Friday, March 08, 2013

Why Some Books Are Harder to Write Than Others

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We fall down when we learn to walk. Skin our knees trying to stay on a bike. Burn a lot of food before we cook an edible meal. Getting better at something comes with mistakes and sometimes pain, and writing is no different.

That doesn't make it any less frustrating though.

I've been working on a novel for a while (okay, two years, ugh) that's a growing pains novel. I'm stretching myself, trying new and challenging things and half the time I want to toss the manuscript out the window and work on something else.

But I can't, because I love this story and want to write it the way it deserves to be written.

Which means I need to grow as a writer and master some genre aspects I've never done before. (can you say romance?) Create sexual tension that middle grade novels don't have, and be gritty and sexy but still stay true to the young adult audience. While this story only has romantic elements (it's not a true romance), I've had to train myself to delve deeper into characters and relationships that I usually do.

It's a good thing, as better characters make better books, but for a plot-driven gal like me, I've had a lot of missteps and done a lot of rewriting. I've also done a lot of reading of the kinds of books that share these traits. (that's the fun part)

It's been an uphill battle the whole way.

I call these growing pains novels.

They're the books we have to struggle through in order to grow as writers. 

What keeps me from going totally bonkers is knowing that pushing myself is part of developing as a writer, and growing pains are usually rough. It's not that I suck, or that I can't write this, or that the book is bad, it's just that I have skills to sharpen before I get the books that I want.

No matter how well you know something, there's always room to grow and things to learn. That goes double for a creative process like writing.

If you're struggling through a growing pains novel, take heart. It might be rough right now, but it will get better and you will become a better writer. To help there, here are some things I've be doing:
  • Reading novels that do the types of things I want to improve or learn well
  • Pushing myself out of my comfort zone and trying it even if I'm worried it won't work
  • Finding beta readers who are better at/more familiar with these things than I am (such as finding writers in the new genre you might be trying)
  • Giving myself permission to suck big time
  • Knowing it'll take me a few tries (or more than a few tries) to get it right
  • Accepting that maybe I won't get it right right now, and this could be a book I need to come back to later
Only time will tell how this experiment turns out, but I have my fingers crossed. It's not the first book to make me crazy and it won't be the last. And every books past this one will be better for the experience.

So what about you? Let's hear your growing pain novel stories. What has made you want to tear your hair out? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. My first and only finished story was very painful because I had so much to learn about writing. I'm starting a YA story and like you will need to push myself out of my comfort zone with the romance. But I agree with you that we need to do that as writers.

  2. With me right now, it's learning to put the polish on a book without over-editing. That's such a tough balance. I know once I get it, I'll have a new skill I desperately need, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like I'm pounding my head against a cement wall and getting nowhere.


  3. I also have many books I'm struggling through. After years of avoiding it, I finally started plunging into YA with my current WIP, and it's HARD. Never mind the fact my teen years weren't "Forever and a day" ago, and

    At first I thought the romance in the book I'm doing now would be secondary, but now I know it's going to be AS important as the fantasy/adventure plot. When they're not fighting for their ideals and personal goals, they'll be romance, and it's NOT my best thing.

    I've only ever gone as far as kissing and "safe" dates, and just elude to further goings on when relevant, but this book demands more, maybe not explcit sex, but it's demanding MORE than what I've been neither comfortable or capable of pulling off.

    But I'm TRYING. It's just scary. Especially since I don't have experience in this area, and unlike some things I make up, I can only fantasize so much...
    (I'll stop there before I saying anything I can't live with)

    Thankfully, a lot of my writer friends are more at home in YA territory than I am, so I at least have people to ask, sometimes I wonder if I'm the only male writer who's terrified or writing intercourse, I can't even say the word "Sex" without blushing.

    But I want to write this book, it's just hard to go there, especially since I have no personal point of reference.

    I couldn't write about food like I do if I didn't love cooking it.

    Writing about intercourse (However minor) feels the same. Any ideas on how to work through the awkwardness?

  4. THANK YOU for this post.

    I am starting revision on my zombie novel and let's just say the first draft isn't pretty. It's filled with plot holes and dropped characters....and yeah, it's going to be a hard revision.

    It was hard to write, so part of me worried that I was doing something wrong. I never considered that it's growing pains, but after I read your post, I know it's true.

    Taurean, I don't know if you can ever feel less awkward writing sex scenes if that's how you feel. I have several friends who write romance novels and they said they ALWAYS feel awkward. It's just a matter of pushing through.

    You might consider reading some high quality romance novels, just to get a feel for how people write them. You don't have to show your characters going all the way, even if they do, especially in YA. Not that there's not sex scenes in YA, but most of them either refer to it in past tense or show them making out and then fade to black.

    Good luck!

  5. Thanks Elizbeth. I do read romance and enjoy it, I've just never been good at writing it, and this particular book demands I take further than I have in other stories, where romance wasn't the main focus.

    The most sexually charged scenes I've ever read were the first book in Sherilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series, and I doubt I'll ever be able to to go that far.

    Yes, I did enjoy reading it, but being able to WRITE it is a different story, IMHO. I haven't finished it yet because I was getting too swept away...

    Yes, I know that's technically adult fiction, but given a lot of her readers are teens (I've seen videos of her signings, at least HALF the audience is under 30, and half of that are teen girls), and the onset of "New Adult" which often showcases romance beyond the "Fade to black" moments, I felt I had go further than I have.

    Besides, this book is insisting I go beyond the PG "First Love" stuff I usually do. I'm just not sure where to start. What questions to ask myself regarding the current book I'm trying to write.

  6. I'm starting a mystery right now, my first attempt at this genre. It's definitely a skill stretcher! There's so much to plan out in advance. There are mystery writers who don't plan it all. I don't know how they avoid writing themselves into corners, and I'm certainly not one of them. I am really enjoying the planning process, the character and plot surprises that I've already unearthed.

  7. Every single book feels like this for me.

  8. As usual your post timing is perfect. I've had this YA story idea I've played with for a while but I'm scared to write it. It's got some beautiful parts, but the underlying problem is so dark. I feel it's important to do it right and I just don't know if I'm good enough yet.

    After reading this, I know I just need to get the draft done. Then I can work on it until I am good enough.

    Thanks Janice!

  9. "Growing Pains"...What a great way to view the process!

  10. Natalie, there's also something satisfying about it, too. It's like a prize for getting through it :)

    Chicory, time away from it before I polish help me a lot with that. If I'm too familiar with the text, it feels "boring and flat" when I've really just read it twenty times.

    Taurean, you're braver than I :) I don't think I could write a full on sex scene. One thing I've read a lot of romance writers say, is to focus on the emotions and not the act itself. That makes it less awkward and not so technical. Maybe that'll help?

    Elizabeth, you're welcome! I'm so glad I could help. makes my own struggles a little easier to deal with :)

    Connie, one of my crit partners writes mysteries and I'm always in awe of how she keeps it all straight. (She never knows who the killer is til then end, just the various suspects). That's great that you're having fun with it though, That has to make it easier. If you haven't checked out Elizabeth Craig's blog, Mystery Writing is Murder, you might take a peek. She writes mysteries, so she probably has some good tips over there.

    Caroline, oh no! On the bright side, think about how much you learn every book!

    Charity, absolutely! You never know how it'll go until you dive in a do it. At least once you have that first draft, you'll know what areas to focus on. And who knows, maybe you'll surprise yourself and it won't be so hard.

    Jennifer, thanks! It was that or "this novel is trying to kill me." lol

  11. Thanks for the support, Janice, I do feel brave at least trying to be more ambitious with the romance in my stories. I know I won't reach Sherilyn Kenyon's Ho"Holy Grail of Love scenes" but I know I can go beyond "First Kiss" someday.

    If it doesn't work out this time, at least I can't say I didn't try.

  12. Oh, an aside, I agree that it's key to focus on emotions rather than just the act as far as sex scenes go, but you do have to avoid looking like you're "Walking away"from it entirely.

    You don't want readers to have an "Elephant in the Room" situation regarding key actions and choices made by the characters.

  13. I have definitely experienced growing pains with my current WIP. I'm, sadly, coming up on 5 years working on it. I did have a lot a time where I was too busy with college and getting married and working to actually work on the WIP, but still.

    I've also gone through 3 drafts with this WIP. Every draft gets closer to my vision for the story, so I think after this 3rd draft is done there should only be minor revisions. It's fun to look back, though, and see how the story evolved from almost MG-like to a kind of dark YA epic fantasy. And it's sooo much better for that.

    Thanks for the post!

  14. The first novel I ever wrote was a growing pain. It was also therapeutic and has been banished to the nether realms of digital land.

    But it was needed. It was a fictionalization of my emotional state at that time, which was tumultuous behind a grinning mask of laughter.

    It was written without regard to really taking the craft of writing seriously, so when I tossed it into a contest like a fool, I received a fool's return. It got blasted from page one to the end. And deservedly so.

    I hadn't done the things to learn more about writing and how to present, just puked up a novel and said, "Here world, take that!"

    It helped me recognize the importance of good writing alongside a good story and it set the foundation for me in learning to deal with constructive critiques. I've learned a lot since that time. Growing Pains, more than just a show, they're a part of life.

  15. I've got my fingers crossed for you! And you know I'm here for you whenever/however you need. :) *hugs*

  16. I'm having this problem now, with my first book. I don't have the skill level necessary for the book I'm writing, and it's frustrating. Determined to keep trying, though.

  17. Growing pains...Thank you!! I'm writing whatever scene I feel like working on for this novel, I keep changing the plot, and I'm going to have to toss a few scenes. But the core story is still there...

  18. Janice, your candid post was encouraging. Pushing through is key. :-)

  19. Taurean, true it's a balance. I guess emotions and sensations is a better description? You still want to show things are going on, but you don't need a tech manual on it ;)

    Michelle, sounds like quite the journey! You bring up a good point, that there are also growing pains as we learn to fit our writing into to our lives, especially if things are changing for us.

    Angela, wonderful story, and so true. Though writing growing pains matched with life growing pains is a bit of a double whammy. Sounds like you got double the growth as well :)

    Jami, thanks! I'm hoping to have my first chunk done end of next week, so I'll probably be taking you up on that n the next two weeks :)

    Handy Man, Crafty Woman, hang in there. First books are hard, but it's the only way we learn what we need to learn :) I've found taking it one thing at a time helped me. Trying to learn it all at the same time was overwhelming. I picked one aspect and focused on that until I felt solid, then moved on to the next step.

    Rachel, have fun! I have a friend who writes that way. It's a different process, but if it works for you run with it. It's good to shake up your process once in a while to see if another way works better for you.

  20. I wrote my first-ever completed manuscript in a rush (and it had all the overdone cliches so I did not stress my imagination a lot), and recently, I started work on a second manuscript.
    And this new WIP is demanding because I'm taking my imaginations far beyond their borders, far beyond anything I've ever attempted. Sometimes, I'm afraid I can pull the idea off. But it's encouraging knowing I'm not the only one that feels this way and that it's normal.

  21. That's awesome you're not going the easy route, and opting to stretch yourself as a writer--even though it's taken you 2 years! Good for you. I think that's better than sticking safely to the same old thing. :)

  22. My current WIP is my growing pain. My pride won't let me throw it aside until it's complete. While it's not a super unique plot (especially with the current fantasy plots that already exist)I just feel that it's a story that deserves to be told from my POV.

    If I don't get this finished I will most likely feel defeated. So yeah, writing this sucker is painful.

  23. My current WIP (which incidentally is also my first full novel) is definitely a "growing pains" novel and regularly kicks my ass up the skill ladder. It's very hard to write, and not just because I'm a beginner, but because it's multilayered, subtle, brutal and twisty at the same time. And honestly, I wouldn't want it any other way. ;)

  24. Ifeomadennis, totally normal :) And if you can't pull it off, just remember to add YET on there. Hopefully you'll nail it, but it not, just keep working and you will on the next round.

    Carol, thanks! I think so, too.

    Marti, ooo tough one. Hang in there, you'll get it! And remember a rough first draft is still finishing :)

    Veronica, first novels are tough, especially if you're aiming high. (kudos) There are so many things you don't know until you run smack into them. But there's also a lot of fun there, too. Seeing the work get better because you figured something out is a rush.

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  26. A great topic, but so iffy. So far, only once I struggled with a book that most ended up loving. But overall, I haven't found sure gage to tell how well readers will respond to those things I struggle to create, against those that are created effortlessly.

    On my end, I prefer not to struggle, and generally learned ways to keep this from happening. In as far as illustrating or drawing, waiting on the inspiration is one; and in as far as writing books, I must know and love my characters first. Admittedly, this usually takes a trial run draft before this happens.

  27. OEBooks, I'm, not saying there's a correlation between struggling and a reader's enjoyment. Aside from the standard advice I don't think there is a way to know if a book will be a hit or not. I'm talking about books that are tough because the author is learning something new, and that lesson usually makes the author a better writer in the end. Increasing your skill level at anything typically comes after a struggle to learn something, so struggling can be a sign of something good on the horizon, not that you're failing.

  28. I had a lot of issues recently with getting so far into a story then hitting some kind of wall, and not being able to get past it. Most of the advice I received was 'it's just self-doubt, keep going'. But I realized that's not really the problem, well, not all of the problem anyway :)

    In some cases it was the story itself. One of them the environment I put the characters I just couldn't relate to and had no idea how to write realistically about their lives. Another story I wrote myself into corner. And a few more I just didn't know my characters well enough and their motivations weren't making sense.

    So long story short, yes, it was growing pains. I'm now beginning to recognize what does and does not work for me as a writer. Although I'm the total opposite of you as I'm a character driven writer all the way :)

    Thanks for sharing!

  29. That feels like the current book. I've always had a problem with running too short, and on this one I really had to face the problem. I've worked so many issues that I could make a long list here. But more recently, I've had to learn how to wrestle with details and character arcs. I'm very poor with details, and the character arc won't come into the story unless I manually add it. For those who say it should evolve naturally, when I've gone by that advice, I end up with a paragraph at the beginning of the book, one in the middle, and one at end -- that that's my character arc).

    The result is that I am revising the book at a snail's pace: one scene a week. The details are the biggest challenge, because I have to go over the scenes many times to get a few more details in, then print it, and go over again and add the five senses. I'm hoping it will get better, but I'm a big picture person, and I may always have trouble with that.

  30. Sandra, that's great you're figuring it out, and it sounds like you had some solid lessons there that will make it easier later. You writers and your "characters" (big grin). Does make me wonder which is easier though. Probably the same with different struggles.

    Linda, arcs don't evolve naturally for me either, though if I have an inkling of what I want, I do see pieces slip in subconsciously that I can work with. You might be one of those writers who does a fast first rough draft and then builds up from the foundation. See how the story falls out, look for ways to shape the arcs, etc. It's not unusual for me to not really see the strongest character arc until after the first draft is done.

  31. Sandra, that's great you're figuring it out, and it sounds like you had some solid lessons there that will make it easier later. You writers and your "characters" (big grin). Does make me wonder which is easier though. Probably the same with different struggles.

    Linda, arcs don't evolve naturally for me either, though if I have an inkling of what I want, I do see pieces slip in subconsciously that I can work with. You might be one of those writers who does a fast first rough draft and then builds up from the foundation. See how the story falls out, look for ways to shape the arcs, etc. It's not unusual for me to not really see the strongest character arc until after the first draft is done.

  32. You just described the novel I'm working on--and made me feel so much better about it. I took a couple months off from writing it to promote my novel that just came out, and I've been struggling with plot and character since I returned to the writing. Just this morning I came to a couple of epiphanies that made me realize I'm taking this story to a much deeper place, which is exhilarating and scary at the same time!

  33. Charlotte, oh, I'm so glad. I love that scary thrill :) Hope the rest of the writing goes well.

  34. Thank You! I really need to read this right now for encouragement.

    I had just finished (3) romance-suspense novels in six months, with my Beta readers saying they were unable to put them down. But wanting to improve my skill set, I started a historical-romance-suspense novel, but in my arrogance I guess, I thought I would master new skills quickly.

    I am struggling!

    It's has a great plot, but what a challenge! Woman suffrage, in Siberia, in 1920...could I have asked for a tougher challenge? :-)

    Thanks for your encouraging words.

    1. Most welcome! I'm glad you found it when you needed it. Wow, that's a lot in a short time. Challenges are good, and it's fun to try new things and stretch ourselves creatively (grin). Even if it does make us want to rip out our hair sometimes!