Editors Blog

10 Dos & Don’ts For the Aspiring Novelist

Two months ago my first novel hit the bookstores. Since then, I’ve done a number of book talks/signings and have been a guest speaker at events. One of the questions I’ve frequently been asked is, “What tips do you have for an aspiring novelist?” Here is my list of ten “dos and don’ts.”

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1. Start small. Writing short stories is a great way to do that. Many novelists have started this way, including me. Writing a good short story forces you to create and develop a character and take a plot from beginning to end in a limited number of pages. It also prepares you for writing a novel, because each chapter is basically a short story. Writing a short story is also much less intimidating than writing a novel.

GIVEAWAY: Mary is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: emilyjjs won.)



mary-simses-author-writer         The-Irresistible-Blueberry-Bakeshop-Cafe-book-cover

Column by Mary Simses, who grew up in Darien, Connecticut and started
writing stories when she was eight. Several of her stories have been published
in literary magazines. Her debut novel is THE IRRESISTIBLE BLUEBERRY
BAKESHOP & CAFE (Little Brown, July 2013). James Patterson said, “If you
liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, you will devour [this
book].” Mary now lives in South Florida with her husband, who is also her
law partner, and their fifteen-year-old daughter. She loves taking photographs
and listening to jazz standards. She also makes a fine blueberry muffin.
Find Mary on Facebook. 



2. Look for a fiction writing class and/or a writer’s group in your area. This is probably the most important thing I did, when, after a long hiatus, I decided to get back into fiction writing. While I was working full-time as an attorney, I enrolled in an evening fiction writing class at a local university.

What you can learn from others about voice, plot structure, character development, and general story-telling mechanics is invaluable. And other writers can provide so much inspiration. I always loved hearing what fellow students had written. Much of it was amazing and it always encouraged me to keep going and work harder.

3. Write things down. It’s helpful to jot down ideas for stories, bits of conversation you overhear, interesting situations you learn of, and character names you create. Keep a little notebook for this purpose and put it on your bedside table at night. Don’t trust your memory. That great idea you thought of just before going to bed will probably be gone in the morning.

(Should you sign with a new literary agent? Know the pros and cons.)

4. Try to write something every day, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. Writing is a skill, like any other, and the more you do it the better you will become. If you can get into a routine, as far as where and when you write, all the better – but if not, just write.

5. Take advice from other authors. Two books I love are Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. They are both excellent resources on the craft of writing. I also found Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market to be another helpful resource when I was submitting stories for publication.



The book Mary’s praising in this article is the
Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Find it
online at a discount here.



1. Don’t let your day job get in the way. We all have to earn a living. If you’re not lucky enough to have started writing at age twenty-five and now have a string of best-sellers under your belt, so be it. Not everyone can be a full-time writer. But don’t think that you can’t be a writer because you’re earning your living in some other way. And don’t use that as an excuse not to write. I wrote for years “on the side” while working as an attorney. Write whenever you can – at night, on weekends, early in the morning, on busses, on airplanes, while you’re skydiving (well, maybe not while you’re sky diving . . .).

2. Don’t fall in love with your words. At least don’t do it to the point where you can’t be a ruthless editor. It’s important to be able to read your work with a critical eye and get rid of excess verbiage or writing that sounds “clunky.” I’ve always found, regardless of whether it’s a legal memo or a short story, that if I put the work away for a while, I can come back to it with a fresh eye and I can more easily see where it needs improvement.

3. Don’t keep your work hidden away. If you want to get it published, you need to send it out. If it’s a short story, try submitting it to literary magazines; if it’s a novel, send query letters to agents. As mentioned earlier, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market is a great source of information on fiction markets, agents, and writing contests.

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

4. Don’t be afraid to ask friends for help – especially if they are in the publishing field. There are probably thousands of great manuscripts out there that will never be published because the writer can’t get them to the right person. If you know someone who can help you and your work is good enough, they should be happy to do it. Ask!

5. Don’t forget that you are the writer. It’s great to get feedback from others, in a class or a writer’s group or from other people whose judgment you trust, but in the end the decisions about the story are yours. Different people will give you different advice and editing by committee never works. Analyze all of the comments and suggestions carefully, and then select the ones you think are key to making your story the best that it can be.

GIVEAWAY: Mary is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: emilyjjs won.)


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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53 thoughts on “10 Dos & Don’ts For the Aspiring Novelist

  1. sefmac20

    Great advice! I’m discovering as I work toward the completion of my first novel that it’s the little things that keep me going – writing every day, jotting down new ideas, and sharing with a trusted colleague.

  2. writeandtravel

    I know some of the commenters do not believe in #1 in the “Do” column. I started small by writing for magazines, newspapers and businesses. I learned to write tight and on point. Now that I’m editing my first novel, these previous techniques have proven to be valuable.
    Keeping a notebook, scrap paper even a paper napkin in your pocket, purse or bedside is so true for those wandering thoughts. Many a morning or late afternoon walk has generated several ideas for articles or scenes for my book. I have also missed some great input for my writing because I would not wake up and jot down a few words or sentences during the night. “I’ll remember it in the morning,” my subconscious says in a drowsy voice. Needless to say, when the sun comes through the window, I can’t remember a thing.
    Thanks for the great tips.

  3. Staci Troilo

    Writers groups are great, in theory, but only if they’re constructive. I have a friend who went to one and was reduced to tears after a critique. It was so bad, she almost gave up writing altogether. I’ve since started working with her one-on-one and we’ve found a different group to attend. She’s learned a lot since that first experience. In fact, she’s been published in an anthology and recently won an honorable mention at a conference. What a shame it would have been if she had quit because of a bad experience with an insensitive “expert.” You just have to be certain to find the right type of group. They need to know their stuff, but they need to be able to lift a person up, not tear her down.

  4. fuzzzilla

    I disagree with #1. It may work well for some, but writing a short story isn’t really much like writing a chapter, and not like writing the whole of a novel at all. They’re different crafts. You’re teaching yourself to crochet when the pattern you want to use is a knitting pattern. Sure, they look similar and both use yarn, but the one doesn’t teach you the other.
    I say start big.

  5. Aceyroch

    I hate the fact that I have a problem with asking people for their opinions. I don’t like it when people tell me to change my story around. It’s my story! But, if I asked, I have to listen. But, I like what you said, “you are the writer.” Yes, it is my story, and no, I don’t have to change it around. But, sometimes, it’s necessary to :).

  6. R.J. Carr

    These were some great words of wisdom. It’s hard to make sure that you keep your head on straight and stay focused on writing, especially when you have life getting in the way. Even just finding an hour a day to get some ink on the paper can sometime be a difficult task.

    This will be an article that I keep close by to refer to when the days start getting busy. Thanks for the advice.

  7. smitchell

    I especially like your last piece of advice – don’t forget that you’re a writer. It’s a mindset and believing that, plus practice will make it come true.


  8. mtrybak

    I had just decided that a novel isn’t probably the best way for me to go because I don’t have the patience to stop and start and stop and I was going to start writing short stories. I never looked at a chapter of a book as a short story but that logic makes perfect sense to me. So if I start writing short stories in chronological order based on the same group of people, eventually, I will have a whole book. Of course it will need to be rewritten but it will seem like less daunting of a task. Thanks for the great tip!

  9. emilyjjs

    I have recently begun what I hope will one day become a novel. It is an intimidating task to create characters and their lives! Thank you for the advice on how to break it down into a simpler do-able task.

  10. SuzeeQ

    Day job, family, and a creative writing night class kick my butt, but I’m hanging in there at the ripe age of 59–enough to have my first short story published! LOVE your advice because it WORKS. It’s been a long haul, but short stories do sell. And it’s always fun to see what other writers have to say that works for them. It’s both encouraging and educational. Isn’t the craft of writing the ultimate high? Thank you, Mary. Happy Thanksgiving!

  11. Andi W

    Thank you! These are all very helpful. I just joined a writer’s group and I am finding it to be extremely motivating. And I love your advice on writing everyday, to practice the skill.

  12. exiledcrusader

    Thank you for the advice. It amuses me that the seemingly simplest do number one is what I have a problem. No mater the idea it always seem to grow and change until it seems almost overwhelming to write. Not being overwhelmed is the purpose of that bit of advice. Thank you once again for the advice and I will attempt to follow it and continue to do what I love writing.

  13. vrundell

    Such great advice! Thanks for sharing–myself I’m always afraid to ‘ask for help’–especially from people in the biz. For some reason it always strikes me as a short-cut when, in reality, it’s a connection–and one that could be mutually beneficial.
    So gald you reminded me of that simple truth.
    Best of luck on the novel!

  14. Merdoj

    I haven’t read Mary’s book yet, my local library is limited in space, so must be picky on what is available to readers, but I have high hopes of reading it soon. As for the article, 10 Dos and Don’ts of writing novels, I was surprised to find out how many of the steps I already adhere to, but it’s always good to repeat them, just incase I forget them. Thanks.

  15. rshilling

    Great advice! Writing is easier the more one does it. There are so many great books out there to help with learning the craft. I’ll have to check out the two you mentioned. A writing critique group was one of the most helpful things to refining my writing.

  16. ragdolltb

    Great advice. I haven’t written much since college and have recently started again. I’ve been thinking about taking a class just to get me back into the routine of writing regularly. I think this article was the push I needed to do just that. Thanks!

  17. snuzcook

    Thank you for your advice. I was encouraged to learn you started as a short story writer and successfully moved to novel. I have been trying to make that transition, and finding that all my worst writing habits resurfaced when I went from short-short story format to chapter–too much expository and not enough “happening” when I have so much more word count to work with in a novel.

  18. catbr

    Good advice. I like how you say to start small. Writing a novel is too overwhelming for the novice. Also it is so true that ideas should be written down at once or they tend to be forgotten. Good luck on the success of your first novel.

  19. Sheila

    Loved the tips, especially, “Don’t fall in love with your words.” I’ll try to remember that piece of advice the next time I have to do surgery on my work. Sometimes it’s hard to cut out lines that are little gems on their own, but we all need to remember the body of the work may be stronger for it. BTW, if the author thing doesn’t pan out, Mary would make a great professional photographer!

  20. BingoBill

    I found a small writers group for adults where I feel like I belong. Back in college, or the Stone Age as my teenage children call it, I had the usual sophomoric pretensions about authorship and ‘art’. Now as an adult with a career, mortgage, etc. I find that returning to writing is refreshing and rejuvenating.
    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  21. jennknoxbrown@gmail.com

    This was helpful. I often allow myself to skip days of writing because I am tired from my day job. Not anymore! Looking forward to reading your book.

  22. pwazz1

    I really try to use #3 in the “DO” list; I’ve had a digital recorder for several years now and if an idea comes to me while I’m driving, or even while walking down the aisle in the grocery store, I dig it out and rattle it off quickly; it’s easier for me sometimes than grabbing a pen and paper.

  23. yehudit45

    I agree with you about the value of writers groups. My group is not designed for critiquing work, but to stimulate the imagination and writing muscles. But I have learned to listen for the laughter and small gasps when I read what I just wrote, which tell me what works and what doesn’t.

    In listening to the others, I have learned as much from the poor writers as from the good ones. Two examples: too many details can kill a story, and don’t use names that have an indelible history behind them.

  24. Mertz

    Love the bits of advise. Number 4 in the Do’s something a friend and I have been throwing back and forth at each other to keep ourselves inspired even when it’s been a tough day. Thanks for sharing!

  25. Eileen Maki

    It’s hard when you doubt yourself to put your writing out into the world. If you’re passionate about writing, your soul is in those words. You have to tell yourself that rejection doesn’t mean you’re work is no good, it just means your work is not right for that venue. There are so many outlets for all types of writing, it’s important to keep trying.

    I love your ideas for writing every day and starting small. Working full-time and managing a family is time-consuming in and of itself. But those of us who love writing MUST write and we find any way we can to make it happen. On my break at work, 5 minutes while I wait for dinner to finish cooking, 10 minutes before bed. Writing every day is so important.

    Thanks for the reminders and tips, I look forward to reading your book, Mary.
    ~ Eileen

  26. 0veronica9

    You know, it is so easy to get discouraged when writing, especially when it is your first novel. One of the biggest fears for me is facing feedback from the readers. When I send drafts to friends and strangers, it feels so intense because you don’t want to feel stupid.

    Reading this article has reminded me that I have to give power back to the writer. A writer has to discipline them-self otherwise the novel they care so much about will just be an idea.

    Thanks for the list! :)

  27. Pattypans

    Thank you, Mary, for the advice about starting small. It encouraged me that I’m on the right track (for me, at least), because I’m doing just that: working on short stories to hone my craft. I did love “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”–just recommended it to someone the other day, in fact–so I’m looking forward to your book. In fact, the rhythm of your title reminded me of its title.

  28. Karen Meyer

    Your ten dos and don’ts are a good illustration of the kind of writing
    that sells best–concise and to the point. thanks for the helpful suggestions.

  29. DoerDi

    Thanks for sharing your do’s and don’ts. I hope to have my story published one day. I have been taking a writing class through the local adult school for a couple of years. The feedback has taught me so much. Each time I need to register I hesitate, I don’t want to take the class because it forces me to write, but on the other hand, if I take the class, it forces me to write! I opt for taking the class because if I didn’t, there is a good chance I won’t write consistently.


  30. karinfuller@gmail.com

    Excellent article, especially the very first one about starting small. You don’t start running by doing a marathon right off the bat, so you shouldn’t start writing with a project as big as a novel. It’s so important to learn how to write tight and clean, and shorts are the perfect way to master that skill.

  31. xcntrk

    Too bad you can’t send out some of your Blueberry muffins along with the book. It would be great to read it and chow down on some nice homemade muffins. Keeping the crumbs out of the book of course. ;)

  32. Lina Moder

    LOVE how an evening class sparked Mary’s love of writing all over again! It’s so true that it’s the little things – writing every day, taking that class, talking to other writers for support and to learn more – all build up and it’s never too late to start :)

    I’ve heard AWESOME things about Mary’s book. And I love how she’s set it in a small town.

    Thank you:)

    linamoder at gmail dot com