How to Write a Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use

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.

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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.

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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54 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use

  1. Avatarwanda48

    Thank you for this column. I just published my first novel (at the age of 69!), and can say these tips are excellent. In order to start my book, I had to have one character to “visualize,” so I pictured someone I knew in high school and used him as a model, but only visually. I wrote about baseball players in 1972, and this guy played ball in my high school. I remembered what he looked like in his high school uniform, described it, then the other characters just came out of the blue.

    One other thing: If you’re writing about an historical time period, make sure the the names you use correspond with the time period. For example, in today’s world, baseball players have named like Justin, Chase, Dustin, and many Latin names. In 1972, Latin players were just breaking in in large numbers, and the regular players had names like Joe, Dick, Jimmy, Bobby, etc. I pulled out my high school yearbook and looked at the names boys had back then. It’s really important to do the research to make your characters believable.

  2. AvatarMarissa88

    I have been toying with the idea of writing a book for many years now. The idea behind my story is to write about events that have happened to myself however I would rather change names, orders events happened and perhaps add some details to make it more entertaining. The story would consist of, love, heartbreak, abuse and murder. The murder part was unfortunately true and I was threatened multiple times not to speak about it which is why I don’t want this to be an autobiography incase I get into a lot of trouble. Right now however my story does not have a happy ending. In fact, probably only one or two chapters will seem like things are looking up for the main character but for most of the book it is just her trying to keep sane and deal with everything being thrown at her. I don’t want to give the story a happy ending because like you said the story has to be believable and as it is based on my own life events I don’t believe my own story is going to end well. I could make her find her prince and live happily ever after or go for the whole it’s too much and she commits suicide which for me, the second is more believable but again, is this really what people want to read? I can’t picture many people relaxing by a poolside whilst wanting to reach for a box of tissues. Personally I have read many sad stories but they all tend to have some sort of positive at the end. Even romeo and juliet, fair enough they both committed suicide but it was so they could be together. The main reason why I really want to write this book is because I have been in silence for so many years about a lot of issues and as a result I now have some mental health/trust problems so in a way I would get a sense of release and be able to hear feedback on what others might have done in that situation. I’m so sorry to post such a long comment but I would really appreciate feedback on the ending. Is a sad ending suitable or should I really try harder to come up with a positive? Thanks in advance to anyone who reads this.

    1. Avatarweiss

      I want to write something along those lines as well. I feel like novels can be written in a negative, darker only if done correctly. This is why I wanted to write a novel about my life (obviously with some variations) and focus on the somewhat dismal aspects of it as while these things might be upsetting, it is necessary that these things like mental health and abuse are talked about. Not every story needs a happy ending as that is quite a common cliche anyway. Any sort of ending is great for a story as long as it is suitable and does not seem overly forced or rushed and is an accurate conclusion on the events that happened during the course of the book. I’d love to hear your response or read your novel if and when you start writing, maybe we can exchange ideas!

    2. Avatarwanda48

      My book, which just came out, does not have a happy ending. You have to be careful with the way you write it so that it doesn’t become maudlin. Finding her prince and living “happily ever after” could also mean that she THINKS she’ll live happily ever after, only to find that her “prince” is a fiend in disguise, and only she gets to see that, because his public persona is very different.

      You need to find a great editor to help you parse out your ending. Write it the way you WANT it to end, then the editor will guide you with your writing.

      That’s my best advice.

    3. AvatarMelburch430

      Valley of the Dolls ended with Lyon cheating… again…. and that pissed me off for 20 years before a sequel came out. Lessons learned can be an ending. I actually enjoyed that book BECAUSE it didn’t have a happy ending. What’s more of a surprise than that? If it gives the reader a reason to lol at their own life, you write a good ending. The world isn’t all candy and rainbows 😉

  3. AvatarCindylorene

    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.

  4. Avatarmylittlenovelist

    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.

  5. Avatarjmrydzon

    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!

  6. AvatarLaurie

    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.

  7. AvatarS Neal

    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.

  8. AvatarDebbie

    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.

  9. AvatarJulie Nilson

    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.

  10. Avatarvrundell

    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!

  11. AvatarBeduwen

    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!

  12. AvatarBB

    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.

  13. AvatarNewDawn


    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.

  14. Avatarskstanaway

    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!

  15. AvatarRed Jackson

    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.

  16. AvatarKristin Conroy

    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:)

  17. Avatarrosus13

    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.

  18. AvatarPattypans

    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.


    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.

  20. Avataredecker

    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..

  21. AvatarPoetsHeart

    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. 🙂

  22. AvatarKatie

    #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!

  23. Avatarmara_rae

    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 🙂

  24. AvatarYellowapple

    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.

  25. Avatarpollie

    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!)

  26. AvatarLyndaJo

    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.

  27. AvatarnakiaRL

    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…

  28. AvatarLexiLetters

    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.

  29. Avatarrachel613

    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)….


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