Christine studied creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, and then discovered the joy of research and outlines while in law school. She writes the popular blog, Better Novel Project where she combines her twin passions to create a better novel– one that gets finished, gets published, and gets read. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about the ‘Better Novel Project’. How did you get the idea for it?
Better Novel Project is all about deconstructing bestselling novels, finding their common elements, and then creating a new outline structure based on those elements.
Each week, I focus on a single common element that three bestselling novels share. For example, I have written about the presence of similar character archetypes, like the Wise One or The Villain. Sometimes I focus on a common type of scene, like a dramatic rescue scene or a hospital scene. I also write about other shared traits like themes, settings, and symbols. Once I identify a common element, I make an index card for it and place the card in my Master Outline. In the end, I hope to have the “backbone” to a bestseller.
Of course, it’s not a magic formula. It still needs the spark from the writer’s voice and imagination. I like to think of it as a series of guided writing prompts that help make a big task more manageable.
I got the idea for Better Novel Project when I finally set out (after years of procrastination) to write a book. I realized very quickly that even with a “big picture” idea of what I wanted my story to be, I had no idea how to achieve that.
I thought the best way would be to break up my story into small pieces, so that I could give myself weekly writing assignments. But again I hit trouble—what were those small pieces? At that moment the project was born: I decided to break down bestselling novels into smaller pieces so that I could see how their structure worked. I wanted to find similiarities among several bestselling novels so that I could be sure it was a tried-and-true method of storytelling that resonates with readers.
At the same time, I had been reading a lot about growing a “platform” as a writer. I hear over and over that you need one! By sharing my research online, I get to complete my research at the same time as connecting with other writers.
NAW- What made you select the three books (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Hunger Games, and Twilight) for the Better Novel Project?
My goal is to write a novel that actually gets finished, gets published, and get read. I chose these three books because they are all widely-read, so I thought they would help me get to my goal. I figured that to have such wide appeal, these books must have some universal thread running through them.
Plus, because all three books were made into movies, many people are familiar with the stories even if they have not read the books. This allows me to reach a broader audience of writers who can “drop in” on my research and still get the jist of what’s going on.
NAW- How far have you reached with the book? Any interesting findings?
My own story is coming along pretty well. I have a lot of scenes written but at the moment they are all out of order—once the master outline is finished I will know how to connect them (hopefully)! I just keep plugging away at it. I have also been doing a lot of research on some historical elements of the book, which can be a black hole, albeit a fun one.
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned from deconstructing other books is how much a writer needs to work backwards. For example, each of the stories I am studying reveals a “twist” of some sort that has actually been foreshadowed throughout the whole journey. So, now I am trying to choose what my ending twist will be so I can weave in hints about it beforehand.
NAW- What as per you, is the ideal novel? What elements in particular would guarantee a book’s success?
For me, the ideal novel is a type of Hero’s Journey. I think those types of stories resonate with our ambition to improve ourselves, all while overcoming evil and protecting our loved ones. Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, has been a big influence on me.
I don’t think anything will guarantee a book’s success! But, many successful books involve a hero struggling with his personal relationships, while also dealing with a grand backdrop like war or social movements. Add in a little magic or science fiction and you’re golden. Or at least off to a good start . . .
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Yikes, this is the toughest question yet!
First of all, I have a full time job. During my commute, I listen to audiobooks that I borrow from the library or download from audible. I often get so engrossed listening to the story that I miss turns on my way home! This is pretty the only way I get to “read” for pleasure.
When I am not working on my own story, I’m often working on a blog post. This takes quite a bit of time, because I need to find just the right quotes from each novel to support my idea for the common element. Between researching, drafting, editing, formatting, and drawing the doodle, each blog post takes me a whole week to write.
I also spend a lot of time reading articles on topics relevant to my readers, like literature news and writing tips. I try to “curate” interesting articles to share on social media, which helps me grow my platform—it gets my name out there, spreads the word about my project, and lets me connect with other writers.
When my eyes just can’t handle another moment of screen time, I like to run at the park. But I usually end up thinking about writing while I run!
I also make a mean “mystery margarita” which is basically anything I can think to throw in a blender with tequila.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
As a kid, my favorite writer was Roald Dahl, and I still love those stories. I think I have a weakness for his brand of dark whimsy.
I studied creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, where my absolute favorite class was titled “Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.” I wish I could take that class again and again. I also enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino.
NAW- Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
I don’t suffer from writer’s block in the tradition sense. My “block” isn’t about knowing what to write. I carry a notebook everywhere and am always jotting down overheard bits of conversation or tiny observations. Instead, I get blocked by an elaborate dance of procrastination and excuses. When I notice that I am cleaning the litter box during my allocated writing time, I know something’s wrong.
I’ve learned that really my biggest trouble is just getting started. So to deal with it, I make myself sit down and write for just two minutes. Or maybe make myself write just three sentences. Then if I want to, I can get up and do something else. But, I usually just keep on writing.