Writing A Novel: Lessons Learned

Writing A Novel: Lessons Learned 1024 576 Reader Views

by J.L. Askew

After publishing a partial history of my great-grandfather’s Civil War artillery unit, I was going to complete the story with another book, but my brother felt I should branch into fiction. I value his advice so began considering where to begin. I thought of the twenty pages I’d written when living in Alaska from 2009 – 2010, the beginnings of a story inspired by the picture of a wolf I bought from a wildlife photographer in Anchorage. Since I already had something to build on I used this as the basis for my first novel “Alaska Deadly” and finished it in a year.

I wrote the book with no forethought other than some vague notions of what I hoped to accomplish. I suppose authors write what they like to read, at least, this is what I did, trying to include action, excitement, mystery, and suspense. I already had a hero from my earlier scribbling, neophyte private investigator Race Warren, sent to Alaska on a missing person case. The image of the wolf was a key part, but I didn’t want the supernatural theme to predominate so I worked on a Russian trafficking angle that seemed more likely to provide the excitement and action I wanted. I had Warren find the man he was after, Ron Billings, who is searching for his daughter, Carrie, kidnapped by the Russians, drawing both men into deadly conflict with the traffickers. Much of the book deals with the many twists and turns the duo face as they try to free Carrie and another female held by the Russians.

Although I followed no plan, I knew the story had to have surprises to hold the reader and I hit upon the idea of regularly throwing obstacles in front of the two heroes and changing the direction the storyline was going so that sometimes the characters inexplicably do the unexpected. In this way the story was as much a mystery to me as it would be for the readers, but it seemed to be flowing smoothly and I always felt the story was going on a true path. After many rewrites, feeling the story was done, I had a professional editor critique the manuscript on the story aspects, things like “plot, person, pacing”. This led me to pare two pages of description and rewrite it as dialogue, cutting eleven pages total from the manuscript before sending it to the publisher.

One thing the editor did not mention, but one that a book reviewer picked up on, is an instance of “out-of-character” behavior. This as well as other possible faults resulted from the approach I used in writing the book, working “by the seat of my pants.” I have learned that novelists can be broadly divided into two types, “planners” (those using outlines or notes to structure their book) and “pantsers”, like me who write where their imagination leads them, one idea after another. Since this was my first novel, I likely succumbed to most of the pitfalls of this method. But I didn’t know this at the time and when I finished the book I felt I had written an entertaining story and since then I’ve found that many readers agree but I’ve also been surprised at how many critical reviews I received. In an effort to get as many readers as possible, I engaged a dozen or more paid sites for “editorial reviews”. This has been well worth the expense because of the valuable information provided. No one likes criticism but many of the reviews I’ve gotten have been instructive, pointing out flaws in the novels’ construction. Some of the assessments reveal a very close reading of my book and these are the reviews I value most. A writer can ask for nothing greater than a close reading of their work and an honest review. A thorough reading is evidenced by details the reviewer provides and any constructive criticism that follows is invaluable as an aid to steer an author toward improving their craft.

I’ve found the reviews that are of greatest benefit are those rated as “threes” and “twos” which I have read and reread, parsing valuable points to keep in mind as I write the next book. I believe any review with a rating of “one” can be disregarded since I feel it is more due to a personal quirk with the reader (such as politics) rather than anything in the book. 

So what did I learn from writing a novel? Mainly that we are all different and have individual tastes and preferences about what we like, and this applies to the books we read. Everyone doesn’t enjoy reading the classics nor the current gem at the top of the bestseller list. But we all like to read a book from our favorite genre that is well written, holds our attention, and keeps us turning pages.

I think many authors overlook the value of a critical review. Our books are like offspring, and we may be offended by someone’s harsh words, but if we look closely we may find something worthwhile. One of the most valuable reviews of my book gave it a “two” but I could see that much thought had been put into the reading and the evaluation. The review was on a site where “comments” could be left and Iwrote, “Thanks for a very perceptive review. Your points are valid and will help me write a better sequel.” The reviewer responded that they looked forward to reading it.

About The Author

Alaska Deadly is J.L. Askew’s first novel, a finalist in the Readers’ Favorite 2023 Award Contest, the author recognized at the awards ceremony at the Miami Hilton Airport Blue Lagoon Hotel Saturday evening, November 18, 2023. The author previously published “War in the Mountains”, a partial history of his great-grandfather’s artillery unit in the American Civil War, winner of the Blueink Review Notable Book award.

A lifetime reader, habitual writer, and diary-keeper, Askew began composing family histories, case summaries, and court reports as a social worker with a baccalaureate in psychology from the University of Memphis. After obtaining a technical degree, he spent thirty-four years as field engineer with international corporations working on MRI machines. While based at a home office, his last twelve years included teaching at a technical center, travels to hospitals around the nation for machine-down emergencies, and technical writing.

The author has a daughter, Bethany, and son, Jonathan, and seven grandchildren, who reside in Buena Vista, Colorado and near Austin, Texas.

After living thirty-three years in Cordova, Tennessee (away one year in Alaska), Askew recently relocated to Buena Vista, a beautiful mountain town where he is writing a sequel to Alaska Deadly.

Contact The Author

Website: https://www.jlaskew.com
Email: colmaelstrom@yahoo.com
Facebook: facebook.com/jl.askew.1
Blog: https://www.jlaskew.com/blog
Goodreads: goodreads.com/book/show/136247391-alaska-deadly

1 comment
  • Kas (CK) Sobey

    Hello JL,
    I enjoyed reading your article on writing your first novel, and how are you accepted a variety of reviews, many of which were at two stars. I find this exceptional and as a writer, when we are at our most vulnerable and stand naked before everyone
    I am a writer and my genre has been tiny tales, and philosophical musings. Not at all a genre most widely read.
    I too have used Proffesional reviewer‘s as well as gently urging my reading public to copy/paste their honest emails into an Amazon review.
    That’s a toughie.
    I’m working on expanding into a book of mystery and some sort of fantasy. I’m a Pisces for Gods sake!!☺️😉. I also am I a “pantsie” writer with a vague outline of what I’d like to bring forth in the book, story. Direction is good for me, not a hard plan.
    I’ve got to say that a book cover has a lot to do with it, images grab hold of the curious mind.
    I love your book cover of Alaska Deadly! and as soon as I send this off to you, I’m going to look up the book and see if it’s some thing that grabs me. I’m sure it will.
    Thank you for your honesty JL, and have a good rich new year in ALL ways!
    Sincerely, Kas (CK) Sobey.

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