The 10 Rules of Writing a Good Novel
- Read voraciously. Writers are shaped by other writers. The books we read as children influence our tastes and can often have an impact on our writing style as adults. The writers who shape us are almost like unofficial mentors: By reading widely and closely, young writers can learn at the feet of history’s most famed and beloved authors.
- Make checklists of details. Think about your setting and motivations for writing, and then make a checklist of details you want to be sure you include in your story. Your checklist can be a single page or it can fill a whole notebook. It’s not guaranteed to save you from bad writing, but it’s a very useful tool nonetheless. The last thing an author wants is to finish a manuscript and realize they’ve left out half of what motivated them to write in the first place.
- Develop good habits. Most beginning writers will have to balance their writing with other responsibilities. Setting aside consistent blocks of time for writing is an important step. Your writing time can be early in the morning or late at night or on your lunch hour, but keep it consistent, and insist on prioritizing that time. You can also experiment with having a dedicated writing room where you always work. This can be your dining room table or—if you have the space—a home office. The fact is, a good story idea does you little good if you don’t set aside the time to work on it, so find those pockets of time and space in your own life.
- Use your limited time wisely. Before you sit down to write, think of ideas, remind yourself of where you left off in the story, or make a mental plan for what you want to accomplish during that session. Some people strive to write 2,000 words a day. Others disregard word count and are more comfortable alternating between days spent reading, outlining, or researching. No matter what you choose, it’s a good idea to give yourself daily goals. This will prevent you from spending precious writing time staring at a blank page—though there are practical ways to overcome writer’s block.
- Build a relationship with an editor. Editors are a hugely important part of your publishing process. If you’re so fortunate as to command interest in your manuscript, you’ll want to do everything you can to ensure a good fit. A good editor will make you a better writer, but a bad editor can compromise your artistic vision. Check potential editors’ references, look at their backlist (prior books they’ve edited), chat with them about expectations, and look for a personal connection. Ask yourself what traits you value in a collaborative partner. A good connection between writer and editor makes a huge difference in the editing process.
- Don’t stress your first draft. Generating the first draft is an exercise in getting everything down that you can get down. There’s always time later to reassess and comb through what you’ve generated. Resist the urge to do repeated dives into the thesaurus or to constantly refresh your word count. The first draft of a book needs to arise from spontaneity. Later on, you can obsess over whether you chose the right word or used too many exclamation points. That kind of self-editing will only be needed once you have a great story to tell in the first place.
- Seek out surprises in the second draft. The second draft is all about finding surprises and starting to tease out the shape of your story. What unexpected themes or motifs have cropped up in your writing? If you like them, find a way to reinforce them throughout your writing. On the other hand, you may have to kill off a few darlings from your first draft. Fiction writing inherently forces you to ditch a few pet ideas or plot points, but your job as a writer is to serve the book, not your own emotions.
- Start with characters. Readers don’t pick up a book looking for a theme. Good fiction comes from a compelling plot and strong character development. This means you’ll need a main character who is complex enough to sustain a real character arc (including a backstory), and supporting figures who can motivate subplots off the main story structure.
- Write for art’s sake, and save the commercial analysis for later. Genre is a concept created by publishers and literary critics, but it’s not always a valuable one for the working writer. Not knowing or thinking about what genre your book belongs to can be valuable, because it offers you greater freedom to stray from genre expectations and to play with form and subject. Your job is to make your book the best, most compelling version of itself, plausible within its own imagined realm and set of rules. Let others worry about what genre it is. You can self-consciously try to write a horror novel, but this won’t necessarily make you the next Stephen King. In other words, don’t let genre analysis creep into your writing process. It’s hard enough to be a good writer without obsessing about commercial appeal, so don’t.
- Rules are meant to be broken. Every great writer works in a different way. Some writers work straight through from beginning to end. Others work in pieces they arrange later, while others work from sentence to sentence. Don’t be afraid to try out different techniques, voices, and styles. Keep what works for you and discard the rest. Your material and creative process will guide you to your own set of rules. Anything is theoretically fair game. For instance, you could toggle back and forth between first person and third person voice. You could upend grammatical correctness. Of course, this doesn’t mean there’s no use for the rules, it simply means fiction writers need not follow every one of these rules to the exact letter.
Note that these rules for novel writing can apply to other forms of fiction, like a short story or screenplay. They aren’t even limited to fiction books: An engaging nonfiction book can be written under many of the same principles. If you keep these writing tips in mind before you start writing, you can maintain your own style and your own point of view while simultaneously employing the discipline every writer needs to successfully complete a work of fiction.
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