Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Writing Lessons from a Blogvel

by Cat Woods

First off, a Round-Robin Blogvel is a novel told chapter by chapter on various blogs over a period of time. Inevitably this means different authors with different writing styles and different perspectives. It also means a unique writing experience. And yet, the nuggets of wisdom I gathered while penning my chapter of THE SKELETON KEY are as common as punctuation marks in a WIP and can should be applied to any novel.

Characters are like exclamation points. Use them sparingly, but with confidence. As I read the early chapters of our blogvel, I quickly realized the cast of characters was very large. Each new writer would introduce a character or two, but never have the time in their mere 2,000 words to fully flesh them out or utilize them the way they were first envisioned. Over time, early characters were quickly forgotten. Worse yet was my natural inclination to dismiss newer introductions because I assumed they, too, would fade into the background. As the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) states: an exclamation point “should be used sparingly to be effective.” And so must our characters.

Details are like dashes. Grammar Girl informs us that dashes are used to add a bit of extra-ness (my word, not hers) into our writing. Details are important in world-building. They set the scene, describe our characters and place readers into our settings. However, too many dashes are akin to detail over-load. My favorite part of our blogvel was my fellow scribes' creativity and imagination. Yet with each new chapter came new descriptions to flesh out the new ideas. This was delightful in a chapter by chapter summer blogvel of fun, but would have been extremely distracting in a cohesive novel. Distracting and tiring for readers to sort through poetic prose to find important information pertinent to the outcome of the story.

Pacing is like a series of commas. Some sentences are quick and dirty and get right to the point. Others slow the reader down with the use of a tiny crescent comma. The genius of the comma is its ability to allow the reader a small break—a deep breath of air, a rearranging of thoughts or an emotional moment to gather one's self. Likewise, the ebb and flow of a manuscript relies on individual sentence structure, paragraph breaks and chapter endings. A good manuscript takes readers on a series of peaks and valleys before reaching the ultimate conflict and resolution. There is a cadence—or rhythm—to effective writing that dictates when conflict is introduced and when it is resolved. While reading through the chapters prior to writing mine, I hit a point that FELT climactic. I scurried to our chapter list and realized we had just as many chapters to write as had already been written. It was time for a comma.

While I slowed our story down, wrapping up key elements, tying together subplots and penning a satisfying finish all in a single chapter will fall to our last, brave writer. My advice: keep track of your story's pace and finish up old subplots as new ones are getting started. This will eliminate the need to write a massive wrap-up at the end.

Chapter ends are like ellipses. Over at Quick and Dirty Tips, Grammar Girl relates the story of how Charles Schulz used ellipses in his Peanuts cartoons to carry the reader from one frame to the next, much like our blogvel writers were called on to do with their chapters. Time is short, and commitment is long. Readers often do not have the ability to read a novel in one sitting. As writers, we are charged with capturing our readers' attention and drawing them so deeply into the story that the real world doesn't erase our efforts at storytelling altogether. Chapter breaks—with their hints of unresolved conflict and promises of heightened emotion/action—are crucial to this process.

Consistency is like a period. This plain-Jane punctuation mark is so unassuming as to almost disappear from our work. Very seldom do writers ever ponder on the use of a period. Nor do readers fret about its meaning—unless it's used improperly or missing altogether. In the same way, consistent writing comforts us. When written well, writing is all but invisible. Only the story remains. Yet, throw a third person chapter in the middle of a first person novel and watch how fast readers are pulled out of a story. Yep ... that fast. And while it may seem like I'm picking on my talented, energetic and amazingly fun fellow scribes, I only highlight this lesson because it is one I've seen in virtually every beta manuscript I've ever read. In other words, a lack of consistency is commonplace in WIPs no matter how experienced or talented a writer might be. First person to third person. Present tense mixed with past tense. Red eyes morphing to obsidian-like stones. Unique spelling—or should I say misspellings?—of names.

It is our job, as writers, to create a seamless tale in which our readers can fall into and never emerge from until "the end"—no matter how many authors contribute to the storytelling.

So, dear readers, how have you challenged yourself as a writer? What lessons can be learned from stretching beyond our comfort zones? How do we learn to recognize our own weaknesses in the stories we tell?

If you're interested, you can pop on over and find out exactly what my weaknesses were when writing my chapter of The Skeleton Key.


Matt Sinclair said...

The post reminded me of an exercise a friend and I started years ago. He wrote the first chapter, I wrote the second, and we continued on from there. He built a story of unrequited love (because that was his life at that time), while I introduced a gecko who struggled to get his characters back where they needed to be to keep the story interesting, thus adding tension. As an novel, it was an abject, uncompleted disaster. But it remains one of the most enjoyable writing experiences of my life.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! I've tried writing in a variety of genres to stretch myself and to find my strengths and weaknesses. I'm not great at it yet, but I'm getting better! :)

TheWritersDen said...

I'm too much of a control freak! But collaborating on a novel is always a fun exercise ....

catwoods said...


Fortunately, The Skeleton Key has avoided becoming a train wreck. I think the standard was set at the get go by some really talented writers. It's hard to disappoint your peers--and embarrass yourself--publicly.

And yes, the experience has been a complete blast!

catwoods said...


It's so awesome that you stretch yourself in your writing. When I do, I find it easier to pinpoint my problem areas in a similar way to critiquing.


catwoods said...

The Writer's Den: it is hard giving up control, but in some ways it is so freeing.

Thanks for commenting!

KellieM said...


As a contributor to the Blogvel, I have to say your post is very accurate. I just recently wrote my chapter for the blogvel and it was a little difficult to figure out how to advance the story when there were some inconsistencies.

But, I just dove in and told the part of the story I needed to tell and tried to set the next author up for success.

I have really enjoyed the process and can appreciate the differences in the writers perspective. It is true that in a normal novel the different writers voices would be disconcerting and challenging. It seems to work okay in a blogvel because the chapters are only published weekly and the novel isn't read in one sitting.

Thanks for the analysis.

catwoods said...


I loved how it made me take a look at my own writing. While it's easy to think that I don't write like different authors at any given time in a single novel, the reality is that my manuscripts suffer from all of these points at some time or another and I can come off as feeling manic!

Like, "Whoa, who is XZY? Same as YZX or a typo?"

It was a great experience for me to realize how common these pitfalls are in individual projects, yet how little looked at they are because we take it for granted.

Hmmm, a bit convoluted, maybe, but the gist of it is that I learned a ton by doing this!