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How to Write a Novel That's Worth Reading

Updated on October 21, 2014

Writing is a Craft

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Many writers, especially those who write non-fiction, view a novel simply as a book that tells a story. All that's needed is to take the words from your head and put them on paper. That is why the world is awash in novels that have never been published. This article is not an all in one guide to writing your first novel. Think of it as a starting place. As I write this article I am working on my first novel, so who am I to give advice? The answer to that question is simple: I am in the middle of the struggle, and yes it is a struggle, and I want to share my travails with you, but more important, I want to help you to avoid some of the mistakes that I've already made.

" 'The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story, but 'the cat sat on the dog's mat' is." John Le Carre

Outline, Plan or Go With the Flow

Some writers, including many who have written about the craft of writing on these pages, believe that creativity is something that flows from the mind of the creator, and any formulaic designs such as outlining do nothing but impede the flow of wonderful ideas. Folks of this view are known as "pansters," people who fly (or write) by the seat of their pants. I have often written that the best way to push through the dreaded writer's block is to just start writing. I have found getting words on paper actually "pulls" the thoughts out of your head. But I am not a panster. When blocked I find that letting the words out opens a floodgate of more words. This does not mean that writing consists of just sitting down and hammering out words. You must have a structure.

The great movie director Alfred Hitchcock famously said that a good story is like "life with the dull parts taken out." This dictum can apply to a screenplay or a novel. The important word is "story." You begin with an idea, and then you shape that idea into a concept. Once your concept is transformed into a story, you have begun your novel.

A story is different from a simple telling of facts. The Great novelist John Le Carre´ once said: " 'The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story, but 'the cat sat on the dog's mat' is."

The Critical Parts of a Good Novel

Conflict. This is the most important word to remember when writing fiction. Think of a great story like Casablanca. This wasn't just a story about a guy who owned a nightclub in Casablanca in the early days of World War II.. Humphrey Bogart's character Rick Blaine epitomized conflict. A cynical expatriate, Rick struggled with his feelings about lost love, Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman who is married to a hero of the resistance Victor Laszlo. The story transforms Nick from the cynical drunk loner into a high minded hero. He resolves his conflict by the end of the story in one of the most memorable scenes of moviedom.

Larry Brooks, (storyfix.com) author of the book Story Engineering, identified six "core competencies" required to take a novel from just a story to one that may be great fiction. If you own one book on the craft of writing, this should be it. Brooks is also one of the tutorial leaders in the Writer's Digest Online Tutorial series, that I will discuss in more detail later. Here is a brief summary of Brooks' ideas on the six core competencies:

1. Concept. Simply put, this is what your idea all about. Is it about a guy who owns a bar or a bar owner who overcomes his selfishness and becomes a hero?

2. Character. The people who make your story come alive and how to make them real and compelling.

3. Theme. This is different from concept. It's a product of the context of your book, it's subtext, setting, hero's point of view and all of the conflicts and dynamics of the novel.

4. Structure. This is how the story unfolds. Where do you introduce the main character? Do you use flashbacks or set the book out in a linear time line?

5. Scene execution. Among other things, a novel consists of scenes. Well crafted scenes can be the difference between a mediocre novel and a memorable one. In A Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the scene where Sherman McCoy is first questioned by a police officer is unforgettable.

6. Writing voice. Larry Brooks says that "good and solid" is sufficient. Don't overwrite and be impressed by your sparkling prose.

All of the above may sound very structured. It is. If you're a Stephen King or a Nelson DeMille, you have internalized many of these elements. But if you're an unknown novelist, especially a first time novelist, writing a structured story can be the difference between a book deal and the slush pile. When King or DeMille's agent pitches an acquisitions editor on a new book, all he has to say is Stephen King or Nelson DeMille. Their reputation seals the deal. But for a new kid on the block, you have to prove you know what you're doing, and prove that you know how to follow the time tested rules.

From the Writer's Digest Tutorials

Your Training

When I came up with the idea for my first novel and started to make notes, I realized that I had never taken a course in writing fiction. I began writing the story, but I soon realized that i was lost in a sea of ideas. I've been a writer and journalist for many years, but strictly in the realm of non-fiction. I struggled with thoughts about enrolling in a creative writing course, but I wanted to get going with my idea, as any first time novelist. Here is what I discovered, how it opened my eyes and filled in the blanks in my education. If you take this idea and go with it, the article you're reading shall have been a success. Enroll in the Writer's Digest Online Tutorials. I've taken online seminars, and I'm sure you have. Some have been good, some bad. But these tutorials, based on the six that I've taken so far, are wonderful. They cover everything from developing memorable characters, writing dialogue, structuring stories and just about anything else you can think of about the craft of writing. The cost for a full year subscription (and you can repeat a tutorial as often as you wish) is $130. I have no affiliation or business relationship with Writer's Digest, only as a satisfied customer. Having watched just six so far, my investment has paid off already. Just do it. You can preview the tutorials by going to youtube.com and typing writer's digest tutorials into the search bar.

Writing is a craft, and like any craft it requires structure and following rules. Yes, you can fly by the seat of your pants. Just don't expect to get anywhere soon. Take the tutorials, read up on the craft, and become the writer that you want to be.

The writer of this article is the author of three novels on time travel: The Gray Ship, The Thanksgiving Gang, and A Time of Fear.


Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran

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    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 4 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      Hi, Russ!

      Admittedly, I'm a panster, and so I read your hub carefully and took notes about this online tutorial program you're involved in. Sounds like a great investment.

      Congratulations on your Hub Apprenticeship as well as for taking the significant initial steps towards the completion of your first novel. I wish you the very best,

      Russ!

      Joe

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great suggestions, Russ! I have never been an outliner but I definitely understand the value in doing it. I'm saving this. Great reference!

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks my friend. I hope it proves helpful. Aloha!

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. I used to think outlining was a tad anal, but as I write my book - a combination historical fiction and science fiction, I found I was getting lost. I've given up my panster ways.

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 4 years ago from India

      Useful suggestions, every author shall read this article to improve their skills. Thank you for sharing this helpful information, good work. Voted UP

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 4 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      These are really useful and well thought out tips for writing a novel that's worth reading rfmoran..but of course writing is entirely subjective isn't it?

      For example I loved Man Booker winner Julian Barnes book 'Sense of an Ending' but others I know have hated it!! Your suggestions are sure to help any attempting to write a book though and I've bookmarked for future reference & will share..oh & love the Le Carre quote btw..Voted UU & I..cheers

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Russ

      Interesting look at novel writing.

      My wife loves to read, but the only reading I do are the ones that I can get useful information like technical books and publications.

      I prefer the visual world for fiction.

    • profile image

      Edwin Brown 4 years ago

      Nicely done. As a published author myself, I can appreciate your basic common sense tips. I have written short stories and newspaper features, but haven't had the nerve to tackle something as big as a novel.

      Who knows? Maybe someday?

      Besides having in mind many of the things you are pointing out, there is no substitution for wide reading.

      Classics like the Russian novelists and early American greats are invaluable.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      dilipchandra12 thanks for your visit and your comments. I hope the info helps.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I too have read books that got great reviews and which I hated. One, with a similar subject matter to my current novel, I read on a cruise. It was so bad I would have thrown it overboard were it not on my Kindle. Thanks for your comments.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      I too am a heavy reader of non fiction as well, but sometimes I find that I learn more about life from a novel, especially a Tom Wolfe novel.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Edwin. I couldn't agree more about the great Russian and American classics.

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 4 years ago from Southern California

      Russ

      The more that I learn about life, the less that I want to know about it.

      Thomas Wolfe wrote about surviving life.

      BTW, what amazes me is when I go into Barnes and Noble and I look at all the books, and I wonder how do people support them? Obviously, if no one bought them they wouldn't be published.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I am thinking of writing a novel and with his information I get the idea right away.

    • profile image

      Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman 4 years ago from Germany

      That was an extremely interesting hub and full of useful information. I have a piece of advice (to any young readers, should they be interested) that perhaps could be added to this. From the age of sixteen I was an avid writer and my English teacher (an Oxford Graduate) gave me a piece of advice on my last day at school. She said, carry on writing as much as you can and on as many things as you wish, but don't try to write advisory material and also don't try to publish for the next ten years. On the first count, you are not old enough or experienced enough to give anyone advice, and on the second count people want to read authors who have knowledge and experience. Books written by young people scream out 'inexperience'. Even writing books for very young children is an art that has to be learned thoroughly. Now go and make your way in life. Particularly now (approaching seventy) I understand the wisdom in these words completely. In the last years I have read a great deal of rubbish churned out by youngsters who think they are able to advise the world.

      Great Hub

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Ib. Wolfe also showed us a reflection of life, enabling us to better understand it.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Go for it my friend. I feel great that my hub may have had an impact on your decision.

    • rfmoran profile image
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      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Agreed, my friend. Youthful wisdom is often, not always but often, an oxymoron. Your teacher advised you well.As I approach 67 I share your thoughts.

    • Randy Godwin profile image

      Randy Godwin 4 years ago from Southern Georgia

      I have used outlines in my writing, but this was when I was selling short mystery tales. Because of the clues used they really had to be in a very precise order to be sure the correct suspect was pegged.

      Good tips!

      --RG

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Randy. I too find that I need to outline, although it's new to me. I'm writing historical novel and keeping facts straight is essential, as you find with the clues in your mystery stories.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      rfmoran, thanks for this hub and the great advice

      that you give that will surely help me with my

      writing of hubs in the future.

      thanks and voted up.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Really enjoyed this Russell. I have so many books about writing! I need to read them all again and then...the hard part...start writing! Husband has set me the challenge of reading one of his fantasy novels and having a go at writing one (wish me luck!)

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Just start jools. Yes it is the hard part but once you begin it starts to flow. Thanks for your comments

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments torrilynn. Whether it's writing hubs or novels, some structure helps to guide the muse.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      i completely agree and you are more than welcome.

    • carozy profile image

      carozy 4 years ago from San Francisco

      I found this to be a very interesting and helpful article. I love writing and want to improve my own. Thanks for the ideas.

    • rfmoran profile image
      Author

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comments carozy.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 3 years ago from Australia

      Many thanks. When my writing is going well, I don't need to think about structure, but when I find it a struggle, going through the steps you've outlined helps clarify my ideas, and see t needs re-working, where the gaps are etc, May I also add, writers read. I don't think you can write well if you're not an avid reader.

      Thanks again for an interesting hub

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