How I Write Novels – Tips for New Writers
While most of the posts on here about self-publishing are going to be practical tools (tips on formatting, why you should have an ISBN, etc.), and far shorter, I figured it might be helpful to make a post about how to begin writing a book if you aren’t sure where to start.
I started writing when I was pretty young – about 12 – and my first story was a fan-fiction about this book called Greatheart by Dixie Lee McKeone (I still have it, though I haven't read it since I was 12). I can’t remember what made me think I could write my own story, but once I penned that first one (on my dad’s hand-me-down Dell laptop that ran Windows 3.1) I was hooked. I spewed out stories after that, finishing my first book when I was 15 (an egregious Games of Thrones rip-off that exists only in hard copy and should be burned).
How Long Should Your Book Be?
A Novella is generally considered to be anything between 10,000-40,000 words. As such, 50,000-words would be considered the absolute minimum for a novel (it puts you around 100 pages). If you’re considering your book for traditional publication, or don’t want to scare away readers (who sometimes don’t want a tome) keep it around 100K-words (or consider making it a two-part series or trilogy). Most publishers baulk at anything over 120,000-words if you're a first-time author. My novel, What Branches Grow, is 130,000-words (this made it 420 pages at 5.5 x 8.5 trim size, single space 12-pt font). As a comparison, my upcoming trilogy novels are around 80,000 each.
Reasons for Writing
There are a lot of ads out there that promise to help you “write a novel in six-weeks” (which isn’t unfeasible, though like everything on the internet, be wary of scams). I’ve written two romance novels as a ghostwriter where I churned out 50,000-words in three weeks, so it’s totally possible to conceptualize and write in that way. As such, in the ebook world, it seems there are two main reasons for writing a novel:
1. You want to crank out a book (or series) to try and make money.
2. You are writing because something compels you to do so.
I’m not saying these are mutually exclusive concepts (my goal with writing is to make enough to have it be my full-time job), but I don’t think being motivated solely by money is going to grant you the Pulitzer Prize. If that’s your goal, that is. It’s perfectly fine to want to churn out a 60,000-word short novel that you’ll sell for $1.99 and never look at again once it’s published. And there’s also merit in wanting to dig deep into your soul and write something that you think is art.
My only caution on both methods is this: if you’re going to write something quick and dirty, don’t expect any accolades or 5 Stars on Amazon. And if you’re going to write something from the heart, you also can’t expect everyone else to see it that way (especially publishers). What matters is that you enjoyed the experience and are getting out of it what you expect.
No matter why or what you’re writing though, sometimes it isn’t easy to start or stay motivated. As such, here are my tips.
Tips for the Act of Writing
1. Plotting out the Story.
This is a preference. Some people plot out the entire story before they write a word. They have workbooks or spreadsheets or some mysterious process. Sometimes they make changes as they go, sometimes they don’t. Other writers have a basic idea of where their story is going but nothing definitive. This is how I write. While I find it helpful to have a goal in sight (whether it’s the final conflict, a romance coming together, or a tragic death), I generally go into a story with a vague idea of the ending – sometimes I have a plan for a character and then decide to kill them off because it would add tension or surprise. I prefer to write organically, where I let my characters react to situations. That being said, when editing I have to make sure all my “made up” plot points make sense!
2. Keep That Pivotal Scene Under Wraps This is something that might just be my problem, but I’ve had so many false starts with stories because I wrote a scene too early. The scene would sit in my head demanding attention so I'd write it before anything else. This killed the lustre of the story for me as soon as it left my head. Now when I write, I keep that scene in my head until I come to it in the plot. I let it simmer.
3. Read for Motivation
If I sit down at the computer and find myself just staring at the screen or opening my browser to Twitter or Facebook instead of writing, I go back and re-read a previous chapter or even a few pages of another story I wrote. Usually, that puts me in the right mindset to get some words down.
When you’re not writing, read. Don’t just read in your genre; I read 50+ books a year and only half are science fiction. This is because I a) want to read other stuff and b) think you need a variety of writing influences in your life to craft your own compelling story. If you’re writing a mystery, having read lots of horror under your belt will help with the creepier aspects in your story. If you’re writing a fantasy with a focus on court, you might want to take up a few political thrillers. And no one writes in a vacuum – we all have influences from outside our writing. What Branches Grow was inspired by Faulkner as much as Fallout or Book of Eli.
5. Be Prepared to Edit
I don’t know why you wouldn’t expect this, but be prepared to edit your story when it’s done. I actually enjoy the process, but a lot of writers hate editing. Yet, it’s vital. You should edit your book at least twice before letting someone else read it, in my opinion. And take a break (at least a week) between edits so your brain comes at it with fresh eyes. I’m more of a six-month-break-between-edits person, but to each their own.
6. Edit with Abandon
Don’t read over your work ... tear it apart! Critique every part of it – does it makes sense that this character said/did this? Are you using the same word a lot? (I’m bad at using “just” a lot, so I do a Ctrl-F to find them all and see which I can replace or remove). If there’s a scene or chapter you’re unsure about, try to think about why it’s bothering you. If you can’t determine it, that’s when your beta-readers come in handy. I'll be writing a self-editing post for this blog soon!
7. Find a Great “Beta-Reader”
Beta-readers are people who read your stuff before it’s been professionally edited (sometimes after as well). I’m not saying join a “Writer’s Group” (though a lot of people find those helpful – you can find groups easily on Facebook or Goodreads), as that’s not for everyone, but ask a couple of people to read your rough draft and give you feedback. Pick people who a) read a lot b) read in your genre c) aren’t going to be “too nice”. If your mother-in-law only reads Women’s Lit, maybe she wouldn’t be a good choice for your blood-and-guts horror. Or if your best friend is the nicest person ever, they might not be the wisest choice to give you real feedback for fear of hurting your feelings. And hey, I offer some writing services …
8. Cherish the Feedback, as long as it’s Constructive.
If someone says your characters are a little boring, that your twist is too obvious, that your writing is confusing – listen to them and try a different approach. If they simply say “it sucks”, then they aren’t going to help you improve. And if someone offers to do a deeper line edit for free? Take them up on it (and thank them by giving them something small like a bottle of wine or some craft beer). We often don’t realize we’re being unclear or making common grammatical errors until someone points them out. I had no idea how often I was misusing Em-dashes until my editor pointed it out.
9. Write fan fiction!
If you’re interested in writing but have no idea what to write about, pick your favorite book and do something fun with it. Write yourself into the story, write about a side-quest of the characters, write a sequel or prequel. Hell, write erotica (I have plenty of those, and no you cannot read them). You don’t have to share it with anyone, but it might help your own creative juices to have something to flow from. I have over two-dozen stories (some 5,000 words, some 50,000 words) that will never see the light of day.
10. Enjoy it.
There are tons of jokes about writers being alcoholics or “hating” the thing they are compelled to do, but if you honestly get nothing out of writing other than a headache or stress, don’t do it. Maybe it’s not for you. Some people try so hard to bake or cook but their stuff either tastes bland or looks terrible (think of the show, Nailed it!). And that’s fine. Not everyone can be a writer, a baker, or anything. I’ll never be a hairstylist.
11. Own what you write and accept your limitations.
I would love to write a literary fiction like Donna Tartt, William Faulkner, or Ernest Hemingway, but I’ve accepted I’ll likely never pen an Infinite Jest or Ulysses. My strengths lie in action scenes and comedic banter. That’s not to say that you can’t improve or work towards a goal, but write what you’re good at, especially at the start!
12. Try to Fight Imposter Syndrome
This doesn’t affect everyone, but I used to worry that what I wrote was too close to something that already exists. The thing is, unless you’re consciously copying someone’s setting, characters, or plot, you will come across similarities to other books in your genre. If you’re writing within a certain genre or niche, you will likely not be reinventing the wheel. Take apocalypses for one – there’s a finite number of reasons the world ended: nuclear war, a virus (including zombie, vampire, etc), ecological, alien attack, meteor … all of these have been done numerous times by different authors, but just because your apocalypse is about vampires doesn’t mean you’re copying The Passage. What I’m saying is that there is a difference between inspiration and plagiarism.
I hope these tips have helped new writers get started. Writing is scary, because you’re opening yourself up to others. And believe me, I used to hate sharing my writing – publishing my novel was huge for me. But if I can do it, you can too!