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How to Write a Novel

November 27, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 13, 2013

Most of the articles at The Editor’s Blog deal with fiction writing and editing, so you can get a lot of specifics for each of the elements of fiction. But if you’re looking for the very basics on how to write a novel, start here.

I need more than the thousand words of a blog article to list the ins and outs of writing a novel, but I can offer advice.

So, how to write a novel . . . A list, for those who like getting to the point . . .

  1. Find a topic/subject that interests you. Write about something you love, hate, or have a desire to learn about. Your passion for the subject will show through in your words.
  2. Play what if. What if a car could fly? What if time travel were true? What if a burned-out ball player met a knock-out physical therapist? What if a terrorist moved into the neighborhood?
    Let a what-if tickle your imagination and then take off with your thoughts.
  3. Jot down notes. On character. Genre. Setting, era, tone. Anything that comes to you.
  4. Start an outline—if you’re a plotter. If you’re a pantser (fly by the seat of), don’t feel you need to outline. If you’re the ultimate planner, get the spreadsheet out and have at it. Plan and plot and make notes—but never let the planning keep you from writing. Have a plan for when to begin writing.
  5. Consider the ending or the climax. It’s hard to take a journey, not knowing where you’re going. Yes, it can be done and it can be fun. But how do you know if you’ve arrived if you don’t know the destination.
    *********
    Two schools of thought for writing: Know the destination, so you’ll recognize it and so you can plan your route. Or be the adventurer, and tell about the place you discover after you find a destination that intrigues.
    *********
    The adventure route is fun, but there’s more to a novel than just reporting events and places on the way to somewhere. The elements of a story benefit from a tight weave. A plot thread from one scene appears, in a different guise, in three other scenes. A sub-plot needs to be nurtured, not only introduced and abandoned. Characters grow and change and learn. Weaving a story’s elements brings cohesion and unity, a fullness, that strengthens stories. If you write without an end in mind, the rewrites can be more difficult as you go back and tighten threads, maybe even add threads, and weave them into the story.
    *********
    Writing without a firm destination allows a writer to follow rabbit trails and shiny plot threads which may or may not lead anywhere. And of course you can take out rabbit trails and distractions later—plus, sometimes side trails lead to marvelous story discoveries—but a general sense of direction saves time and prevents at least some frustrations.
  6. Read more. Novels and short stories and magazines.
  7. Decide on your protagonist’s goals, motivations, and conflict fairly early. These three elements will drive, direct, and guide the plot. You can always change or adjust any of the elements at any time, but they provide a framework and a rough road map.
    *********
    Forty-year-old Sam intended to wrest control of the family firm from his uncle Max. He’d prove to all his father’s brothers that Gramps had been right ceding leadership to Sam’s dad, that his father hadn’t been the profligate Max and his cronies had portrayed him as. Sam knew he faced a fight with Max’s sons—they had no intention of letting Sammy the dreamer assume the reins. But a dreamer with a Ph. D. in economics was just what the family firm needed
    .
    *********
    Goal: to gain control of the company. Motivation: prove his father and his father’s family were not screw-ups. Conflict: uncle and cousins want the company too.
  8. Write the first line. Write a second one. Write a scene.
  9. Learn the tricks and conventions of the genres.
  10. Don’t spend forever perfecting your opening before you dive into the rest of the story. It’s gonna change before you’re through. Just begin. Write an action scene, maybe a snippet of dialogue, and then keep writing. See where it takes you.
  11. Do the research necessary for realism, but don’t let research slow the writing. You can gather data before you begin, while you’re writing, or after, to check facts.
  12. Include both narration and dialogue.
  13. Write visually, in scenes. Show characters doing things.
  14. Remove self-imposed restrictions and write what the story demands. Let your characters say what they need to say, do what they need to do. Give a character a political, social, or religious opinion diametrically opposite to your own—and make the character appealing. Don’t fear the dark places. Instead, write them and expose them with attention. Don’t worry what society or Aunt Jane will think—write to the needs of the story.
  15. Include hooks at ends and beginnings of chapters—entice the reader into reading just a bit more.
  16. Don’t stop to explain, just show events. (Events include dialogue.)
  17. If you do explain, take out explanations on a rewrite.
  18. Make your characters act and speak boldly, without restraint or censor.
  19. Avoid cliché. Use phrases peculiar to your characters and story.
  20. Put it all down in the first draft; you can always clean it up on a rewrite.
  21. Write a story that you’d like to read.
  22. Turn off your internal editor, your analytical side. Let your creative mind work without interference. You’ll get the chance to edit after you’ve finished the first draft.
  23. Put aside, forever, the thought that you’ll get it perfect in the first draft.
  24. Use descriptive verbs and nouns.
  25. Write for the senses. All five of them.
  26. Keep dumping your lead characters into hot water.
  27. Skip ahead if you’ve got an idea. No one said creating a novel had to be done linearly.
  28. On a rewrite, trim dialogue and description.
  29. Give emotions to your characters.
  30. Include weaknesses in the protagonist, strengths in the antagonist.
  31. Increase the tension as the story progresses; up the stakes for both protagonist and antagonist.
  32. Eliminate coincidence.
  33. Create a satisfying and believable climax.
  34. Keep the resolution short.
  35. End with the perfect paragraph, sentence, word.
  36. Write when you don’t feel like it, when the words won’t come, when you feel like beginning a new project.
    *********
    If you’re stuck—with writer’s block or having boxed your character or plot into a corner—write your character’s name followed by some outrageous action to prompt your creativity. Allow a character a single sentence of dialogue—a sentence that’s a page long. Introduce a new character and see what your lead does with him.
  37. Step away and do something else periodically. Read a book, take a walk, people-watch at the ice cream shop. Stop thinking about your characters and plot for a few hours or days, and then see how they begin screaming at you to come back. Writers often find fresh ideas when they step away from their stories.
  38. When you get to the end, celebrate. Rejoice that you’re done. Then put the manuscript aside for a while and let your mind focus on other tasks. Start a new project, work on a hobby, take your spouse on a date.
  39. Understand that finishing the first draft is only the end of the beginning.
  40. Edit and rewrite until the manuscript is a story worth submitting.

***

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6 Responses to “How to Write a Novel”

  1. neil child says:

    Rather than packaging and mailing, do you think it would be valuable to post my novel onto my blog?

  2. Neil, do you mean instead of submitting to an agent or publisher? I can’t imagine that they’re going to search out blogs to find novels. They do submissions a certain way because that works for them.

    Also, once you post something online, many consider it to be published. Some publishers don’t want work that’s been so freely available.

    If you just want to make your story available to readers, posting online is one method to make that happen. But if you want to publish with a traditional house, I suggest you don’t post online. Perhaps a snippet here or there for friends or to solicit help if you’re stuck somewhere. But don’t put the full story out there. That could easily cause problems for you down the road if you choose to pursue traditional publishing.

  3. Kitty says:

    My novel is a work in progress, but does anyone know if they would take a half copy? Like a sample persay?

  4. Kitty, do you mean would an agent or publisher look at your manuscript if it wasn’t finished? Most are only willing to look at submissions from unpublished authors if the manuscript is finished. Many ask for a sample, either the first 30 (or 50) pages or the first three chapters. But they typically only read submissions if the novel is done. They want to know if you can carry through.

    For non-fiction, an outline and first three chapters could be all you need. Many non-fiction authors have a name in their field, so having a complete manuscript in hand isn’t always necessary for them.

    Always check with the agent or the publishing house.

    If this didn’t answer your question, please let me know.

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