Rules for Writing for the Novice Novelist

Friday December 17, 2010 | By Hieronymus Hawkes | Blogging

A friend of mine asked me if I could pass along some of what I have 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  This is all from the perspective of a novice unpublished writer, but I have done my homework, and learned a few things along the way.
  • Choose your voice for the story and be consistent.   I think most authors will tell you to avoid present tense, so past tense is the most common method.   Third person narrative is the most common, but books are also written in first person, Twilight by Stepanie Meyers is a good example, and second person, Halting State by Charles Stross is a good example of this form, but is fairly rare.  There 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.
  • 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.  There lots of ways to skin the cat.  The two most prominent that I know 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.
    • 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.
  • When you are writing your first draft don’t stop to edit unless there is something in the flow of the story that needs fixed in order to move forward.  Stopping and restarting will have you writing the first three chapters of the book over and over and never getting any farther.  Just keep moving ahead and don’t look back.  The revision process will take care of all that other stiff.
  • 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 to get a plot idea and some characters and start writing an actual story.
  • The beginning of the book should grab the reader.  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.  Try starting in the middle of a scene when the action is tense.  The idea is to get in as late as you can and out as early as you can.  Most publishers and agents are going to ask for the first three chapters or X number of pages, but they want to see the beginning.  Most writers I’ve talked to recommend skipping the prelude idea, just start your novel there if it’s that interesting.  It is situation dependant. 
  • Show, don’t tell.  This means let the action play out, don’t just describe it in summary form.  Action sequences should be shown, and using shorter sentences moves the action along for a faster pace during these sequences.  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.
  • 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.  If the info isn’t germane to THIS story it doesn’t need to be included.
  • Every chapter should have a purpose and move the story forward.
  • Know the rules of grammar.  You can say anything but punctuate it properly.  This may not sound important but it is a huge red flag to people that might buy your work that you don’t know your craft.  I wish now that I’d paid a lot more attention in all those English classes.
  • 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’s ideal.  The whole trick is to write, as often as you can, then write some more.  Did I say that enough?
  • Read your book out loud to make sure it flows.  Get a partner for this part if you can.
    • 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.
  • Too much technical jargon or unusual language is going to lose your reader, or slow down the pace of the story.  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.
  • My personal pet peeve is overdoing the descriptives.  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.
  • 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 away any good prose.  I keep a boneyard for all my ideas that you can salvage from later.
  • Avoid passive voice, using “be” verbs will usually sound weak and can be avoided by using action verbs where possible.  
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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 barrowed an idea from Brandon Sanderson for keeping track of story ideas.  I do 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.
  • I love listening to writing podcasts also, my favorite is Writing Excuses these guys are successful writers and have a plethora of good advice for aspiring writers.
  • 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.
  • 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 the exception, not the norm.
  • Have faith in yourself and be prepared for rejection, it’s likely going to happen, a lot. 
  • Once you finish the manuscript, hand it off to a first reader, more than one if you can.  The purpose of the first reader is to see if you actually told the story you intended.  Sometimes phrasing doesn’t work or misleads the reader and your first reader can find these problems.  Use people that will 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.  Don’t argue with them, and believe me, there is going to be a strong compulsion to convince them you are right.  When you are getting the same critique from multiple people its not them, it’s you.
  • Don’t overedit.  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 a lot 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 passes is probably enough to get the big stuff: errors, continuity and first 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.
  • 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:
  • Once you are ready to submit your novel get it in the mail and START ON THE NEXT BOOK.
  • If you don’t have any luck getting a big time publisher to buy your book you can always self-publish and there are lots of ways these days to do this.  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 book to every English speaking market on the globe.
Good luck on your writing!

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