I Write Novels. Or Do I?

Spoiler alert: some whining ahead.

Picture book writing status: Excellent. I have been on a roll. I’m loving the time I spend on them, and I’m getting what feel to me to be amazing compliments from the editor I’ve been working with.

Novel writing status: I feel like I am getting my butt kicked. Over the past years, I have finished one novel–a middle-grade mystery–to my basic satisfaction. It got several “nice” rejections from agents. It still needs work, mostly–I think–in connecting the action plot to a stronger character plot and in amping up the stakes. But I finished it, it came together into a full package, and I was essentially happy with it. Especially for a first novel.

A few years ago, I spent a chunk of time .on a YA historical. Trying to write a YA didn’t work for me, and the historical piece–while I loved it–was another layer of skill I don’t think I was ready to take on. More than all of that, though, I am pretty sure my tangle came about by switching from a plot-driven story (the mystery) to a character-driven story. Without the mystery goal, I couldn’t seem to plot out the things my hero would do, and I couldn’t connect any actions I did come up with to her personality, her needs, or her goals.

I looked and waited for another idea, and it came. Back to MG for me, and with a twist of magic that I thought added the right layer of “symbolism” for the hero’s struggle. I also thought the magic might play a similar role as the mystery did in my first book–something to hand my plot and character arcs on. A few drafts in…I feel like I’m back into the same kind of tangles as my YA.

I am still waiting for a critique back from the same editor I’ve been working with on my picture books, so some of this may resolve itself when I see what she has to say. But as I get closer to getting back her notes, I’ve been spending my own time trying to think about where I want this book to go and how I might get it there. Or at least closer. I spent a few hours on it yesterday and, frankly, I just got more and more frustrated.

I am pretty sure that, as with the YA, my problem is with the character-driven part. Which, if I weren’t feeling so good about the picture books, would be breaking my heart. I love novels. I have read novels since before I can remember, and for decades I have actively chosen them over any other genre: I know short stories and poetry have characters and certainly have depth, but they don’t pull me in like novels, and they don’t let me stay with all the characters and character dynamics for nearly enough time. If you had asked me twenty or thirty or–oh, heck–forty years ago–what kind of book I wanted to write (when I grew up, when I had grown up), I would have said, every single time, “novels.”

And yet…here comes the whine: novels don’t seem to love me.

Obviously, I need to see what comes back from my editor. Maybe I need to take a class. (If anyone knows a really good online novel-writing class that isn’t budget-breaking and isn’t directed at beginners, please drop a rec in the comments!). Maybe I need to read some more plot books.

Maybe I need to stick to writing picture books.

When I say that, a bit of me sings out…oh, yes! Another bit, though, says, But…I write novels. (And, yes, I know that voice is silly, but whenever wasn’t a negative voice silly?)

Okay, no resolution here. Today, I’m going to go back through my files and see if one of the picture-book ideas wants to come out and play–just identify it and get it simmering in my brain. And then I’m going to go back to some classics: —James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and (this is way back) Phyllis A. Whitney’s Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels—and I’m just going to reacquaint myself with what the two of them have to say.

And I’m going to be grateful that I love to write and that I get to write and even that I get to have this confusion about what to write.


  1. Novels are blinkety-blankety hard. I don’t know of an online course (but one is decidedly needed!) I’ve just read Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY, though, and found it excellent. I think it will help me greatly in the revision I’m currently doing. (adult novel. I jump from middle grade to adult in my fiction. I’m not brave enough to try YA.)


    • beckylevine says:

      I don’t know that I will venture back to YA, either! I will take a look at George’s book–thanks!


  2. Kelly Ramsdell says:

    Imma go ahead and say the worst possible thing here: you need to write a bunch more novels. It’s basically the “fail faster” approach. Build your chops, write and revise. If it works, good. Great, even. If it doesn’t quite work, learn from it and keep on keeping on.


    • beckylevine says:

      Kelly, that might be genius. (And I feel totally non-genius for not thinking of it.) I’m on my 3rd novel, but that’s only a fraction of the picture book ideas I have dumped onto the page, played with, set aside, come back to. Maybe I need to do a month of novel ideas, like I have done for piboidmo, just to get started. Hmmmm. Thanks!


    • beckylevine says:

      Just watched the video. I am struggling a bit with what the failure points of a novel are–and how to get to each of them faster (or just to get to the first one, toss it aside, do another, toss that aside, etc. Maybe those first steps–brain dumps, really, are where I need to look and see what’s working and what isn’t. Sigh.


  3. Jenn Hubbard says:

    Here’s another possible perspective. In your post I hear struggling with what you think the novel ought to be or ought to do. I hear a cerebral approach to it, and I hear confusion about where it needs to go.
    Maybe the cerebral approach isn’t right for you. Maybe the thing to do is look for, or wait for, a story that grabs you by the gut, a story that you find utterly irresistible, a story that you have to tell, a story long and deep enough for a novel. In the meantime, if the picture books are clicking, maybe that’s what you need to write right now.
    I don’t know, but I just offer these possibilities as food for thought, in case they’re helpful.


    • beckylevine says:

      Very possibly true. I’m sure that’s part of it–probably where I retreat to when I don’t see a clear path. All the novels have caught me, though, at least the idea has.🙂


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