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How to Write a Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns, What's New.

1. Write the story you’d most want to read. Don’t write a story just because you think it might be a bestseller or that it would make Great Aunt Edna proud. Think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, then don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel. It might not be anything genre-specific that you love, but a certain voice, or type of story, or kinds of characters. Write what you love. Do me a favor — right now, today, start a list of all your crazy obsessions, the things that get your heart pumping, that wake you up in the middle of the night. Put it above your desk and use it to guide you, to jumpstart your writing each and every day.

GIVEAWAY: Jennifer is excited to give away a free copy of her latest 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: Karen Gough won.)

 

 

    

Guest column by Jennifer McMahon, who grew up in suburban
Connecticut, and went to Goddard College. She is the bestselling
author of
Promise Not to Tell, Island of Lost Girls, Dismantled, and
Don’t Breathe a Word. Her newest novel is The One I Left Behind
(Jan. 2013, William Morrow), which received starred reviews in
Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. She lives in Vermont with her family.
Visit her website or connect with her on Twitter.

 

 


2. Begin with character. Make her flawed and believable. Let her live and breathe and give her the freedom to surprise you and take the story in unexpected directions. If she’s not surprising you, you can bet she’ll seem flat to your readers. One exercise I always do when I’m getting to know a character is ask her to tell me her secrets. Sit down with a pen and paper and start with, “I never told anybody…” and go from there, writing in the voice of your character.

3. Give that character a compelling problem. Your character has to have something that’s going to challenge her, torment her and propel her forward. At the heart of every story is conflict – whether external or internal, make it a good one, and remember that this problem is going to shape your character, leaving her forever changed.

(Pay it Forward — 11 Ways You Can Help a Friend Market Their New Book.)

4. Make things happen! You can have the greatest characters in the world, and write beautifully, but if nothing’s happening, the story falls on its face pretty quickly. In my books, I make sure something important to the plot is happening in each scene. And if there’s a scene in there that isn’t helping to move the story along in some vital way, I cut it, no matter how great it is. When I’m editing, I’ll go scene by scene and write a single word sentence describing the action on an index card. Then I lay the cards out and I’ve got the bare bones of my story. I can see if things are moving forward, if I’m throwing in enough twists and turns, and if there are scenes that just aren’t pulling their weight.

5. Make it believable. Ah, you say, but you sometimes write stories with ghosts and fairies – how believable is that? It works if you make it believable in the universe of the book. In Promise Not to Tell, I came up with rules for the ghost – things she could and couldn’t do. I gave her a history and compelling reason to return. Readers hate cheap tricks. Don’t pull the evil twin routine in the final hour. Don’t bring in a new character at the end to solve the protagonist’s problem for her. She’s got to resolve things herself, for better or worse.

6. Stick with it the project. You’ll be tempted to give up a thousand and one times. Don’t. Finish the story. Then work twice as hard to revise it. Do your best to get it out in the world. When it’s rejected by agents and publishers (which it will be) keep sending it out. In the meantime, write another. Then another. Trust me, you get better every time. You’re not in this writing business because it’s easy. It took me four books, two agents and seven years to get my first novel published. It was a long tough road, but so, so worth it in the end!

(What are the BEST writers’ conferences to attend?)

7. And lastly: Ignore the rules. (Including mine.) Everyone’s got advice and theories; people want to pigeonhole you, put you in a genre with its own rules and conventions. I think the work comes out better when we leave all that behind; when the only thing to be true to is the writing.

GIVEAWAY: Jennifer is excited to give away a free copy of her latest 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: Karen Gough won.)

 

 

Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

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44 Responses to How to Write a Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use

  1. Cindylorene says:

    I appreciate all and any advice. Reading this list, I had a light bulb moment. I start writing and y characters come to life even with Flaws…but then they just sit there… I think i understand why now. I hate conflict in my life… I need to learn that conflict is a part of life and your characters need to experience the conflict so that you can tell their story. You can’t protect them. Life happens whether you write it down or not.

  2. Naman says:

    Just amazing – thank you for such awesome tips

  3. mylittlenovelist says:

    This has helped a lot– thank you so much. I’m an aspiring author, and I’m fairly young, so I’m trying to become a decent writer before publishing anything (I’m working on a story right now). Again, thank you.

  4. jmrydzon says:

    I’m in revision mode now and your tips on having your character surprise you, and writing a single sentence for each scene, arrived just in time!

  5. Laurie says:

    Thank you for this excellent advice and counsel — there is no one more credible than the published author who is doing what you are attempting to do. This is worthy of pinning to the wall in front of your computer. Read it often.

  6. S Neal says:

    Your few tips here say it all, especially the last. So many rules, so much advice, I’m overwhelmed by them and believe writing a story is nearly impossible because of them. The advice here is succinct and possible. Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise.

  7. Kate Eion says:

    Great article! Thanks for the advice!

  8. karthik says:

    Hi guys,
    I am trying to sel-publish my novel and I found this on the way. Do you know anything about this

    http://www.watchlistnews.com/2013/06/27/will-the-new-publishing-model-made-by-lithasa-change-the-e-book-industry/
    Their website http://www.lithasa.com says they are for the authors & movie makers who are artists. Please let me know if any one of you came to know about this.
    Thanks

  9. Debbie says:

    The titles alone of each of your bestsellers mentioned would be intriguing as the first step in processing my story…the first step to building characters and forming their journey. It’s refreshing to have a starting point for development. Nice titles.

  10. mistressnyx says:

    Number 2 and 5 I think are the most important to me. Thank you for the tips! Very helpful!

    Kasey

  11. burrowswrite says:

    I really liked your tips and advice.

  12. Julie Nilson says:

    Oo, I like the “tell me your secrets” tip. While I have a plan for my character’s external challenge to be overcome, I’m struggling with finding her internal challenges. I think this may help.

  13. vrundell says:

    Thanks, Jennifer for the wonderful ideas. It’s always good to have some positive reinforcement when writing–so I love the first tip about writing down your passions and having them pinned up in the writing area.
    Best of luck!
    Veronica

  14. mirandafore says:

    I appreciate your contribution to our dreams!

  15. Beduwen says:

    Great post! The first tip really resonates with me…”write what you would want to read. If it isn’t interesting to you, why would it be interesting for your reader? But all the tips are right on. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with the new book!

  16. BB says:

    I liked #4 because it answered my questions about my chapters and how to flesh out some characters. I plan to use the index cards the way you suggested so that I can see where my characters are going in the story. Thank you for your great advice.

  17. sefmac20 says:

    Excellent advice! I love the freedom to accept advice, yet break the mold.

  18. xcntrk says:

    Thank you very much for the advice, I look forward to implementing some of them in my current work in progress.

  19. NewDawn says:

    Jennifer,

    This may sound trite, but I’ll say it anyway. You’ve thrown me a lifeline. Each one of the seven provided either a lantern on a dark path down which I’ve been wandering – and/or a slap up beside the head to help me regain focus – and purpose. I can see now where my plot suffered with a weak, undeveloped character (I have a notebook now with her secrets), where the story floundered because it lost the momentum and importance of conflict. I gave up in December but started up again after reading this a couple of days ago.

    Thank you – I won’t be pigeonholed. I’ll be true to the writing.

  20. skstanaway says:

    As a fantasy writer, I often hear, “What are you worried about you write fantasy, just make it up.” When I ask someone a question regarding a building, or sizes of towns versus villages. I am glad to see the words I often spew after such comments printed by another author. You advice in # 2 however, gave me a true eye opener on how to fix my current dilemma in my novel. Thank You!

  21. Red Jackson says:

    These are tips that are vital to finishing a novel. The tips I most needed were #6 and #7. It is funny how certain “rules” or guidelines can be broken if it is done properly and with a purpose. Thanks for the useful advice.

  22. I liked how #5, making it believable, applies to supernatural stories…that there need to be rules there too! As a reader, I’ll go along with a magical world if I can tell the world has its own laws/rules and internal structure. Good point to remember as the writer:)

  23. Val Tobin says:

    Good advice. I particularly like the index card trick in #4.

  24. rosus13 says:

    All very good advice. I especially like #1. Number 4 will come in handy now that I am in the process of revising a manuscript. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Your new book sounds interesting. Looking forward to reading it.

  25. Pattypans says:

    These tips are straightforward and doable. I don’t think I can pick a favorite, because I need every one of them. But one particularly encouraged me, because I think I’m already intuitively on that track: Number two, about character. Well, actually, the first part, about the need to be surprised, is newish for me, but the second part, about letting your characters speak to you–I’ve been there. I’m quite a newbie, so that’s especially encouraging.

    Thank you for these truly useful tips, artistic and down-to-earth at the same time.

  26. odomj@live.com says:

    I really like number 2, sitting down and writing what the character never told anybody. This will liven up my young adult main character for my current project. He needs a flaw.

  27. KBosco says:

    So helpful, I love them all. Thanks

  28. edecker says:

    Great thoughts.. Thanks for sharing. I have written and published very successfully in one genre and have now switched with a great murder mystery. on chapter 56.. but my hero is bogged down… needs a change in character to go on to finish.. actually it is the conflict in character issue.. your thoughts do help.. need to finish this and get in to next project that keeps slipping in between the lines..

  29. PoetsHeart says:

    I love the idea of interviewing your character to find out what secrets they are hiding – could make for some interesting plot twists. Thank you for sharing your tips. :)

  30. Katie says:

    #4 is what I have the most difficulty with, and I think it’s probably the worst problem I could have! Sometimes I like to watch them mill around and do nothing…but my readers won’t. Sigh!

  31. kkgough says:

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one “tempted to give up a thousand and one times!”

  32. Christine says:

    Great advice! I especially like the last one. :)

  33. frenchkn0t says:

    I had heard number seven years ago, but not recently and was dismayed when early readers gave precisely opposing advice.

  34. mara_rae says:

    Some of the best writing advice I’ve seen in a long time. I’m printing this one (first time I’ve ever done that, actually!). Thanks Jennifer and Chuck :)

  35. Yellowapple says:

    Your advice is succinct and refreshing, not too long and laborious. I’m still working on my first book. Looking forward to reading your new one, Jennifer.

  36. pollie says:

    Sounds like some good advice. I’m going to go back and take a hard look at my current work in progress (and yes, it’s my first novel!)

  37. LyndaJo says:

    Thanks for the reminder to stick with the project. I’m in just that spot in my current WIP where I’m tempted to just begin something else but I know if I persist, I will make sense of the muck.

  38. nakiaRL says:

    I like number 7! Read the rules, listen to suggestions and opinions but don’t allow all of that to stifle your voice. For the most part, I like to write because I can finally be free…

  39. LexiLetters says:

    I like #4 – write a one-sentence description of each scene on separate index cards. I had a problem with the order of some scenes and a difficult time rearranging them–all while making sure certain things were disclosed in time or not disclosed before their time. Whew! Thanks.

  40. Love your tips. I’ll be using them with my next book.

  41. KitP says:

    Great tips. Thank you.

  42. rachel613 says:

    I love number 2. Seems so much more realistic to “talk” to your character, than write down reams of details about her. Of course, that could be because I spend half my time making up conversations/scenarios in my head (a la Anne Lamont)….

  43. Chuck Sambuchino says:

    I just wanted to stop on here real quick and thank Jennifer for the awesome guest column!

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