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Novel Writing Tips-Picking Apart a Novel

Updated on June 4, 2012

If you are a new novelist, or even someone who has completed one or more novels with little commercial success, learning the secrets from successful writers is crucial. Before you get up in arms realize I am not talking about figuring out a formula for successful writing. One doesn't exist, plain and simple.

I'm talking about research.

Hopefully you have a great idea for your book. Maybe you catch yourself daydreaming about it during the day. The quick flash of inspiration that drove you to capture this story in words is growing, taking on a life of it's own. This is great. Creativity is what drives fiction.

Unfortunately creativity alone will not get your novel written, nor written well enough to become publishable. The standard advice is to read, and read a lot. This is fantastic advice. What I'm suggesting is not in place of reading vociferously from your chosen genre. This is something you can do in addition, that will help you clarify what is publishable and salable in your chosen market.

At one time I felt writing in it's pure form was driven solely by inspiration, as if the gods were transcribing an elaborate tale, merely using my hands as an instrument for their divine biding.

That's a great notion, but far removed from reality. Before getting any bites from publishers on my third completed novel I had to learn some lessons the hard way.

The first novel I completed was a bloated monstrosity, coming in at more than 200k words. Very few accomplished authors are able to get something of that size published, and looking back I was deluded in thinking I might be the exception.I had spent two months meticulously plotting and charting. I wrote pages upon pages of back story, character profiles and world building. This is all important stuff, but I had over shot it by a wide margin.

The second novel I wrote was a very different experience. At the time I felt liked I'd learned a valuable lesson from my first experience writing a novel. I didn't over plan or over think it. In fact I didn't plan at all! The idea that had been brewing in my mind for a few days was too perfect and pure for an outline. It came in at less than 50k words, much too short to be considered a novel in that genre.

I still have both these unfinished manuscripts tucked away. Maybe I'll do something with them one day. Maybe not. Both were invaluable teaching tools, but looking back I wonder if I hadn't taken the long road to learn a few very simple lessons.

Find out what you're doing wrong by studying the ones doing it right

Despite being an avid reader, and having many creative and new ideas, I couldn't piece it all together. In fact I became quite disgusted with the whole process. I gave up on writing fiction, thinking perhaps I just wasn't cut out for it.

One day the idea struck me to pick apart a novel I'd just finished. I wanted to see how it worked. What made it tick? Keep in mind I'd just finished reading the book for entertainment alone. I knew what happened, but since it was such a compelling read I'd digested it at full speed. I was far too absorbed in the story to take in all the nuances and complexities that made it great.

Now I cracked open the same book, but with a very different goal. I wasn't looking to be transported to another reality, or live vicariously through a fascinating character. I wanted to learn.

  • I grabbed a notebook and started jotting down scenes, just a basic description of what happened. I spent over an hour just noting each scene.
  • Then I noted the length of each scene.
  • What was the level of activity? How much description occurred and how much was action? How much was dialogue?
  • How many scenes made up a chapter?
  • How often did the POV change in each chapter, if at all?
  • Any writer is able to describe the three act structure common to most novels. What were the defining scenes in each act. How were they paced? In those defining scenes, how much was made up of description? How much was active?
  • Now take a step back. Jot down the major plot line, in it's most basic form. This is probably no more than a sentence or two. Next, what are the subplots? Think about how they fit in together.
  • Finally, what was the overall message? What is the moral of the story? Is it that good prevails over evil, or love always finds a way?

Some of this should sound familiar, if you've ever looked into building a plot outline. Essentially you're using many of the same steps, just working backwards.

Choose a book that is both enjoyable to read and from the genre you'd like to write in. Usually you'll feel compelled to write the type of story you most enjoy reading.

Also consider picking apart the book of a new novelist. The truth is a well establish author is going to get away with things a newbie simply can not.

Keep Learning

Now you are going to want to do the same thing, again and again. Read a range of novels in your genre. After a while you won't have to write the scenes down, but pay attention to what is happening. Try to get inside the authors head. Break down each chapter and scene, deciphering why they were included. What did it do to move the story forward, or build anticipation?

And if you come across a hard to read book, one you might normally stop reading after the first chapter or two, push ahead. Ask yourself the same questions as above, and then some. What would you have done differently? How could this particular story have been fixed? Why is it so hard to read?

Maybe the prose is too long winded, or the dialogue sounds unnatural. Whatever it is take mental notes, and vow to avoid it in your own writing.

I've learned as much from bad novels, if not more, as the great ones.

Also consider your chosen genre. If you are a writing a romance the guy usually gets the girl in the end. Thrillers usually have the hero catching the bad guy somewhere along the line. I'm not saying you can't work outside these conventions, but they happen often for a reason.

If the story you have in mind does not have a happy or typical ending, it might be harder to sell. It doesn't mean you shouldn't write it. In fact there are plenty of examples of wildly popular novels that broke all the rules.

I'll reiterate again, we are not looking for a pattern or guide to write to. The purpose is certainly not to copy an existing plot. If you are having creative problems and can't think of a compelling story to tell, I'm afraid I can't help you.

What you will take away from this exercise is personal to you. I learned a great deal about pacing, something I struggled with. I figured out that long descriptive prose, no matter how beautifully written, was boring to the reader if it didn't move the story forward in some way.

I also learned that every story is not cut out to be a novel. Sometimes your plot just doesn't have enough meat to spread over several hundred pages. If that's the case, no need to despair. Maybe it wasn't meant to be a novel, but would make an exceptional short story or novella. Perhaps you have a great main story line, but need to consider subplots that will tie in with, and enhance, your theme.

Maybe you just need a reality check. I had two crappy drafts under my belt. Both had elements of a great story, but needed (still need) at lot of work to make them readable. Scrutinizing a good book brings to focus the many elements that work together, harmoniously to bring a story to life.

A great author tells a story so elegantly it seems effortless. The reader doesn't care about the elements that go into a great book. They want an emotional experience that compels them to keep turning pages, to find out what happens next. Your job, as a writer, is to weave together the elements of a great story so deftly the reader had no concept of the blood sweat and tears you poured into it. Everything has to flow naturally, urging them forward.

Just a word of warning-Since I've started analyzing books I can't stop! It has taken away some of the enjoyment I got from reading. After 'seeing how the sausage is made', so to speak, it's much harder to get caught up in the story like I used to.


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    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      6 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      Yes, taking mental notes, winch is different from writng in a notebook.

    • ASchwartz profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Kentucky

      @Rhonda D Johnson-I agree with CrazedNovelist. Maybe the first time or two it might be easier to focus if you've already read the book. After a while you just start taking mental notes automatically.

    • CrazedNovelist profile image

      A.E. Williams 

      6 years ago from Hampton, GA

      I think it can be done simultaneously.

    • Rhonda D Johnson profile image

      Rhonda D Johnson 

      6 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

      Do you recommend reading a novel first as a reader and then as a writer?

    • ASchwartz profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Kentucky

      Thanks for reading CrazedNovelist!

      I wasn't lying about learning a lot from the hard to read books. My sister and I trade books back and forth. When she tells me one is taking a while, that it's hard to get through, I can't wait to get my hands on it. No specific writer's come to mind. I feel like I am always picking up new things, no matter how small.

    • ASchwartz profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Kentucky

      Thanks for reading snowdrops.

    • snowdrops profile image


      6 years ago from The Second Star to the Right

      gREAt HUB! vote this up up up!


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