In Novel Writing, Practice Makes Perfect

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“Every time I start a book, I think, I have no idea how I did this the last time,” bestselling novelist Jojo Moyes told me in our interview for the January 2016 Writer’s Digest. “No idea.”


At first, knowing that the struggle “happens to the best of us,” as they say, might seem discouraging—especially if you’re facing that novel-sized pile of blank paper for the very first time. But even as I write this Editor’s Letter, I’m in the midst of drafting the opening to my own third novel, and I actually find Moyes’ words comforting. Because I don’t know how I got to The End before, either—but I know that I did. And so all I can do is have faith that if I just begin, I’ll find a way to do it again.

In another recent WD Interview, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley referred to her own “practice novels” early in her career. Those novels she was talking about had in fact been published (a sign, perhaps, that we are our own worst critics?), but for many other writers, the novels they refer to as “practice” are the ones that are destined, for better or worse, to remain in a desk drawer.

What would happen if we accept that, to some extent, every novel is a practice novel? Each time we set out to write a story, we’re going to learn something new—about character motivations, about connecting threads and themes, about the beauty of language, or about ourselves. There’s a reason writers are often referred to as “students of human nature.” We’re never done studying. When I conduct our WD Interviews, I love to ask authors with career longevity how they feel they’ve grown from book to book. And not once has anyone said, “Oh, I don’t know, really, I think I still approach it the same way.” Every single one of them has evolved—and is still striving to improve with the next story, too.

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So no matter where you’re starting from, don’t worry if you don’t know precisely where to go from here. It puts you in league with the pros!

The January 2016 Writer’s Digestis filled with tools to help you find the way forward, grow in your novel-writing craft and make this effort your best (even if it’s your first). We’ve turned to a trio of our most trusted contributors—all award-winning novelists—to deliver. Inside this issue:

  • Elizabeth Sims shares two tools that can fix any story problem (I dare any writer to read that hook and not want to turn to the full text of that article right now!).
  • David Corbett dives into characters and what really drives them through a successful story.
  • Steven James turns some of the most common “rules” of writing dialogue on their heads to offer up his own more nuanced maxims.
  • Our staff-compiled “A to Z” guide to novel writing offers inspiration for conquering your project to the letter—literally.
  • And, of course, Jojo Moyes, author of the smash hit Me Before You and its new sequel After You, shares her best craft advice. (Read the online exclusive outtakes from our Jojo Moyes WD Interview here.)

So, together, let’s just take a breath and begin. You know what they say: Practice makes perfect. Especially when it comes to novel writing.

Find our January 2016 Writer's Digest on your favorite newsstand, download it instantly here, or order a print copy now (alongside tons of holiday and new year deals in the Writer’s Digest Shop, where all orders over $25 ship free).

Your friend in writing,
Jessica Strawser (@jessicastrawser)
Editor, Writer's Digestmagazine
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