Novel writing will be one of the worst writing experiences you have ever had as a writer. It contains a unique set of challenges not present in shorter formats. You are a fool for even considering it. My advice would be to find something else to do with your time.
And I’m sure you don’t believe me. I didn’t believe me, either. I had a story to tell that was going to change the world, just like you do. My novel was going to be second only to the bible in sales. I just had to write the damn thing.
God help me, what sort of fresh Hell have I gotten myself into?
After three and a half years, I don’t recognize a wisp of the idea I began with. What I thought to be a final draft turned out to be the first. There were at least two major, unexpected edit cycles. An entire subplot, with previously minor characters given integral roles, was added after publication. The novel sucked a little bit. It wasn’t horrible, but it lacked reader satisfaction.
Since you won’t listen to the myriad reasons not to write a novel, here are some of the things to keep in mind while writing the next great American novel. As with most things in life, I am figuring it out as I go, so please feel free to give me comments, complaints, suggestions, questions, or even just general harassment. It keeps me humble.
Know how to write
This is deceptively simple. Most people possess the ability to string together words in an intelligible order to express a though. Unfortunately, the ability to collect thousands of them in one place to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end (preferably, in that order) is a much tougher task. It matters less that you know the difference between a preposition and an infinitive. What matters is possessing the ability to tell a complete, satisfying story that leaves your reader feeling he got his money’s worth.
Don’t jump into a novel as a first adventure in writing. The project will fall apart. Write short stories, even though nobody publishes them anymore, and gradually make them longer and broader in scope.
Understand how to tell a story
Your novel is not groundbreaking. Neither is mine. Never believe what an agent, a friend, or publicist says. The stories have all been told before. Literature would have stopped at Shakespeare, if every writer had to create a never-before-seen plot.
This is a good thing. We humans like recognizable plots and familiar characters. The details of the novel may change, but the story arcs don’t.
Prepare for rejection
In the pre-internet age, writers would type out their novels, mail them to a publishing house, and wait months, if not years, to be told their novel would not see the light of day. Now, the heartbreak has been accelerated to a matter of days, and sometimes hours.
Aside from professional rejection, steel yourself for a more mild rejection from those closest to you. Few friends and family will be counted among your readers. They might be your biggest fans, but rare is the family member who will be your reader.
Know your audience
Books stores and movies are divided into genres for a reason beyond organization on the shelf. It goes back to the point about recognizable plots and familiar characters. Consumers may jump between genres for movies, but novel readers tend to be loyal to their genre of choice. Keep their expectations in mind, while writing. It will improve your chances of success.
After conflicting rounds of edits with multiple beta-readers, I came to the conclusion that I would only use one at a time. The same is true of editors. Find one whose judgement you trust, and only listen to him. This advice goes against conventional wisdom, but prevents a series of ping-pong edits. Pick one reader and write your novel for him. Others like him will naturally follow.
Understand your characters
Each primary character in your novel should have supporting documentation in the form of a character sheet. There are some very good pre-printed ones floating around. Alternately, you can write them down in a notebook. My personal favorite writing program Scrivener integrates character descriptions, outlines, supporting documents, timelines, and a whole bunch more. I wrote my first novel without it. Had I known, I would have used the program from the beginning. It’s been worth every penny.
Whatever tools you decide to use creating your novel, the point is to minimize edits for avoidable continuity errors. More importantly, establishing the framework for what makes a character tick informs his actions throughout the novel. The last thing you want as a writer is for your reader to think, “That was an odd thing for him to do.” Unless, that was your intention.
Minor characters aren’t typically expanded on for the reader. That is part of what makes them minor. Having said that, writing a solid character outline is not a bad idea for each one. The reader doesn’t have know to know it, but you should, as the creator of the world in your novel. It helps guide the character’s actions and gives the ring of truth, so characters do no behave against their personalities.
Science Fiction is notorious for this. Pages and pages of prologue the reader is required to wade through before the story even begins. This is almost understandable when immersing a reader into an alien world, but it’s lazy writing. Successful science fiction writers have skipped prologue exposition for years. If they can illuminate a foreign universe without resorting to a five thousand word history lesson on the Third Xanthain War, you can lay the foundation of your protagonist without boring your reader to death.
The backstory of every character does not need exposition in your novel. In fact, avoid narrative exposition at all costs. Mannerisms and personal quirks go further, faster than the speed of reading. Your protagonist absentmindedly rubbing his thumb against the tan line at the base of his third finger conveys a ton of information about his marital status and how he feels about it. This can be expanded on later in the novel, but suffices for introduction.
Kill your babies
Every writer paints himself into a corner, sooner or later. The protagonist finds himself in an inescapable situation. The novel is populated with too many secondary characters or extraneous subplots. Sometimes an entire chapter doesn’t fit the timing or rhythm of the story arc. Once in a great while, what you just wrote might suck.
This is when you must summon all your strength and, as we euphemistically say on the farm, cull. That’s a nice way to say “kill off some of the weak to strengthen the whole.“ Judicious editing, though painful, will improve your novel. Beware of becoming Pygmalion, who fell in love with his creation.
Keep your day job
Precious few are the writers who make a living at writing. Traditional publishing is dominated by a few big, reliably bankable names. Six-figure advance checks are newsworthy precisely because they are uncommon. Even full-time writers with the golden touch augment their incomes with other writing-related endeavors. You and I don’t, and likely never will, have the opportunity to option the movie rights for our novel.
That doesn’t mean stop trying. Neither does that mean to give up writing. It means understand that the business of writing does not end with publication. There are no sun-and-daiquiri-soaked lifestyles on a tropical beach with royalty checks magically appearing in your bank account every month. Writing is a daily grind that often has to be fit around everyday life. I have yet to discover a set-and-forget novel.
Those eight lessons aren’t the only ones, but they are the most important to a new writer. Things I wish someone had told me when I decided the world needed a Canadian western adventure story. Some of the pointers are harsh, but they are all realistic. Keep them in mind, and you stand a good chance of producing a decent novel.