- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- Commercial & Creative Writing
How to Seriously Write a Novel
I know what you’re thinking: how can this guy possibly teach me to write a novel in such a short article? Novels are vastly complex pieces of work and surely a single article couldn’t sum up everything you need to know. True, but I’m not here to teach you how to write, which is a difficult subject to teach anyway. Being a good writer does not always mean you have what it takes to write a novel. Writing a novel is more persistence and perseverance than it is brilliant writing. There are countless good writers who never manage to finish a novel for one reason or another and there are bad writers who churn them out, one right after another. So, for this article, I’m going focus on some basics for you keep in mind as you stare down the long road of novel writing and, hopefully, keep you working until it’s done.
One of the easiest ways to get discouraged when you set out to write a novel is the sheer workload that hangs over your head. If you sit down at your computer, or notebook, and tell yourself “Okay I’m going to write a novel” you will always fail (Unless you’re a robot, in which chase the novel won’t be interesting anyway). That would be like saying “I’m going to build a skyscraper” then being disappointed when you don’t have it finished on day one. It takes time to build a skyscraper and it takes time to write a novel.
For this reason, you will want to start small and there are a number of ways you can do this. The first is to write your idea as a short story. This gets the general plot and characters onto paper and creates a basic beginning, middle and end. Don’t worry if what you’re writing reads poorly. The first draft of even the best novels probably sucked. Don’t expect the first words you put down to be pure gold, the important part is just getting them on paper. Some people may find it more effective to write an outline, rather than a short story. I just find that the short stories are more valuable to me personally.
Another way to start small is to create attainable goals for yourself. My character needs to get from point A to point B. Once you accomplish this goal, then you can focus on getting them from point B to point C. By setting smaller goals like this, you feel a sense of accomplishment even though the novel isn’t finished. Without a sense of accomplishment, it is easy to lose motivation and give up. The goal can be as small as one page, or even one paragraph, written per day. That may sound like a small amount, but at least it is still progress. Even a small amount of progress can be held, measured and will eventually lead to a finished product.
A fascinating, and often hilarious, guide for what NOT to write in a novel, as told by agents, slush readers, and experienced writers. I definitely recommend this one.
Expand the Parts You Like
A lot of early writers believe that they need certain sequences in their book. For example, let’s say I want to introduce a new character, but before I can, I have to give the reader that character’s backstory. In some cases this might be fun to read, but very often it just grinds the narrative to a screeching halt. Back story is good, but not if it kills the main story. Too often, a writer will get bogged down in a section they aren’t interested in and it ends up killing the momentum of the story. In this instance you want to sit back and ask yourself “Where did the story go wrong?” At what point did the story stop being fun and start being tedious? Go back to that point and try again, branching off in a new direction until you discover what feels right and what is enjoyable for you to write. Remember that if you have fun writing it, chances are that your reader will have fun reading it.
This is also very true when it comes to expanding your book. Say, for example, that you decided to write a short story, like I suggested above, but you wish to turn it into a novel. Where do you go from here? Well, take a good look at that short story and ask yourself which parts you enjoyed. Ask yourself, where could I expand and add more information? Maybe one of your characters went off on their own for a while during the story and you find that you’d really like to follow them and discover what they were doing. I’ve seen many writers get caught up in a side story that they love, only to realize later that this is the story they should have been telling all along. Looking for ways to expand the good parts of your story is the first step towards creating enough content to fill a novel.
You don’t have to write the book chronologically either. Write the interesting parts first and the rest will fill in later. Otherwise, the problem that usually arises is that the filler material isn’t very interesting, so when you spend all of your days writing filler, trying to get to that sequence you really want to write, you end up getting bored before you ever reach the good part. What this means is that I, as the writer, may decide to write the final battle before the hero and the villain have ever met. I may write a character’s death sequence before they have even been introduced. Pick out the parts of your novel that are most interesting and write those. Worry about the things in between later, once you are sure this is a story you want to tell.
Don't Be Afraid to Write Crap!
If you've read any of my other writing articles, then you've probably heard this before (along with the suggestion to read more). But when you're embarking on a new writing project; do not be afraid to write crap. What I mean by this statement is; get the words on the page first, worry about polishing it later. This is especially important when writing a new novel. There are a lot of words to get down and if you get too hung up on doing it 'right' or 'perfectly' then you're never going to get anywhere. There is a method I use with my own novels where I categorize them based on their level of completeness. Bronze is the first version of the story that someone else can read, so it's complete and there aren't any unexplained gaps or disappearing characters. Silver is the version I've polished based on my notes and the suggestions of my readers. Gold is the version that I've worked near to death, where my edits have become nitpicky and I'm just beating a dead horse. Only then do I consider the book done. But notice that first draft doesn't have an associated metal. You know why? Because it's crap; a grade A stink pile. No first draft is ever perfect, and the sooner you realize that, the more freedom you'll have to write it.
Writing Is Good, But Editing Is Better
Out of all of the writing I’ve done in my life, the hardest part of the process is editing. I’ve also learned that it is the most essential. A lot of early writers will look at one of their pieces and think “it’s as good as it’s going to get, so I’ll just move on to something else”. Well, I’m here to tell you that it can always get better. I was once told by a published author that he still wishes he could go back and make changes to some of his finished works. In other words; don’t give up on a project because you don’t believe it can be improved, or because someone who read it didn’t like it. If you truly love a piece of writing, you will put the extra work in, to figure out how you can make it better and how you can make other people see the greatness that you yourself can see in it.
I’ve seen a lot of good ideas make their way into stories, but too often are they buried by spelling mistakes, poor character development and a complete lack of description. If you have this gem of a story that you want to tell, you want it to be as polished and shiny as possible so that when someone sees it, they won’t be able to deny its beauty. That may sound conceited, because it is, but as an author you’re going to have to be a little conceited. There is a lot of work to be done, especially with editing, with no guarantee of success. You have to believe, with every ounce of your being, that this story is good and that it needs to be published. If you doubt your story and your own abilities, the novel will never have a chance to take off.
There are some general tips for good editing that you should also keep in mind. The first, and foremost, thing to remember is that you have the final say. People may read your story and give you harsh criticism, but when it comes down to the manuscript you submit to publishers, you, and only you, will decide what is in it. However, this is not to say that you should ignore the comments of friends and family. If everybody says your main character is flat, then you should stop and ask yourself why they keep saying it. Maybe you don’t see the character as flat, but there might be a reason everyone else is.
Alright, let’s say you found a part of the book you would like to edit, now what? Well the first thing you want to ask yourself is, can this be salvaged or should I dump it and re-write it from scratch? Usually you can tell by how many problems you have with the sequence. If it gives you trouble every time you open your notebook or document, then you might want to consider re-writing it. If it sounds good, but is a little off, you can probably fix it up with some rewording. It is very important to remember, when editing, that if a part needs to be cut, do not hesitate to pull the trigger. You wouldn’t dream of building a skyscraper with a faulty support beam, so why would you publish the book with a section you don’t feel comfortable with? The nice thing about writing a book is that you always have the old versions in case the new version is even worse.
Like I said above; you have to love your story in order for this to work. You have to love it so much that you’re willing to kill it if the need arises. Let me give you an example. I was writing my own novel and I came to the understanding that the version I was editing was not up to snuff. Too many sequences weren’t working and it read like I had written it several years prior (which I had). I then realized that if I was going to save the story, I would have to scrap the old version and start brand new. Which I did. Now, before you accuse me of being crazy and closing this article, I want you to think of this: the version I have now is infinitely better than the old version. The reason for this is that the mind has a way of editing out unimportant things. So, by writing the novel based on my memory, I was removing all the parts that were dead weight and was focusing only on that which was most important. I’m not saying you have to delete everything you have, but when a sequence just won’t work, don’t be afraid to kill it and write a masterpiece from its ashes.
Take Breaks, But Don’t Lose Sight of The Prize
Writing a novel is a lot of work. It’s not going to happen overnight. So, one of the things you’re going to have to learn is patience. After you’ve made some good progress on your story, take a break from it. Pursue one of your other hobbies for a while, or write a different story that is unrelated to your novel. Taking a break from it will allow you to view it with fresh eyes when you come back, seeing things you wouldn’t have seen before.
Taking a break will also give your mind some much needed rest. Looking at the same story, day after day, will become tedious and you want to avoid getting bored with your novel. Not only can fresh eyes help with editing your story, but when you come back, you can also rediscover your love for it.
One of the potential dangers of taking a break, is getting back on the wagon when the time comes. Maybe you feel out of practice, or you fear you won’t be able to get back into the story. The most important thing to do in this situation is to try. Re-read some of the chapters you already wrote, especially ones that are unfinished. You might just find yourself filling in gaps and writing new sequences without even trying. You can also try reading other books that are similar to yours to get yourself back in the writing mood.
If They Can Do It, So Can We
There are two authors I think of when I wonder how likely I am to finish and publish a book. The first is J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Say what you will about the series, the author managed to write the first book as a poor, single mother with very little time or assurance that she would succeed. Someone who was going through more hardships than me, managed to write a book as successful as Harry Potter. This gives me hope that, despite how much trouble I do have, it is possible to finish and reach my goal.
The second author, who is more of a collection of authors I dislike, will be referred to as Mrs. X. Mrs. X creates inconsistent and wooden main characters, zig zags her plots so badly that I forget why I’m reading the novel and butchers the English language down to whatever phrases are popular that year. I can’t even begin to imagine how Mrs. X got popular, let alone published with the poor writing skills she possesses, and yet there she is on book stands around the country. So, if someone can make that many mistakes and still get published, surely I can with fewer mistakes.
Want to see how I did? Check out one of my novels, The Beast Within, a Lovecraftian thriller set in the fictional lakeside town of Ancroft.
Everyone’s writing style is different, so some of my tips may not work for you, but I decided to write this article because novel writing isn’t always taught in school (college included). The majority of my knowledge is self taught; learned from reading novels and books about writing them. It has also been a significant amount of trial and error. Therefore, I’m passing this knowledge down to you. Writing a novel isn’t easy, but it's not impossible either. I cannot stress enough that persistence and perseverance are essential to being successful (patience comes on the publishing side of things). My hope is that, from this article, you take a little more knowledge on your long journey ahead.
Some Additional Tips:
- If you’re having trouble getting motivated or you think your writing isn’t very good, the best thing you can do, always, is to read. Find a good book and start reading. It doesn’t have to be a “how to write” book, because you will pick up tricks of the trade just from reading in the genre you like.
- If you have a teacher, or a how to write book, that tells you not to do something, don’t get too hung up on it when writing your novel. Write what you want to write, not what people tell you to write. If some part of it is truly problematic, you can always edit it later. Countless great authors broke the rules of writing, just know that you have to know the rules before you can break them.
- Following all of my tips will not guarantee that your novel gets finished or published. Ultimately it will come down to you and what method works best for you. This article is meant only as an aide to your own methods.