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Writing

What Not to Do When Writing a Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

If you want to write a New York Times bestseller, or at least publish a book, there’s plenty of sound advice out there on how to write a novel. But it’s also practical to understand the common pitfalls that tend to ensnare new writers.

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15 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Novel

For a new writer, there are many traps to beware of when it comes to tackling a first novel. Avoid making common mistakes by following these writing tips:

  1. Don’t write sporadically. For a new writer, sitting down to write for the first time can feel like the hardest step. The best writing advice is to simply start writing. Jot down a single word, and you’re on your way. If it helps, set a daily word quota. In order to develop their time management skills, many writers commit to a specific writing time every day.
  2. Don’t ignore story structure. Always keep your basic narrative arc in mind. Even when it comes to ambitiously creative writing, it’s important to consider the technical side of storytelling, pacing out character development and building toward the climax of the story.
  3. Don’t second guess yourself. Silence the inner critic that says what you’ve produced is awful writing. Just focus on brainstorming and getting the story idea down. You can go back and edit later.
  4. Don’t abandon your first novel. The writing process takes dedication. It’s easy for an aspiring novelist to give up when they get writer’s block. A novel can seem big, so set simple milestones. Start with the first chapter, then the first draft. Before you know it you’ll have a finished manuscript
  5. Don’t pigeon-hole your process. When it comes to writing books, there are plotters (who meticulously plan) and pantsers (who fly by the seat of their pants). Be flexible and see what style works for you. A plotter maps the story out and starts the novel-writing process with an outline—which is helpful to have if you find yourself intimidated by the blank page. A pantser sits down at their computer with a more relaxed approach to writing fiction—they follow where the story takes them.
  6. Don’t start off slow. The beginning of your novel is important. Spend time writing a dramatic inciting incident, which is the event that propels your main character on their quest and hooks the reader.
  7. Don’t switch POV. Pick a point of view and stick with it. If you’re writing in the third person or first person, keep that perspective throughout the whole novel. You can change which character is in the spotlight, as Gillian Flynn does in Gone Girl. Just keep your narrative POV consistent.
  8. Don’t create flat characters. Your characters will take the reader on this narrative journey, so devote time to character development to make them believable. Ask yourself who they really are and flesh them out with a rich inner life in order to make them three-dimensional. Create backstories for both main characters and secondary characters. A backstory might not make it into the novel, but it will help inform your writing as you develop character arcs. Every character can be made interesting and imbued with depth, whether they’re main characters, love interests, foils, or bad guys.
  9. Don’t edit alone. When you’ve finished writing, do several rounds of self-editing. Start shaping the story and fix typos and grammar on your own. After that, though, you’ll want to hand your novel over to a professional editor. You’ll need to determine what kind of editor you need—a developmental editor will help with overall structure and content, while a copy editor will work on words and sentences. Know your novel’s word count so you can create a budget for editing.
  10. Don’t avoid self-publishing. There are two ways to get your book out there: Shop it to literary agents or self-publish on your own. There are online resources to help you through the self-publishing process, like formatting software, webinars, and online retailers who print and market books. It will require a small financial investment but don’t rule out self-publishing.
  11. Don’t write a stock query. If you decide to take the traditional route through literary agents and publishing houses, learn how to write a great query letter that stands out. Publishing companies are inundated with book pitches, and most end up in the slush pile—a stack of unread query letters from aspiring novelists. Find a creative way to differentiate yourself.
  12. Don’t let rejection get you down. Every single writer has faced rejection, including bestselling authors like Stephen King. Whatever you do, don’t let it get you down. Keep sending the story out, and keep writing new ones.
  13. Don’t forget to read. Award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates offers this advice about fiction book writing: read other writers. Reading can inform your own writing and teach you about story structure. Even bad writing can help show you what not to do in a story.
  14. Don’t quit. Stand up, go for a walk, take a break. But whatever you do, don’t quit your novel. Everything you need is inside of you: creativity, dedication, and commitment. Never lose sight of what made you start writing in the first place.
  15. Don’t stick to one genre. Once you have your first novel under your belt, branch out a little. Try different genres like science fiction or thrillers to get out of your comfort zone and expand your writing. You never know where your next novel idea will come from.

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