How to write a novel you want to read

The magic of books

So in the previous post, “Writing is like reading, only better”, I wrote about what’s great about writing a novel: you can write one that suits your tastes in every particular. Actually accomplishing this can be easier said than done, however. Here are a few tips I’ve used along the way.

What the heck is my taste?

Cheetah with popcornDon’t have an idea yet that you’re dying to write? Then this tends to be the first hurdle. If you don’t know what you love, how can you produce it? Actually, this part is fairly easy, as long as you like reading and are willing to be honest with yourself. (And if you don’t like reading, but still want to write, well you’re going to have a really hard time, because nothing teaches you writing as well as seeing how other people do it.)

Here’s something to try. Make a list of some of your favorite novels. For each of them, ask yourself what made you like it. Was it the strong internal conflict keeping the protagonist from his goal? The funny sidekick? The vivid setting that came alive on the page? The twisty plot, keeping you on your toes? The sparkling dialog?

Once you’ve identified what drew you to each novel, try to look for a common pattern. Are they all romantic? Humorous? Suspenseful? Do they all have a similar setting (urban, rural, historical, futuristic, …)?

Sometimes, you think you know what you’d love to write about, but discover when you start that another aspect is taking over, like a subplot or a character arc. This is a big hint. Maybe you’re writing a romantic suspense, but the suspense plot starts to become more and more intricate, and you realize that oops, it’s been five chapters since last you wrote about the hero, and the heroine hasn’t even missed him once, and you don’t blame her because, really, he was rather annoying in the first place. Well, maybe you’d be happier ditching your annoying hero and turning the novel into a mystery where, why not, you make him the murderer your heroine has to uncover.

I know my taste, but I don’t know how to write

Fox writingWriting, like all things, takes practice. There are a million articles written about the craft of writing, far beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re still at the stage where you’re staring at an empty page, this is probably not the time to read them. Just give it a try. Write something, anything. (Tell yourself it’s just for practice, if you’re the perfectionist sort.) Think about something you like and dive in. Try a scene. Try another. When you feel like it, look at what you’ve written and consider whether you’re accomplishing what you want. Rinse, repeat.

I’m writing, but it’s not any good

Well, this is where we enter the nebulous realm of The Method. Or rather, the Methods. Everyone has their own, and it may or may not fit you. Maybe you like to dive in and discover the story as you’re writing it. Or you like to plan out the key moments first. Or you like a detailed outline. The only way to find out is to be open the different methods and try them out. My one advice is that if you’re anything like me, you finish the first draft before starting to tear it apart, or you risk destroying the good stuff together with the bad.

Once you have a complete draft though, and you still think it sucks (like first drafts, after all, are wont to do), what to do? Well, you follow these “easy” steps:

1. You determine what you love about the book
2. You determine what’s wrong with it
3. You fix it.

Easier said that done? Well, yes. Just as there are infinite ways to introduce a bug in a program, I’m convinced there are infinite ways to wreck a book. That said, how to revise a novel is a subject that doesn’t seem to be much written about. You could easily fill books about it, but here’s a quick and dirty:

  • What do you want the book to be about? If you don’t know, it’ll be really hard to know you’ve hit the finishing line.
  • What do you love, now? Scenes, characters, subplots? Identify these early on, as it’s the stuff you want to be sure to keep.
  • Have you been honest with your characters, and their reactions? If you’re holding back, it’ll show, and you won’t be satisfied.
  • Did you have fun writing about the characters? Note that you don’t have to like them, necessarily—antagonists, for one, are often not that likable—but if you were bored or annoyed every time you wrote a character, chances are he’s ended up boring or annoying to read about.
  • Do your characters have goals, and do they work towards them? Protagonists tend to work better with strong goals, but all characters, like all people, should have some goal, even if it’s mundane and short-term, like “Finish work quickly so I can get home to watch my favorite TV show”.
  • Does your plot make sense? Go through the plot step by step, either on index cards or just make a list of events. Does one thing follow another? (Good) Do things happen for no reason? (Bad)
  • Do you have good pacing? This is more of a rhythm thing. If you’re the visual type (like me), you can try imagining your novel scene by scene as if it were a movie. Does it seem to flow? Or, you can try assigning a tension level to each scene, say 1 to 10. The tension can go up and down, but should tend to rise towards the end.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned line editing. That’s because if you do it early on, you risk wasting a lot of time, e.g. polishing dialog for characters you later realize you’d do better to cut completely. Top-down is the way to go here., i.e. big to small changes. So switch protagonist before you change the ending, change the ending before you remove a subplot etc. And if you know there are several things to change, it really helps to make a plan, before you start diving into the text itself.

Good luck!


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