1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

Should You Write Practice Novels?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Philip Overby, Jul 15, 2014.

  1. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,714
    213
    For those that struggle with writer's block, inspiration, plot holes, etc., have you ever considered writing a practice novel? I've written several "failed" novels when I was in my twenties and I never really had anyone at the time to talk to about my issues with incoherent writing and over world-building. I feel like in some ways, many of those novels have prepared me for where I am now. I'll leave readers to be the judge, but I feel like I'm closer and closer to my ideal every day. I may never reach it, but I feel I'm getting closer because I've not put all my eggs in one basket.

    So if you're thinking about writing a novel, should you actually write something you're completely passionate about right out the gate? I don't necessarily think so. By trying a practice novel, you're in some ways training yourself for when you're reading to really hammer out something you're putting a lot of stock in. Perhaps writing a practice novel can be like practicing guitar chords before you sit down to write a song.

    In any case, do you think every writer should start out only writing their "magnum opus" or should they start small and build up their writing chops?
     
    Incanus and Ruby like this.
  2. mowque

    mowque Dreamer

    11
    2
    3
    I have 'short stories' better for this then full novels. A full novel is just a giant investment of time and effort, I'd rather practice on a story only a few dozen pages long. The idea is sound though, in my opinion.
     
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,548
    2,642
    313
    I'm currently working on my first novel and it started out as a practice novel.
    I'd initially planned a much more ambitious project, but the more time I spent thinking on it, the more I realized there were some pretty big issues with it that I would need to address before I could really get started on it. The existence of plot holes was my main concern at the time.

    I decided I should try and work on something else while figuring out the details of the main project and the idea of a practice novel came up. I figured, like Phil mentions, that it might be a good idea to try and see if I could pull it off at all - writing a novel that is. I wasn't overly concerned about my writing skills (that too turned out to be a learning experience), but I know from past experience that I'm not particularly good at finishing what I start.

    I also figured that with a practice novel I wouldn't be as passionate about the story and characters and it wouldn't matter too much if I failed. I wouldn't ruin my main story.

    I'm very glad I did go the route of the practice novel.

    I've learned a lot about writing since I started. I've improved technically and I've gained a lot of experience. I've also learned first hand that it's not the idea that counts, but what you do with it.
    One of the advantages of the practice novel that I mentioned above is that I didn't need to be so passionate about the story. I could just pick any stupid old idea and get started and that'd be it. No need to worry about making it a good story, just get going. It's just for practice anyway so it doesn't matter, right?

    Turns out that even with a crappy, unoriginal, idea that thousands of people have done before (boy meets girl), I was able to get into the writing and create characters and events that I really care about. I think that was a really important realization.
     
    J. S. Elliot and Ruby like this.
  4. Truepinkas

    Truepinkas Dreamer

    24
    20
    3
    IMO, it is all practice for whatever you end up doing next. I can not imagine a scenario where I don't want the next thing I do to be better than the last.

    As for wasting 'good ideas', ideas are cheap. Execution makes or breaks ideas. It doesn't matter if the idea is new or fresh or old and tired, a sparkling execution will shine either way.

    I might recommend more shorts to beginers just because you can complete the arcs faster and better understand your story telling voice than slogging away at a novel for a year to learn the same things about yourself, but to each his or her own.
     
  5. acapes

    acapes Sage

    224
    35
    28
    I wrote around 9 or so novels before I sold one, and for me, it was the best way to go.

    Most importantly, I was practising writing whole novels rather than just openings. Working out satisfying ways to structure and finish a novel can be just as important as learning how best to open a novel, so I'm a fan of 'writing novels to get better at writing novels.'

    Of course, heaps of folks write short fiction to get better at writing and then move on to bigger fish. It's almost relaxing to have that shorter time commitment.

    In terms of saving the magnum opus I think I'll come back to it one day :)
     
    Ruby likes this.
  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,548
    2,642
    313
    This is true.
    However...
    I think the main difference is in the mind set. If you set out to write a massive epic fantasy series to shake the world you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. If you're just practicing, you're giving yourself a lot more freedom to mess around and make mistakes and experiment.

    Ideas are weird.
    Like mentioned, it's all about what you do with them and not nearly as much about the originality or uniqueness of the idea. What bothers me about "wasting" an idea is if I decide to use it and then the end result isn't as good as I would have wanted it to be. Personally, I think it's unlikely that I would start over from the beginning and write the same story about the same characters again to get a better story out of the idea.
    I'd probably start a new project instead. This may work differently for other writers. I'm sure there are those who churn out slightly altered versions of the same story over and over again, but I'm not sure that's for me. Then again, it could be. It's hard to say since I really haven't finished anything yet.

    I'd also like to second the notion that shorts may be a better way to go. They're not as major an undertaking as a novel is and you'll have an easier time finishing your project. If I knew when I started what I know now, I probably would have stuck with shorts for quite a while longer before sinking my teeth into an entire novel.
     
  7. Ruby

    Ruby Auror

    1,135
    299
    83
    Oh, I hope not! I hope this epic unfinished series I'm writing is not just a practice novel! :eek:

    I thought that we're supposed to keep going until we reach the end of the first draft and that then we go back and write the novel as we edit it.

    That's what I'm doing now via Campnano.

    I agree though, that it's a good idea to write other shorter stories whilst doing this. I enjoyed doing Philip's ABC Fantasy challenge ( can't we resurrect that, Philip?) as it was very freeing, informal and creative. I'm also doing artwork, drawing a cartoon series as a diversion and writing a couple of blogs.

    But I have heard it said that you have to write a really bad novel before you write your masterpiece, so the question is: is this the masterpiece or the other thing? :confused:
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2014
    Incanus likes this.
  8. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    1,908
    611
    113
    This seems like a weird question to me. When I wrote Eternal, that was the best story I was capable of writing at that time. When I wrote Kids These Days, that was a better story, and that was the best story I was capable of writing then. I think How Equestria Was Made is even better, despite being fanfiction.

    None of those were "great" stories. All of them have recognizable writing flaws. But I wrote frankly and passionately about my personal pain, and I got some very strong responses.

    Maybe you can't write your magnum opus off the bat. But is there something wrong with writing your practice story as if it were your magnum opus?
     
    Ruby and Penpilot like this.
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    3,092
    1,858
    163
    Yes, I couldn't agree more.

    In college, one of my teachers said, "You get what you put into it." It was just an off handed comment in a programming course, but to me, it struck the right chord a the right time.

    No matter what you decide to write, you have to put your heart into it. If it means nothing to you, then how can you expect it to mean anything at all. A half-hearted effort is still a half-hearted effort, and IMHO all you learn to be is half-hearted in your writing.

    Every writer has their golden idea, an idea so awesome in their mind that reality can never match the potential one sees in their head. My first novel was that golden idea. I put everything I had into it, and at the end of the day, there are parts that I think are good, but overall it was crap, but because I put so much effort into it, I learned tons.

    The hardest part to do with that novel was to let it go. It was my baby that I cried blood over. It was the idea I had been holding for over 15 years. But I reached a point where I didn't know how to fix things, so I told myself that I couldn't make it any better, and that if I wanted to grow as a writer, I needed to move on and write another novel.

    That was one of the biggest lessons I learned in novel writing, how to tell when I couldn't make something any better and how to let the novel go and move on to the next. It didn't mean I was abandoning the novel, I just had to set it aside. If I wanted to go back some day, I could.

    Half way through my second novel, the solutions to most of the big problems with my first novel came to me in a flash. It was all so simple. I may go back one day, but right now, I just want to keep moving ahead.

    No matter what novel you write, whether it's your magnum opus or just some story you thought would be cool, it has to be the most important thing to you right then, and you have to put your best foot forward, otherwise you might as well be typing, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," over and over.

    IMHO you don't get better or stronger by staying within your comfort zone. You get better and stronger by pushing your limits. If you're too comfortable and relaxed, I'm not sure limits are being pushed in those instances. No pain, no gain.

    I'll end this long ramble with a quote from the movie Gattica.

    "You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back."
     
    Ryan_Crown and Feo Takahari like this.
  10. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    7,898
    3,599
    313
    The only thing about your first book: You're probably writing it having never been through the editing process. If you go through that process right, you should learn things that you'll apply throughout your future writings. And editing them back in is nowhere near that easy.

    If for no other reason, I think a practice something can go a long way. Make something and take it as far as you possibly can, even if it's just a short story. It'll make your future works better.
     
  11. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    5,548
    2,642
    313
    I hear what you're saying about putting in effort and all that and I agree that there's a point to it. I'm doing my best to make my novel the best it can be. If I didn't, there wouldn't be much point in it.
    What I don't do is worry about that it's not going to be good enough. At least, I didn't do that when I started out. Now, that's changed.

    One of the things I've experience while working on this is the practical application of the say "time is money". What I mean by this is that the more time I put into this novel, the more dear it becomes to me. It's well over a year since I sat down and wrote the first few paragraphs and I wasn't really all that bothered about what Enar was going through.
    A few months later, I got really upset when a friend of mine who'd read the first couple of chapters mentioned that Enar was a bit of a twat. At the time it surprised me a lot, but in retrospect it makes sense. This is something I don't think I would have experienced in the same way if I'd written a bunch of short stories instead (unless they all involved the same character).

    Thinking back on it now, one of the benefits of writing a "practice" novel is that it actually got me started. Back then, I didn't have the courage to start on a magnum opus. I can see myself getting lost in planning and researching and outlining and not actually getting anything done. On top of that I would still be unsure I could pull it off.

    I'm now more confident. I'm almost done with my first draft and I know that if nothing happens it will get done.

    I don't know whether I'll ever work up the courage to write that great idea I had back then. It'll probably need some work. I'm not sure it really matters though. I'll still have it as a goal to write that story, and as long as I do I can write other stories.
    Enar's Vacation is turning out a lot better than I ever expected it to. I have a couple of ideas to potential follow-ups and I've got at least one character that's strong enough to hold up her own novel (and she's only nine).

    So I don't feel that starting out with a practice novel was a mistake. I'm happy I did it and it's working out great for me. I can see how others may be suspicious about the concept, but I think that's very much related to how you approach writing.

    For me, the important part isn't to tell a story. For me, the important part is to provide a pleasant, escapist, reading experience.
     
  12. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,714
    213
    I do agree that it's good to put as much effort into what you're doing as possible. I just find I've met lots of people who are trying ambitious projects and often spend years trying to finish them. While I think that's fine (everyone works at their own pace) trying something less ambitious might help one learn how they write, what works best for them, etc.

    I wouldn't suggest doing a practice novel that you don't care about. It may just be a good idea to try something simpler before diving into something that has a complicated magic system, tons of races, and a huge cast of characters. I found out that trying something too ambitious hasn't worked for me many times. Now that I'm doing something easier, it's coming a lot more smoothly.
     
  13. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    3,598
    1,518
    163
    I totally agree. And here's my reason why...

    Many of you know my story, I know Phil does, but I wrote one novel a year-ish for ten years. They are all first-draft rubbish, really, but while I was writing, I was exploring characters, plot, story, setting. ETC.

    I wasn't editing out things like plot holes. I wasn't tampering with scenes that went on too long. I think that's absolutely why I was so productive. And most of them are never going to be salvageable, but that's okay. They say it takes a million words to get good at writing and for me, it was closer to 1.5m. But that's okay, too.

    I've done my million words. I'm now street-legal. I might not be a porsche yet, but I'm a respectable mid-sized sedan at least. I'm not an embarrassing clunker who loses parts all over the highway.

    I think as a learning writer, you have a few options. You can make your investments different ways. For me, I wrote to amuse myself. I wasn't interested in being a great writer. I wrote all those books to kill time and escape from stress of the real world. I loved it. It was my hobby. But then when I wrote a couple books I thought were good, I wanted to push the envelope a bit.
    What if I'd spent those years working on the first novel (which is so terrible it should be burned to ash and buried at sea)? I'd have spent ten years producing one single book that would probably be pretty good (and unrecognizable)by now. OR, I could spend those years turning out massive amounts of words, learning while I go and not rethinking every step of the way. I'm pretty happy with the path I took (though sometimes I wish I was just smarter about this whole thing from the get-go and learned about writing before I ever did it).

    I am currently getting ready to send my first "good enough" book to a professional editor, and I'm finally feeling "ready". Before, I just wasn't. I'm glad that i have a stack of work behind me. That alone gives me some confidence as I take scary steps and break new ground on this journey. But knowing I can either write something new or rewrite something old, gives me options. Right now, I'm looking toward the new, but that's just me. I never wrote a book that held deep meaning to me. I just wrote to entertain myself. I guess that helped me separate this as "business" and not emotions. Screw all my old books that suck. They did their jobs and for those that I like well enough, their day will come, when I'm good enough at editing to pull them apart and whip them into something really good. But for now, I have other things to work on.

    "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming..."
     
    Ruby likes this.
  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    3,092
    1,858
    163
    For myself, I followed much the same route. Generally, I'm over ambitious with most things I jump into. Starting out in the deep end can be a good and bad thing. On the rare occasion, I find that I can swim, but more often than not, I'm drowning. And with my first novel, I drowned. It was 270k with three major POV characters and three more minor ones. All the characters were split off geographically, so it was in essence like weaving three separate novels together.

    While I was crashing and burning with that, I decided that my second novel was going to be simpler. I decided I was going to give myself every chance of success. Of all the ideas I had for stories, I chose one that would play to my strengths. First it was set in a contemporary setting, an urban fantasy. Second, it only had one major POV character, but I later added one minor one. Third, it was set in my home town. And finally, I decided that I wasn't going to worry about the cliches I encountered. I decided I would play towards them.

    The end result was IMHO way more successful. I still had bumps. I had to throw out the last half of the novel because it stunk, but I found my way through the bumps. To this day, I'm not sure if the reason the second novel was easier to write was because I went through all the tough experiences with my first novel, or if it was because it was just a simpler story. It only took me a month to write the first 50k of the first draft. It would end up being 110k.

    In my second novel, I used a lot of my personal experiences and family history to shape the world and the characters. The end result was something that as of now I'm way more close to than my first novel.

    One of the big lessons I learned writing my second novel was to keep things simple in all my stories. The complex is constructed using layers of simplicity. That's one of the things I found was wrong with my first novel, I tried to build this complex foundation, with secrets, and plot twist galore. It was all so convoluted, layers of complexity on top of complexity.

    Maybe what I'm kind of taking issue with here is the term "Practice Novel." It kind of implies that it's not for real. I think instead of "Practice Novels" maybe it should be "simple novels". I agree it's probably best if a writer start with smaller and simpler projects as they're learning to write and work their way up to bigger and better. It's definitely the smart thing to do, but smart doesn't always come into play when you don't have the luxury of hindsight.
     
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2014
    Incanus likes this.
  15. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    317
    121
    43
    Sure sometimes its good to experiment with a style, genre, characters etc - but that's experimenting, not practice.
    To damn a piece before you start as 'merely practice' seems almost like expecting it to be not good when you should be trying your best constantly.

    Everything I do is practice for the next one (but that doesn't mean I set out with the intent of it just being an exercise). To differentiate some projects as practice and others as serious attempts to me doesn't make a lot of sense and actively works against you.

    Just write your novel as best you can - later you can decide if its good - or was just practice for the next one.
     
    Ruby likes this.
  16. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,714
    213
    Perhaps "practice" isn't the right word. However, in retrospect, I can't really say the novels I wrote and aborted for whatever reason are salvageable in their current form. Therefore, I can't really look at them in any other way than being practice. However (again), I do think I can take pieces of those stories and use them for other ones.

    I feel like for people who have been at the writing game for a while now, we can give cautionary tales for those just starting out. I don't feel like I've wasted my time (as Caged Maiden said) I'm happy with the path I've taken to this point. But I wish I would have had more voices telling me to avoid something too ambitious from the get go and start smaller.
     
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2014
  17. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,714
    213
    Those are good points, but maybe the word "practice" has been clouding my point. Practice can very well be serious. I mean painters practice their craft the same as baseball players do. Why can't writers practice their craft as well? I do think people should always put their best foot forward no matter what they're doing, but my point is that a lot of new writers come right out the gate with massively complex stories they may not be prepared to write yet. I've seen dozens and dozens of writers talk about how they get stuck constantly or have doubts about their projects. I believe a lot of this has to do with the project just being too overwhelming. If one practices their craft in different ways, they can build to more difficult works later on.
     
  18. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    1,238
    330
    83
    I think that every novel you write, you should write with the intent of it being publishable, and not a practice exercise.

    The time taken to plan and write a novel is quite extenseive. While it can be chalked up as part of the learning process, focusing to make it as strong and potentially 'worthy of publication' as possible will leave one with a piece that, even if not perfect, might at a later date be in such a situation that it can be revised and edited rather than totally rewritten to be salvaged.

    A quality first draft is never perfect, and instead of giving yourself permission since it's practice, the same permission to learn and experment can be given since it's a first draft.

    I say this as with so many writers, time is a very limiting factor in their life and ability to write. A practice novel, I don't believe takes full advantage of that limited commodity.
     
  19. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    1,908
    611
    113
    I guess one way of phrasing it is that you should practice all parts of the novel, not just some parts. The extreme example of not doing this is the writer who writes one beginning after another, but never completes a middle. In the same way, it's possible to write a whole bunch of stories without practicing editing and revision, which could be a problem when you've got something you think is worth editing and revising.
     
    Incanus likes this.
  20. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    5,997
    1,714
    213
    I agree that I've seen lots of people get excited about beginnings and then lose interest once they get to the middle. I've done this myself. Perhaps the better advice, rather than trying a practice run, would be to just see every project to completion. Of course this is pretty common advice, but it definitely allows you to learn how to complete something. Which even if you feel like your novel is probably never going to see the light of day, completing it teaches you a lot about how you write, what works and doesn't work, etc.

    I completed one novel a couple of years ago in the first draft form. Upon going back to edit it, there were just so many parts that were superfluous or didn't work. When I sat down to write my current WIP, I kept these points in mind. I think it's always good to make keep notes about each project so that you know what you have trouble with and what you're really good at. Maybe that's the best way to "practice?"
     
    Ruby likes this.
Loading...

Share This Page