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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 the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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

  1. Pingback: 7 Tools I Use to Organize My Stories | WordDreams...

  2. Thank you for the helpful tips. I especially liked the one about starting with a character first. I have had that happen on a few occasions, but thought I was being weird. I posted this on Fb and made my comment there.


  3. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I like the idea of starting with a character first. I have done that on a number of occasions, but thought I was being weird. Yet how many times have you run into someone that you thought would make a great character for your book. I have two or three books that got started way. Or maybe something happens that makes a scene for a novel and I have to write the rest around it.


  4. These are great tips. Characters usually come to me first. Even if I have the plot idea first, I need the main character to come to me before I start plotting. I usually hate my beginnings. I write something down and then rewrite the beginning later.


    • Yes, I agree. I don’t know where the story starts until I’ve written it.

      My character in my creative nonfiction came to me first and then I spent the entire book sharing her story. I haven’t done that in my fiction, though.


  5. This is great advice, Jacqui. I cut and paste paragraphs (and sometimes entire pages) into another document when I’m editing – they do come in handy for future writing and you spend so much time writing them that it seems a waste to just delete. I love beginning with ‘Once Upon a Time’ what a fantastic idea!😀


  6. I didn’t realize I’d been following Carr’s strategy all along – I thought it was all my own brilliance. Thanks for the affirmation, Jacqui. For me, her approach works. (At least IMHO, it works. ;D)


    • One of my students in my recently-completed online class told me she was thrilled when she already knew the material because it affirmed she was on the right track. There’s great value in that.


  7. I can’t tell you how many pages I’ve skipped while reading well received novels. I thought it was just me being ADD with the descriptive pathways into the next idea. Feels good to know it could have been the writer’s fault, but my guess is that since it was published and we’ll received, then tis my issue not theirs.

    I have this post bookmarked. Such useful and helpful points, J. Thank you.


    • I’m sure lots of people skip big chunks of Tom Clancy’s Naval knowledge while others soak it up. Either way, he’s an excellent writer who deserves the acclaim. And Michener–even I skipped multiple pages on the history of the Hawaiian Islands.


  8. I like the second tip in number 5. All too often, if I’m hot writing, late at night, the next bleary morning I cannot find the chapter connecting thread (that was so obvious, when I closed it up, but then couldn’t sleep, the night before)


  9. This is certainly one way to do it, but I don’t totally agree with his view that you should start with a character. I’ve done well-received stories that started with a phrase that kept going through my mind. He’s right, of course, that you must have a strong, memorable character to carry the plot, just that it isn’t always necessary to have that as the starting point. It could be that you have a strong theme that builds your character.


  10. I took one look at that picture and and thought – ‘Ah-ha, it wasn’t just me!!!’ The article is helpful, but now you know why I stick with non-fiction. The facts maam, just the facts… 🙄


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