How to Write a Novel: 5 Tips to Get You Started
So … you’ve made the decision to write a novel? Well done. Just think, +-15,000 or so words from now, you will be finished. It’s an exciting rollercoaster ride so hang onto your hat.
My advice would be to join a writing group and listen to every writer you come across for their experiences will be different and invaluable. There’s a lot to learn. The writing of a novel is often referred to as ‘giving birth to the baby’. It’s hard work but the labour pains are soon forgotten once the baby is born and named.
I’ve compiled five fun tips to start you on your journey. Can you answer the questions correctly? Enjoy!
- A Good Story … Has an intriguing beginning and a satisfying end but much more middle section that needs to tie those parts together effectively
- Plot the Path of Story … A story is a journey so obviously it must have a map
- Characters and Backstories … To be real, a character needs a plausible past. Cardboard cut-outs won’t convince a reader and s/he will read another book.
- Eavesdropping for Dialogue … Shed your inhibitions because other people’s lives are gold mines for a writer
- Fiction Based on Fact … Weaving a fictional story around a real-life experience for a convincing story can pay huge dividends.
1. A Very Good Story
If you want to write a successful novel, sometimes the hardest part is just starting to write it. However, if I asked you what would be the most important thing to do right in the beginning, what would your answer be?
- The first chapter must ‘open with a bang’?
- The cover must be eye-catching to attract the reader to sell the book?
- There must be a good story?
If you chose number one, it’s a good answer because that’s a vital ingredient to have your reader keep reading.
If you chose number two, whoa … the book is not even written yet. No cigar for that answer.
Number 3 is the correct answer. Without a good story, how can you write your novel? Alfred Hitchcock, who wrote for the big screen, once said, “To make a great film, you need three things … the script, the script, and the script”.
Robert McKee is another screenwriter who is the most sought-after story authority in the world. I can highly recommend his book ‘Story’. It doesn’t matter if you never want to write a screenplay, some of the best writing tips I’ve ever learnt have come from scriptwriting workshops. Utilise these elements of story writing in your novel and see how it will come to life. Story is story, whether you are writing a short story, a novel, a screenplay or even a poem. Don’t ever let anyone convince you they are totally different. As far as the story itself goes, they’re exactly the same.
2. Plot the Path of Your Story
O.K. you have your story and you feel it’s a winner. Now, what do you do with it?
- You just start writing … of course?!
- Er, maybe, you need some kind of plan?
- You need to know your Back Stories?
If you chose number one as your answer, you’re heading for trouble. Big trouble.
If you chose number three, well, that won’t be a waste of time as you will need to do this at some stage but your priority should be to plot the path of your story. Which direction will it travel? You sort of have the idea but without planning, it will, like a house of cards, collapse – because there’s no foundation. Building your story is the same as building a house – it needs plans. Need I add — firm foundations.
Writers who charge headlong into their narrative without doing this, usually run out of steam on page 100. They just hit this brick wall and wonder why. ‘Where do I go now?’ they ask. Well, I know I wouldn’t go on a road holiday without a map, would you? The same principle applies to planning a novel as organising a vacation. Without that map, you could get lost. Very few writers are able to reach their destination without a solid plan. It doesn’t matter how well you know what you want to say. Regard this journey as a trip to a foreign country – unless you are fluent in the local language, you will be very frustrated at making yourself understood.
I always recall reading about a British woman who went to live somewhere in a rural area in the Far East with her husband. He became very ill and the frantic wife, clutching her dual-language dictionary, ran down the hill and repeatedly kept saying to an illiterate farmer on the hillside that she wanted a doctor. The local man was very puzzled but understood by her body language that it was urgent. He managed to persuade her to stay there and he would fetch the doctor. She was relieved but utterly confused when he finally returned, much to her dismay, without a doctor but offering her a burnt frying pan. The two words in that language were very similar in pronunciation and she’d chosen the incorrect one.
Which plan you choose is not important. There are many ways to reach your destination. You’ll hear about arcs, for instance. A reliable plan, I prefer, is the three-act structure. You know exactly where you’re going all the time. Yes, the structure terminology of theatre plays applies to novels. Interesting, eh?
3. Characters and Backstories
How well do you know your characters?
- My protagonist (hero), is tall, dark and handsome
- My antagonist (the baddy), is short, fat and ugly – a surprise twist is it’s a woman and she has a facial scar
- The foreigner speaks seven languages and is a priest from a cult.
Are you able to visualise these characters? They may be in your head but what you’re seeing needs to travel down your arm, through your fingers and onto that blank page on your computer screen in order to have convincing identities.
None of the above description examples is sufficient to persuade a reader that you know your characters. Describing them this way (in 1 and 2) means something different to every reader. Each culture sees ‘handsome’ as Hollywood examples or the person they love – who could be far from the types of heroes you see in movies. Physical appearance is not enough to portray the people in your novel.
You may think it’s overkill but the Back Story of each of your characters is vital. What do we mean by Back Story? It simply means their background or how they became the person they are today. For instance, the antagonist became fat because she’s a glutton. The scar came from street fights (yes, she’s a very different type of woman). Then ask yourself why she eats so much. Perhaps she grew up in an orphanage and there was never enough to eat. You may think this unnecessary but backgrounds shape your characters’ actions. For instance, would a woman who was left on the doorstep of a nunnery as a baby and educated in a religious environment be likely to grow up to be a murderer? Maybe but why? It could be a compelling reason and therefore unexpected and this is what keeps a reader reading.
Nevertheless, acting against type is unusual but if we know how a person was living in their upbringing, we can pretty much understand why a character behaves in a certain way. However, no one person is always good or always bad. Think back to the television series, The Sopranos. Take a typical Italian family – a very strong bond and lots of love. They return each evening to a mountain of family unity but that unity also applies to their work and the history of what transpires between the ‘old country’s’ families and rivalries. Ordering a ‘hit’ on someone is as common as the sun rising each day. Know your characters intimately and your readership will be loyal because they will be able to relate to realistic people.
Take someone you know well and make him/her one of your characters. Somebody will come along and say, “You know, I know someone just like that but I can’t think who it is.” That’s when you smile and slip away. Your work is done and done well because that character is convincing.
4. Eavesdropping for Dialog
This tip may sound strange but established authors swear by it. It’s called eavesdropping. ‘Horrors’, I hear you say. ‘I wasn’t brought up like that. I mind my own business and expect other people to mind theirs.’ Years ago, I would have agreed with you but a writer needs to shed their inhibitions. It isn’t as though you do it maliciously. Haven’t we all been in a crowded lift where we can overhear two people discussing someone a little too loudly? Then there is that loving couple at the next table in that cosy restaurant. You wish you hadn’t overheard their intimate conversation but there’s no use wishing it away. Suddenly, you realise it’s actually a great idea for your protagonist to say to the person he’s going to meet in chapter five. Hmm? Perhaps eavesdropping (which is not exactly what you were really doing anyway), is not such a bad idea.
I will never forget something I was told decades ago and it would be ideal to include in a novel. I was with a friend, L—, the Personnel Manager’s Assistant, in our company. What a lovely lady. Her sunny personality shone from every pore of her, unfortunately, very overweight body because of a thyroid problem as I recall. However, nobody minded. She was loved by everybody. Until, One day, L—- was coming down in the lift with two new, junior employees, who were laughing and giggling, not to mention sniggering as well as presuming nobody understood their snide comments because they came from overseas and their home language was French.
L— had just interviewed them so knew their names and when the lift stopped at the ground floor, she halted their progress out the door for lunch and called them aside. All smiles, they joined her and when L— knew they could not be overheard, she told them what she thought of their rude behaviour about her weight – and she told them so in perfect French, in which she was fluent, as she had attended a Finishing School in Switzerland. Were their faces red? Beetroot shade.
What I’m saying is there are snippets of stories (great ideas), everywhere. When you next go out alone for that quick cup of coffee, try listening to what’s going on around you. It could be very useful. You aren’t being nosy; nobody knows you and you really aren’t interested in strangers’ lives but those few short sentences uttered by one person to another could be a veritable gold mine for a writer when woven into your narrative. You may ask the reason. Fiction based on fact is usually a winner.
5. Fiction Based on Fact
Having said fiction based on fact is far more convincing, let me tell you another secret. So many people have said to me over the years how they’ve had such interesting lives and how they feel they should write their autobiography as they feel it would be a best seller.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well … you just won’t believe what has happened to me since childhood.”
“O.K. but why do you think it would be a best seller?”
“Er, well … “
What people don’t seem to understand is that while all that may be perfectly true, the book still has to be marketed to be sold. That isn’t as simple as it sounds. Consider three famous people you may know – perhaps Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail for his principles or the comedian, Trevor Noah, who regularly has audiences laughing like crazy and even became a host on the USA Tonight show. Possibly any USA president you can name, like Trump or Biden? Then ask yourself the following questions:
Would their autobiographies sell?
Would your autobiography sell?
What conclusion did you arrive at? If you’re honest, you’ll admit all the famous people’s books will sell. In fact, they’ll fly off the shelves but yours won’t – for one simple reason – nobody knows who you are. Take yours and write it for your grandchildren. Times change and what happened in your life so long ago will be intriguing to them – because they love you. The public doesn’t. They’ve never heard of you. Yes, you could get lucky but it’s a long shot. A very long shot.
The alternative action is to create a work of fiction and wrap it around your life story. Nobody will know but you but you still have to convince a publisher first that it’s worth taking a chance on. Yes, you can self-publish but do you know how to market effectively? I’m presuming you’d like to be a famous author. If you simply must write a novel, go the fiction route. I highly recommend a work based on fact. They’re often the best sellers but strangely enough …
Extra writing tip: It’s the ‘how to’ books that sell the most. How to train a cat to bark. How to paint sport’s shoes or fingernails with unique designs. And so forth. Knowing what the public wants is a veritable minefield. Novels come and go in seasons. Always talk to a publisher before you start writing. If fantasy like the Harry Potter books is what the wider public still wants to read, there’s no point in writing a murder mystery. After all, you do want to be famous, don’t you? Good luck!
Writing a novel is challenging and you will need to be disciplined, of course. Stick to a routine such as informing your family that between this time and that time, it’s YOUR writing time and you must NOT be disturbed — unless there’s an emergency. Your focus on an established regime is sacrosanct for success.
‘All writing is rewriting and rewriting’, Ernest Hemingway once said. Another aspect of writing anything is not to expect something to be perfect immediately. If you’re unhappy with something, leave it for a few days and work on another section of the novel. Once you return to it, you may not believe you wrote such rubbish — but on the other hand, you could, all of a sudden, be frequently saying to yourself, ‘Hey, that doesn’t sound half-bad!’ In other words, it’s pretty good and off you go, your ideas all knitting together for the best impact to keep a reader turning the pages.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Well, neither is writing a novel. It will require dedication on your part. It will require sacrifices. If a pal just drops in for coffee, for instance, you need to remind him or her that this is your writing time and you will not waiver from it. There are no exceptions, no excuses, there’s just that novel.
Beating yourself up because your first draft looks dreadful, won’t improve your mood either. Accept it as part of your journey. Ensure you take regular breaks, refresh your brain with walks in nature. Whatever ‘floats your boat’ to return you to producing your best work, just do it. Take a deep breath … you are doing something worthwhile. Believe in yourself.
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