Rules for Writing for the Novice Novelist

A few years back a friend of mine asked if I could pass along some of what I’ve learned over the past couple of years about trying to write a book.  I’ve tried to distill that info here.

I am focused on novel writing, so all of these ideas may not apply to poetry writing or something other than Novels or Novellas.  Please feel free to add in some comments that will help refine this.  This is all from the perspective of a novice unpublished writer, but I have done my homework, and learned a few things along the way.  These so called “rules” are merely guidelines.  There are no hard and fast rules.

Getting Started: Setting and Characters

There are a couple of ways to do this, and a couple of key ingredients that you need to start.  You are going to need to know the setting…intimately, at least for the actual places your characters will be.  This doesn’t mean you need to include every detail in the narrative, but you, as author, need to know how things work. 

The other key ingredient is the characters.   A strong protagonist and a strong antagonist are absolutely essential.  Other types of characters you might include are companion, or foil, for your main characters that will allow you to showcase certain aspects of your main characters, to bring out viewpoints or details about the background that might be needed to flesh out the world.  Another key character type is the relationship character, which will usually be at odds with the protagonist early and will mend the relationship by the end.

I recommend writing down everything you know about the character.  You don’t want to make them perfect people, interesting characters have flaws.  They need to be balanced.  Try writing a little bit in their POV to get to know them if you are stuck.  You don’t have to use any of this but it may help you understand the pathos of your character better, and they should all be suffering to one extent or another, otherwise, why are we writing about them.
 
A lot of people get hung up on world building.  They really like this part, and I can see the fun and the draw of that, but at some point you need stop world building, develop a plot idea, some characters and start writing an actual story.

Okay, so now you have some characters and a setting what do you do next?
 
Plots and Character Arcs

There are basically two types of arcs, an internal and an external.  The external is pretty straight forward, things happen in the world.  Usually your characters will react to these things and respond, making a new thing happen.  The external character arc is usually what people will refer to as the plot of the book.  A happens then B happens then C happens. 

The internal arc is about how your protagonist deals with things in their head.  The internal character arc is what the book is about.  The internal arc is more about how your character changes through the book, not how things in the external world change.

An Arc is exactly what it sounds like, rising action to the climax then falling action to the dénouement.   You can have multiple arcs and for novels you will have several hopefully.  A short story usually has one. For the longer piece you will have an overarching character Arc.  The big problem that needs to solved.  Inside of that you will have mini-arcs that tell a smaller story within the story, and different characters may be involved with each one.  You need to close each of these off before you end the story, unless perhaps it is part of a larger story arc involving multiple books.  

Each of these little arcs are like promises to the reader, and you need to keep your promises and solve the arcs or the reader will feel cheated.

The axiom is that the closer together you can resolve the external and internal arc and reconcile with the relationship character the more powerful the ending will be, ideally in the same chapter if that is possible.  A really great book for this concept is Wired for Story by Lisa Cron.

There are a couple of well-known formulas for setting up your story arc, for example: The Three Act Play, or the Hollywood Formula or 7 Part Story Structure.  There are lots of ways to skin the cat.

Point of View and Voice

Choose your voice for the story and be consistent. The POV is really going to set the tone for your narrative, so you need to think this through to see who will tell the most interesting story.

You have two tenses and three basic points of view to choose from and you can mix and match these giving you a wide variety of ways to tell your story.  Most established authors that I’ve spoken to or read about tell you to avoid present tense, leaving past tense as the most commonly used method.   Third person narrative is the prevailing approach, but books are also written in first person, Twilight by Stephanie Meyers is a good example, and second person, Halting State by Charles Stross is a good example of this form, but it’s fairly rare. 

There are also variations on how to use the third person in the form of omniscient, objective (primarily used for news reporting) and limited, which can lend itself to a narrator that is unreliable.  Unreliable just means you only see what the character sees and feel what the character feels, whether it’s a true representation of reality or not.  Third person works very well if you are changing the narrator. 

Each character will allow you to tell a different aspect of a story, but you will need to pick the one that tells the story you want or at least has access to all the important stuff.  You can use more than one Point of View character.  But please don’t jump heads in the middle of a paragraph, have the decency to have a definite break before you switch POVs. 

For each scene the POV character should have something at stake.  If they don’t have anything at stake for that scene then someone else should be the POV.  If nobody has anything at stake you might want to rethink keeping that scene.  As a general rule of thumb if you start a scene with one POV and switch, you should try to end the scene in the POV of the one you started with.

Pantsing or Outlining?

There is no right or wrong way to write a book.  The end goal is to have a finished story that makes sense and the reader is able to follow and enjoy.  The two most prominent that I am aware of are outlining and discovery.

Outlining is just what it implies; you make an outline then flesh it in and keep adding layers and detail to your outline in the form of story.

Pantsing, or maybe better known as Discovery Writing, is where you have a kernel of an idea and just start and let the story go where it wants.  I prefer a combination of the two, with a basic outline then start writing and adjust my outline as the story progresses.  Another common way for discovery writing is to get to where you are about what you think is 2/3 done then outline the ending to help you close the loop on your story.

Where do you start the story?

There is an oft quoted idea that says, “Get in as late as you can and out as early as you can.”  But this doesn’t necessarily mean you start like a James Bond Movie.  There is a lot of advice out there that says “start in the middle of the action,” but I’m not convinced that’s the best way to do it.

We need to have enough of a feel for the normal life and even a little empathy for the protagonist before we start blowing up his or her world.
The beginning of the book should grab the reader.   But what it really means is showing us why we should be interested in this particular protagonist.  What is different or interesting about him or her? This is not universal, I know a lot of established authors don't really follow this advice, but they already have a following.  To hook new readers you need to start out with an interesting passage.  Most editors and agents are going to ask for the first three chapters or X number of pages, but they want to see the beginning, so it should be your best stuff and include what is referred to as the hook.  The hook is just that thing that is interesting about your character or the story that will make someone want to read further. 

There have been attempts to study what makes people keep reading, of course it’s not universal, but if you have an interesting hook most readers will give you the benefit of the doubt and get through the first chapter.  If you hold them that long they will read more chapters until they are invested in the book and finish it.  Most readers are stubborn and once you hook them they won’t give up on a book unless you give them a reason to.

Prelude or not? Most writers I've talked to recommend skipping the prelude idea, just start your novel there if it's that interesting.  It is situation dependent. Again, this is not a hard and fast rule. 

Mechanics

The most important thing is to tell a good story.  It’s more important to tell a good story than to write well, but both are a plus, so learn your craft.

Show, don’t tell.  This means let the action play out; don’t just describe it in summary form.  Action sequences should always be shown.  There are parts of the story you can skim over with broad brush to avoid boring the reader, but too much of this makes the story feel empty.  Ideally you leave all the boring parts out.

Info dumps should be kept to a minimum or broken up into smaller bits and brought out in the right spots, preferably by one of your characters via conversation.

Know the rules of grammar.  You can say anything but punctuate it properly.  An excellent book for the essentials on clear, correct English is Strunk and White’s – Elements of Style
Another great resource is the podcast Grammar Girl.

Read your book out loud to make sure it flows.  Dialogue should be dynamic and not stilted, but written dialogue is not like real talking.  Leave out the “uhs,” the choppy unfinished sentences and stuttering unless you are trying to set a tone or particular character trait.

Minimize the use of strange language.  Too much technical jargon or unusual language is going to lose your reader, just pepper it in to give the feel and style you are trying to portray.  Ease the reader into it and you can use it a little more later on perhaps, once they get accustomed to what you’re doing.

Describe only what is needed.  My personal pet peeve is over-doing the description.  Most of us are not Nora Roberts.  Let’s not fool ourselves or overcompensate by describing every detail of something that really has no bearing on the story.  The idea here is to only describe things that might be different or things the character notices.  I know different people have different tastes on this and some well-known authors still do this, but if you are going to do it just know that I am probably skimming that part.

The Joy of discovery.  Sometimes your characters are going to take you places you hadn’t planned on.  This, to me, is one of the great joys of writing, but sometimes they will take you down a dead end or completely off course.  Then you will have to decide if the new direction is a better story or if it really is just going to derail the entire plot.  Save all this stuff though.  Don’t throw any good prose away.  I keep a boneyard for all my ideas that I can salvage things from later.

Use Active voice.   Passive voice is weak and tends to make you add a lot more words than you need.  It is appropriate at times to slow up the pace, but as a general rule active voice makes things happen in a style that creates action and movement, which will help hold the reader.  There is a place for passive voice and it will require some work to develop a feel for it.

Avoid editing and writing at the same time.  You write with the right side of your brain and edit with the left side.  Your creativity flows from the right side, so try to avoid mixing in left side stuff when you are in the creative mode.  You do use both sides at the same time or you wouldn’t be able to write, but if you avoid going back and changing a lot of stuff constantly while you are in creative mode you will likely have more success moving the story forward.

A good book on helping avoid passive voice and other editing tips is The 10% Solution by Ken Rand. 

I love using the thesaurus to avoid using the same word too often.  http://thesaurus.com/

Where do you get your ideas?

People ask all the time where you get your ideas from, but honestly once you actually start this writing thing as a regular part of your life the ideas just flow. 

Keep a notebook with you as much as possible and write down ideas as they come to you. 

Reading a lot helps, with style and tempo and form.  Read as much as you can.  But I know a lot of authors avoid stuff that is too close to what they are presently working on to avoid too much influence on their story (and lawsuits).

Dreams are often a good source of ideas.

I read lots of magazine articles on the subjects I’m interested in writing about.  For me Scientific American is a great source of ideas.

The web is a great source for ideas as well.  I stay up on news events in my area of interest also.

I love listening to writing podcasts.  My favorite is Writing Excuses. These guys and gal are successful writers and have a plethora of good advice for aspiring writers.

I borrowed an idea from Brandon Sanderson for keeping track of story ideas.  I use a Book Guide.  It is broken down into four sections: Character, Setting, Plot and Boneyard just flesh out the information for each section as you develop more of the ideas.  I find this helps immensely with continuity and just tracking down mundane stuff that you’ve put in the setting or how you spelled someone’s name, or the color of their hair, etc.

Habit patterns

Write as often as you can.  It’s best if you can develop a habit of writing.  If you can manage to get a regular time and place to write that is ideal.  The whole trick is to write, as often as you can.  Then write some more.  Did I say that enough?

Here is an interesting fact: 250 words is approximately one page for determining your novel length.  It takes about 15 minutes to half an hour to do that each day.  If you do that for a year you will have a novel length book.  Obviously if you can write for an hour or two each day you can pump one out a lot faster.

You may find that the more you write the better it flows and the ideas just start coming out of the wood work.  The imagination is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly.

Editing and Reviewing

Get a Writing Partner or two or three.  They write, and can be a free way to get good edits and ideas for where you went off course or just didn’t connect something properly.  Sometimes you have all that story in your head and you make assumptions that the reader knows things, when you haven’t actually made it clear.  A critique group is a great idea also. If you can’t find a local group, then look on the Internet.  There are lots of places to get free critiques.  One of the better ones I’ve used is Critters. Beta Readers can help with this also. 
Once you finish the manuscript hand it off to a first reader, one that is going to give you real feedback, not your mom, who loves you and won’t tell you the hard truth.  Listen to the critiques and make changes if you think their critique is valid. You don't have to take all, or any for that matter, but listen to what they are saying.

Don’t over edit.  Error checking is great and continuity checking is good, but your editor voice doesn’t have the same view of your work and if you do too much editing you may lose the magic that made your story work.  I read often that the first draft is often crap and you need to edit brilliantly, but the creative part of your story is going to come out on the first pass more than likely, so keep this in mind.  Three or four passes is probably enough to get the big stuff: errors, continuity and first reader/beta reader comments that show stuff that might require some tweaking is probably all you need.  Your mileage may vary here, but the idea is to let go at some point and start mailing out your story.

In the end you will want a professional editor and they do cost money.  If you can sell your book, then the publisher will provide this for you, but if you self-pub do everyone a favor and pay for one.

You’re done, now what?

If you are going to submit your writing to someone, whether agent or editor, follow the guidelines they lay down.    There are people that get picked up that don’t follow the rules but they are not norm.

Have faith in yourself and be prepared for rejection, it’s likely going to happen, a lot. 

Publishing cycle

Traditional publishing is going to take at least two years before you see your book in print.  It could be longer.  Many of them won’t want to publish more than one a year due to their seasonal release schedule and just not wanting to oversaturate, if that is even a real problem.  They also don’t give you a lot of information on sales, and payment can be delayed.  They will often give you money up front though, in the form of advances.  The value of the advance has been going down in recent years as the publishing industry has been in such turmoil, but from what I am reading lately things seem to be leveling off and traditional publishing is profitable again (for them). 

This is where self-publishing has a real advantage.  You can publish quickly, in a few days to get formatting right, and publish as frequently as you like.  I know several novelists that are publishing as many as four novels a year this way.  If you are a prolific writer and don’t want to wait on the traditional publishing cycle this is the way to go.
Agent or Not

There is a lot of discussion on this issue right now.  It will really depend on how much of the business side of things you want to take on.  If you don’t want to mess with any of it then an agent is probably the way to go.  If you can take the time to understand the business and work your own contracts then you probably don’t need an agent.  You can always use an independent editor and an attorney that specializes in book contracts to help you out here.  For more on this subject I would read through Dean Wesley Smith’s website on debunking the publishing industry myths: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860
Once you are ready to submit your novel get it in the mail and START ON THE NEXT BOOK.

Self-Publishing

If you don’t have any luck getting a big time publisher to buy your book or you simply just want to, you can self-publish and there are lots of ways these days to do this.  You will also keep a larger percentage of the book sale, and have a lot more velocity in the publishing cycle.  The down side is you have to pay for all marketing yourself and take care of all the business transactions, cover design, tracking for taxes, etc., yourself.

This tidbit is something I found in the comments section of one of Dean Wesley Smith’s blogs:

Put your novel up on Smashwords, which gets you to Sony, Nook, iBook, and other places. Cost: Free
Put your novel through CreateSpace in trade paperback form in POD. That gets it to Amazon. Cost: Free (or $39.00 if you want better distribution into all stores.)
Put your novel through LighteningSource in trade paperback form in POD. That gets it to Ingram. Cost: around $100.00

From what I gather that will pretty much get your books to every English speaking market on the globe.

Good luck on your writing!

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