How to write a novel

Someone on Twitter asked me for advice about writing a novel. For your Monday Morning Question, let’s everyone give her a piece of advice. Either from the perspective of a writer (if you are) or as a reader (which you definitely  are!)

Here’s mine:

1) Write about something you love, and characters you love. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them, so they might as well be people on whom you’ll lavish your time willingly.

2) Have reasonable expectations for yourself. And experiment a little at first to find out what those expectations should be.

3) Read a lot. Read widely. Read in the genre you’re writing. But don’t try to write your own version of someone else’s book.

4) Learn the rules before you feel free to break them.

5) Make sure the main character solves the main conflict.

6) Get to know your characters, but leave  room for  them to surprise you.

7) Don’t let a critic destroy your self-confidence, but if every reader says the same thing, it benefits  you to listen.

8 ) Epic battles don’t engage the reader. Individuals within the epic battles do.

9) Don’t share your first drafts. Write crappy rough drafts without looking for perfection on the first shot. The reason to have a rough draft is to have a splendid second draft.

10) Write because your soul requires it, not because you have a “message.” If you have a “message,” call Western Union. If you have a story, write a story.

What else, guys? Share away in  the comments box, or if you prefer, on your own weblog (and I’ll link to it).


  1. Cricket

    Put all the great ideas into your novel. Earthquakes and comets and tragic love and misunderstandings and the best name in the world and secret strength and …

    That way, they’re out of your system, and you can be more selective for your second.

    Believe you will write a second, and third, and fourth novel. There will be time for all your ideas.

    Find your favourite line, and cut it. After that, the rest is easy.

    When you cut something, copy it to a byte bucket. It’s good stuff, and may find a proper home elsewhere, but is cluttering up your current project. In the meantime, keep it safe in the byte bucket. This is much easier than deleting it. (I’ve sometimes sent great bits to my beta readers, so they can look after them for me while they’re waiting for a home.)

    I agree with the message thing. If you have to explicitly state it, it’s only grafted on to the story, so detracts. If you have to change the story to fit the message, it’s the wrong message for the story. That’s not to say you can’t have one in mind while writing, but be prepared to toss it. Also, a narrow focus on one message can stop other messages that might fit better from developing.

    Write something English teachers will argue over.

  2. Ivy

    1- Don’t research the thing to death. Know your topic, sure, but then write. You can fix it up with fact finding in the second draft, when you know what facts you need to find.

    2- Write close to home. You know your city better than anyplace else, and you know the things that aren’t covered in travel guides. It’s the easiest place for you to bring alive.

    3- Write as close to every day as possible. It’s a skill like any other; you get better through practice.

    4- Pick up the inkwell and throw it across the room–hard. You character should walk, not ambulate, across the room.

    5- Make backups. You can get a free online file storage area from Microsoft (I think they call it Microsoft Live); a few other sites offer something similar. Or get a flash drive. The key is to have a backup. I’ve had the drive with every single one of my manuscripts crash and need to be formatted and trust me, at that moment, there is nothing like being able to restore it all in minutes.

    6- Consider a dip pen. I know it’s odd, but the pause required by dipping is like the pause required by breathing. It lets you have that quick rethink. Also, if a story won’t come on computer, try it long hand. Sometimes changing the medium helps. I don’t know why.

    7- “Said” is a very nice word. Don’t be afraid of overusing it.

    8- Read not just for pleasure, but to dissect how things work. If you want to see how dialog flows, grab a book and read the dialog in isolation. If you want to see how the structure works, outline it. It’s a kind of literary reverse engineering.

    9- Understand point of view. You need to let us see what your characters are thinking and feeling. Description is part of this. Compare “Two balls of yarn cluttered an otherwise open table.” to “Two balls of turquoise lace weight cashmere sat on the table, the first showing a bit of fraying, as if it had been knit up and ripped out a few times.” Interior monologue is a big part of this.

    10- (Insert evil self-promotion here) Listen to The Writing Cast ( for writing resources, tips, and author interviews.

  3. Raymond

    Write stories that you would read yourself. Ask yourself, if I were reading the first 20 to 40 pages of this book, would I keep reading to find out what happens next?

  4. Meredith Gould

    Even though I’m a nonfiction writer, I believe I share many of the same agonies and ecstasies with novelists. That said/assumed, my core counsel is this: Understand that the book writing process is just that — a process.

    Some days you’ll be in the zone and loving every moment, other days you’ll think yourself mad for even attempting to write anything. Try not to get too stuck in any of it!

    My other great advice: stay away from naysayers, ditching what Julia Cameron so wisely called “poisonous playmates.” Writing is tough enough without anyone else (other than you) questioning your sanity.

    For more about my own process, check out the posts titled: An Author’s Life on my blog:

  5. Karina Fabian

    Here’s one no one’s said yet:

    Understand that rejection is part of the business. It’s seldom personal and often isn’t even that you’re writing is bad, but that it’s a story they’ve done, not their style/angle, something they already have slated from someone else….

    Rejection letters with personal comments are gold. Read them, and think about what the editor said, esp. if they have suggestions. Generic rejections are the usual mode and are more a testimony to how busy an editor is than their opinion of you. Don’t be insulted by them.

    Whenever you send something out, know where you’ll send it next if it gets rejected. Do not let your works languish in your files.

    Karina Fabian
    Magic, Mensa and Mayhem: When the Faerie invade a Florida convention, one dragon’s headaches are your laughs.

  6. Penelope Marzec

    And never give up.

    Penelope Marzec

  7. michellebuckman

    Don’t worry about writing in order–I never do. Write whatever scene is most clear in your head.

    Find quiet time–even if it’s while you’re washing dishes or raking leaves–to help you develop characters and plot.

    Don’t just read; study. Study your favorite novels to see how those writers made you turn the page and what specifically engaged your interest. Study the paragraphs that created images that stuck with you to see how they formed the words into such strong visuals, and learn from it.

    Weave description into action so that it adds to character and plot.

    Be willing to change what you write, but understand why before you do.

    And after four throw-aways, I learned this: Don’t just write something that you’re passionate about; write something that will sell.

    Michelle Buckman
    Fiction that rethinks Life

    1. philangelus

      I want to add that Michelle Buckman is smarter than I am, but I have to write my novel in order otherwise character development gets hampered. So tip no. 11 from me would be “Don’t be afraid to find your own writing style.”

  8. cricketbeautiful

    Tip 11a: Don’t be afraid to experiment with your writing style, and change it as needed. Writing experience and the type of novel will change it.

    11b: Don’t take 11a to extremes. Find a way that seems right for this piece, and actually finish it.

  9. Judith

    And for structure, check out Randy Ingermanson and his Snowflake method. It might not work for you as well as it does for him, but seeing how he does it will give you additional perspective on how to write.

    Make sure you can define your novel in a single sentence, then expand to a paragraph or two. If you’re pitching your novel to an editor between the third and fourth floors on an elevator, you have to be succinct.

    Check him out here.

    And find a critique group that will help you refine your writing, support your aspirations, and provide honest, constructive feedback.

    Good luck.

  10. Theresa

    Write, write, write. It’s in the writing that you will find the answers. Give yourself permission to write badly, knowing that you will fix it in the rewrite.

    1. philangelus

      Even more than that, Theresa, it’s in writing that we’ll find the questions worth asking! Good advice.

  11. azauthor

    Thanks for all the good advice. I need to keep telling myself, “Sit down and write.” Janet LaPlante –

  12. MauiPotiki

    Ooh I like that list, especially the last one. I’m rather having trouble at the moment with the ‘why do I write’ question. Of late, I’ve solved it just be going with the flow. You have to like doing it, for sure.

  13. Arthur Powers

    Regarding Jane’s point 7) – if a number of respected critics say DIFFERENT things about a certain paragraph, chapter, character, situation – look at it closely. Critical readers can sense there is something wrong – it is not always easy for them to identify why and how it is wrong (identifying and correcting is your job).