writers tips / writing

Writers Tip #71: How to Write a Novel

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

These tips are from Martha Carr, thriller writer extraordinaire, author of three books and weekly columnist on politics, national interest topics and life in general.

Novel Writing Tips

  1. Start with a character not a plot idea. Write down everything you know about the main character or characters including physical description, schooling, family tree, where they live, likes and dislikes and peculiarities. Do they hate seafood because they once threw up an entire shrimp dinner from Shoney’s? The more the better for this exercise. You will probably not use everything you write down but having it handy will keep the character’s actions in line and if you have to take a break from writing for awhile, having the list handy will make it easier to get started back up again. If you start with a plot idea you are more likely going to come across as strident or preachy because you’re interested in pounding an idea into the reader rather than telling a story. Give the attributes to the character and let them act it out instead.
  2. Write the ending first. You’re the author not the reader, which means you’re the driver of this bus. You have to know the final destination even if you’re figuring out some of the map along the way. Knowing the ending is also one of the best ways to avoid writing yourself into a corner where you run out of plot. Some refer to this as ‘writer’s block’ when it’s more likely that the ending hasn’t been reasoned out yet. Take the time, regardless of the genre, to parse out the ending.
  3. What big thing happens to the main characters in the plot? If you can’t easily answer that question you have a little more homework to do. A novel has several arcs in it but there is usually one or at the most two big moments of no return where everything changes. You already have the ending so you know where it has to get to and that will help you figure out the main arc. This will also be a big portion of your ‘elevator’ pitch when you start looking for an agent or a publisher.
  4. Use only one or two telling adjectives to describe anything. Here’s a handy rule of thumb for any genre of novel. If a reader can skip more than a page without missing any of the story, you went on for too long and it’s become a distraction. If you can’t stand to cut your own writing, you’re not going to last very long in this business. Editing is a necessary tool for any writer no matter how long they’ve been writing. Ask yourself if those long, beautifully written paragraphs add anything to the story and be honest. If not, cut and paste them into another document in case you find a place for them later. Frankly, after several books I’ve yet to use any of it later but you never know.
  5. Here’s the last two to get you started. If you can’t think of the very first words to type onto the screen, start with ‘Once upon a time’. Most of us grew up hearing fairy tales and it unlocks a part of us that expects a story. I’ve given this tip to a lot of new writers who found it easier to finish that sentence. You can edit those first four words later. The last tip is don’t get up from writing at the end of a chapter. Write at least the next paragraph of the next chapter before you shut the file. That way, when you return even if its the next day, you won’t be starting cold. There’s already an entrance into the next part of your story that you wrote while your creative brain was still warm.
  6. Okay, so there was one more thought I wanted to give you but it’s encouragement more than a writing tip. Remember that if all you did was one double-spaced page a day, and even took off the weekends, by the end of the year you’d have a finished product. Just one page a day.

For more on Martha Carr, here’s information on her popular character, Wallis Jones.

More tips on writing from writers:

Writer’s Tips #64: From Kurt Vonnegut

Writers Tip #68: Three Tips From David Shenk

Writers Tip #69: 5 Tips From Cory Doctorow

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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32 thoughts on “Writers Tip #71: How to Write a Novel

  1. Pingback: A book-blogger review | On (or close to) Schedule

  2. Jacqui, this is the closest strategy to the way that I write. I follow nearly all of Carr’s advice except that I’d never read it before today. Thanks for the post. It’s going into my permanent Jacqui Murray file.


  3. I’ve been learning all of these slowly over the past years but reminders don’t hurt. It’s amazing how doing a long character sketch on the main character evolves into a story almost on it’s own. I now want to go back to my novel and tinker with it. 🙂 Thanks, Jacqui. Timely advice. ❤


    • I’ve written the ending first at times and found myself struggling to make it happen. Maybe I wasn’t really at the ending–maybe I was more knee deep in the final climax.

      Let me ponder that one.


  4. Great advice 🙂 Thanks for posting it. The only one I struggle with is writing the ending first. It makes complete sense, but I always hesitate – perhaps because I like to give my characters complete freedom. Having said that, I understand that giving them something to aim for is not the same as clipping their wings!


      • I guess it makes sense from the viewpoint that you have an exact goal in mind. But in my experience my characters struggle against the bit and take me in whatever direction they choose anyway. Perhaps I should have said it makes sense for a planner. Since the role doesn’t fit too well on my shoulders it explains my reluctance. I’ll experiment with a short story and ponder the results!


  5. I wrote a 64,000 word novel for NANOWRIMO years back and thought I was following all the “rules of the road” as I went along. It was a historical novel, so I did the research and started out. Brother was I proud of myself when I finished…..THEN….I re-read it 3 months later. It sounded awful! You would have thought an eight-year-old had written it. I do much better winging it I think, throwing the rules and grammatical no-nos right out the window – at least i then sound like a teenager (a tad older). What can I say – I’m no pro!! 🙄


    • I didn’t know you were a writer, GP. Find your voice–that can be however you best get your ideas across. I’d love to read a novel by you on Korean War or WWII–or any of that history.


      • Like I said – it sounded like a kid wrote it – so I will be doing nothing with that. But, Korea and WWII have been covered by better people than me. The main thing I try to bring to the table is a clearer chronological order and lack of my own opinions. (except in the comments – I speak my mind there! 😆 )


  6. Very useful Jacqui. Thank you. You don’t really have to write yourself into a coma every day. Small, somewhat steady steps is really all it should take. Finishing it early will not make it any more interesting or any better selling.


  7. Martha I love these tips, especially starting with once upon a time, I keep going back over my first line when I need to come back to it later. Thanks Jacqui another one for my L plate learning kit bag.


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