• Sarah Leonard

5 Tips on Writing a Great Novel

Writing your first novel is like rehearsing for a play just for it to end up being awful after years of dedication. That doesn’t sound like something you want, but every writer has that moment where they finish writing their book and think it’s incredible. Then, after its been destroyed by a reader or rejected by an agent, they come to the realization that their manuscript is more like a lump of old hay than gold. I came to that unfortunate revelation after I had already spent six years writing a novel. With lots of hard work, though, and advice from others, I was able to take that awful haystack of a book and spin it into gold. I “rumpled it up” per say. To help you write a great novel without that unfortunate revelation or to help you “rumple it up” after already having one, I have five tips for writing a great novel!

1. Read

If you’ve done your research, this is advice you’ve seen before and for good reason. Reading is SO SO important, especially in your novel’s genre. However, it is important to understand other types of genres and good vs. bad writing as well. Read all kinds of books, even types you wouldn’t prefer, and once you decide whether or not you like the novel, figure out why. What makes the novel bad? What makes it good?

You may be thinking to yourself, “Psh, I’ve read books before. I read all the time for class, and my novel STILL sucks!” Well, that won’t do, my friend. Firstly, you’re most likely not reading in your genre, and that is what will help you the most. Secondly, you can’t just skim through the book, decide whether you liked it or not, then believe your writing to be somehow transformed. After you read a novel, and even during, explore what makes the book good or bad. Does the author create likeable characters? Is the writing style well done? Is the plot formatted well and make sense? Does the author create vivid images? Is there too much description at times? Do you make any of the same mistakes? Do you write too many questions in a row, like me? Don’t just read. Digest.

2. Educate Yourself

I’m still reworking my novel, and it definitely has a long way to go. If anything, the draft I’m working on right now is more like a rewrite, and I can thank the many ways I recently involved myself in the writing community for that. Although reading articles like this and just reading in general is very helpful, it’s also beneficial to attend conferences, classes, and even author readings so that you can hear directly from published authors and trained instructors what they know about great writing. After my first writing conference, I found so many mistakes with my novel that I questioned whether I should start from scratch. Even after all the research and editing I’d done, the classes and sessions I went to at the conference made me realize that there are so many little things I had not been paying attention to. Not only had I become aware of those things, but I was taught how to properly apply those things to my writing.

When it comes to author readings, I have found that the question segment has been the most helpful. It’s then that you have the opportunity to ask questions that all writers have, and knowing another author’s writing process can help you craft one that works for you. All in all, it’s still important to educate yourself via reading and research, but conferences, author readings, and classes will help you strengthen your writing as well, maybe even more. They will make you stop writing like a reader and start writing like a writer.

3. Know Your Novel

I’ve had moments where I realized I knew the Harry Potter series better than my own book. Now, I put all my books to the “Do I know it better than Harry Potter?” test. Once you’ve finished your novel and have thoroughly edited it, you should be able to pass that test! The best way to do this is to outline your novel BEFORE you start writing. I know, it can be a pain. When I was in high school, I was convinced that I didn’t need to outline anything. Maybe that’s okay for essays, but that rule does NOT apply to writing a novel! In fact, an essay is like a smaller version of a novel broken down to its most basic foundation.

Think of each paragraph as different events or secondary plots and the essay’s thesis as the novel’s main plot. You need to introduce the story, deepen and advance through the novel using events and secondary plots, then reach a conclusion to wrap up what made the journey significant. Take that basic foundation and add the fact that those plots and events all have to intertwine and develop in a sensible way, then add characters, each who have to have meaning and come to life on the pages. Now, it gets a little harder. Outlining the novel not only makes it easier to map out a well-paced and nice-flowing plot, but it can also help with figuring out formatting in general. Is there a nice build-up then lead-up to a conclusion? Are events well placed, or are they too abrupt or random? Does your plot even make sense? If you’ve already written your novel, make an outline anyway. I finished the first draft of my novel without an outline. The plot was very jumpy and chaotic, so I decided to make one and once I did, there was a much better flow in the rewrite.

Main characters are just as important to outline. Who they are as individuals is dependent on their foundations. Severus Snape, for example, loved Harry’s mother, Lily, and was heartbroken not only over her choice to marry James Potter but over her death at Voldemort’s hands. This could explain Snape’s cold demeanor and strong hatred for Harry: the son of the man who Lily chose and the boy who lived when she did not.

Write out what makes the characters who they are. Eventually, they should seem so real that it’s as if they are standing right next to you. The breaking down and outlining of your characters can be called ‘character profiles’. Remember that not all you put in their profiles will be in the novel. The reason for outlining them is so that you, as the author, can understand your character better and what drives their personalities and actions.

4. Have Your Work Reviewed

What first made me realize my book was bad was when my boyfriend told me exactly that. And yes, I couldn’t be more grateful. If he hadn’t, I never would have rewritten it and ended up with what I have now. Family and friends reading your work isn’t the only available source, though. Other great resources include critique groups (a collection of writers who meet to review each other’s work), agent panels (a panel of agents who review your work), and beta readers (a group of writers and non-writers selected by the author to review their work). Agent panels and critique groups can be helpful because you are getting feedback from people who are educated in writing. They understand a good novel’s style and format better than non-writers do. Beta readers are great because they review your entire novel in-depth and you can be given feedback from both readers’ and writers’ perspectives.

Writers get so attached to their work that sometimes they miss what’s wrong with it. Having others review your work will help you find the problems with it that you missed. I have a tendency to think my work is absolutely amazing when I’m done, then someone reviews it and I notice flaws I hadn’t before. With how attached and familiar you become with your work, it’s vital to have someone else look at it. What makes sense to you may seem confusing or poorly executed to others.

Being that you are so attached to your work, you need to learn to be comfortable with sharing it with other writers. They will provide you with feedback that readers can’t, because what makes a good novel is something they truly understand. I used to be so protective of my novel, but if I hadn’t shared it with authors I trust, it wouldn’t have improved. No writers are out to get you. We’re all paddling across the ocean in that same rickety, old boat. Also, you need to make sure you are able to take all critique positively. Freaking out or sulking over advice you’re given won’t do anyone any good. Critique isn’t meant to be reflective on your potential as a writer. It’s never meant to say, you suck and you’ll never go anywhere. Its purpose is to provide you with ways to improve. Do you think the first draft of The Hobbit J.R.R Tolkien wrote was published? Heck no! No writer’s first draft is published, so don’t get discouraged if you get negative feedback. Making necessary changes will take that first draft and make it into something worth reading. However, you don’t have to take all edits. It’s okay if you strongly disagree and would rather keep something as it is. Still, don’t be closed off to all criticisms and don’t take them too much to heart. You’ll be happy with what you have if you take criticisms graciously.

5. Don’t Give Up

This tip could be used for virtually any career, but it is especially important when it comes to being an author. Competition is overwhelming, rejections are unavoidable, writer’s block can put your novel in a temporary coma, and poor reviews will make you want to kill your book entirely. As I said in the previous section, first drafts are not meant to be good. I look back to the first draft of my novel I wrote in 7th grade, and it’s so bad I literally start laughing. Then, I read the draft I have now, and I get so lost in it, the zombie apocalypse could be happening and I wouldn’t know. I never would have gotten to that point if I had given up when my boyfriend told me my book wasn’t good. Instead, I worked to make it good. His rejection only made me push myself harder.

You need to work with that same mind set. Someone gives you a poor review? Work to make that review a good one. Your book gets rejected by an agent? Keep sending that book out until you get that yes. No writer’s journey is an easy one. Even the most famous authors in the world have gotten their work critiqued, and if they had stopped trying when that happened, those amazing novels wouldn’t exist. So, although it may take longer than you want to get that book on a shelf and you will likely get many critiques, the only sure way your novel won’t get published is if you give up.

So, with these tips in mind, I want you to go “rumple it up,” because no manuscript starts out as gold. You need to spin that pile of hay until it becomes something beautiful, and when it does, let all us Nooksters know! With these tips, you’ll get there.

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