There are four simple steps to writing a novel:
STEP 1: Get a brilliant idea.
STEP 2: Create fascinating, memorable characters to go with the idea.
STEP 3: Write the novel.
STEP 4: Edit the hell out of it to turn your lifeless prose into great writing with memorable lines.
“Seriously, Rick? Four steps? You must be kidding (or insane).”
Yeah, seriously I did say that. Maybe they aren’t such simple steps to execute, but those are the exact steps you need to follow.
Unfortunately, all too many writers truncate STEP 1 to “Get an idea” and don’t bother to determine whether it’s a good idea that’s likely to sell books or even spark interest in readers.
Of those writers who do come up with a good idea, a significant percentage will skip STEP 2 (or do a half-baked job of creating the characters) and will totally skip STEP 4 after they’ve written the novel. Their process is this: get an idea, throw words onto the page (maybe run a spelling and grammar check), then send it out or publish it without further ado.
There is a reason why novels take time (sometimes years) to write. There is a reason why many seasoned authors rarely crank out more than a couple of novels a year. Good writing takes time. I don’t care how long you’ve had that idea in your head. It’s not going to magically and perfectly spew itself onto the page (or into the computer) and be ready to publish in a few weeks or even a few months, especially if this is your first attempt. It took me nearly three years, writing mostly on weekends, to crank out the first draft of my first novel (somewhere around 130,000 words, I believe), and that was after I’d already spent a year or more planning it and creating the characters for it. I was smart enough to let some people I trusted to evaluate it and to tell me the truth: that it wasn’t nearly ready to go out the door.
You may think that you’re the exception. I can almost guarantee that you aren’t because the exceptions are so rare that your chances of dying in a car crash (about 1 in 5000) are greater. (I was going to compare it with the odds of your plane going down—estimated recently to be about 1 in 11 million for Americans—but I decided to be conservative.) Given how many novels are self-published each year, I’d bet serious money that not even one in 5000 of those came out close to perfect on first try.
Good writing draws us in and amazes us with its words and flow. Good writing is memorable and often has quotable lines. Let’s take a closer look at my four steps.
Too many writers stop at their first idea. While they believe they have a great idea that they’ve thought long and hard over, they often fail to step back and look at how viable an idea it is. Too often, the ideas end up being either mediocre ones or not thought out to their logical conclusion and whether the idea might be interesting to someone other than the writer.
Let’s say you want to do a memoir or a biography of your life. You may have had a fascinating life from your perspective, but would enough people find it interesting to them? A slide show (or PowerPoint presentation) of your life won’t cut it. If you didn’t lead a truly amazing life with experiences that would captivate your audience, then your memoir likely won’t sell copies outside your friends and family (who will buy it as a courtesy). But even that’s dicey because they probably already know most of it.
We have a little more leeway with fiction, but your story needs to tread new ground. (Are we tired of James Bond movies yet? How many more can be done and still be original and interesting?) What I’m saying is that remarkable fiction won’t repeat what’s come before it. You can’t decide to write a Harry Potter-like novel and expect it to have the same appeal, not even if your writing is brilliant. You need something new and fresh if you expect it to stand out.
I’m not saying that you can’t write a brilliant and original romance or YA fantasy or vampire or zombie novel just because these have been done so much already. You certainly can, but the writer who comes up with a new angle (not merely a variant) is the one with the best chance of success. Don’t follow Hollywood’s current trend of remaking and updating every movie that’s already been done. Be original!
Ask yourself, honestly, “Is my story idea a great one? Why is it a great idea?” If your answer is little more than “because I’m writing my first novel” or “I’ve read a lot (whatever genre) novels, and I know I can write one” then you’re going to be disappointed.
Before you begin that novel, make sure it truly is a great idea and whether someone besides yourself will find it as interesting as you do.
STEP 2: Let’s assume you’ve passed the first test, that you’ve been honest with yourself and have run your idea by enough impartial people that you’re convinced your idea is a strong and interesting one.
Your next step is to give that idea life by having it happen to have interesting, well-developed characters. In other words, the idea needs to matter to someone in the story. Few writers, even experienced and established ones, can get by with weak characters. You’ll need a killer story line to counter weak characters.
One of the biggest criticisms of some of the science fiction in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was weak or cardboard characters. In a time when space exploration was little more than a dream to us and the existence of advanced, intelligent life on other worlds was a given, sci-fi writers concentrated more on their ideas than on their characters. Robert Heinlein was one of the few writers of the time who believed in and gave us strong characters.
I’ve seen far too many writers fall completely flat on this point. Worse, they create what they believe is an interesting main character because MC is a mirror or a larger-than-life projection of themselves. Oops.
I can pretty much promise you that if MC is made up of more one to two percent of you, then you could be on shaky ground. Some writers can get by with that, but most of those will be seasoned writers already (or are themselves fascinating people). One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is having all their characters talk like they themselves do.
It constantly amazes me how many new writers have no idea what a strong, interesting character is, let alone how to create one. Check out the advice on a post I did four years ago on the subject of creating characters.
STEP 3: After all that, now you’re ready to begin the actual writing. Have at it.
Wait. Before you begin, there are some more things you must consider, some other decisions you must make about the writing style. These include verb tense (past or present), person (first or third), POV (who will the main narrator be, and if there will be more than one), style and voice (light, dark, humorous, serious).
Certainly you can make some initial choices and see how they work out, but you should experiment a little (and be ready to make changes later) to try to determine the best choices initially. Remember that third person, past tense is the standard for most novels. I’ve written about first person in previous blogs (which you can search out) cautioning new writers to avoid first person until they know what they’re doing.
STEP 4: Now that you’ve spent a significant portion of your life writing your masterpiece, it’s time to go back through it and add some polish. You may wish at this stage to find a couple of test readers to give you some input, but before you do that, make an effort to clean it up a bit. Don’t insult your readers with poor grammar and spelling.
Once you’re ready to revise, think about paragraph breaks, scene breaks, chapter breaks, even how long your sentences are. This is where you adjust your pacing and give the story life and smooth out the rough spots. And be sure you pay close attention to your dialogue so that it’s not flat and boring.
Here’s a quote I totally agree with. The article it came from follows the quote. (Thanks to Sue Babcock at Silver Pen Writers for the article link.)
“Set out to write a remarkable book. If your book is not remarkable, keep working on it until it is. Give the manuscript to ten friends and ask for honest feedback. […] edit your manuscript. Revise. Repeat. […]
“Don’t stop until your reviewers start saying things like: “I loved it! This book is amazing!”
If your trusted readers are praising your work with phrases akin to “I liked it” but they aren’t gushing about it, then they’re just being nice so they don’t hurt your feelings. The book probably is a lot worse than they’re saying it is. You may have to force them to be honest. Pry out of them the reasons they are not gushing about it so you can fix it. Ask straight out: “Was it boring?” If they don’t immediately and vehemently deny it, then you know where you stand. Take a deep breath and, with the help of your hopefully now helpful readers, figure out what’s wrong and how you can improve it.
In my years of reading and critiquing novels prior to publication, I have honestly read very few that were excellent and which needed only minor tweaks. I have also read a few dismal ones that I wasn’t sure could be fixed at all because the story was weak or boring or unoriginal—or a combination of these.
However, I do believe that ANY story can be turned into a good (not always great, though) story with the right approach—which may involve a complete rethinking of the premise—as long as the writer is willing to spend the time on it. Sometimes the writer isn’t willing or has other projects he feels are more worthy of his time.
In any case, do NOT give in to impatience and push it out a product you know is mediocre just because you don’t want to deal with it anymore. Putting out a substandard piece will, in the long term, do more harm than good. For a writer trying to establish a reputation, you don’t want the first impressions you give your readers to be ones of mediocrity. Don’t make the excuse that it’s okay because it’s your first attempt. First impressions matter a lot in publishing because you have a lot of competition out there. Establish a reputation early on for quality writing and you’ll develop an eager fan base. But if you disappoint your readers early on, they won’t want to pick up any of your future books, no matter how good the later ones are, and you’ll end up having to work that much harder to prove yourself.
Next time we’ll look at how to make specific decisions mentioned in STEP 3 and how to refine them in STEP 4.