A series of decisions

Reverse-engineering the editing process by learning how to write a novel

warning: flashing gif at the end.

This week, on a whim, I purchased access to Writing With Maggie Stiefvater, an eight-hour video seminar from the NYT bestselling author of such books as The Raven Cycle, one of my favorite recent YA series. I’d seen her talk about the seminar before, but hadn’t actually bit the bullet and bought it. And it was on sale, so I thought hey - what the hell, why not? (Alas, the sale ends in about four hours, and since I’m writing this on Thursday night the discount will most likely no longer be available.)

I’ve been working a lot recently, and one thing that I’ve been mulling over is that as a byproduct of coming in after the fact and giving notes on a novel, I’m totally separate from (and a bit ignorant of) the drafting process. I know how to talk about how a book that exists in front of me works or doesn’t work, but as I was reading the course description and testimonials from satisfied clients I thought that a deeper understanding of how the book comes to exist in the first place might be a helpful set of tools to have. By understanding how a book came to be, I will hopefully be able to give better and more specific and concise feedback to authors to help them improve their books.

So, the course. I’ve only watched the first six videos- like I said, I’ve had a lot of work. (But I could always work more! a reminder that I am available for editorial services through Reedsy!) But it’s already been very interesting and helpful in providing a new-to-me framework of how to think about story.

I’m not going to go through everything that I’ve learned so far - it’d be a real dick move to give away her content like that. But I did want to talk about the first concept she introduces, which is:

A novel is a series of decisions: make the big/important decisions first.

For Stiefvater, the decision is: “What mood do I want to evoke in the reader?” How do you want a reader to feel?

This idea of decisions— of the brainstorming of a novel being a long chain or flowchart of decisions that you make until you’re ready to actually start writing— is great, because it reduces the act of creation down to its component parts. As Stiefvater says, every time you make a decision, you’re also deciding what not to write—what book you won’t be bringing into the world. That kind of clarity of purpose is crucial: I want to write this kind of book, which means that these choices turn it into this other kind of book and thus don’t serve the story.

Often, when I’m reading a novel for feedback, I realize that a book isn’t accomplishing its goal; it’s failing to meet the mood expectations that it sets for itself. I’m looking forward to the rest of the videos in the course, and looking forward especially to deepen my understanding of how to build a book from the ground up—so I can come in afterwards, and give feedback that will help the book become what it wants to be.

I’d love to do more deep dives on craft advice/resources. Is there a particular craft book you love and have turned to in your own writing practice? Let me know and I will check it out and maybe write about it!


I am going on vacation and there may or may not be a newsletter next week - we’ll see how the mood strikes!

Do you have a question about writing, publishing, books? Is there something you want covered in this newsletter? Do you have a burning desire to hear my thoughts on the seminal shark classic Deep Blue Sea? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!


It’s August, which means that we’re seeing more and more hockeys ramp up training in advance of the preseason. In the midst of all this sweaty nothingness the Arizona Coyotes are being booted from their arena in Glendale after the 2021-2022 season, leaving the team’s future in flux. Houston Coyotes? Don’t mind if I do!


The Spine Collector by Reeves Wiedeman (Vulture)
This was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a clever thief adopting multiple aliases, targeting victims around the world, and acting with no clear motive. The manuscripts weren’t being pirated, as far as anyone could tell. Fake Francesca wasn’t demanding a ransom. “We assumed it was the Russians,” Mörk said. “But we are the book industry. It’s not like we’re digging gold or researching vaccines.” Perhaps someone in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was desperate for early access to books they might buy. Was the thief simply an impatient reader? A strung-out writer in need of ideas? “In the hacker culture that Stieg Larsson depicted, they do a lot of things not for financial benefit,” Mörk pointed out this spring, “but just to show that they can do it.”

The U.S. Carefully Documented its Total Failure in Afghanistan for 12 Years by Matthew Gault (Vice)
Whenever I think about the U.S. government's failure in Afghanistan, I remember the goats. In 2013, a government project meant to kickstart Afghanistan's economy granted Colorado State University $1.5 million to start a goat farm in Herat Province, Afghanistan. It bought five cashmere-producing Italian goats and transported them to Afghanistan for the purposes of breeding them in large numbers and turning Afghanistan into a cashmere-producing hotspot. But CSU ran into problems immediately. It had 300 goats, only nine of them the expensive cashmere goats from Italy. The college was bad at farming and the expensive Italian goats caught a disease that killed most of them. Worse, they were spending $50,000 a year to feed the rest, an incredible amount of cash to spend on an animal that will eat almost anything.

What the Caves are Trying to Tell Us by Sam Kriss (TheOutline)
Every so often, I get the urge to drag someone into a cave, and show them something unspeakable. The urge grabs me suddenly — in the middle of a conversation, for instance, when someone airily remarks that humans are just naturally competitive, or starts talking about social dynamics in terms of mate selection and maximum utility, or sometimes when they just say that words have meanings. I feel it when I read about diets or workouts that are supposed to replicate the diets and experiences of healthy peak-performance prehistoric humanity. I felt it most of all a few weeks ago, reading a blithe little jab in the now-infamous Google memo, in which the subsequently fired engineer James Damore remarks of the gender differences that apparently make women unable to properly use the computer that “they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” To the cave, take him to the cave. Grab Damore by the scruff of his awful crew-neck white T-shirt, pull his twitching dangling body up the scrub and rocks of some remote hillside, and into the cave.


The story of the Kraken’s expansion draft: COVID-19 tests, private jets, and a race against time | The best fantasy novels for the waning days of summer | Patrick Mahomes, going deep: Why the NFL’s best quarterback is obsessed with golf. | Grand Prospect Hall slated for the wrecking ball | On not giving up that dream, not in a pandemic, not even upside down

READING: Blackout by Connie Willis
LISTENING: Rest in PIECES, Mr. Darcy
WATCHING: Deep Blue Sea

This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.