Sunday, July 17, 2016

10 Things I Learned From "The Novel Year," A Class At the Bethesda Writer's Center

This past year I enrolled in a class called "The Novel Year" at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD.  The purpose of this class (as you might be able to gather from its title) was to spend a year completing a novel, while receiving feedback and making revisions along the way.

Over the past year my novel The Hitchhikers of the Night Highways has improved immensely.

Now I want to pass on the wealth, I give you ten things that I took away from the class.

First, just to give you some context for the examples I'm going to have below, here is a five-sentence summary of my novel's plot.

Poe Carpenter, as well as his brother and two sisters, have worn masks their entire lives because anyone who sees any part of their skin will immediately die.  When their adopted father accidentally sees Poe without his mask, the four siblings are propelled beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding their property and into a world they only know from TV and the Internet.  Their best hope for survival is to find the man who left them with their father years ago.  During their journey, Poe must protect his family from a world that misunderstands them.  All the while, he is determined to discover what is under their masks, and to find a home where they will be safe and the world will be safe form them.  

Now, without further ado, ten of the many things I learned from "The Novel Year."


One reason I joined the class was because I knew that I had already "jumped the shark," meaning that the story was no longer grounded in reality.  One way I was able to bring the work back down to earth was by eliminating all supernatural elements that weren't vital.  Originally, the main characters' backstories were teaming with surreal creatures; however Hitchhikers is a novel about four kids whose skin kills people on sight.  It didn't need most of the other fantastical elements to tell that story.  So I made the other supernatural beings human (or eliminated them all together).  I immediately knew that I had made the smart move because such a huge change really didn't affect the work all that much.

Even if  your story isn't a fantasy, you might want to examine the work to see if there are any elements that are unnecessarily unrealistic.  This will help keep your work grounded in reality, making the tale easier for readers to follow. 


Unnecessary characters are common in early versions of novels.  They can be difficult to eliminate because by the time we realize they don't have anything to do with the plot, we've grown to like them.  However, unnecessary characters can make a work longer, slower and more confusing.    

Throughout the year I was able to combine or cut about ten characters from my cast.  The focus of my story was the four kids.  All the other characters were only necessary for as long as they were important to the heroes.

Even now, it's not like my novel is Waiting for Godot.  I would say that I still have about seven central characters that appear throughout the novel and a dozen vital characters who they interact with during their journey.  Cutting all of the other characters did sting a little, but they can always appear in other stories I'm writing.   

And speaking of simplifying things....


It should go without saying that there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (as there are to all of these ten points and most "rules in writing.")  However, when possible it's best to keep the dialogue between two people even if more are present.  This will strengthen the tension and will reduce the chances that your readers will become confused.

Very often it is a good idea to have a third character butt in at one point, but for the most part keep those long back and forth strings of dialogue between two individuals.  Otherwise, the reader will feel like they're trying to follow a conversation taking place in a bar room brawl. 


I'm not saying turn your characters into mimes (although that might be a way to get your sword and sorcery epic to stand out to agents), but we all need to go through every conversation in our manuscript and and trim the fat.  The basic rule is reduce your dialogue by 25% but many of us can stand to take out a lot more than that.

Readers don't want to hear our heroes discuss the weather, or backstories that have nothing to do with the plot, or their favorite types of pie.  They want to read dialogue that reveals significant aspects of your characters or pushes the plot forward.  I'm not saying that every line needs to be, "The bomb's in the mausoleum!" but every line should add something to the story.


There is a scene near the halfway point of Hitchhikers where two of the siblings are about to be lynched by members of a town who mistake them for being demons.  The other two siblings are outside the cabin where their brother and sister are being held.

In earlier versions there was a lot of sneaking around with various heroes and villains entering and leaving.  It all became a confusing mess about who was where.  Through rewrites I reduced the action down to what needed to take place in order to move the characters forward.   

i. Characters 1 and 2 are being held prisoner.
ii. Characters 3 and 4 arrive at cabin.
iii. Character 3 enters cabin while character 4 waits outside.
iv. Defying all odds, Character 3 rescues character 1 and 2.

The scene is complex enough without unnecessary running back and forth.  Of course it's very common for early drafts to contain overly complex sequences.  However, while editing we can look at a scene and determine what needs to take place to get the characters from point A to point B and avoid anything extra that will bore or confuse the reader.

As a bonus, removing unnecessary action and dialogue will lower your novel's word count (which these days almost always needs to be lowered).


I'm going to stick with the cabin scene for a moment.  The chapter before characters 1 and 2 (otherwise known as Poe and Shelley) are rescued is the bleakest section in the whole novel.  Even after I reduced dialogue and simplified action, it is still a long chapter told from the point of view of a character who believes that she is about to die.

While the rest of the novel has several moments of comic relief and characters who love each other (it is about a family after all) this portion of the story has very little positive emotion.  In fact the situation is so dark that readers could eventually become numb.  This is criticism I have often had of horror stories.  Obviously there are some exceptions (such as the novels The Shining and House of Leaves and the movie 28 Days Later) but there are plenty of horror stories that have no range of emotion.  The entire work is so dark that after a while the reader becomes used to it.   

One suggestion I received regarding this scene was to give the characters a little hope, that way when the hope is ripped away the situation becomes all the more devastating.

Humorous stories should also possess a range of emotion.  Throwing some darker elements into a comedy will make the funny parts all the more hilarious.


 So far I have made several points about simplifying the story, but make sure that you don't take out so much that the characters become static.

Hitchhikers in particular needed to have active characters.  Not only is it a thriller, it is also a road trip novel.  However, even if your story is neither, you need to make sure that something is pushing the plot forward.

Many writers grew up reading stories from earlier centuries when authors could get away with having their characters sit around and ponder for entire chapters.  From our point of view, a slow pace isn't that unusual.  Unfortunately, modern readers won't put up with these kinds of shenanigans.   

I'm not saying that you should fill your story with car chases and shoot outs (my novel has only one brief car chase and exactly zero shoot outs).   However you do need to make sure that the situation changes and that your characters don't remain stagnant.  Even if you are writing a quiet, down to earth story you can still have your characters learn family secrets or overhear gossip or publicly lose their temper at a funeral.  Stories (like relationships and sharks) always need to move forward.


So here's a generalization that just happens to be true.  If there's just one part of your story that is going to be filled with cliches, it will be the climax.  The reason for this is that while there are a million ways to  start a story (all you need is a problem that drastically affects your characters' lives: a murder, an alien invasion, an affair, a hurricane, a lost pet etc.) popular fiction only contains so many ways to solve a problem.  Most mainstream stories end with the villain being defeated, the guy getting the girl (or vice versa) or the family being reunited.

The first way around this is to give your story an ending where the villain wins, the boy loses the girl, or the parent rejects the child.  However, many of us do want our stories to have a somewhat happy ending because we want to satisfy our readers and (let's face it) because we love our characters.

One way around this is to not be so binary in how the story could play out.  The two most obvious answers to the question, "Does the guy get the girl?" are "yes" or "no."  Everyone is expecting it to be one or the other, but there are countless other, more specific outcomes.   

"Yes, the guy gets the girl but he dies that same day."

"No, the guy doesn't get the girl but he discovers that his best friend is in love with him and they end up together."

"Yes, the guy gets the girl but she turns out to be a demon (either literally or figuratively) and now he has a whole other set of problems."

"No, the guy doesn't get the girl but he fills his life by helping the less fortunate."

And it goes on like that forever.

Another way to give your story a more unique ending is to examine what it's really about.  One of the criticisms I received regarding my original ending was that it was too predictable.  I was told that while the rest of the novel was weird and quirky the ending felt too much like the climax of a James Bond movie.  So I stepped back and approached the conclusion by examining what the story was really about.

Throughout the novel, Poe is obsessed with discovering what is under their masks.  I tried to incorporate that theme into the ending and have the moment of discovery be the climax rather than the moment when they defeat the villain.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that my novel's ending is like the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It isn't that unique.  However, there is more of a chance that it will stand out in the reader's mind.


It's a cliche to say that writing a novel is like going on a journey, but it's also the truth.  Authors very often don't figure out what their story is really about until their third or fourth draft.  While Hitchhikers has more or less stayed the same in terms of general plot, there are themes and ideas that have come up that I never saw happening.

I am currently going back and making sure that these ideas appear throughout the work.  Obviously I don't want to beat my readers over the head head with symbolism, but I do want these concepts to appear as often as it is appropriate.


Like many of the points I am making, this is one that I have been aware of for a long time, but the class did drive it home.

Until you are sending that absolute final version to the publisher, your novel is still in a draft stage.  The story, characters, dialogue and even themes have potential to change.

When a friend, teacher, agent, editor, fellow author or spouse tells you that a character doesn't work or that a chapter is unnecessary (especially if you get this feedback from more than one individual) your first reaction shouldn't be, "Well that's the way I wrote it.  I can't change it.  This is impossible!"  Instead you should accept that this is your story and you can change it however you need to.  After that, make a list of the various things you can do to fix the problem.  Even if your list includes things that obviously wouldn't work, it will still get the creative juices flowing and you will find the answer.
Likewise, if you realize that what you are writing feels more like fan fiction set in your universe rather than your actual novel, you need to stop and examine what the problem is.  Are there characters that just don't fit?  Is this a scene that can be skipped?  Is this something that isn't believable?  It's very difficult but we need to train ourselves to stop, go back and figure out what just isn't working.  If we shut up and listen, our story will tell us.    


This class helped me out much more than I ever expected.  It was undoubtedly money well spent.  As authors we spend countless hours by ourselves, stuck in our own worlds.  However, if we want to make our novel as strong as possible we need to get feed back by finding fellow writers, attending conferences and joining classes like this one.


  1. The right lessons to learn. Carrying them out can be the hard part though. Congrats on having the guts to kill a few darlings. Sure to make things better!

  2. Michael, this is a really great summary of what we all learned. I also learned to be more promiscuous with my drafts. The class gave me 10 new readers: each one of those readers gave me useful critiques.

  3. Michael, this is fantastic wisdom and I will be sharing with all my former students! I'm looking forward to seeing your fantastic novel published.