Staring down the first blank page of your novel-to-be can be daunting—but any hesitation stops here. Our A to Z guide of expert tips, inspirational advice and helpful hints will walk you from Page 1 through The End.
Compiled by Baihley Gentry & Tyler Moss
A: ARTISTIC VISION
We have to look at our own inertia, insecurities, self-hate, fear that, in truth, we have nothing valuable to say. It is true that when we begin anything new, resistances fly in our face. Now you have the opportunity to not run or be tossed away, but to look at them black and white on paper and see what their silly voices say. When your writing blooms out of the back of this garbage and compost, it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.
— Writing Down the Bones by NATALIE GOLDBERG (Shambhala)
B: BE BUSY
When writing your first draft, being busy is key. It may feel frustrating at first, but having daily writing periods curtailed by chores, family and other distractions actually helps you get the thing done. This is partly because the hectic pace forces you to type with a fleet-fingered desperation. But it’s mostly because noveling in the midst of a chaotic life makes “book time” a treat rather than an obligation. It’s a small psychological shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.
— No Plot? No Problem by CHRIS BATY (Chronicle Books)
C: CLEAR THE CLUTTER
Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind. … Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes. A small detail, you may say—not worth bothering about. It is worth bothering about. Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.
— On Writing Well by WILLIAM ZINSSER (Quill)
D: Find the Telling DETAILS
“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. Or a broken billboard. Or weeds growing in the cracks of a library’s steps. … The details are always the starting place in speculative or fantasy fiction. They must be clear and textured.”
— STEPHEN KING (WD Interview, May/June 2009)
E: Have in Mind an ENDING
Beginnings, like first kisses, need only seduce us with their potential, clearly establish the theme, cast and tenor of the affair to come, whereas the ending must realize the story’s potential, deliver on the checks the beginning has signed, and do so in such a memorable way that the reader is left wanting more. For we may forget how a relationship began— we were drunk, it was wartime, it began slowly—but rarely do we forget how it ended—with a slap, a kiss tasting of tears, a farewell wave from the back of a camel. It’s the end of the story we’re focused on when we recount these tales of betrayal, lost love, infidelity, isn’t it?
— “Endings: Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow” by ELISSA SCHAPPELL, in The Writer’s Notebook II (Tin House Books)
F: FIRE Up Your Curiosity
Researchers have found that once a subject’s curiosity had been piqued by the “right” question, they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated information. Curiosity creates a sort of brain vortex that sucks in whatever you feel most motivated to learn, along with ideas that may be floating around your environment. The spark of curiosity lights up the hippocampus (where the creation of memories occurs), and the reward and pleasure brain circuits, which release dopamine. So if you want an alert brain, start your day by immersing yourself in something you find fascinating and mysterious. Pique your curiosity, enjoy the natural high and learn something new.
— Fire Up Your Writing Brain by SUSAN REYNOLDS (WD Books)
G: Keep GENRE at the Core
Your choice of genre has ramifications for the story. Fun ramifications. Ramifications that will help you accomplish what it is you’re hoping to do with this novel. … It’s all about the impact of your core story idea. What genre would give your idea the maximum support in your effort to accomplish the things you love about it?
— Write Your Novel in a Month by JEFF GERKE (WD Books)
H: Form a HABIT
“My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was 12. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.”
— RAY BRADBURY (Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 203”)
I: Know Your IDEAL Reader
Direct your [novel] toward one archetypal reader or a like-minded group, and you’ll define your story in a way that enables others to believe it and to feel what you feel. You don’t have to know precisely what your story means in a larger sense … but you do need to know what you want your story to mean to your readers and how it will affect them.
— The Creative Compass by DAN MILLMAN & SIERRA PRASADA (HJ Kramer)
J: Keep a JOURNAL
One comfort I take from my journals is that regardless of where I am in the current novel, I can always peek back into the journals I’ve kept for previous books and discover I was just as confused and befuddled back then as I am today. Prior journals are reminders that regardless of past struggles, I did somehow manage to prevail. Having survived through two novels or five, or even 12, in my case, there’s some reason to suppose I’ll survive to write the next.
— Writing the Private Eye Novel by SUE GRAFTON (WD Books)
K: KILL Your Darlings
“The best technique,” Henry Miller once remarked, “is no technique at all.” Which is probably true. But Miller might have added that to attain “no technique” takes years of study and practice. Plainspoken writing looks easy. But to write plainly, transparently, takes modesty, discipline and saintly restraint. The result goes down like a glass of clean cold water, and is as hard to argue with.”
— 179 Ways to Save a Novel by PETER SELGIN (WD Books)
L: LET Characters Influence Plot
A character in a particular situation will react in a wide variety of ways based on his personality and the relationship he may have to other characters and the setting. If the entire plot is worked out in advance and the author simply peoples it with characters to carry out the action, the characters will seem stiff and unreal.
— Writing Great Books for Young Adults by REGINA BROOKS (Sourcebooks)
M: MANAGE the Middle
After you’ve strengthened the foundation of your story, you face the hard work of building the middle. Most sag. Not enough happens. The central conflict is not pushed terribly far. The main problem doesn’t become extreme. For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.
— Writing 21st Century Fiction by DONALD MAASS (WD Books)
We all want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be a story. Some of us want to know nothing else— there is nothing in us but primeval curiosity, and consequently our other literary judgments are ludicrous. And now the story can be defined. It is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence—dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on. Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.
— Aspects of the Novel by E.M. FORSTER (Harcourt)
O: OPEN Strong
A good opening suggests the nature of the story about to be told. It locates the reader, if not in the story’s place and time, then in the approach of the story—its tone and narrative stance.
— The Writer’s Idea Book by JACK HEFFRON (WD Books)
P: PLOT, PLOT, PLOT
“The important parts are the prime plot elements ... the peripheral elements spin off of those, sometimes affecting things directly, sometimes not, but you play them out because they are useful.”
— TOM CLANCY (WD Interview, January 2001)
Q: Don’t QUIT
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
— GEORGE ORWELL
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. … Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. Th is is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.
— The Elements of Style by WILLIAM STRUNK JR. & E.B. WHITE (Penguin)
S: SOUND It Out
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noises words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. Th is is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.
— Steering the Craft by URSULA K. LE GUIN (Mariner)
Every great story, regardless of genre, will include a twist. Why? Readers want to be both satisfied and surprised. The more they can decipher exactly where a story is going, the more disappointed they’ll be. However, if the events of the story aren’t causally related, they’ll feel just as let down. … Satisfying twists are revelatory in the sense that they add new meaning to all that precedes them.
— Story Trumps Structure by STEVEN JAMES (WD Books)
U: UNLOCK the Truth
“But the truth is, it’s not the idea, it’s never the idea, it’s always what you do with it.”
— NEIL GAIMAN
V: Use Your VULNERABILITY
As in life, so in fiction. Vulnerability creates a kind of undertow, pulling us toward a character who is wounded or imperfect, and that attractive force is far more important than whether the character is “likeable.” People will accept a certain degree of unpleasantness, even outright evil, in a character as long as she remains compelling, which relies far less on her being pleasant than on her being engaged in a meaningful struggle.
— The Art of Character by DAVID CORBETT (Penguin)
W: Watch Your WORDS
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
— MARK TWAIN
XYZ: Be Your Own XYZ
The same, but different is what publishing is all about in today’s challenging marketplace. Publishers are looking for something the same as [insert your favorite bestseller here], but different. “Just like a bestselling XYZ,” because this proves there is a market for this kind of book. But it should also be different enough to set it apart from the bestseller and to distinguish itself in a marketplace full of similar stories.
— Plot Perfect by PAULA MUNIER (WD Books)