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Getting Started in Novel Writing

To become a successful novelist, you have to have the innate talent of putting words together, developing plots and evoking emotions in the reader.  And, it could take years to get published; which is where fortitude comes into play. Some “starving writers” opt to write novels as a side job until they can make an income that allows them to maintain a living. Others dig right in developing characters based on childhood friends and plotting a setting taken from their favorite vacation spot. 

Novelists write long stories, usually between 60,000 and 100,000 words, that typically depict character and action, with a smattering of realism thrown in.  If you compare it to running, an essay is a jog around the block, and a novel is a marathon.  And, there’s a lot more to it than just words.  Writing a best-selling novel takes brainstorming, and making decisions about plot, conflict, setting, characters, and resolution. It also takes research. For example, if you’re writing a love story that takes place during World War II, you’ll need to study that specific war in order to speak intelligently and offer the reader a reference point. 

Although a novelist writes fiction, the best novels feel real, unless of course, the novel is a fantasy.  But even then, a good science fiction or fantasy novel should seem plausible, even though almost anything can happen.  And, the number one rule writers should follow; it still has to be a good story.  As with any novel, an author can still craft a brilliant piece of work, while following the rules of good writing, grammar, plot, and dialog. 

So, what do novelists do? Most novelists spend their days writing one word at a time; writing sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. They use literary devices like dialogue and metaphor to create a page-turner. Generally, there’s a lot of loose threads that require editing and revising before the manuscript is ready for publication. That means that most novelists will be thinkers, even artists who use their imagination to take readers to far off places and away from the grind of day-to-day life. 

To develop their skills, many novelists complete a formal degree program at the undergraduate or graduate level, with a bachelor’s degree in English and a focus on writing or creative writing. To further enhance their writing abilities, some complete a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to gain an advanced understanding of writing techniques and literary theory. At the master’s level, some writers will even choose to teach. 

Some writers are born with natural talent, but most need formal training. And, although programs vary, most include instruction in narrative technique, non-fiction and fiction writing, playwriting, literary theory, critique, and the history of literature. But learning doesn’t end with a degree, most good novelists will continue to read and hone their writing skills with continuing education, by joining writing clubs or associations, and writing, writing, writing whenever possible. Like it or not, it also helps to realize prior to beginning your best-seller that your style of writing is the basis by which you, and your novel will be judged.  That’s why preparing – determining the who, what, where, when and how of your novel, then creating – character, plot and setting, and building – the words and dialog, are the foundation of all good writing.

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Learn the Fundamentals of Novel Writing

Planning a novel helps to avoid writer's block, which is the inability to think about what comes next, or how to proceed with a specific train of thought. It is arguably the most important step in the writing process. The more the story is plotted in advance, the greater chance of reaching the end of your 80,000-word novel. Laying out the who, what, when, how, and why of a novel takes effort, yet some novelists don't want to take the time until they hit a roadblock (writers block) halfway through and the creative juices dry up. Building the foundation for your novel by drafting an outline, choosing names and personalities of your characters, picturing a setting, and plotting out the beginning, middle, and end of your novel is inescapable to coming away with a finished (and sellable) product.

Novel creation is simply putting words to paper, or text on a computer screen. It is the process of creating believable characters’ people want to meet, giving them compelling problems or solutions, its making things happen that the reader can identify with that leaves them forever changed. 

Building your novel is taking the foundation of the story, adding the interest and intrigue of your characters, dialog and plot, and creating a complete work of adventure, cliffhanger, drama, tragedy, romance, or comedy.  Writing a novel is divided into chapters and has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s this classic three-act structure that unites the story.

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Build a Strong Portfolio & Personal Brand

The one thing about writing is that it’s an art not a science, and there are no indisputable steps to becoming a great writer. That said, a strong portfolio (minus spelling and grammar mistakes) will put a novelist in a good position to sell their book to an agent, publisher, or commissioner.  Most portfolios will include one piece of fiction, one personal selection, and one personal narrative. Two of the writings should achieve one or more purposes: the analysis of a person, place or thing, and writing that explains a story or process. A strong portfolio is worth the time and effort it takes to create, and shouldn’t be rushed or done haphazardly. 

Personal branding identifies who you are. It’s a reflection of the type of writer you are. When you establish a personal brand, it separates you from the crowd by highlighting your accomplishments and talents. It’s not just good enough to be good at what you do; you need to have a connection with your readers, sometimes before they’ve even had the chance to read your book. And, your brand continues to evolve with every story you write. It gives your readers an unspoken promise that you will consistently deliver a good piece of work. 

Social media, writers’ association meetings, networking while in school, professional connections, videos, and blog posts all give your readers a picture of who you are and why they should pick up your book.  Professional networking connections can also be the first step in getting published.

Get to Know Our Experts

AJ Colucci

  • Title:
    Novelist
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    New Jersey
  • Experience:
    7 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I’d been writing fiction my whole life, but it was in college as features editor of the campus paper that I found a passion for stories about people. Journalism is a terrific training ground for novel writing because it teaches you basic story structure and form; how to write dialogue and keep your writing succinct. My first jobs were editorial at a couple of trade magazines, and then I worked as a writer in corporate communications for a few years. It wasn’t until I was home raising a family that I started writing novels. Even though I’d never liked science much in school, I was fascinated with natural science through programs like NOVA and magazines like Discovery and New Scientists. I found hundreds of story ideas, including a BBC special on killer ants which become my first science thriller, The Colony. It took five years to find an agent and sell the book to Macmillan. They bought Seeders, my next novel, a year later.

    After I drop the kids at school, I try to write for a few hours. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way. You can’t just ignore your family, friends and other obligations, so I learned long ago to separate the hours in the day as much as I can. If I miss a day, or even a week, I don’t beat myself up. The exception is when I’m approaching a deadline or on a roll with a particular book. That’s when I can’t seem to concentrate on anything else; the ideas are just streaming through my brain, and I may write seven or more hours a day. It might last a week or even a month, so we eat a lot of pizza and Chinese food and the house looks like a mess.

    Becoming an author takes incredible patience. True, you get to do what you love every day, but there are few moments of excitement. It’s mostly waiting and waiting and…did I mention waiting? An agent might take a year to get back to you; editors can take months to make changes; then there’s cover art and galleries; blurbs and marketing. The list is endless and goes on for years. Even when the book comes out, it can be anticlimactic – and then the process starts all over again. So be patient. It’s not just about grabbing the brass ring at the end; it’s about the ride.

    Advice

    Write a great book

    Sure, that sounds obvious, but some beginners think there’s more to it than that, a secret hidden by the industry. But there is not. A terrific book will eventually find a publisher, whereas knowing someone in publishing, being in the right place at the right time, or penning a perfect query letter will not get a mediocre book to the shelves. In terms of time, polish your manuscript first and market yourself second.

    Get real feedback

    Find an unbiased reader to offer constructive criticism, which usually doesn’t include your mother or best friend. It’s good to know what works in a story, but it’s more important to know what doesn’t work. If you positively can’t stand criticism, you may have to write as a hobby. When I send off a manuscript to a reader, I always write at the top “BE BRUTAL.”

    Keep a perfect manuscript

    Only query agents who are looking for books in your genre, and keep refining your manuscript until its publish-ready. How will you know if it’s ready? If you’re getting a ton of rejection form letters, as opposed to personal notes encouraging you to keep writing, it probably still needs work. However, if agents are giving you good feedback, requesting full manuscripts, you probably have something marketable. If you haven’t found representation at that point, you should consider attending a conference and meeting agents face to face.

    Learn to write by reading

    I don’t think education matters very much when it comes to getting a novel published, at least in your choice of college. Unless you’re writing non-fiction as an expert in your field, publishers don’t really care which school you attend. Do work on the college newspaper and seek out internships in magazines and newspapers. The best way to learn how to write is to read everything you can get your hands on, especially in genres that interest you. For a while, great novels were like textbooks to me, I really picked them apart, studying technique, dialogue, characterization. The best school is your local library.

    Elaine Viets

  • Title:
    Mystery Writer
  • Company:
    Obsidian
  • Where:
    Fort Lauderdle, FL
  • Experience:
    17 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I have a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri, worked for 27 years in the newspaper business as a reporter and a humor columnist, and was a syndicated columnist for United Media in New York.

    I wake up about 8-8:30, have breakfast, play with my cats, and go to my desk about 10 AM. I write until noon, when I take a tea break, then go back to work until 3 o’clock, when I have lunch. I’ll write from about 4 to 7 PM, when I stop for dinner. I live in Florida, so if it’s a nice night, I’ll go for a walk along the water or work out in the gym for about an hour. My husband and I may also go out to dinner in the evenings or to a show.

    Advice

    Join organizations and go to conferences

    It’s important to join professional organizations, such as the Mystery Writers of AmericaSisters in CrimeInternational Thriller Writers and the Authors Guild. For me, MWA and SinC have been the most helpful. Go to the big conferences. Sleuthfest, put on by the Florida Mystery Writers of America, has agent and editor appointments. These are good ways to get professional opinions on your work.

    Be friendly with local bookshops

    Cultivate your local booksellers. Buy books at their stores. If you can’t afford to buy many books, get small things like bookmarks and greeting cards. Booksellers can tell you who’s selling and why.

    Use writing skills at work

    It helps if you have a job that uses writing skills, such as working for a newspaper, TV station, or blogging. If you can’t do that, write for your local newspaper, church bulletin, anything to hone your skills. Keep a journal. Take a course in novel writing from your local community college or university. The best part of being a writer is that nothing you do is wasted. You can always use your experience in a novel.

    Be picky about your education

    Many universities and colleges have excellent fiction programs taught by working novelists. Some writers belong to critique groups. If you join one, make sure the criticism of your work is helpful, not destructive. Avoid critique groups with people who say mean things and call it “honesty.” Go to writing seminars at local bookstores and colleges, especially if they are taught by working novelists.

    Jennifer Walkup

  • Title:
    Author
  • Company:
    Self-Employed
  • Where:
    New Jersey
  • Experience:
    10 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I mostly write every single day. Some days are more productive than others. I get anything from a few paragraphs to a few chapters written per day. I love writing. Creating new stories, worlds and characters that readers will hopefully eventually connect to is the best thing on earth. But deadlines are tough, as is rejection, of course. The tradeoff is worth it in the end, though.

    On one hand, I wish I would have known from the beginning the challenges that would arise with rejection, submissions, and the all too common writer doubt. But, on the other hand, it’s the optimism and faith in it actually happening that keeps you going, so perhaps it all unfolds exactly as it should.

    Advice

    Write. Read. Write. Read.

    Every day, every minute, read and write. Accept that there will be rejection – probably quite a bit of it. But with each new story or book or project, you will grow as a writer. Each new project is a chance for something really fun and exciting and great to happen. And everything you read helps too.

    Use all experiences

    Nothing teaches writing as well as experience. Schooling, degrees, job experience, writing workshops, and critique groups, of course, add and help to the overall writing career, as well as keep writers immersed in their craft. All of it is a piece of the eventual published writer puzzle. Writing, practice and submitting, are what get your career off the ground. So do it all, and above all, keep writing no matter what.

    Just keep going

    Keep writing and keep submitting. Do not let rejection stop you. You won’t ever publish if you quit, so keep going. Take classes, find critique groups and partners. Read critically, and study the craft. Read more books than you think you can. Let the stories root around in you, settle into your muse. And write as often as you can, until a story, or a character, or a series grabs you, takes over and wants to be told.

    Todd Borg

  • Title:
    Owner & Novelist
  • Company:
    Thriller Press
  • Where:
    Lake Tahoe, CA
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I grew up writing…songs! Some of my earliest memories are of plunking out tunes on the piano. When I got older, my hope was to be a rock ’n roll singer songwriter. Oops, I guess that didn’t work out! So I went off to university and majored in pre-med. Then I realized that doctors have to spend inordinate amounts of time in hospitals, so I nixed that concept. My first real job was in the ski business, which I loved. All along, I was still writing, only I segued from rock songs into novels. The day I completed my first novel, I knew I’d found my passion. By the time my 4th novel came out, I was able to quit my day job and earn a living as a full-time writer.

    Like a lot of novelists, my dream day would be to write in the morning while I’m fresh. Unfortunately, many of us are often on the road to and from events, speaking at libraries, schools and book clubs, exhibiting our books at festivals and conferences, participating in author panels. So we fit in writing wherever we can. I always have my laptop and a pad of paper. For me, the best times to write are whenever and wherever I can get quiet time alone. If I get insomnia, I’ll be at the computer at 3 a.m., putting a character into deep trouble and seeing what happens!

    I have the best job in the world – making up stories for a living. I can stay up as late as I want, sleep as late as I want, my commute is from my desk to the coffee maker. I have no boss, and the best part is that I wake up every day to fan-mail in my inbox. There’s nothing to dislike about it!

    Advice

    Practice

    Don’t just do some writing here and there and maybe write a book and then send it out hoping the world will go crazy about your genius. Sit down (or walk in the woods as you figure it out) and write a complete novel. When you finish it, write more. Lots more.

    Learn from others

    Take writing classes, go to writing conferences (especially the juried ones where you submit work and get professional critique), join writer’s groups where you critique each other’s work and attend their meetings, find a mentor.

    Create feeling

    Write novels until you have one that makes readers laugh, cry, cheer, and stay up all night worrying and fretting about your characters. When readers email all of their friends to share their excitement about your novel, you’re home free whether you send it off to a New York agent or self-publish it and put it up on Amazon. Either way, you will find a growing fan base of readers who are eager to buy anything and everything you write after that.

    Figure out if writing is really for you

    There are two kinds of writers, those who are in love with the idea of being a writer, and those who are in love with writing. Successful novelists come from the second category. Writers write. Real writers are driven to write. If you are not driven to write, you should probably do something else. But if you are driven to write, get ready for the best career in the world.

    Novelist Infographic