The First Ten Percent Of Your Novel

In my last post I wrote about an article written by Jane Smiley, the acclaimed American novelist, on the Purpose and Practice of Revision This led me to her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Front Cover

This is what Jane Smiley said about her book in We Wanted To Be Writers. com :

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, (which) is a book about the anatomy and the history of the novel. And there are two chapters in there called “A Novel of Your Own Part I” and “A Novel of Your Own Part II.” Half of the book is about analyzing the form of the novel and half of the book is a sort of lengthy bibliography of about 105 or 6 novels that I read in order to write the book. (Jane Smiley on teaching writing)

Smiley, has a distinguished teaching record in the department of Creative Writing at the University of California so it’s no surprise that in reading her book I fell into the student role with Smiley as my teacher.

With clarity and generous spirit Smiley shares her insights on what makes a good writer. 

Because I am in the middle of editing a draft of my own, I was most interested in how she approaches “bettering” her rough drafts, specifically the first ten percent.

You, as the author, have about 10 percent of your novel to show the reader “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when.” “How” is for the rising action… You have only a certain number of pages to get the reader used to you as a writer. The more you pack into those pages, the more likely the reader will trust you and be willing to go on to the rising action.

So, what about this first 10 percent? What exactly does Jane Smiley suggest one pack into these pages?

PLACE: Where is everyone? When is the action taking place?

TIME: How is time going to be organized? Straight, continuous chronology? Chronological but in forward jumps? Some sort of looping structure?  Backward?

What makes your protagonist worth writing about?

These are the kind of interesting questions which Smiley throws at you, the writer, to help you go deeper. Another question which made me sit up had to do with the last 10 or 15 percent of the novel:


So the first thing you are going to do is turn to whatever page comes 90 percent of the way in your rough draft…That one page of the climax of your novel can tell you a lot about both what you have done and what you want to do, if you let it. Reading it, and a couple of pages around it, is your first diagnostic. (p.233)

There is so much that I got out of reading studying 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

If you are in the process of editing a novel, I highly recommend that you have a look at this book, particularly parts I and II of the chapters titled A Novel of Your Own.


33 thoughts on “The First Ten Percent Of Your Novel

  1. This does sound useful, Carol. I appreciate your sharing it. In my opinion, it’s really important to try to see one’s work from the point of view of the reader at some point. I think seeing it from that perspective helps the writer choose the most effective way to tell a story.

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  2. It sounds excellent, and goes along well with my belief that you get 25% of the novel to lay it all out (interestingly, of course) and then the serious business has to start. I’m going to check this book out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad to hear that the book helped you as you were editing your book. You’re a smart woman to be reading up on how to always better yourself. Some writers think they are the “bee’s knees” and I love how you are so humble xx

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  4. Carol, thank you so much for mentioning this book and how it works, so helpful with the snippets from the book – my mind is already spinning with ideas as a result and how to look at my first draft in new light. Brilliant! Great help and now I want to study/ read the rest! 😀

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  5. I like Jane Smiley’s books and it is wonderful when a fiction writer takes the time to analyze and present what she has learned along the way in writing, Carol. Thanks so much for sharing!
    Hope you have a wonderful and special Christmas season with fun, friends, family and laughter! 🙂 Hugs, Robin xo

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      • Hope you are still enjoying holiday joys, Carol! I appreciate your warm wishes and our continued friendship means a lot to me! Wishing you good health, small surprises and lots of love in the New Year, 2017! ❤ Hugs, Robin xo

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  6. These are wonderful tools you have opened up to us, Carol, and Jane Smiley has some great advice that you highlighted here. My own experience with novel writing is to read about the writing process but then at some point stop reading about it, and just start writing…because we are all so different. Happy writing to you, my friend~~

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great questions, Carol, and something worth coming back to again and again, as memory only holds so much. My favorite: what makes the character worth writing about. All the complexities that can be put on the page — the loves, the hates –so much in the human heart that can be uncovered or found again, and written in prose.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: The First Ten Percent Of Your Novel — Carol Balawyder | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

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