character’s arc and her plot and things she wanted to tweak or improve or communicate better, and I’d read her comments and be like, “YES! This is exactly it!” It was just so great to see—and I could tell she was kind of surprising herself in a way. It was very, very cool.
And here’s the thing… this writer wasn’t the only one to have this kind of experience. A lot of writers do—and you can, too. The fact that she worked with me might have sped up this process for her, but you don’t have to work with a coach to get these kinds of a-ha moments.
You just have to keep doing the work. If you keep digging in and exploring your story, you will have these kinds of big insights, and you will produce something that’s impactful and that you’re proud of.
So, those are the five biggest takeaways I got from coaching writers this year. I hope that you can see yourself in some of the examples I shared, and I hope this episode helps you realize that you’re not alone in some of your struggles.
Beyond that, I hope you can reap the benefit of these lessons, too, so that you can keep moving forward with your work in the most efficient way possible.
And if you want my help mapping out your story and getting to the end of a draft, go put your name on the waitlist for my Notes to Novel course, If you’re on the waitlist, you’ll get the chance to join early and get an extra special bonus, so don't miss out!
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