How a Novel is Like Flooring

The other day my partner Mark and I put down the flooring in a spiffy new building project in our back yard: an ‘Accessory Dwelling Unit’, or ADU as the city likes to call it. It’s actually a mother-in-law apartment for my parents to use when they decide they can’t hack the Arizona heat and yearn for some fresh, cool, northwest air. This tends to be every year about the time the temps in Phoenix scream into the triple digits. Go figure.

How does that relate to writing, you ask?

At the same time that we were prepping the concrete to install the flooring, one of Mark’s guys was busy taping off the non-paintable areas outside the structure in order to apply primer. The prep for both tasks took longer than the actual work itself and it occurred to me that it was a great analogy for what a writer does when writing a novel.

It’s all about preparation. Professionals in any trade, be it construction, cartography, nursing, or pole dancing, all end up going through an apprenticeship of sorts before they’re considered a pro. You can’t get an electrician’s license unless you go through training. Same with becoming a nurse, or a doctor, or a mason, or a massage therapist.

Writers are a different lot, but there’s still training. It’s just not certified by a state board. Unless you count getting an MFA—which is still optional and not at all required.

When I first started writing with intent to publish, I basically had a rough idea for the book in my head and dove headlong into writing, stopping along the way to research when I needed, but mostly writing wherever my way-too-active imagination took me without much of a plan in mind. (For those who aren’t familiar with this type of writing, this is called ‘pantsing’, where you fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants while writing.) My first book took a year to finish.

It sucked.

Not just a little suckage with the possibility of saving some of the scenes or characters or what have you. I mean MAJOR suckage. Blow that bad boy up as soon as I could get a hold of some C-4 type suckage. The scariest part was that I didn’t realize how bad it was at the time. I made every newbie mistake known to writers and possibly some unknown, but I thought it was golden and submitted to boatloads of editors and agents.

Well, duh. I was lucky I didn’t receive the aforementioned C-4 in a package along with my manuscript from one of the Big 6.

Fast forward to the next book. The second novel took a year for the first draft, then about another year or so to edit, taking classes, talking to other authors, learning how to avoid the pitfalls of the newb as I went. Learning the craft. I can’t stress this part of the writer’s journey enough. And, it never really ends. There are always more cool classes to take, or weaknesses to shore up, or better authors to learn from. That’s actually one of the things I like most about being a writer. It’s not a stagnant occupation. But, I digress.

Okay, so the second book was better, but not good enough. I’d become a little gun shy, which is a very, very good thing in this case. The third and fourth novels were where I learned how to write lean by cutting out anything superfluous. I cut so much from them that 80k-word novels became 25-35k novellas. To test the waters, I self-published them. Happily, they sold.

But, I certainly didn’t think of myself as a professional writer. Even now that I’m writing full-time and earning a ‘salary’, I know I have a looong way to go before I’d consider myself a pro.)

Then I took a class titled, “Plot Your Novel in Two Days” taught by the fabulous Mary Buckham. She was one of the first people in the industry to see something in my writing and was also one of the first writing teachers who could convince me to actually try and plot a novel. Up to that point my idea of plotting was to leave myself little notes at the end of each day’s output to remind me of what I thought should happen next. I believed plotting a novel would throw water on the fire of my creativity or some such nonsense. She showed me how to use both plotting and pantsing together to create a coherent, fast-paced, plot hole-proof novel, fast.

That class was a major turning point for me. Now, I use her approach (loosely) to figure out the trajectory of the story, the character arcs, internal and external problems, plot points, black moment (or, in the case of my current series, the several black moments.) I’m able to write much faster and with fewer drafts. I still allow my imagination (re: my characters) to direct the scenes, and sometimes my idea for a novel isn’t the right story at the right time, but as long as I do the prep work beforehand, the writing becomes the easiest part.

Just like installing a floor or painting an ADU.

Obviously, there’s more to prepping your novel than just figuring out the plot. Research and interviews fall under the same category, as do character sketches, etc. And, I certainly don’t think that the way of doing things outlined above is the only way to go. I know writers who are OCD when it comes to plotting their novels and wouldn’t think of winging it who write fantastic books. I also know fabulous writers who swear by letting their subconscious take the lead in all things writing. Whatever gets you to the point where you can write a novel that you’re happy with, works.

But it all takes some form of preparation.

Writers don’t come from the womb, pen or computer in hand (ouch) with the ability to write a novel. First, they have to learn how to use language, then write, then reason. Learning the craft of writing is the same.

What about you? How do you ‘prep’ for a novel? What have you learned along the way that might help someone starting out?

Author: D.V. Berkom

DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest region of the US, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat. Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now lives outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes in the male point of view whenever she gets a chance. Indies Unlimited: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/author/d-v-berkom/ Amazon US author page link: http://www.amazon.com/DV-Berkom/e/B004EVOYH6 Website: www.dvberkom.com

23 thoughts on “How a Novel is Like Flooring”

  1. Even on the third book, I am still primarily a pantser, but now I at least know the approximate size of those pants. While I don’t plot on paper, I do have a definite projectory or arc in my head, with major events along the way. It helps to keep me on the right path. For me, though, doing more than that would cause too many roadblocks. That’s all right for a research essay, but for me – not for my own fiction. Just the same, it’s good that I have found some middle ground so it’s me in the driver’s seat and not the characters in my books.

    1. “…but now I at least know the approximate size of the pants.”

      LOL Yvonne 🙂 Staying in the driver’s seat is always a challenge when the characters start drinking…er, I mean talking…

  2. So glad I’m not the only one who produced the First Novel and thought it was fantastic when it so wasn’t! I went through almost exactly the same learning curve and now I plan my books first, right through to the end, borrowing some of ‘the Snowflake Guy’s’ methods. But there’s always room to pants it when the story or a character takes a sudden turn for the unexpected. It’s fun to keep learning and improving, isn’t it?

    1. We are so not alone in that, Bev 🙂

      And I love those sudden turns…keeps writing interesting. As for the Snowflake Guy, one of my critique partners uses that method. I get so lost when she explains her process–lol–but it works for her.

  3. Oh I relate to this post DV! I started writing fiction back in 2000, and thought I could make a decent fist of it because I’d done a lot of technical writing. I knew how to write so how hard could fiction be? Hah.

    My apprenticeship lasted almost exactly 13 years. That’s how long it took me to write something decent enough to self-publish. I’m a pantster because for me, outlining leads to writing that is logical and ‘dry’ – much like technical writing. I tend to outline in reverse order, after the first draft is done. That’s when I restructure like crazy.

    1. I hear ya about the dry, technical writing bit. I worked for academia for several years and had to break myself out of that kind of dry report writing in order to write fiction.

      Great idea to outline in reverse after the first draft. I might have to give that a try!

  4. DV ~ love the analogy and am very, very happening that your post wasn’t how a floor and my approach both involved walking all over one’s creativity 🙂 You rock!

    1. LOL Mary–although I seem to remember you acquiring the nickname “The Velvet Devil” for your ability to persuade recalcitrant writers in that class:-)

  5. I think we’ve all be there to a certain degree. I tend to liken writing a book to putting a giant puzzle together that’s made of numerous smaller puzzles. I try to outline/layout the journey(the larger puzzle) so I at the very least know where I’m going, but I leave enough flexability that the story can tell itself(the smaller puzzles). I can litterally spend days or weeks playing out different scenarios and their effects on the story going forward before settling on exactly how I want to proceed. In the end though, I think we never stop learning/evolving.

    1. Cool analogy, J.M. Knowing where you’re going saves a heck of a lot of time, but leaving yourself open to all those inspiring twists and turns makes it such fun 🙂

  6. Sounds like you and I have a similar planning process, D.V. I’ve taken to writing what I call a “rough outline-ish thing” that’s really a numbered list of paragraphs detailing where I think the story needs to go in each chapter. But that list is distilled from a bunch of notes to myself about plot points and character development.

    Often, when I get to the point of writing the book, the characters deviate somewhat from my outline-ish thing. But that’s okay, as long as they don’t hare off into a totally different book. 😀

    1. lol–yeah, “rough outline-ish thing” is pretty much what I call it, too 🙂 Haring off into a totally different book sounds fun, although I have waaaay too many other books in my brain that try to get my attention already…

  7. Great analogy, and post! My first mistake was shopping that “apprentice novel” around to the tune of 138 rejections. I learned a ton from that, but I don’t think I’d be the same writer without having plunged ahead. And there’s always more to learn, as you wrote.

    1. That’s a great number, Laurie! Totally agree with your statement about learning from the experience. I can’t remember how many rejections I got back from that first train wreck.I stopped counting. You tend to develop the skin of a rhino after that. I think plunging ahead is the best way to learn when you’re new. Gotta start somewhere!

  8. DV, great post. I now know what I am–a pantser! I rarely do more than set down a bulleted list of plot points and turns, then head thataway. I think writing is at its best when it’s organic, and I love it when my subconscious seems to know more than I do about where the book’s going. And Lynn, my last book was one that hared off into something completely different than I had planned. I thought I was going to write a comedy, and it ended up being a moody drama about redemption. Talk about a sharp left turn! But I love the new book, so it’s all good. Great discussion!

  9. Excellent post, DV, and interesting to hear the different ways in which we approach the writing of a novel. For me, it begins when I have the general idea for a complete story in my head; almost like it’s the dim memory of an adventure I’ve actually been involved in, or a dream I’ve had that is in danger of melting away unless I get the bones of it written down. I currently have the outlines for more than fifty possible novels written down and filed in my ‘Ideas and Inspirations’ folder.

    That blueprint is about the extent of my preplanning stage; there is obviously a lot of research goes into each project prior to taking it further than that, how much research depends on the level of my expertise in regard to the given subject matter.

    I understand that there are writers who treat the writing of a novel like a job: 9 to 5 every day, writing a set amount of words, carefully preplanning each stage and even using formulas in their calculations. That is definitely not me, but as more than one person has said in response to your article, DV: whatever works for you.

    1. Love the idea that a story is a ‘dim memory of an adventure I’ve actually been involved in’. And holy cow, TD–you have enough ideas to last a lifetime! Very cool.

  10. This excellent post reminded me that I need to revisit my timeline. 🙂

    There is a fine line between allowing the mind to flow freely and a bit chaotically, and forcing it into a girdle. I am not writing long enough to know which is best for me. Since I love food I’ll say it’s like having a recipe, following it initially, and then deciding you have a better idea of what needs to be added. That always works for me.

  11. Excellent post, Dv. I have to prepare for months and make sure I have a fool proof plot, credible characters etc. I run each scene through my head like a film. If it doesn’t work, I rewind and run it through with a different angle, or character until the film is watchable. Then I run it through again, with more tweaks until it is a film you would really want to watch, while scoffing popcorn and drinking soda with all your friends.Then, I add some more changes, write my Oscar acceptance speech and get on with the novel.

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