TIPS FOR WRITING A NOVEL
What Is a Novel?
A novel is a story about someone who has a problem and they struggle to overcome it. Or they want something important to their well-being, yet has problems graining it. The story moves from problem to resolution.
An incident is something that happens to someone without a need to expand or overcome a problem that occurred in that incident.
The difference between the two is the necessity of solving the problem the incident presented, moving toward the solution, failing several times in the process. After several heartwrenching attempts and failing, they may give up - but something within themselves fights back. They try one more time. Whether they succeed or fail again, they learn something significant in the process.
A novel must have a struggle, which leads to conflict. And that's what keeps the story interesting. Simply telling about something that happened is not a novel. It's an incident.
A General Novel Outline
Not long after I moved to California a few years ago, a representative from the Adult Education Services asked if I would be interested in teaching an evening course on novel writing. I hesitated. I had previously taught six-week courses at various locations, and because I liked the casual atmosphere, I wasn’t sure I wanted to adhere to a strict, formal session. She asked me to think it over and we made an appointment for the following week. She asked that I prepare a curriculum or at least an outline of the classes I’d teach.
I kept that outline to use as the basis of course study for my other classes, and I post it as writing tips on my websites. I hope they help the newbie writers along their way.
DEFINE YOUR GENRE:
What is your story about? Each genre has its own set of rules: word count, main characters, etc.. For instance, romance has different sub-genres and each has its own rules. Mystery/suspense is an entirely different category.
YOUR CAST of CHARACTERS
Who is in your story? What do they want? What is as important to them as that next breath? List ten things for each. Avoid opening confusion with too many characters. Each character, except walk-ons, should have a goal, a strong point, as well as a fatal flaw. What mannerism; way of speaking, is unique to each one?
A) Star of the Show - protagonist
B) Villain - antagonist
C) Love interest
D) Mentor - wise old woman, best friend, grandmother, grandfather, etc
E) Bit parts - the walk-on cab driver, waitress
WHAT IS THE THEME OF YOUR STORY? WHAT IS YOUR POINT IN TELLING THIS PARTICULAR STORY?
Romeo & Juliet - Great Love Defies Death.
Beyond the Quiet - a repressed widow learns to live and fall in love for the first time.
No matter what story you want to tell, always remember the #1 Rule in storytelling is:
NEVER BORE YOUR READER!
Stay off your soapbox or you will lose your reader. If you absolutely must lecture on your theory of life, go into your bathroom, stand in front of your mirror, shut the door, and narrate to your heart's content. For your novels, however, learn the fine art of subtlety. Everyone runs when a windbag enters the room or takes over the pages in a book.
Story Structure is the stumbling block in many new writers’ adventure. It certainly was in mine. For each story, ask yourself, Is there a basic plot? If not, create one.
Basic plot: character A wants something and character B tries to stop him. According to Aristotle, there are three sections of a story: the Beginning, Middle, and End; or,
Act 1, Act 2, & Act 3
Each act has a specific job to perform, and therefore, each has different requirement.
Act 1: Introduction of all the characters, their problems and disasters
Act 2: Character decides to fight back and his adventures begin. Trying to solve his problem only gets him in deeper
Act 3: Crisis, then facing the villain for a final showdown
Plot Points not only help you plot, but when they are used correctly, they increase the dramatic action for the reader. After all, a writer's goal is to keep the reader turning pages.
POINT of VIEW (POV)
Who is telling the story? Reader needs to identify with your character.
A) First Person Narrative - I watch the boat skim the waves...
B) Second Person - not as popular: You are waiting for your husband/wife/children to come home. They’re late, and you're checking the windows every three minutes...
1) Single - one person all through the book: He walked to the window, pulled back the drape, and stood watching for their Camry to turn into the driveway. It was almost midnight...
2) Multiple - two or more Points of View which means two or more major characters. To avoid head-hopping, give each major character his/her own scene/chapter
3) Omniscient - all knowing, also not recommended as the reader can't identify with a particular character
EXAMPLE: Inside the little church, a hallway divided two rows of pews. Mrs. Green, a redhead, sat on the left. Mrs. Jones, her auburn hair not quite as vivid, sat on the right. Both women wore hats from the forties, each with a veil mysteriously shading their eyes. No other woman wore a hat. During the service, Mrs. Green and Mrs. Jones kept glancing at each other, as if each woman wanted to make sure the other was paying more attention to her than to the minister.
SHOW, don't TELL
Show, don't Tell is the most repeated phrase in writing classes and how-to books. It's also one of the most difficult techniques for a writer to master, yet it's critical for reader identification. But what does it mean?
When you TELL about something or someone, you're stating a fact as you know it. But does it mean anything to the reader? Does he/she feel anything by your statement? Chances are, the reader will not. Therefore, to connect with the reader, you must learn the technique of SHOWing in your writing.
EXAMPLE: You want to introduce Mr. Jones to your reader. What is the best way?
A) You could TELL the reader about Mr. Jones:
Mr. Jones liked children.
Did the reader feel a connection to Mr. Jones?
How about this one:
B) You could introduce Mr. Jones to your reader by SHOWING his actions.
Every Saturday, Mr. Jones gathers the neighborhood children and takes them to the park. Three Saturdays ago, he taught them to fish. Another Saturday, he gave instructions on swimming and diving. For those few hours each weekend, he was the father he'd always longed to be.
While (B) may be better, it's still narration. The best way to SHOW how Mr. Jones likes children is to dramatize a specific Saturday in a SCENE with action and dialogue. Then the reader can SEE Mr. Jones with the children.
Scene is the building block of your story. Story consists of scene, sequel, and narration, repeated over and over until the end. A scene is a single unit of action, taking place in real time. Each scene must have:
A) Goal - what is the character trying to accomplish? A story needs a scene goal and a story goal.
B) Conflict - who or what is trying to stop your main character from reaching his/her goal?
C) Failure, or Disaster – character’s attempts to reach his goal fails. Dramatically.
Sequel is a time to reflect, to let loose the emotions from the devastating scene. Slam the door, go on a crying jag, wail and moan to your best friend, or retreat behind closed doors, whatever is in the nature of the character you devised. However, a book full of moaning is tedious, so Character must decide how to proceed. Therefore, the steps for sequel are:
A) Reaction - wail, moan, or cry
B) Dilemma - what do I do now?
C) Decision - new goal: I'm going to get that new job, no matter if my boss likes me or not. First thing tomorrow, I'm going to make an appointment for an interview and show him/her what I can do.
Getting your characters talking is the heart of your story. It's where the action takes place and holds the most interest. Many readers skip over narration to read the dialogue, no matter how you've slaved to write that exact word. But when you must write narration, stay true to your character. You do not want to sound like an English professor unless your character teaches English. Nor do you want them to be illiterate, unless you're writing another Grapes of Wrath. It all depends on your character and story.
Do not, under any circumstances, use dialogue to 'info dump' backstory into dialogue.
Use contractions, the way people speak. Keep dialect at a minimum. Use tags and beats.
Style is more than the way you string words together. It's also how you present your story to the reader. Be sure to vary each scene/chapter as well as sentence length. How quickly or how slow you present your story is called PACING. A historical romance, for instance, moves along at a slower pace than a mystery/suspense, and once you learn pacing, you'll be able to control whether the reader flies through your manuscript, not wanting to put it down, or whether the unfolding is so slow the reader falls asleep.
a) Present: she looks into the mirror. What will the other girls wear? She tugs at her skirt, wondering if it is too long.
b) Past - more popular: she looked into the mirror. What would the other girls wear? She tugged at her skirt, wondering if it was too long.
Never bore your reader with lengthy description. Try setting that scene or describing that character by following the rule of 3: Use no more than three sentences, but think about the wording in those three sentences. Pick out the most striking qualities of that character or scene and concentrate on telling the reader about them. Many of us go beyond the three at times, but practice honing your descriptions to the qualities most important.
One of the major ways to avoid confusion in your writing is to use the journalistic five W's: Who, What, When, Where and How.
While emotion is critical to connecting to your reader, under no circumstances do you need your character emoting all over the page - it will resemble an old-fashioned melodrama. Remember, less is more.
Instead of saying your character feels sad, WRITE IT SO YOUR READER WILL CRY. How to accomplish that? Craft. Technique.
Suspense is not just for mysteries. Without some kind of suspense to your story, your reader will yawn, think of bedtime or all of the other chores he/she should be doing. The book goes down and your next one will sit on the shelf. You want your reader to stay up all night turning pages; you don't want to put him/her into a coma.
How to make your material engrossing? Technique, the craft of knowing how to create tension and suspense.
To outline or not to outline. Do you really need it? One writer outlines extensively using index cards and colored markers. Another simply lists chapters and their one-line content. One former instructor writes his story then, during revision, outlines using stepping stones/plot points. You must find what works for you.
Do you know what Stepping Stones are and when to use them? If not, check my Plotting Help section.
MINI-SYNOPSIS, or Your Jewel
Your Jewel is your story condensed into one hundred dynamic words or less. It's great for query letters, blurbs. Make sure you hit the Stepping Stones/Plot Points so the agent/editor can see you know classic story structure.
A famous quote says, "Writing is rewriting." How long it takes you to produce a publishable manuscript depends on several factors:
A) correct grammar, punctuation and sentence structure
B) use of all five senses to give the reader the full experience of the fiction world
C) a cool-off period after the first draft
D) and, most important of all, an excellent editor.
No one can write a mistake-proof manuscript, but a manuscript full of errors is a sure way to get it rejected. If you can't afford a professional, perhaps a retired school teacher or someone good in grammar may be willing to proofread your manuscript - but be careful. S/he may be excellent in spotting wrong word usage or incorrect grammar, but do not rely on her/him for true story editing. Unless they've had extensive writing classes, few proofreaders recognize a Point of View drift or misplaced Flashbacks. Instead, consider joining a writers' critique group. Most are willing, even eager, to trade manuscripts for critiquing. Even then, they may be beginners who can proofread, but they may not know modern story structure. Even if one or more of the members’ knowledge is extensive, realize there’s just not enough time at a meeting to go into structure detail. Plus, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to check while viewing a few pages at a time. But for what they DO offer, the experience may be priceless.
Taglines, or the Pitch
Phrases To Find & KILL
While editing my client’s latest novel, I found this phrase, “I thought to myself.”
Agents, Advances, and Royalties
Querying agents can be a long, often heartbreaking process, but so far, it’s the only path to most major publishers. Since I’ve gone through the process and have been published by commercial (traditional) publishers, I’m often asked about agents, advances and royalties.