How to Grow a Novel (or Getting the Mouse Through the Maze) by Phoebe Fox

TYM650tonedAsking an author about his or her writing process, to me, yields as many varied answers as asking about how they make love. We all have our habits, hang-ups, and quirks.

The most common divide is plotter versus “pantser” (someone who writes with no firm idea of how the story will develop), and I’m a pantser to the bone. The idea of carefully plotting out every scene in an outline I’ll then write directly according to is as mind-numbingly dull and unappealing to me as having a flowchart to follow for sex. If I know exactly how things are going to go (whether at my desk or in bed), I’m a lot less interested.

For me, the joy of creativity—the joy of story—is following the little mouse of inspiration as it winds through its maze, not sure where it may go or what path it will take to reach the end—or even where the end is. As I like to tell people, if I know exactly what happens in the story, I no longer need to write it. Part of the creative process is telling myself the tale as I go along; that’s what keeps me engaged.

But that kind of creative freedom has its downside—sometimes the mouse gets lost. Sometimes it hits a dead end. Sometimes it finds an interesting bit of cheese, and starts gnawing on it, and forgets all about the fact that there’s a maze to be run at all. Those are the days where, for just a little while, I envy the methodical plotters.

When I’m writing my Breakup Doctor novels—a light women’s fiction series about a therapist who specializes in helping people get through their bad breakups, and then winds up breaking all her own rules when she’s unceremoniously dumped herself—much of the delight for me lies in exploring how my characters might be affected by the things that happen to so many of us in our dating lives (and in our friendships and family relationships too—I love examining the dynamics of why we do the things we do).

And yet sometimes I get lost in the maze.

I have files full of discards from each novel in the series that are nearly as long as the novels themselves. I have “darlings” that it killed me to murder, but I did it. It’s agonizing to see so much material that will likely never see another reader’s eye—and yet I never call these “wasted” words. In every case, I had to take those detours to find where the story actually wanted to go. (Kind of like life…or really good sex…)

Once I finally find the story and wind up with a draft I call “finished” (yes, I’m laughing too…), the real work begins. My editing process starts with what I call “triage” (with a tip of the hat to master editor Sol Stein for the concept). This entails reading the “finished” (hahaha! it’s funny every time!) manuscript like a reader—without analyzing or trying to edit, just making very brief notes of where the story still needs work. For Heart Conditions, book three of the Breakup Doctor series that’s in production right now, that looked like this.


Then I go in and spot-address those big-picture story elements. This usually entails breaking the story out into scenes so I can see it “visually.” I do that through what I call a road map—a bulleted list of basically every story event, which I color-code according to character/storyline, and then I note in comment boxes the time line as well:


If the story is extra vexing, I will bust out the index cards, so I can “see” its flow laid out in front of me (that’s one of my doggie helpers there in the corner):


Only after all that do I read start-to-finish with an analytical eye, smoothing and polishing as I go. Then I send the truly “finished” (*still giggling*) manuscript to my first beta readers—my trusted writing group, the first eyes on anything I write. All talented authors in their own right, my three longtime crit partners are like human X-rays, looking deep into my manuscript and showing me exactly where the bones are broken or missing or utterly misaligned. I address most of their comments, and laugh at how misguided they are with others, and then send the revised manuscript to my indefatigable agent.

With great charm and diplomacy, Superagent Courtney proceeds to point out all the exact same things I was resisting, because my crit group is almost always right, and I finally address those as well. Except for just a few where, really, none of these guys know what they’re talking about. And then I send this perfect, “finished” thing to my editors at Henery Press.
At which point Erin, Kendel, and Rachel proceed to tactfully yet unflinchingly give me honest feedback about what’s still not working—which is generally all the things I’ve been resisting at every stage of revision prior to this. And finally I realize that all these people who’ve seen it so far know what the hell they’re doing, and that no author can be objective enough about her work to see it as clearly as a trusted reader can. And at long last I fix those final points of resistance.

None of this takes into account the extensive nuts-and-bolts work that’s still to come—line editing, copy editing, and the endless tweaking that I’m ultimately curtailed from only because of publishing deadlines. E. B. White famously said, “Writing is rewriting,” and that’s as true as anything I know of the process—at least my own.

I was an actor for many years, and I was always stunned at the talent and dedication of the crew on film and commercial shoots and in theater productions. These unsung heroes get none of the glory of the folks in front of the camera or onstage, yet they were there long before the actors arrived and long after we left, making everything possible. I feel the same way about all the people who make it possible for me to pursue a career I love so much: my genius crit partners, insightful agent, and keen-eyed editors; the book bloggers, reviewers, and kind fans who help get books into readers’ hands; and always, readers, without whom books never come to life.

Phoebe Fox is the author of The Breakup Doctor and Bedside Manners, part of the Breakup Doctor series (from Henery Press). Heart Conditions, book three of the series, will be released February 2016. You can find her at, and have news and relationship advice delivered right to your in-box here. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


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