This blog originally appeared on Jenna Avery’s Calledtowrite.com site at https://calledtowrite.com/author-insights-7-tips-from-a-first-time-novelist-an-autographed-book-giveaway
Seven Tips From First-Time Novelist Donna Baier Stein
I chose the historical figure of Baby Doe Tabor as the main character of my first novel thinking her fascinating, event-filled, roller coaster life provided its own ready-made plot. I’d been writing stories and knew that my strength was language, not narrative structure. I’d even spent time in two radically different writing groups—one focused on literary fiction (heavy on characterization and language) and one focused on more plot-oriented genre fiction. I, rather arrogantly it turns out, preferred the literary focus. I was definitely a pantser rather than a plotter.
So I decided to write about a woman whose life story had already been the subject of an American opera – The Ballad of Baby Doe – and several other books. There were so many events to choose from her life: her work in the silver mines of Colorado and first marriage to a philandering opium addict, a second marriage to a man worth $24 million when they married at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, with President Chester Arthur in attendance, her years writing down her dreams and marking visitations of spirits on her wall calendar at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. All I had to do was write what had happened in Baby Doe (Lizzie’s) life, I mistakenly thought, and voilà, I’d have a novel.
So I started my research. I researched for years, taking occasional stabs at writing early chapters. But the writing of the novel was far less easy than I’d naively hoped it might be. Here’s what I learned from my mistakes:
- A writer can do too much research. I had boxes of hard copy files and dozens of folders on my computer. And in early drafts, I put far too much emphasis on describing the physical details of clothing, furniture, food of the era. I’d say “Bluchers” when saying “boots” would have sufficed, for instance. It was only in the final drafts that I realized I could focus only on the items that the characters came into direct contact with… and see them as they would see them, not as if they were described in a museum catalog.
- Narrative arc is key. I discarded many early chapters about Lizzie’s childhood because they didn’t serve to tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell. I had to choose certain episodes of her life, ignore others, and create new ones in order to show the change in Lizzie I wanted to reveal. The novel, unlike a biography, wasn’t just about re-telling Lizzie’s life. Its purpose was to reveal a theme and a transformation in my main character.
- When writing dialogue, be inside your characters. At first, I felt intimidated by them. How could I talk like a 19th century woman talked? I did find some historically current slang phrases to toss in, but mostly I wrote dialogue as I heard Lizzie and other characters saying it in my head.
- Be inside your characters as they move through a room, too. It was like being an actress on a stage. Instead of seeing Lizzie from an outside view camera, I had to metaphorically go inside her. See what she would notice in the rundown mining cabin in Dogwood or the extravagant villa in Denver. And feel what she might have felt living in such radically different environments.
- For me, writing in first person really helped me inhabit my main character. An agent once told me that third person limited narratives were easiest to sell. I rewrote the book that way and though it came close, it didn’t sell on that go-round. I went back to the first person voice I felt most comfortable writing in, and I’m happy with the result. That was the way I wanted to tell Lizzie’s story from the beginning.
- It’s hard, though certainly not impossible, to give adequate attention to every phase of someone’s entire life. The next novel I write will focus on a much shorter time frame than 81 years.
- Don’t be obsessive about rewriting until you’ve got your story down. I must have rewritten the first pages of the novel fifty times. I thought, mistakenly, that I had to have it exactly right before moving forward. This is not the way to get a novel written.