Thursday, May 27, 2010

Guest Post by Jen Nadol: The Evolution of Writing

Today I am so excited and honored to have Jen Nadol guest post. Jen is the author of The Mark, her debut novel which was released earler this year and one of my top reads this year! Since she was in the process of editing book two, The Vision, I thought it would be interesting to see what she had learned....

I’d written almost all of this guest post about the evolution of my writing process from book one to book two when I realized it wasn’t telling the right story. I was focused on what changed between The Mark, published in January, and its sequel, Vision, due out in 2011. I hadn’t come up with a whole lot.

That’s because though The Mark is my first published book, it’s not the first one I wrote. To see the real evolution, I have to step further back, to Painted Wings, my real first book.

I started it the week I stopped working to stay home with my first son, writing by the seat of my pants in bits of free time. It’s how I’d always written: grabbing whatever inspired me at the moment and jotting down a scene or a character’s internal dialogue. But I’d never developed any of these fragments into a short story, much less a novel.

For Painted Wings I grabbed on to my current reality: the transition from an adult life out in the world to being at home with a baby. I had no outline and no real idea of a story arc – didn’t even know what a story arc was - and after the first chapter, I had no clue where to go. It showed. The novel was a three-hundred-some page plotless wonder with really boring characters and lots of navel-gazing.

Of course, I didn’t realize that at the time so I submitted it to agents. Without even re-reading it, if I remember right. I might made a cursory attempt at editing, but I was pretty tired of the story by that point. I could barely bring myself to look at it again. It wasn’t really my kind of book anyway – I’m not a big fan of Women’s Fiction.

Painted Wings was never – and never will be – published. Its value was in everything I learned during the painful submission process. By the time I was ready to throw in the towel on it – 62 rejections later – I had a much clearer idea how publishing works and what the ingredients of a saleable novel are.

My writing process changed dramatically after that, beginning with step one: The Idea. The “grab anything” method hadn’t worked, so before starting The Mark, I tossed around a bunch of ideas until I hit on one – what if you knew it was someone’s day to die - with enough interest, conflict and potential for action to carry two- to three-hundred pages.

I might have been able to turn Painted Wings’ I used to have a career, now I’m home into that…rather than having the character come to terms with it internally, she could have started a business or gone back to work against her family’s wishes or joined a cult of voodoo practicing witches. But none of that sounds very interesting to me (except maybe the witches). That’s the other thing I learned about The Idea – it has to be something I’d want to read, not just something I know about.

I also outlined The Mark. Not in a hugely structured way, but enough that I knew where it would start, end and a bunch of key scenes in between. Painted Wings taught me that I’m not a good seat-of-my-pants writer. If I don’t know what happens next, I write a bunch of meandering garbage that winds up deleted. Or worse, not deleted. Now, I spend my daily mental downtime – showering, driving, cleaning – thinking about plot alternatives so by the time I sit down to write, I know what will happen in the next scene.

Even that doesn’t always work, of course. The Mark took eight months to write and twenty-six to revise. What I didn’t learn from book one to book two was how to edit effectively. It’s a part of the process I hadn’t been through with Painted Wings since that manuscript never made it to the stage where a practiced editor could tell me what was flat or too wordy or unnecessary or underdeveloped. That’s where my writing process has evolved the most between The Mark and Vision. Now, even as I’m writing, my subconscious is asking: is there a clearer way to say this? What does this word/line/paragraph add to the story? Is the emotion tangible here? Didn’t you already use this word two or three times? I process things differently. Plenty of after-the-draft editing still needs to be done, but Vision sold with four months of edits rather than two-plus-years worth.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be major changes after the book’s been bought. I still had to re-write about a third of Vision post-sale, about the same as on The Mark. But they were more big-picture editorial: changing the MC’s age or refocusing the story on a more compelling plot line.

Maybe by book three, I’ll be able to spot this stuff, too.
I can't wait for Vison, thanks so much Jen!

About the book:

Sixteen-year old Cassie Renfield has seen the mark since forever: a glow around certain people as if a candle were held behind their back.

The one time she pointed it out taught her not to do it again, so Cassie has kept quiet, considering its rare appearances odd, but insignificant. Until the day she watches a man die. Mining her memories, Cassie realizes she can see a person's imminent death. Not how or where, only when: today.

Cassie searches her past, her philosophy lessons, even her new boyfriend for answers, always careful to hide her secret. How does the mark work? Why her?

Most importantly, if you know today is someone's last, should you tell?

About the author:

I grew up in Reading, PA, hometown of John Updike, Taylor Swift and fellow YA author A.S. King (nope, didn't know any of them).

I went to college at American University in Washington DC, graduated with a BA in Literature, then spent the next twelve years doing something totally unrelated to pay the bills.

Now I live north of NYC in an old farmhouse with my husband and three young sons. I am thrilled to finally be writing, the thing I always meant to do. For more information check out


  1. Great post Jen! I'm working on my first novel and I really appreciate hearing about other writers' experiences. Kudos to you for not giving up after the problems with your first novel...I will always keep that in the back of my head! I'm currently reading The Mark and I'm enjoying it! I'll be reviewing it on my blog in the next couple of days.

    Thanks Mel for having Jen on. =O)

  2. Michelle ~ thanks for stopping by! I find it fascinating how much time & work that 1st book takes. I hope it helps aspiring writers like yourself to read about it :)