Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
While it’s likely that certain of your writing skills convinced you to try writing your first novel, it’s also true that possessing only one strong writing skill won’t be enough to help you write compelling fiction.
Back when you began that first manuscript—whether that was ten years ago, one year ago, or last week—you probably knew the kinds of writing tasks that you did exceptionally well. Maybe you had plot ideas running wild through your mind, plot ideas clear enough that you could write out a ten-page outline without pausing.
Maybe you could argue logically and persuasively and even entertainingly and knew you could use that skill to write characters who could do the same.
Maybe you imagined new worlds and filled them with technology, gadgets, and people very different from what we see around us every day.
Or maybe you’d been told again and again how beautifully you wrote, how easy it was to follow anything you put into written form.
While any of these reasons could lead you to try writing long fiction, not one of them alone is sufficient to write an entertaining novel filled with every component that makes a novel complete.
Novelists need to be more than one-trick ponies.
A one-trick pony, in relation to people rather than horses, is someone with only one area of expertise. But to complete a novel that readers will enjoy and understand, writers need to be skilled in multiple areas of both writing and fiction.
You may write dialogue with rat-a-tat witty banter, but a novel isn’t only dialogue.
You may excel at writing action scenes, but novels need more than action.
Or you may write descriptions or emotional exchanges between characters that have readers weeping, but story is more than description and emotion. Story needs more. And you have to provide everything that a good story needs.
Lean on your strengths when you begin writing, but start strengthening your weaker skills right away. If you don’t, your first efforts at novel writing will be decidedly uneven. They’ll definitely be lacking. And if you don’t improve your skills, your stories will never improve.
Recognize that as a writer, you have weaknesses.
Every writer has them. We all have skills that we excel at as well as areas that interest us more than others. But writers can’t expect that a single skill or even two will see them through the creation of a 90,000-word novel. It’s not gonna happen. It can’t.
No matter how well you write dialogue, a novel can’t be all talk. That kind of story would be closer to a screenplay. And no matter how well you write description, novels need more than description. Novels aren’t travelogues.
You already recognize these truths in general, I’m certain. But what have you done specifically to strengthen your skills? Have you practiced your weakest skills? Worked through exercises? Studied tips for writing better dialogue or for crafting believable characters?
Have you taken on grammar? What about pacing? What about simple yet not-so-simple technical issues such as word order and sentence length?
Have you consciously decided to give yourself an education in writing fiction?
While you may know some of your weaker skills, you probably don’t know all of them. Writers have blind spots, problem areas, that they don’t know about. It’s up to you to acknowledge that you have weaknesses, go searching for them, and then do something about those weaknesses.
This is my reminder to you to get started on developing your storytelling weaknesses so you can turn them into strengths. So you can write a novel that’s not lopsided but balanced in a way that pleases readers and that creates compelling stories.
Use your strengths to create the best story you can at this moment, but start developing new strengths, even if you’re at the very start of your writing career.
Develop new strengths even if you’ve written and published half a dozen novels.
There are dozens and dozens of writing and fiction topics you could begin with—and you’ll find plenty of topics here at the Editor’s Blog to give you ideas. But I’ll throw out a few in this article to get you started.
As you work on your skills, think big and small, broad and narrow, big picture and narrow detail. You don’t have to tackle the biggest and broadest category, although you could. And you don’t have to delve into the minutiae of punctuation right away, but it wouldn’t hurt to do so.
Still, start where you need to begin. If you know you have problems with an issue, start reading up. Work through exercises. Take a class or two. Put what you learn into action by applying your new skills and wisdom to your work in progress.
Work on two issues at a time if one is really tough, with few instant rewards. Or work on complementary issues.
Choose an issue you know nothing about. If you come across a term that you’ve never heard, take that as a sign that it’s an issue you should at least look into.
Have fun with your learning, but realize that you’re working on skills for your career.
Be serious about educating yourself, but don’t imagine the learning needs to be torture and dreary nose-to-the-grindstone toil.
Okay, I admit I didn’t know how to say both of those things without giving the importance to one suggestion over the other. But what I want to say is that if writing is going to be your career, you need to be serious about training, education, and practice. You have to actually work at your writing.
On the other hand, if writing is always hard and never a joy, something is wrong. When plot comes together or when you write an emotional tour-de-force scene that you know will twang at your readers’ heartstrings, you should feel the satisfaction of a job well done. And yes, you should celebrate.
Bottom line? Set tough tasks and reward yourself when you improve or when you write something you know is good, something you couldn’t have written before specifically taking on a new skill. Learn something new and put that knowledge to work. And when you’ve reached a new level of competence, when your writing is evidence of your strengthened skills, recognize the achievement for the progress it is and celebrate.
Areas of Study
Okay, the few areas I said that I’d include, with a couple of prompts to get you started (though there are many more areas to explore)—
write characters readers will want to spend time with
learn how to pair complementary characters
learn how to create complementary characters
give characters believable motivations and back story
learn how to reveal back story in multiple ways
write antagonists worthy of your protagonists
make secondary characters interesting without them overtaking over the story
make characters behave true to their personalities and to the stimuli that compel them to react
write events that capture the reader’s attention
link plot events through cause and effect, action and reaction, rather than by coincidence
make sure the story changes direction a couple of times
learn genre expectations
give readers reasons to care about what’s happening
include a problem to be solved and a story question to be answered
make sure you understand inciting incident, climax, and denouement
practice writing dialogue, not conversation; recognize the boring bits and learn how to take them out
learn how to include subtext
write dialogue that has a purpose
make sure dialogue influences conflict
make sure description doesn’t overshadow plot or action
make sure description (of setting and characters) is useful and necessary
make sure description feels like a part of the scene, not like something other, an add-on
diction and syntax
play with word choices and word order; learn the effects created by changing words and word order
learn to use verbs that instantly give a sense of motion or of character personality
learn to recognize bland verbs that diffuse the impact of a scene
play with sentence and paragraph lengths
learn your go-to sentence formats and play with ways to change up what’s normal for you without drawing undue attention to common actions and events.
hint at events to come without giving away the whole story (not always as easy to do as good writers make it seem)
hint not only at the ending but at intermediate events (remember that hints can be purposely misleading)
include conflict in every scene
use a variety of levels of conflict and a variety of types of conflict
learn that conflict is way more than fights and volatile arguments
play with viewpoint characters to see if another might be better to create a more dynamic story
conclude plot threads you begin
use characters you take pains to introduce
answer the story question posed in the opening pages
learn how to change pace
learn when to change pace
learn why changing pace is necessary
make sure scenes influence reader emotions
include references to the emotions of your characters
learn how to write scene-and chapter-ending hooks that compel readers to turn the page
explore how changing the balance of the major elements of action, dialogue, and description influence the feel of the story
tone and mood
study tone and mood to learn how to make use of them scene by scene
learn how the viewpoint character’s tone affects the feel of a story
learn why inconsistent moods from scene to scene can make a story feel wrong
learn the difference between scene and summary and when to use which to create the effect you need
include new setting markers early in a scene
explore the many elements of setting beyond physical location of a scene or story
learn how setting can influence mood
learn how setting greatly influences story and makes each different
cause and effect, action and reaction
explore cause and effect and learn why events (dialogue included) need to produce reactions
I hope this list is enough to get you started, to get you asking questions and searching for ways to improve your weaknesses, to help broaden and deepen your skills.
One great skill might have brought you this far, but novels require writers to be skilled in many abilities. And great novels need great technicians blended with master storytellers, not one-trick ponies.
Use that single skill of yours to propel you into a lifetime of learning and writing, into a career of ever-increasing abilities. Into the life of a skilled and effective fiction writer.