By Kate Heartfield
I’ve got so many novels in the trunk I’ve got to sit on the lid to keep it closed. Four, to be exact. All of them are full of mistakes. But despite the fact that they’re not publishable, I don’t see those novels themselves as mistakes. I had to write them, and finish them, to learn what not to do.
I learned that if I just sit down and write a novel by the seat of my pants, I will end up with a plotless mess. Some writers can start at the beginning, write until they get to the end, polish it up and send it off. I learned that I am not one of those writers.
Then I learned that if I outline carefully based only on a plot structure (such as a three-act structure), my first draft will be . . . not a plotless mess, but not at all like the outline, and not at all like the final version ought to be, and most of my character motivations won’t ring true. Some writers can plan their outlines, fill in the blanks, polish it up and send it off. I am not one of those writers either.
By the time I got to my fifth novel, I understood my own process, which goes something like this: Outline. Write a first draft, re-outlining and sometimes rewriting as I go, because the prose creates the story for me as much as the other way around. Take a hard look at the complete first draft and then write an outline for each of my character arcs. Write another plot outline. Write a second draft almost from scratch, aiming for a coherent plot with tension and motivations that make sense. Revise that draft, focusing on language and point of view. Get good feedback. Revise some more.
My fifth novel is the first one that sold. Sure, it would have been nice to stumble onto a process that works for me back when I was teenager and I wrote that first doomed manuscript. Sometimes, though, the only way we learn what works for us is by trial and error. Every writer has to find their own process. The path to success is not the same for all of us, and the only real mistake is insisting on staying on a path that isn’t working for you.
Kate Heartfield’s debut novel, Armed in Her Fashion, will be published by ChiZine Publications in 2018. She is teaching an online course called “Finish Your Novel!” for the Loft Literary Center in January 2018. She is represented by Jennie Goloboy. Her website is heartfieldfiction.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.