Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to Write a Novel

Note: This is how to write a novel…not how to write a best selling or successful novel. There are no ‘How to make $$$ selling your Writing!!1!’ tips here.

1) Come up with an idea

I think the biggest question successful writers get asked is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ I think people assume that successful writers are gifted literary magicians that have access to some secret psychic storehouse filled with best sellers, hit TV shows and blockbuster movies. I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question, so I’m supplying one of my own:

Ask yourself some questions.

It’s that simple. Start them with ‘What if?’.

What if I could see the future? What if I found out my best friend was a superhero? What if I won the lottery? What if I was framed for a crime I didn’t commit? What if aliens landed? What if magic was real? What if terrorists took over the White House?

Bam! Idea. It may be the Greatest Idea Ever™ or it may suck donkey balls. The point is, you have a concept to build on.

Brag Guigar once said that there are no ‘bad ideas’, just ‘ideas’ executed poorly. Bear this in mind.

2) Think about the idea for a day or two.

Let’s pick one from the list above. Let’s go with ‘What if magic was real?’

What would that mean? Would it be commonplace and ordinary; or rare and dangerous? Maybe magic people are the ruling classes and treat the non-magical like slaves. Maybe magical people are rare and taken from their families and birth and forced to serve a shadowy Government. Is magic an in-born thing, or can it be acquired?

We have a million possibilities from that one idea. Maybe your protagonist is forced to hide his magical abilities to avoid becoming an outcast. Maybe your protagonist is the one non-magical person in a world filled with wizards. Maybe he’s part of an elite magical special forces unit. Maybe he’s a magical person who turns on his own people and leads the ‘norma’l people in a revolution.

Maybe he’s the only person who can do real magic in the world, and works as a stage magician, doing impossible tricks until he’s found out.

3) Come up with a plot

There are a hundred different ways to do this, but what works for me is to be a little vague. I prefer to set up a handful of landmarks rather than go into detail.


Because as you write your story, whatever is in your head at the beginning will change as you go along. Your characters will develop personalities and become real people. You’ll discover things about them you hadn’t considered in a million years and, most importantly, you’ll come up with awesome ideas on the spur of the moment. Being a little vague allows you to easily fold these flashes of inspriation into the story.

For example, maybe you originally wrote that your hero has a faithful companion who sticks by his side through his trials and tribulations. Then, halfway through, you realize it would be really cool if the faithful companion turned out to be league with the Big Bad. Maybe he betrays the hero, but has a change of heart in the final confrontation. Maybe it turns out the Big Bad isn’t the Big Bad at all, but a puppet of your hero’s evil turncoat companion!

If you’ve already plotted out your story to the minute detail, it’s much harder to take advantage of these ‘Ah Ha!’ moments. When you’re fifty thousand words in, it’s really hard to stop and re-evaluate your whole story, especially if it means scrapping the rest of your meticulously detailed plot.

Those ‘Ah-Ha!’ moments are the best part about writing. When you realize that vanilla scene where the hero talks to his companion suddenly takes on a whole new meaning when you realize the companion is a bad guy. Or when you realize for the first time that the magic amulet the companion gave the hero to ‘protect him’ is how the Big Bad has been tracking him all along.

Let me put it this way. There was no way in hell Joanne Rowling knew that Scabbers the Rat was really Peter Pettigrew in disguise when she wrote Philosopher’s stone, or that Riddle’s Diary was a Horcrux when she wrote Chamber of Secrets. Nor did Tolkien know that the magic ring Bilbo found in ‘The Hobbit’ was the ‘One Ring’.

Being a little vague gives you much more flexibility. It’s the reason non-writers look at a series of books and wonder what kind of amazing genius brain could come up with all these intricate, weaving storylines ahead of time. The answer is no brain can. The writer just comes up with the idea halfway through book three that it would be really cool if the best friend’s pet rat was really an evil wizard in hiding.

4) Write the damn thing.

Okay, here’s the deal. Write every single day, even when you don’t feel like it.

Secondly, do not read what you’ve written until you’re completely finished. When you turn on your computer, read the last couple of sentences to get yourself up to speed and remember where you left off… then start writing. If you decide to read what you’ve got so far, you’ll want to edit…and that’s for later. If you start editing now, you’ll spend hours tinkering with what you have and end up stuck.

For now, just concentrate getting the words down on paper. You’re writing a first draft, not a completed novel. Editing at this point is like building a car and spending a week setting the presets on the radio just right before the engine’s even in place or the wheels are bolted on. Get your foundation in place first, refine later.

There will come a point about halfway through, where you will decide everything you’ve written is crap. You’ll decide the story doesn’t work and you’ll have no idea why you even thought the idea was any good in the first place. This is normal. It’s because that absolutely perfect, completely flawless idea in your head is becoming a real thing…and real things have flaws. Just keep writing until you write ‘The End’.

5) Take a break

So you’ve finished your first draft. Now is the time to start polishing, right?


Now is the time to put your story in a drawer for a couple of weeks and think about something else. Seriously. Do everything you can to forget about it.


Because you’re looking for some distance from your novel. After a couple of weeks you’ll pick it up, start reading… and a wonderful thing will happen. It’ll be like reading a whole new story. The distance will give you a whole new perspective and you’ll be reading your novel in the way a whole new reader would.

For example, you’ve probably spent months writing these characters. You know them better than anyone. You know that Cedric is totally in love with Agnes, so of course he wouldn’t think twice about leaping in front of Dr. Apocalypto’s Evil Death Ray of Evil Death to save her.

But then you read your story. Suddenly you realize that even though weeks passed between the time you wrote Cedric and Agnes’ first meeting and the scene where they totally do the nasty…in actual story time, it’s about twenty five pages. To someone who hasn’t spent months thinking about these characters and has no idea what you intended them to be…suddenly you realize that the pure and true love between Cedric and Agnes that you know they have suddenly looks like a cheap, tawdry one night stand, a relationship comes from nowhere… and then Cedric sacrifices himself for a girl he barely knows.

Oops, time to write a few more scenes, I reckon. Time to re-jigger the timeline so Agnes is the delicate, chaste flower you wanted her to be. The innocent blossom who falls deeply in love with the hero based on his obvious qualities, not the complete whore who basically says “OMG You totes shamed that boi who was annoying me! I can haz ur penus???”

6) Rewrite, edit, get feedback

Stephen King once said you write with the door closed, edit with the door open. This is great advice. Don’t show your work to anyone until it’s finished. Wait until you’ve got a decent second draft, then show it to people and ask for opinions.

However, choose these people carefully, and ask them what they don’t like or what they’d change…not if they like it. Asking someone if they like your work is pointless because 99% of the time, they’ll tell you it’s awesome to save your feelings. You’re looking to improve your work, not get an ego boost.

Then, if everyone says they hate something you love. Cut it. If everyone says they love something you hate, keep it. If half the people say they like something and the other half don’t, it’s a wash…use your judgment.

Take your ego out of the equation. It’s really easy to say “These people have never written anything, they don’t understand my genius! They’re all wrong!” Well, sorry, dude…these people represent your final audience. It’s them you have to please, not yourself.

7) Profit!

Not really…

If this is your first novel, especially if you’ve never written before, I hate to say it, but it’s probably not going to be very good. So if all your hard work isn’t going to make you a gajillion dollars, what was the point?

Well, the point is, you’ve had the experience of writing a novel. That puts you light years ahead of most people. Your next one will be better, the one after that, better still.

If I had to give one single tip, it would be this: Enjoy the process. If you consider writing to be a horrible chore, something you have to do before you become a famous best-selling author with a movie deal…writing probably isn’t for you.

In my entire life I’ve had three short stories published (that is, published by magazines that actually paid me for them), but before those very minor successes (I think the most popular magazine had a readership of maybe 150 people) and my Rejection Letter to Paycheck ratio is about 500:1

I know it’s impossible to actually write without picturing some sort of success or recognition at the end, but enjoy the journey, don’t focus on the destination.

1 comment: said...

thanks for the taking the time to write out your tips.