How to write a novel

This is NOT how I write. But you get the idea.

No, I don’t recommend cigarettes and booze.

Certainly, this is more difficult than writing an essay. You will envy those youthful writers who not only did it in their twenties (or earlier) but got published—and famous. To keep from becoming too discouraged, you’ll have to look for writing icons who didn’t blossom until later in life.

Now that the envy is under control, on to the practical.

First, it seems obvious that you must begin with an idea. But this assumption isn’t so apparent as you might think. There are as many ways to begin a book as there are Myers Briggs personality types (sixteen, in case you’re wondering). You could begin with an idea, but you could equally well begin with an image, a character, or a setting, or in a dozen other different ways.

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On storystorming, telepathy, and mothers as beta readers–an interview with Kourtney Heintz

And now for something completely different… a conversation! I’m excited to interview Kourtney Heintz, author of the recently published novel “The Six Train to Wisconsin.”

I’ve been following Kourtney’s blog for more than a year. I was honored that she chose to interview me about CreateSpace when she was deciding what publishing route to take. 

But that’s old news. Today’s story is the intriguing world Kourtney has created in her book, so let’s dive in.

SixTrain CoverAK: Welcome, Kourtney!

KH: Audrey, thanks for having me on your blog. I’ve been a fan for a while so it’s great to be here with you. And thanks for not only finding the time to interview me, but reading and reviewing my book too!

AK: You’re welcome. I try to review everything I read although it’s sometimes hard. But since I read the beginning of Six Train when it was a semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award, I was anxiously awaiting its publication to find out what happened.

Once I read the whole book, I realized that it’s somewhat of a genre-bender. I am not one to get hung up on genres, but I noticed yours seems to draw on several—paranormal romance, thriller, family drama—without being bogged down by the conventions of any of them. What books or types of books have inspired your writing?

KH: I love books that defy genre. I’ve read a great deal of Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton. I liked that they had a paranormal element but also an underlying mystery and sometimes thriller elements. I’m a huge fan of Sue Monk Kidd and Alice Sebold. You see elements of mystery, love story, and family saga playing out within their literary writing style.

AK: I like Alice Sebold, too, though I know many readers who consider her too “dark.” Your book definitely has some dark psychological elements, as well as a couple of main characters—husband and wife Oliver and Kai—who are both ordinary and extraordinary. I’m curious about how you developed them. Can you describe some of the things you did while you were writing to get—quite literally—inside their heads?

KH: I spent a lot of time storystorming. That’s where I play with the story and the characters in my mind. Daydreaming their lives. Sometimes talking to them. Knowing Oliver’s eye color is a good starting point, but I’m more concerned with what causes him to shut down emotionally. I want to understand the series of events that made him the way he is now.

AK: “Storystorming” is an interesting idea. I do the same thing but I never thought to put a name to it. What comes after the storystorming and first draft?

KH: Revision is where I deepen the characters and the conflicts. I want everyone to be gray. Just different degrees of gray.

AK: Let’s hope you’re not talking about “Fifty Shades of…”

KH: No, definitely not! I like to analyze people. It’s always been important for me to understand why they act the way they do. To understand when a turn of phrase is an intentional dig vs. an accidental slip. I used to be able to predict what my boyfriend would do before he did it. That kind of deep knowledge of another person and understanding of their motives helped me to craft real, conflicted characters.

AK: That skill must be a little unsettling for family and close friends, but very useful for an author.

You credit the Deer Haven Lodge in your acknowledgements, so I’m assuming you did some on-site research.

Interior of the Deer Haven Lodge -- just as I pictured it! (photo credit: Kourtney Heintz)

Interior of the Deer Haven Lodge — just as I pictured it! (photo credit: Kourtney Heintz)

KH: I did. I went out to Butternut, Wisconsin in 2010 to get a better feel for the setting of my story.

AK: How did you pick Butternut?

KH: I was very focused on creating conflict at every layer of the book. I wanted the setting to provide conflict. So I thought, where can you take two New Yorkers and drop them to create conflict? Answer: The Midwest.

AK: It’s great when the conflict arises naturally out of the setting.

KH: Wisconsin just felt right. I pored over maps and Butternut popped out at me. I also looked into the Apostle Islands. I thought an island would be isolated, then I read about how a hundred thousand tourists descend on the area. That was a bad fit for my story world. I needed somewhere off the beaten path. Small village. My eyes kept going back to Butternut and I researched it. It fit perfectly within my story world parameters.

And this is why it's called "Deer Haven"

And this is why it’s called “Deer Haven”

AK: The black and white photographs that face the pages at many of the chapter beginnings function as a kind of scene-setting shorthand. What made you decide to use photographs?

KH: I like books with images and photos. I think it helps break up the text. I loved how the Harry Potter books had an illustration at the beginning. When CreateSpace told me I could have up to 10 images inside the book, I knew it would create a more personal experience for the reader.

With the e-book, I wanted to give my readers an inexpensive option to read a debut novel. With my paperback, I wanted to give them a personalized experience that made the extra cost worth it.  In the paperback, I also included a book club Q&A and the original short story that became the novel. I thought people might enjoy seeing how much the story and my writing evolved over time.

AK: The paperback is a nice presentation. I didn’t get a chance to read the Kindle version because, as you know, my Kindle died right after I downloaded your book! So where did you find the photos?

KH: The photos are all shot by me, mostly at the actual locations that are talked about in that chapter. Chapter 1’s image was taken from atop the Empire State Building. The image for Chapter 6 is Dante’s View in Death Valley, CA—the exact spot where I pictured Oliver and Kai saying their vows.

The exceptions are Chapter 30 and Chapter 73. I didn’t have a good picture of a Wisconsin cemetery so I took one of my local cemetery. Those snowy trees are in my parents’ backyard.

AK: I’m curious about your intention in having Kai and Oliver not use each other’s first names until almost a quarter of the way through the book. I understand if you’d rather not answer since you pose this as a reader’s group question!

KH: Truth? The characters refused to tell me their names for the longest time. I agonized over what they were. But I kept writing.

Along the way, I realized I needed to know them in their relationship to each other before I could learn who they were individually. It went on for a long time.

Then one day, their names came to me. I wasn’t sure when to introduce their names into an actual scene. I’d gone a long time not using them there. The call to her parents was the first time not using their names felt clunky. I knew that was where the names needed to be introduced in the text.

AK: I remember following some of your editing agonies on your blog along the way. If it’s not too painful to revisit, can you talk about the editing process? Did you use beta readers?

KH: Early on, I had three betas, two close friends read the entire manuscript and gave me their feedback. One hates to read and the other is a big fantasy buff. My mom was the third. She wants me to be the best writer I can be, so she doesn’t hold back when something isn’t working.

AK: Wow, the fact that your mother could be a beta reader is a testament to your relationship with her. Did you also work with a paid editor?

KH: I worked with Katrina Bender as a critique partner on my YA novel. I completely trusted her instincts. She’s a brilliant writer and a meticulous reader. 98% of the time her feedback was spot on. Even if it took me a while to realize it. I asked her to be my editor on this manuscript. It was a massive undertaking. She provided me with over 1200 comments. I am so grateful she said yes.

AK: What is your process for receiving feedback and revising?

KH: I generally ask for feedback in the manuscript file via track changes comments. It’s easier for me to process if I have time to sit with feedback and digest it. My personal revision process involves reviewing the chapter over and over again. What I let slide on the first read will annoy the bejesus out of me by the fifth read.

My mom and I both copyedited the book as did my e-book formatter Rik Hall.

AK: Any chance that Oliver and Kai will go on to have future adventures in another book?

KH: I have yet to write a standalone novel. Every manuscript I’ve written has series potential. With Kai and Oliver I saw a couple more books. Definitely a sequel. I’m hoping to start drafting that this winter. But it will be a couple years before that book will be polished and ready for publication.

AK: That’s great to hear—I’ll look forward to it. Is there anything else you’d like to let people know about the book?

KH: I will be going on tour with Six Train this summer and fall, if people want to get an autographed copy, check out my upcoming events.

I also have Goodreads giveaways going on until July 1, people can enter to win an autographed copy of my novel.

AH: Thanks again, Kourtney, and I hope I’ll be in a position before too long to talk with fellow bloggers about my next novel.

The Six Train to Wisconsin Back Cover

Sometimes saving the person you love can cost you everything.

There is one person that ties Oliver Richter to this world: his wife Kai. For Kai, Oliver is the keeper of her secrets.

When her telepathy spirals out of control and inundates her mind with the thoughts and emotions of everyone within a half-mile radius, the life they built together in Manhattan is threatened.

To save her, Oliver brings her to the hometown he abandoned—Butternut, Wisconsin—where the secrets of his past remain buried. But the past has a way of refusing to stay dead. Can Kai save Oliver before his secrets claim their future?

An emotionally powerful debut, The Six Train to Wisconsin pushes the bounds of love as it explores devotion, forgiveness and acceptance.

Kourtney HeintzAbout the Author

Kourtney Heintz writes emotionally evocative speculative fiction that captures the deepest truths of being human. For her characters, love is a journey never a destination.

She resides in Connecticut with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, her supportive parents and three quirky golden retrievers. Years of working on Wall Street provided the perfect backdrop for her imagination to run amuck at night, imagining a world where out-of-control telepathy and buried secrets collide.

Her debut novel, The Six Train to Wisconsin, was a 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Semifinalist.

Connect with the Author Online

Buy a Copy of the Book

Paperback available from:

Ebook available from:

Hearing voices—getting characters to sound like themselves

You have to be a bit mad to be a writer. In fact, you even have to hear voices.

English: Pälksaari psychiatric hospital Suomi:...

Where people who hear voices are sometimes sent. (Pälksaari Psychiatric Hospital. Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has become clearer than ever as I reach a new phase in my current novel.

I had intended to continue with my plow-ahead writing on the way to reaching the 40,000 words promised as my ROW80 goal by the end of June.

My novel had other ideas. On May 24—11,278 words short of my goal—my draft declared that, with the exception of the crucial final chapter, it was done.

Because I am old-fashioned enough to require the tactile feedback of paper when doing certain kinds of editing, I printed the draft. I then discovered two problems.

  1. The character who owns the final chapter isn’t talking.
  2. Several of the characters sound suspiciously like the same person—me.

To understand the significance of these problems, you have to know that the novel is structured as six intertwined first-person narratives.

I’m tackling problem #2 first by taking a purely technical approach. First, I’ll describe the type of language each character would use. Would the character use short, long, or run-on sentences? Many adjectives or few? Stay on point or ramble? Remain prim-lipped or swear like a sailor? Next I’ll list their interests and affinities. What would they focus on when describing a scene? Then I’ll edit each character’s sections according to these “rules.” I hope when I’m done that I’ll hear each speaking more clearly in his or her own voice, sounding more like themselves and less like me.

Despite these challenges, I am very glad to have made the decision back in October to go with a first-person narrative.

As for that reticent (recalcitrant?) character in the final chapter, I’m making him wait. Maybe when he sees how much time and attention I’m lavishing on the others, he’ll decide to speak up.

Here are a few interesting perspectives on first-person challenges:

If you write in first person, what are your tricks for capturing your characters’ voices?

Everything I know about writing I learned from watching TV

[If you’re here just for the ROW80 update, skip to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy.]

“Everything I know about writing I learned from watching TV.”

This may sound odd coming from someone who watched very little TV as a child. (Really. Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was it.) Nor is the statement 100% true. I chose it as a title because it makes a point.

Good fiction writing is not the sole purview of novelists.

Family watching television, c. 1958

Family watching television, c. 1958. I am not among them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

I have never attempted to write a screenplay (the though scares the crap out of me, frankly). But recently, while pursuing my current series addiction, Breaking Bad, I realized that we novelists could learn a thing or two from well-written TV dramas. Since the advent of Netflix, first via DVDs and then as streaming downloads, I have enjoyed shows ranging from the The Sopranos and Six Feet Under to Mad Men  and Weeds—almost always consuming multiple episodes in a sitting, often running through a series in a matter of weeks.

Here are a few things I think fiction writers can learn from TV dramas:

1. Make something happen. This, of course, is the ever-present drive toward plot. Contrary to popular belief, plot does not always—even in a mob drama—have to involve shootings or car chases. For example, Season 3, Episode 5 of The Sopranos is summarized this way by IMDB: “Tony and Carmela try a therapy session together, which ends in an angry dispute. Artie, meanwhile, tries to move in on Adriana.” That doesn’t sound like a nail-biter, but it works. Lesson 2 reveals why. Read on.

2. Make the reader care. By season 3 of The Sopranos, the audience has come to care about what happens to Tony Soprano. We care about his relationship with his wife and about what’s going on inside him, not just about what he’s doing as a mobster. Even secondary characters, like Artie and Adriana, have been rounded out to a degree that we care what happens to them. Notice, however, that caring doesn’t always start in Episode 1. See next point.

3. Reveal character slowly—but not too slowly. A pilot, like a good first chapter, shows you enough of the character and plot so you want to continue watching. Scene by scene, detail by detail, bits of the character’s life and motivations unfold. They’re not described in one big lump at the beginning. Leading us to…

4. Showing. I couldn’t bring myself to call this one “show, don’t tell,” since it has been done to death and is probably the first piece of advice most writers get and will continue to hear, ad nauseum. Nauseated or not, you’d better work at it, because showing-not-telling is hard. But think about your chapter as a TV show. Right there you have a clue: it’s called a show, not a tell. In any event, a show can’t interrupt the action and dialogue with a long introspective speech (by one of the characters or an omniscient narrator) about how the character feels sad because his mother just died but conflicted because of the way she treated him as a kid… You get the idea.

I’m willing to give novelists a little wiggle room here, since I believe there is a place in fiction for just a tad bit of exposition. But if you write fiction with the idea that you have to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and use exposition sparingly, you’ll have the kind of gripping prose we all want to read. For more on gripping and compelling, see the final lesson, No. 5.

5. Build tension through character. If you have already accomplished 1-4, this should come naturally. You have created characters the viewer cares about. Now put them in situations that make the viewer squirm. Squirm? Yes, I sometimes do find myself squirming as I watch. Because the character might be mortally wounded, or be jilted by the love of her life, or have his moral integrity challenged. But sometimes I also squirm watching a character sitting on his living room couch, staring at the son who will no longer talk to him, or answering the phone call from the nosy sister-in-law. When the viewer/reader cares about the character, you can build tension from seemingly small events because each one can carry a big emotional charge.

So there you have it: five lessons I have distilled from TV. While it might look to you as if I’ve been wasting my time staring at the boob tube, I’ve actually been working.

(I am not the only fiction writer to have taken a page (scene?) from TV. Anna Elliott recently shared what she learned from Season 4 of the show Castle at Writer Unboxed.)

What NOT to Read

This week I heard Crawford Killian, a Canadian author, interviewed on NPR talking about the 10 most harmful novels for aspiring writers. My ears pricked up and I actually sat in my car to finish listening. Once inside, I found he had also written a column on the same topic for The Tyee. I thought I’d pass the links along so you can see what to avoid reading while sitting on your couch watching TV. Plus I loved the last line of the article:

The bad novels give us at least this consolation: If those nincompoops could break into print, and even sell millions of copies, then we nincompoops ought to be able to do at least as well.

Sunday’s ROW80 Update

What I’m most proud of is that I wrote on 6 out of the last 7 days, and on both weekends, averaging 500 words a day. Having a late-waking family has its advantages.

Get out the flak jacket, here come the big guns

I first wrote this post over the weekend, in, shall we say, the heat of the moment. I went back to it several times to make sure that it was more than just the cri de couer of a wounded author. After several edits, I think I have turned it into something reflective rather than reflexive.

Testing the authorial skin

I have a pretty thick skin, of necessity. I have collected scores of rejection letters; I regularly share my work in a critique group; and I had the unique and somewhat unsettling experience of sitting in on a book-club discussion about Dance of Souls.

This past weekend, however, I had to pull out the kevlar suit. My 87-year-old uncle called to tell me what he thought of Dance of Souls.

For 10 minutes, I listened to him enumerate, with no sugar-coating whatsoever, the novel’s flaws. (I suppose he comes from a generation that did not learn to give criticism by first doling out a compliment.)

Ooooffff.

Once I hung up the phone, got over my sobbing fit, and convinced myself that I shouldn’t abandon my writing career altogether, I realized something profound: He was right.

Where’s the evidence?

Literary criticism is not evidence-based science. We can’t design an experiment, holding all variables constant but one, to test whether our work is “good” or “bad.” One reader’s fatal flaw is another’s beautiful gem.

When I looked at his criticisms in that light, I felt much better. Here are the main things he didn’t like about the book. I can understand why he might not have liked them, but I also can see—and certainly hope—that others will find these very things appealing.

1) The book uses complex language and lots of similes.

Guilty as charged. But it is a purposeful guilt. I used language in the book the way I did because I believed it was integral to the story. There is a lot of discussion among writers about “voice.” This book was the first one I have ever written in which the voice presented itself to me as part of the story. Apparently it was not my uncle’s cup of tea. (See below for several excellent discussions of voice in fiction.)

2) The plot and the character’s motivations were not clear.

Guilty as charged. Dance of Souls is not plot-driven. Part of the point of the book is to leave the reader unsettled and wondering: What actually did happen? Which events were real and which were created in the character’s minds? I freely admit that using plot as a framework, rather than a driving force, is not to everyone’s liking.

3) I got my facts wrong.

On this, I must plead not guilty. What he cited as “facts” were actually authorial interpretations of facts. In particular, he noted my description of a fire as making a wall not look like a wall any longer but “black swiss cheese with orange holes.” Was that description a fact? No. Might the wall appear that way to one of my characters? I certainly thought so, especially if it looked anything like this:

Photo credit: Oregon Chapter of the Red Cross

He also pointed to a dog’s behavior at the end of the book as something “a dog would never do.” Perhaps a literal dog would not have done what the dog at the end did. However, see #2 above. Was it a literal dog or an allegorical dog? You’ll have to read the book and draw your own conclusion.

Note that I do believe in fact-checking for novels. A big, checkable gaffe (for example, the wrong kind of gun in a war or a character using a microwave oven before it was invented) is a legitimate turnoff—unless, of course, you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi and those “facts” are integral to the book.

What I learned from the bombardment

Well, I do feel better now, and never mind the irony that I have just given voice to negative comments about my book that would otherwise have remained safely within the four walls of my office.

Since my intention was not just to air my pain, I’d like to share what I learned from this—most of which is painfully obvious but is none-the-less easy to forget:

  1. One reader’s opinion is just that: one reader’s opinion.
  2. Do not give up your writing career based on the wounded heart you suffer from harshly delivered criticism.
  3. Don’t give your book to relatives to read. Tell them about it and let them buy a copy on their own if they’re interested.
  4. Cut your relatives a lot of slack if they’re over 85. Listen graciously, thank them, and move on.

Readers will need to decide for themselves if what my uncle saw as flaws are actually what gives the book its appeal. I am thankful that at least one reviewer so far has seen things that way.

If you’re a writer, what has been your experience in dealing with negative reactions to your work?

Writers on voice

Doling out death

Here’s another reason fiction writing can be so difficult: Often, as a character develops, you realize that flaws, conditions, or some other thing you thought was integral to the character’s personality just doesn’t make sense, and you have to kill it off.

This is not the same as killing off the character, which I don’t tend to do since I’m not writing mysteries or thrillers. I’m talking about the hard—and very God-like—business of shaping a character into a believable person.

I’m wrestling with this now in the case of one of the characters in my new novel. She grew up in rural New York State in the late 1960s. I had given her a psychological problem that I’m not sure fits either the times or her background. I would love to keep the problem, since I think it adds a dimension of depth and interest. But I’m just not sure it will be believable.

On the other hand, perhaps this problem will turn out to be just the quirk that does make her believable, since another writing trap we struggle to avoid is the clichéd character (the hard-drinking Irishman, the fluff-brained cheerleader, the overworked executive).

And so I’ll tiptoe along the tightrope, imagining enough quirkiness to give my character depth and facets, but not enough so as to make readers shake their heads and say, “huh?”

The literary lions of the 20th century seem to have gotten a handle on this, as evidenced by such tabulations as Book magazine’s 2002 list, referenced on NPR’s web site. Reaching beyond the English-speaking world and outside the 20th century is The Fictional 100, created by Lucy Pollard-Gott, author of a book of the same name. She surmises that the reasons behind the characters’ appeal and endurance “may lie in a deep psychological or mythic resonance, the artistry of their presentation, or the special circumstances of time and society that brought them into being and sustain their popularity.”

Whew. That’s quite a tall order for a humble fiction writer. But it pays to keep in mind that producing such a character, like reaching enlightenment, is not achieved by conscious striving. Rather, it’s done through the tiny, daily excisions and prunings, the deaths doled out to incongruent ideas whose demise makes way for a new and stronger character—one who just might, in future years, make a top-100 list.

Why I don’t write mysteries

As you’ll recall from English class—or, as they like to call it now, at least until high school, “Language Arts” class—fiction has two major elements: character and plot (yes, style and point-of-view matter also, but today I’m talking about the two biggies).

What lurks beneath?

My major shortcoming as a writer, which also could be thought of as my major strength, is that I adore language—the power words have to evoke a feeling, to transport readers to another state of being and connect with the mysteries of the deep—while I detest plotting. Note that I did not say I detest “plot,” for I love a good yarn, a well-plotted tale, one that keeps you going from page to page until the end. What I hate is wrestling with plot in my own work.

Consequently, my plots arise organically. I know it’s ideal for plot to develop directly as a direct result of who the characters are. This method, however, can be tedious for the writer, involving many false starts and often requiring excision of great swaths of well-written prose that take the book nowhere.

At this point in my new novel I find myself at the uncomfortable juncture of not being able to write any more. It’s not that I have writer’s block. The problem is that I don’t have the details on which to hang my words. I sit down to write and a passage find myself stuck asking “When exactly did he live in New York City? What does he do every day? What were the big cultural changes going on when she was growing up?”

So for now, instead of devoting my daily writing time to writing, I am devoting it to research and plotting.

It’s frustrating, since all I want to do is pour out the words, connect with that cosmic energy that seems to fuel the best writing sessions. Instead I’m reading (currently Sisterhood Interrupted, by Deborah Siegel, for background on the women’s movement in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s) and trying to find a doctor who will talk with me for a little while about what it’s like to be an anesthesiologist. (Any anesthesiologists out there reading this, please get in touch.)

Thankfully I’ve been through this before and have learned some patience. I know eventually I’ll return to the fun part: putting the words down. I’m thankful, too, that I have chosen a genre that is compatible with my work style. I can’t imagine the torment of having to figure out each twist and turn of the plot in advance of actually doing any writing. For me, the most satisfying mystery is not “whodunit?” but “what lurks beneath?”

Ruth Rendell* and Robert Parker*, your careers are safe.

*Two of my favorite mystery writers.