Are you keen to write a novel? Have you started one you'd like to finish? Or perhaps you finished one, but you know it's not quite ready for publication? Maybe you recognize that your story doesn't quite do what you intended it to, but you're not sure why.
As a novelist and editor with Mother Tongue Publishing, I know that writing a publishable novel means nailing some crucial techniques.
These are six of the most important :
To be interesting to readers, a character needs to want to achieve or avoid something difficult. The main thrust of the story must show the character attempting to achieve his or her goal. What gets in the way of those attempts? How does the character succeed or fail with each new challenge?
For example, The Pact by Jodi Picoult, begins with a shooting. We quickly learn that the main character, Chris, was found beside the gun that killed his girlfriend, Emily. His prints are on the gun.
Emily was depressed and wanted to commit suicide. Chris loved her. He didn't want her to die, but he got her a gun. Now no one knows if this was a suicide, as Chris says, or a murder. The only other person who knows for sure is his dead girlfriend. But Chris will spend his life in prison if he can't prove what he knows to be true.
Large dilemmas like this require characters to make difficult choices. They have to make choices, take action, and choose between undesirable alternatives.
In short—write a novel that puts your main character in a position no one would ever want to be in, struggling to do something important, whatever that is.
Proving innocence, escaping, finding or recovering something, making the grade, overcoming the odds, rebuilding a life. Any of these and a thousand other personal dilemmas are worthy of a good story.
Begin as close to the onset of the dilemma as possible and move forward from there. You do need to show the "normal world," the character's world before things go awry. However, once you've caught your reader's attention with a good dilemma, the reader wants to learn what happens next.
Flashbacks are like television commercials. They interrupt the story and delay the reader's enjoyment of learning what the character chooses to do next.
Readers don't need a lot of backstory. They can figure things out. They take pleasure in figuring things out. Stalling the forward action to provide historical information will only frustrate them. Provide small bits of backstory when necessary as the main story moves forward, but keep moving forward.
Create interesting characters that have something going for them—characters readers will relate to and understand, whether or not they completely like them.
In life we gravitate toward people who are witty, strong, courageous, confident, charming, fair and kind—people with positive qualities we admire. Readers have the same desire to find these qualities in characters.
Most stories benefit from a complex and well rounded villain, but the protagonist is usually sympathetic, with qualities that we admire, while also sharing some of our weaknesses.
The Pact succeeds so well because the accused protagonist loved his girlfriend about as much as anyone could love another. Because he was such a good, loving person, he found himself facing a major dilemma.
At heart, he and most of the characters are good people. Some of the choices they make are unwise, but overall they are people readers could befriend. They're all the more genuine for doing or saying what we might, in life, not have the courage to do or say.
Weed out clichés and hackneyed language. If you've heard something before—water off a duck's back, cute as a button, fresh as a daisy, etc., cut it from your ms.
Writing novels—interesting ones—requires that we find fresh ways to show familiar situations. Good writing requires a great deal of thought. Replacing an overused phrase with something more original is not easy. If it were, more people would make a living writing novels.
Writing well requires great intellectual effort and stamina, not only in word choice, but in creating situations that feel new.
Make every scene goal and situation different. If the external action of one scene has characters eating dinner together, or playing volleyball, do not write another scene where they also eat dinner or play volleyball, unless eating or playing volleyball is the point of the story.
Even then, you may get away with a few repetitive situations handled in vastly different ways, but the focus should be on what is different, not the same.
If you happen to be writing a novel about a road trip, for example, you might need to show the characters in the car more than once, but each situation should be unique. Maybe one car scene has them stop to pick up a hitchhiker and the scene revolves around that, and another scene has them drive off the road in a dust storm. The fact that they are in a car is the same, but the situation—the attempt to move closer to the character's overall goal— should be different each time.
Follow the advice of Helen Dunmore:
Writing is not so precious that every thought must be saved. Like speech, there is always more where the first came from.
Imagine if we needed to record every word we ever spoke. Lost words are often better lost.
I know a writer who writes an entire draft of a novel three or four times before she starts polishing it, each time starting over from the beginning without ever looking at the previous draft.
Learn the craft of writing. Analyze what you read. You will begin to understand why some writing "works" and other writing does not. And whatever you throw away, you will write better in a new way.
If writing a novel is your dream, don't submit work before it's ready.
Have your work evaluated by a professional first. The well-meaning advice of friends is not professional advice—unless, of course, they are professionals in the writing or publishing industry. A professional manuscript evaluation will point you to problems you may not have the experience to recognize.
Professional advice will save time and reduce the learning curve. Editing fiction is a time consuming process, but it is much easier and progresses more quickly when you know what needs correcting. Be prepared to revise and rewrite several times.
Novel writing is a process. It requires several drafts, and several edits.
I'm a freelance editor with an award-winning Canadian publisher (Mother Tongue Publishing). I've also written two novels, both first published by HarperCollins Canada, and later published in the US and Holland.
I know how difficult it is to write a novel.
The Novel Immersion program, which I lead (read about me HERE), will guide you through the process of writing a novel from start to finish.
You will be inspired to write regularly, a page a day, five days a week. Two hundred and sixty pages in fifty-two weeks.
If you can manage two pages a day, you could be finished your first draft in six months.
To lead you through the novel writing process, I post detailed weekly instructional lessons on the subtleties of writing craft.
At the end of each week, you may send up to five pages of writing for my feedback—generally one scene that makes use of the principles discussed that week.
I use published novels, film clips, and short stories to illustrate various principles, and answer questions by email, telephone, or messaging.
The result is personal, ongoing coaching that speeds your learning as you continue to write forward.
The Novel Immersion process keeps writers motivated, and it allows me to teach more in-depth and subtle principles than is possible in most courses or manuscript evaluations.
Weekly feedback makes it easy to follow up on issues and make swift changes that affect the direction of your narrative.
Work, play, family, other commitments. We all have them.
They can keep us from writing, or we can find a way to incorporate writing into regular life. Writers involved in the Novel Immersion program look forward to submitting each week.
We can think about writing, or we can do it. We can write a novel, or we can talk about writing it.
You will learn technique from the novelists we discuss. They will inspire you to follow their example or try something new. The only rule is that you write regularly to gain the momentum that comes with consistently thinking about the story, with the benefit of my 30 years of writing and editing experience.
At first, you may not write polished prose. You'll get ideas down, flesh out characters, work through plot, and determine structure. Once you have all that, you'll go through the draft again, with an eye for rhythm and detail.
Then we'll talk about what to do with the manuscript.
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