Monday, April 19, 2010

Four Steps to Writing a Novel

First, let’s clarify something. The title of this blog is “Four Steps to Writing a Novel,” not “Anybody Can Write A Bestselling Novel,” or even “Anybody Can Write A Good Novel.” Millions of people start novels every day. Very few actually finish. Even fewer manage to get their masterpiece in front of readers. In this blog, I will lay out a strategy that you can use to write a novel. The quality is up to you.

1. Build your characters

Novels are driven by characters. The best plot in the world is useless if the characters involved are not engaging. You need a protagonist or protagonists whose exploits will captivate the reader from the first page to the last page. An equally strong antagonist is just as important.

Once you have created your central characters , you need to bring them to life. Where did they grow up? What are their goals? How do they speak? How will they react when a giant spider bites the head off of the person next to them on the park bench? Your characters will experience a thousand situations in your story. Understanding who they are and what they want will help you keep their actions believable throughout their journey.

2. Plot out your story

You have defined characters with distinct traits that will guide their behavior. Now you need to decide what will happen to your characters. There are many ways you can do this. Some writers begin with a situation and let their writing flow and decide the story as they go.

I envy those writers. I am not one of them.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Beginning: A giant spider captures Joe’s girlfriend, wrapping her up in a web and dragging her back to its lair for lunch.

Middle: Joe fights his way through the spider-infested city to save her.

End: Joe gets to the nest and saves her, but finds that the spiders filled her with spider eggs. They are both eaten by a million tiny mutant spiderbabies. The end.

HA! Fun stuff.

For me, an outline is critical. I don’t have a lot of free time to write, so I must make each minute count. By putting the main points down in an outline, I am able to keep myself focused and give direction to my words. I expand on the beginning, middle, and end points, adding plot points in between. These elements become like small “finish lines” in the story. This allows me to write to the next plot point and stay focused on that particular scene.

The outline is a tool. It will help you write towards your goal, but it is not set in stone. You can and will change the outline many times over the course of a novel. Some writers fear outlines because they do not want to be constrained. If used properly, an outline will give you something that anyone who writes a novel must have:

3. Stay motivated

Writing a novel takes time. If you are not a full-time writer, it will take you months or years to finish. You must find a way to stay motivated.

FYI – Money and fame cannot be your motivating factors. For every Stephen King who lives, breathes, and bleeds the writing craft, there are fifty thousand M.T. Murphy’s trying to find an audience.

Find someone who will read your work. It can be your significant other, a friend, your old college English professor—anyone who will read your story and give you feedback. Writing a blog and allowing online readers to get a first look at your work in process is also an option that is gaining popularity. No matter who reads your story, just having an audience will make you want to keep going. If they are enjoying your words and letting you know that, you will be even more excited to finish what you started.

The only way to finish a novel is by writing. Whether you write ten words a day or two thousand, you are far more likely to keep going if you have goals. If you write three hundred words a day for five days each week, you will have written 78,000 words at the end of a year. That is the equivalent of one page of text each writing day. That is also the approximate word count of a 260 page novel.

4. Finished Product!

If you are able to fight your way through all the way to the end, congratulations! You have written your novel. At this point, you will want to step back and let it sit for a while. After you have given it a week or so to cool, read it yourself. You will likely see a thousand things you want to change. You can fix these as you go or read it until the end and then fix them. Either way, you will repeat this process several times, improving your story each time.

Once your novel reads exactly the way you want it to, you are finished. At this point, you have many options. You can file it away on your computer or send it to friends and family. You can self-publish it immediately as an eBook on the web. You can find a good editor who will review and suggest ways to improve it.

I suggest taking your finished draft to an editor who is experienced with similar books. Whether you publish the book yourself, shop around for a literary agent, or submit the book directly to publishers, every book needs editing. A professional editor can both point out your mistakes and help you make your story as strong as it can be.

Advice from a nobody!

The most important piece of advice I can give you is this: Make a commitment to yourself that you will finish your novel and write it down along with a deadline. Put the piece of paper where you will see it every day. When you give yourself a goal, your subconscious mind has a way of steering your waking actions to achieve that goal.

If you want to write a novel, you can. The only thing stopping you is you.

I may be a “nobody” right now, but I have finished writing a novel, and so can you.

In a future blog I will reveal the secrets for writing a bestselling novel that starts a movie franchise and makes the author rich beyond his or her wildest dreams—just as soon as I figure that out for myself.

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