So you’re writing a novel. Or you want to. And no matter how many novels you’ve read, you’ve probably found out that writing one is a completely different story.
Even if you’re an experienced non-fiction writer—maybe a blogger or a freelance writer—there’s a lot to learn when it come to fiction writing. And the best place to get information and advice is from other writers.
Now you might be extraordinarily gifted, and maybe you’re able to turn what you’ve learned from reading novels into a best-selling novel on your first try. But that doesn’t happen often, if ever. No writer writes in a vacuum. You need information and feedback from somewhere, whether from books and online articles or advice from experienced, well-read writerly friends.
Even the ancient Greeks discussed and dispensed writing advice. And while Aristotle’s Poetics, written in 335 B.C.E., focuses mainly on drama (plays), specifically tragic drama, much of his advice applies to the modern novel, even though novels weren’t quite the thing back in those days. (Making papyrus was time consuming, after all, and hardly anyone could read anyway.)
Here are 25 great articles that cover just about everything you need to write a novel. Loads of solid information, tips, tricks, suggestions, and ideas. I’ve chosen them carefully, and they’re worth checking out.
Some of the articles cover standard basics in different ways. Others are more specific or relate personal experience. Either way, if you want to know how to write a novel (or just want to learn more or brush up), here’s the place to start.
This is a fabulous collection of information. It covers brainstorming for story ideas straight through to the final scene. It’s based on a book by Karen Wiesner called First Draft in 30 Days, and even if you’re not quite ready to write or need a lot more time than that, it’s a fabulous resource.
“Writing a novel can be daunting. But introducing structure to the process can help you maintain momentum over the course of a month without hampering creativity.”
Here’s some practical advice based on personal experience that will appeal especially to parents or goal-oriented business folks. Bloggers, too, will appreciate it, especially if you follow (or once followed) all the whip-crackin’ motivators and uber-productivity experts we all know and, um, maybe, love.
“So here are my non-rules for writing, arrived at after trying every other rule under the sun and realizing that, at the end of the day, your writing process must be as free and thoughtful as you wish your writing products to be.”
If you’re a James Patterson fan, you’ll love this little story that’s packed with anecdotal advice. Mark Sullivan unabashedly discusses commercial fiction techniques he’s learned as James Patterson’s coauthor.
“‘What most people who attempt commercial fiction don’t understand is that you have to write the way people talk,’ Patterson told me at our first meeting.”
This article discusses the basic elements of a novel in tiers, from most important to less important. But all elements of a novel are important—you can’t have a great setting or plot or even great characters without some conflict and action and some sort of motivation. From broad to narrow or from general to detailed is another way to put it. Either way, it’s solid information every fiction writer needs to know.
“Confused about what constitutes the necessary elements of fiction? Confusion isn’t difficult to achieve since there are as many explanations of the elements as there are writers, teachers of writing, editors, and students of the craft. But most agree on the basics. Or maybe I should call them the most basic of basics.”
You can always count on Jane Friedman to supply accurate, trustworthy information about any kind of writing. She’s a pro in the publishing world, an in-demand speaker at conferences around the world, and she teaches publishing at the University of Virginia. Plus she writes fab articles on her blog.
Oh, right. About writing a synopsis. Sure, an agent or publisher will want to see one, but writing a synopsis can also help you define your story in 500-600 words or less. Or be lenient on yourself and shoot for 1000 words. Try writing one (or ten) long before you have to, especially if you’re bogged down and can’t see where your story is going.
“The synopsis ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. A synopsis will reveal any big problems in your story—e.g., the whole thing was a dream, ridiculous acts of god, a genre romance ending in divorce. A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure. A synopsis also can reveal how fresh your story is; if there’s nothing surprising or unique, your manuscript may not get read.”
Don’t write an outline. Write what you don’t know. Be realistic. Create flawed characters. This short article will give you inspiration to take a “deep swim into your own head space.” Check it out.
“The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there are no easy answers. The second thing you need to know is that there’s no magic formula. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world.”
If you’re the academic or classroom sort, this article will appeal, but it’s great for anyone who wants to write a novel. It’s in three parts, and it covers all the basics you need to know: plot, character (protagonist and antagonist), theme, conflict, crisis, resolution, and point of view. Plus, in Part Three, you get suggested reading and some great exercises.
You have to tell some things, and that’s all there is to it. A novel that only “shows” is like a person who never speaks but, instead, tries to pull off some sort of passive-aggressive stunt. Watch me! You’ll get what I mean if you watch my body language! Um, no. We won’t. Not always. And besides, guessing isn’t much fun.
“Show-Don’t-Tell is sound advice—up to a point. Nobody wants to read a novel that’s a dry recitation of incidents. . . . But a whole lot of writers, especially newbies (and the dreaded “writing rules police“) take the Show-Don’t-Tell thing way too far and turn it into an unbreakable rule. That can make for some murky, slow, and downright boring fiction.”
Outlining is a good thing, but it’s not for everyone.
“There are lots of degrees of plotting, planning and pre-writing, and for the newer novelist, extensive outlining can be helpful. There is nothing more comforting than having a road map when the going gets tough. But for writers striving to create something unique and surprising . . . I’m going to ask you to consider a different tack: Don’t plan. Write.
I’m lucky. Even though I’m working on my first novel (and I have challenges like anyone), I have seven years of studying writing and literature in college and many more years of freelance writing and editing under my belt. So I know what a successful novel needs, even though it’s not so easy to make that happen in 80,000 words or less.
Funny thing, though. I started my current work-in-progress with the protagonist hitting the alarm clock and getting out of bed. Classic beginner stuff! But I’m thinking I’ll keep it. The first line of Franz Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis features Gregor Samsa waking up, after all.
“Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy’s happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling. They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.”
I love reading Chuck Wendig’s blog posts. Not only does he know what he’s talking about, but he’s also hilarious. If you can handle F-bombs, that is. But his advice is always spot on, and that’s what counts.
“I’m a panster at heart, plotter by necessity — and I always advocate learning how to plot and plan because inevitably someone on the business side of things is going to poke you with a pointy stick and say, “I want this.” Thus you will demonstrate your talent. Even so, in choosing to plot on your own, you aren’t limited to a single path. And so it is that we take a look at the myriad plotting techniques (“plotniques?”) you might use as Storyteller Extraordinaire to get the motherfucking job done. Let us begin.”
You can read all day about how you should do something. Why not learn what not to do?
“There are a lot of ways not to do something. Like the new boat owner a few years ago who was filling up his pleasure craft with fuel for that first time out. Only he mistook the tube meant to hold fishing poles for the gas tank. After completing his work he started up the engine.
The gas fumes ignited and blew the boat owner into the sky. He came down in the drink and was rescued, but the boat was a goner.
You can be just as creative in finding ways not to write your novel. With a little thought and not much effort, you can easily devise methods to prevent yourself from actually finishing a book—or finishing a book that has a chance to sell.”
Here are some great ways to outline your novel. And honestly, although I’m pretty much a “pantser,” I think outlining is great, too. I start outlining, however, after I’ve written things out to see what I’ve got.
“Outlining isn’t a moral imperative, and it doesn’t work for everyone. But even if you are a “pantser” (a.k.a. “a discovery writer”), there are some noteworthy advantages worth exploring.”
These are fairly general tips, but they’re worth reading. And you might need to read the general tips in as many versions as possible so they sink in and guide you as you write.
“Stick with 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.”
If you want to write romance (or any genre, really), the best place to start is with reading romance. And if you don’t like romance novels, why write one?
“Saying that every genre or subgenre has its conventions doesn’t mean that the fiction is formulaic or predictable. Instead, it is simply an acknowledgment that every field has its parameters. Readers of mystery fiction expect a crime at some point while readers of horror fiction want to be frightened or disturbed. Similarly, romance readers generally expect a story about protagonists who are in love and face some obstacle to being together—even though, in some cases, the reader may recognise that the two are in love long before the protagonists do.”
16. Writing Romance
Romance novels aren’t as easy to write as you might think. You have not only one but two or more main characters to develop, and even if the story is written from the point of view of just one character, each has to be fully fleshed out. And you definitely don’t want to be the winner of the Bad Sex award, as my bud Morrissey was.
“Writing romance is not easy. You have to make sure your hero and heroine have clear and defined growth throughout the story. This growth comes from their growing interest in one another and the obstacles they encounter through the plot and subplots.”
Even if fantasy isn’t your thing, you’ll pick up some great tips on POV, inspiration (where do these authors get their ideas from?), writing complex emotions like grief, and “grey” characters.
“Just like in the real world, my characters are only here for a short time; the important thing is that love, passion, empathy, laughter; even laughing in the face of death, is still possible. There is darkness in the world but we don’t have to give way to despair. One of the best themes in The Lord of the Rings is that despair is the ultimate crime. Winter is coming, but you can light the torches and drink the wine and gather around the fire and continue to fight the good fight.”
As with advice to write a novel in any genre, most of the tips here are great for almost anyone. Foreshadowing, suspense, danger, and sympathetic characters are essential in any good novel, to some degree, even young adult. (Will she kiss him after the party? What will her friends think? What if her parents find out? Oooh, scary stuff!)
“Suspense depends on much the same qualities as does good writing in general: that is, on vivid characters with whom readers can empathize, on a keen sense of what those characters are aiming for, and on understanding the consequences if they fail to achieve their ends. When suspense works, readers are agitated by fear or fervent curiosity or palpable dread. Their hearts are thumping, their nerves are a-tingle. They’re powerfully invested in what happens next.”
From the apps and tools they use to outlining, revising, and editing, this collection of tips from successful authors are for writers of all genres. And some are definitely unique! There’s something here for anyone who wants to write a novel.
Here’s Helen Hanson’s tip: “Before releasing a manuscript into the wild, I need to hear it. The sultry voice on my computer reads the entire story to me, so I can cull any dissonant phrases such as, “Chester gestured.” It looked well enough on the screen. But when I heard it aloud, I winced. To me the lyrical quality of my words—their rhythm—is as important as the information they convey.”
Go ahead. Write a novel with a prologue, give ‘em an infodump, end your novel with no chance of a series, write in the present tense, and create a main character who’s 100% evil and completely unlikable. Why not?
“We’re not saying you must break any of the rules below. You can craft a brilliant work of fiction while still following all of the rules below. And most of these rules exist for a reason — because if you break them without knowing what you’re doing, you can screw up horrendously.”
I’ve read loads of literary fiction and heaps of popular fiction too. Even self-published ebooks that sorely need an editor but have a great storyline and memorable characters. But what’s the difference between literary fiction and the novels you can buy at a grocery store? It’s a fine line sometimes, but this writer does a good job of explaining.
“In literary fiction, the prose should be lyrical, elegant, and layered. In a lot of genre fiction, there is a desire for mass appeal, so an elevated language would certainly turn off or eliminate a lot of your audience.”
Writing YA can be challenging, especially if you’ve never read much of it. Although I read classics like the Little House books and Little Women along with animal stories like Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion and Old Yeller, by the time I was in my teens I read whatever my mom or older sister was reading, which was more like George Orwell’s 1984 or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
These days, though, YA is super popular. But as an adult, you have to get out of your own head and into your young reader’s head.
“I’ve said this before, but it’s important: there is an enormous difference between intelligence and experience, and teens are far from stupid. Yes, they make decisions that adults feel are stupid, but guess what? Adults make decisions teens feel are stupid, too.”
Has anyone ever asked you “what genre is your novel?” It might fit neatly into the psychological thriller category, or maybe it’s a dystopian fantasy or romance. But what if you’re not quite sure? If you don’t know your genre, you won’t know who your audience is, you won’t impress an agent or publisher, and you won’t know how to categorize it if you’re self-publishing. This list can help, too.
First pages of novels are critical. If you can’t hook readers right away, you’ve lost them. This is an excellent analysis of one of Stephen King’s first pages, and it’s easy to do with your own. Just use the checklist.
“In all honesty, after reading a few pages, I probably would have quit. I’m not enough of a King fan to keep muddling through pages of backstory and excessive narrative.”
PS I agree. If I didn’t know that was Stephen King, I probably wouldn’t keep reading.
You’re never too old, I say. But don’t take my word for it. Better to read John Yeoman’s words since he is, in fact, 68 years old. Which isn’t very old anyway.
“I have a bus pass, ten pairs of spectacles in my sock drawer and – at age 68 – the crotchety disposition that arrives only when you overhear your neighbour describe you as ‘that funny old fellow next door’. Yes, I am old. But too old to write a best-seller?”
And there you have it! Fabulous advice on how to write a novel that will keep you busy for days. Or weeks and even months. Bookmark it or save it as a PDF or print it out with the little green buttons just below (on the left) so you can refer to it easily. This is stuff you simply have to know if you’re going to write a novel that sells.
Note: The spelling and punctuation inconsistencies reflect that of each author I’ve quoted. It’s easy to see who’s using British English and who follows The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook!
Comments and questions are always welcome. And if this is helpful to you, spread the love and give it a share!