I originally shared this on my old blog in October 2014, though some updates have been made.
I have enough years of experience now to have quite a bit of knowledge about novel-writing. The most important advice I can offer is that you should do whatever works best for you! In case you want a little more guidance, though, I decided to put together this post with some brief A – Z thoughts on different aspects of being a novelist. Keep in mind that I am coming towards this as someone seeking traditional publication, not self-publication.
Though experimental short stories can sometimes avoid having a conflict, every novel needs to include at least one reason why the main character can’t get what they want or need. This means that every novel has an antagonist! Antagonists can come in the form of characters who cause trouble for the main character, but they can also be more abstract. The main character may be their own antagonist at times (which I love to explore), while other common antagonistic forces include nature and time. Make sure that you know what your conflict(s) and antagonist(s) are and that you make full use of them in your story.
B: Beta Readers
Every writer should have people who read and critique their work prior to publication: friends, family, and fellow writers. These people are often known as “beta readers,” although “critique partners” is the term used when it’s a mutual set-up. They offer early reactions, guide you in perfecting your book, and encourage you on your path to success. Finding a good balance of readers who have different skill sets and perspectives is important. Considering your own personal weaknesses and seeking out people who can compensate for them is also recommended.
Even though it’s important to stand out, you also have to fit in enough that librarians and bookstore owners can shelf and market your book appropriately. That’s why you need to know your book’s age category and genre and keep to them as you write, edit, and promote the book. Query letters and other pitch material also often include “comp titles,” a couple of other similar stories (books, movies, TV, etc.) that give the reader a sense of what your book is like. This can improve the categorization.
The most important quality you can have as a writer is determination (aka stubbornness, although that word is generally seen as more negative). You need it to get a novel written and edited, and you need even more of it to get through the many rejections, critiques, and failures that successful novelists encounter. You can take breaks and reassess what’s best for you as needed, but if you know this is what you want, then don’t let anyone take that away from you! Never give up on your dream.
Practice of all sorts is key to becoming a skilled novelist. That means you should experiment with something new and different in every piece you write! You can change up your writing routine, your writing tools, and your writing style in a million different ways. Each challenge you set for yourself will teach you more. This eventually will also support you in creating something truly unique that is worth sharing with the world.
It may take you some time to discover what exactly your story is about. For example, I’ve been working on #SnowQueenStory since 2019, and I only just this last month felt the emotional core click into place. Once you do know, though, you need to hold onto that knowledge. Your story exists to communicate something. Keeping your focus directed towards that “something” can prevent you from becoming so entangled in yourself that you fail to connect with your intended audience.
Before you send pitches for your book to agents or editors, you need to do your research and find out which materials to send to whom and in what way. This is not the time to exercise your boldness or creativity; follow the stated guidelines exactly. That includes formatting. Your prospective publishing team needs to know that you can be professional and cooperative.
To be a good artist, you need to be as honest as you are determined. You need to be able to face reality when something isn’t working, and you also need to be able to open your heart so you can create a story that rings with truth, instead of hiding behind some false idea of yourself. Honest emotion is what makes art meaningful. Let yourself be vulnerable, and trust your instincts. If you find this kind of honesty to be a struggle, seeking out professional help may be a good idea. Past trauma can cause all sorts of denial that is difficult to work through alone. Your honest truth may also, at some points in your life, be that you are not in the right space to be writing. Prioritize yourself first!
Just as important as practicing your own writing is engaging with the writing of others. You should read as widely as you can–other formats like movies and TV are also recommended–but make sure you’re especially familiar with the age category and genre in which you write. This way, you’ll not only know the market you need to categorize yourself into, but you’ll also develop a stronger sense of story. Pay particular attention to the writers you idolize most. Whatever it is about their stories that speaks to you, it might prove to be something you can incorporate beautifully into your own unique style.
No matter how serious and intense your story is, you need to give your reader (and yourself) a break every once in a while. The same goes for lighthearted and humorous stories: they still need a deeper emotional core. So create contrast by juxtaposing dark moments with lighter ones! This emphasizes the emotions on either side, ensuring that they are truly felt for what they are. Without that variety, there won’t be enough strength left for people to make it to the end.
K: Kill Your Darlings
A common piece of editing advice is to “kill your darlings.” This means, essentially, to delete anything in your story that doesn’t serve your focus, even when you hate to get rid of it. There will be lines, paragraphs, and sometimes whole scenes or characters that you love but that just don’t fit into your story. Even individual word choice can be an important matter when you’re editing a book–you probably have some “darling” words that you personally overuse. You have to cut them. You can save these cut bits in another document if you need to, bu don’t keep them in a novel where they just don’t belong.
L: Literary Agent
Literary agents are the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry, and they are important business partners for career novelists. Once you sign a contract with an agent, they will do vital work in critiquing your writing, pitching you to the right editors, negotiating contracts, collaborating with the rest of your publishing team, and guiding your career. Most traditional publishers won’t even consider submissions unless they’re from a literary agent they trust! Remember, though, that your relationship with your agent should be one between equals. You are not their boss, and they are not your boss. If things feel unbalanced, that might be a sign you need to renegotiate the partnership.
M: Main Character
Stories are all about connecting with humanity through the eyes of fictional people. This means that characters are what readers tend to care about the most! Your main character is your novel’s heart. To write a good one, you must know, first, what the character wants or needs and what must change within them so they can have those things. Your next task is to build understanding between the character and your readers. Likability and intrigue are both good, so don’t be afraid to add fun quirks and details, but the most important quality for a main character is relatability. Explore their thoughts and emotions in a way that readers connect with, and you’ll have your audience hooked.
N: Not Just Art
While much of writing is an art, once you’re seeking publication, it becomes a business too. This is a hard dichotomy to balance. To have a successful career, you must find and channel your professional/practical self without sacrificing too much of story’s artistic core. This requires guidance from other professionals in the field, a strong sense of your own novel, and years of research about the publishing industry. I’ve personally learned the most from following publishing professionals–authors, agents, editors–on Twitter!
O: Other Characters
I find human relationships to be the most interesting topic to explore in storytelling: They’re diverse, intense, beautiful, and horrible all at once. We’ve talked about antagonists, but you also need other people like friends and family to better reveal the nature of your main character and to deepen the overall story. Remember that each character is their own person with their own motivations, whether those are directly relevant to this story or not. Those motivations are worth developing at some point during your writing/editing process. Doing some research into psychology and sociology can be helpful here. Just observing the people around you can also enrich your character writing.
I’ve heard it said that different authors have their own “standard casts of characters” that reappear in various ways across their writing. If you know anything about character tropes, this is a sort of individualized version of that. I love this idea, personally, and perhaps at some point, I’ll explore it in more detail on my blog!
P: Publishing Team
Whether you choose to make a career through traditional publishing, self-publishing, or a mix of the two, your success depends upon your ability to find and work with a team of specialized professionals. In traditional publishing, a literary agent is a core team member, but every publishing team should include editors, designers, and marketers. (In self-publishing, you pay for their work upfront, while traditional publishing takes a percentage of the later profits.) Storytelling is a community endeavor, ultimately, and you need to be open to learning from those who have skills and knowledge you don’t.
Q: Query Letter
To obtain a literary agent, you need a query letter, which is basically a cross between a one-page business cover letter and an exciting story pitch like you see on book flaps. It takes a lot of practice and feedback to become skilled at writing query letters, just like anything else. I talk a little about this in my publishing process post. Other elements from this A – Z guide that are important for your query include Main Character, Antagonist, Focus, Categorization, and Guidelines. Most of all, you need Uniqueness, which comes later down this page!
An important part of writing is having a solid routine that works well for you. You may find that this routine changes depending on your life phase or the novel you’re writing. I recommend taking time every so often to consider your routine. Make sure you know what in that routine is helping you and what may need to be changed. Then experiment! Some novelists work best in short bursts, while others need to write a little every day. Some novelists create a detailed plan before writing, while others jump straight in. Some novelists are guided best by personal intuition, while others make use of organized and logical craft techniques. Whatever time of day, whatever location, whatever writing tool, just make sure you have whatever you need.
When it comes to the story itself, there are two key arcs that form a novel. One is the plot arc, which focuses on the external events occurring to and being performed by the main character. The other is the emotional arc, which focuses on the internal experience where the main character develops personally for better or for worse. Both arcs are necessary to support each other. The exact frame of these arcs, however, depends. There are standard ones seen commonly in Western fiction (e.g., Save the Cat), but there are other types too. The more you read and write, the better a sense you’ll have of how to create effective story arcs. That will allow you also to build subplots that weave in and enrich the main arcs.
“Timbre” is a musical term used to describe the integral difference in sound between various instruments and voices. Each story and each writer also has their own sound that needs to be utilized in the most appropriate way to add beauty and strength to the larger artistic symphony. Character and author voice and tone are important pieces of this. Experimenting with perspective can thus help you gain a better sense of timbre.
While marketing your story requires you to know where you fit in (see Categorization), you also need to know where you stand out. Developing something unique enough to sell has been the challenge that has haunted my career ever since I started writing as a child. It wasn’t until I was hit with one of the most difficult times of my life that I realized I wasn’t writing in a way that suited me as an individual. Your individuality is what makes you as an artist. So if you’re struggling to find what makes your story special, consider first what you like most about your story. See if you can emphasize that more. You may find that it’s not enough to carry the novel, but you can write a new novel that takes that special piece and combines it with other special pieces. If this is a consistent struggle for you, however, that means you’re likely having a difficult time being as honest with and about yourself as you need to be.
V: Very Slow
One important thing to know about the publishing industry is that everything moves at a really slow pace. It takes years to write and edit a novel, often years to get a contract, and definitely years before your book is published. You’ve got to keep your expectations realistic–but also be prepared for the stress of deadlines, which can make it feel like the whole process has sped up rather dramatically!
Building a complex and appropriate setting that engages readers and supports your story’s focus is, in my opinion, one of the hardest parts of writing. Worldbuilding is key in historical fiction and in science fiction and fantasy, but it forms a needed foundation in any novel. So if you struggle with setting the way I do, my recommendation is to develop your world by considering what matters to the main character and what matters to you.
Readers want to experience the setting through your character. For that reason, writers should focus on describing aspects of the world that affect and interest the main character (or the viewpoint character, if that isn’t the main character). Everything should be filtered through their perspective. For your own sake, though, exploring parts of the world that match your interests and experience is also a good idea. You may need to cut some of those darlings later, but you’ll have an easier time doing the necessary research if you actually want to.
Here’s a hard truth: Much of having a career as a novelist is beyond your control. Luck is the x-factor that determines whether you hit the right notes at the right time with the right people to have success. Keeping this in mind will help you be more patient and persevering. Focus your energy on what you can control and learn how to recognize and let go of the rest.
As I’ve noted multiple times now, the most important piece of writing advice is for you to be true to yourself. This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of experimentation to discover what routines work for you. It takes a lot of open, raw emotion to make a story powerful. It takes a lot of brutal honesty to see past what sells well and past what you want to be to the uniqueness of who you actually are. Those are the things, though, that lead to great art.
I have spent most my life trying to be someone I’m not–trying not to be an autistic person–and that blocked my ability to write stories worth selling in so many ways. As I discuss in detail here, not being honest about my strengths and weaknesses had me rushing thoughtlessly through derivative plots that tried to mimic the epic wars and politics of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games , when what I was truly meant for was more slowly considered stories focused on emotional interiority and other themes that I personally like and know about. I needed to know myself honestly, in ways I feared, before I could write to my individuality.
The one thing I always have had, at least, is the open-heartedness to incorporate emotional arcs into all my stories related to the personal issues I have faced. I’ve rarely done so intentionally, but the need to process my struggles is what has kept me writing through years of rejection. I have become a better person through my novels, and my novels have become better through my personhood. When I finally achieve some success, it will be because of the ways I have opened my heart. It will be because I have learned to adapt every aspect of this process to myself.
Writing is full of resurrecting the old to create the new. You can create zombies out of your past experiences, out of other people’s artwork, or out of tropes and archetypes that have existed for centuries. You can move a darling that needed killing in one piece to a new piece where it can thrive. Everything and anything is worth reinventing! So keep watching for any seemingly dead idea that might have enough fuel for your mind to set it alight again.
Image via pxhere.com, VideoPlasty and unknown artist on Wikipedia, and OpenClipart on freesvg.org.