Writing a slow-burn book? Three surprising ways to measure progress

600px-Arbol_de_PiedraSome novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)

With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.

1 Conduct a research interview

A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.

2 The like/don’t-like list

Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.

(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)

As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.

3 Write a synopsis

This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.

nyn1 2ndPsst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel

Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0

Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.


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  1. #1 by K. D. Dowdall on August 21, 2016 - 6:12 pm

    This is a really great post! Thank you so much. I am, by the way, writing something that is a bit of a slow burn and required lots of historical research. I decided to use the Seven Point Story Structure for each chapter to keep me from meandering into too much description or dialogue. I don’t know if it will help but I hope it does. 🙂

  2. #3 by depatridge on August 21, 2016 - 6:29 pm

    Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.

  3. #4 by Veronica Knox on August 21, 2016 - 9:38 pm

    The title of your blog says it all. Nail your slow-burning novel before others poke holes in it (and given half a chance, they will). It’s a hothouse flower until it’s ready to share. For this reason alone, I shun the concept of writers’ groups.

    Slow-burn novels only become tough by remaining fragile during the necessary stages of (at least) a second or third draft.

    I agree with your definition citing the element of nuance for literary novels. That, and being vigilant about treating your writer’s intuition with the respect it has earned.

    A literary novel cannot be forced to fit a template as some commercial fiction is wont to do.

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 22, 2016 - 5:52 am

      Ah, this is where writers’ groups can be a danger to some, Veronica. Sometimes they’re helpful; other times they could upset the balance we’re looking for. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. #6 by acflory on August 21, 2016 - 11:08 pm

    What an interesting sneak peek into your writing method, Roz, and what a gratifying surprise to learn that you do re-vision as you go as well. The forms may be different but I doubt I could write at all without re-visioning the story as I go. And it’s good to know the new novel is coming along. No pressure of course….:D

  5. #8 by serendipitydoit on August 22, 2016 - 7:13 am

    Thanks for that, Roz. I’m off now to write my Synopsis. Maybe that way, I’ll see where I’m going.

  6. #10 by DRMarvello on August 22, 2016 - 1:14 pm

    Good luck with the agent, Ross!

    My method for “measuring progress” is nerdy and a literal interpretation of the phrase. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well. I keep a spreadsheet where I track my total word count for the manuscript at the end of each writing session. I enter the session end time, the name(s) of the scene(s) I was working on, and the total WIP word count. The spreadsheet calculates the net word gain/loss for that session and the percent complete (based on an estimated final word count).

    I belong to a writer’s forum where we share our WIP progress with each other. Each month we start a new thread and state our goals for the month. We then post our progress daily (or however often we want). It works similar to Camp Nano in terms of external accountability and cheering each other on, although it’s far less formal.

    I use your “like/don’t like” technique, recording my likes/dislikes as “revision notes.” It’s distinctly possible that I originally picked up the idea from NYN. I’ve never been a “publish the first draft” kind of author. My stuff typically goes through at least three revision cycles after the first draft, and I rely on my Revision Notes to guide me through those passes. I find that having a thorough revision cycle takes a lot of pressure off the early writing phases, particularly the first draft. If you learn to “trust the process,” you are free to just write and make a mess out of things in order to discover the story that you really want to tell.

    • #11 by DRMarvello on August 22, 2016 - 1:16 pm

      Oops. That was supposed to be “Roz,” not “Ross.” Doh!

      • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 22, 2016 - 10:10 pm

        ‘Trust the process…’ it’s a phrase we’ve both used frequently on this blog. And it never gets less true. Thanks for another informative comment, Mr Marvello – and for your crossed fingers on my behalf.

  7. #13 by Alexander M Zoltai on August 23, 2016 - 12:34 pm

    Luck? With the agent?

    Nope, you’re too good to need any luck—I’m sure you’ve done your homework 🙂

  8. #15 by Don Massenzio on August 23, 2016 - 7:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  9. #18 by Sheila M. Good, Author on August 24, 2016 - 6:06 pm

    Great post! I recently did the same thing, approach an expert on a novel in progress. The feedback was invaluable. Thanks for sharing and best of luck on your book. @sheilamgood

  10. #21 by Lisa Ciarfella on August 29, 2016 - 8:54 pm

    I like your idea for conducting the research interview. Most people probably love to talk about their field of expertise…
    up to this point workshopping in class has been the mode of sharing and getting feedback, but I rather like this idea more. Especially if they’re willing to listen to your draft and answer your questions.

    • #22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 30, 2016 - 8:05 am

      Thanks, Lisa! It’s a good way to test a few pieces of the book without having to reveal more than you want to.

  11. #23 by Kate McHughes on September 2, 2016 - 2:34 pm

    I love! the idea of the “like and don’t like list”. I am going to make that my new go to tool for when something I wrote doesn’t feel write but I can’t put my finger on it. Thanks!! Will you be sharing any gems of wisdom you could pass on from writing the teeth-gritting synopsis.

  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Readers and Writers 09-01-2016 | The Author Chronicles

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