starting to write

Novel Writing 101

October 14, 2018
October 14, 2018

At The Novelry we like to tell our writers that when it comes to novel writing, there are no rules, only tools.

Then we give them the tools. One by one, day-by-day. Use them, try them, pick them up, put them down. Do not consider them rules. We’re writers. We can’t abide rules, and we’d guess you can’t or you probably wouldn’t be trying your hand at fiction writing.

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
—Somerset Maugham

There is no formula for creative writing, or single novel writing process that works for everyone.

Did you know that some writers’ books can stay unborn, in their sac of rules and regulations, attached to the umbilical spreadsheet for years? It’s an awful condition and one we cure fast at The Novelry where we get novels done.

I don’t think there are any universal rules. I really don’t. We each make our own rules, and we stick to our rules and we abide by them, but you know rules are made to be broken. … [If] any rule you hear from one writer doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely. Break it. Do what you want to do. I have my own rules that I follow, but they’re not necessarily going to work for other writers. … The only universal rule is to write. Get it done, and do what works for you. There’s nothing sadder than someone sitting there and trying to apply a lot of rules that are not turning that person on and are not stimulating and are not making a novel.
—Ann Rice
Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
—Neil Gaiman
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
—Elmore Leonard
there's no formula for writing a first draft or finishing short stories

We don’t preach from the textbook at The Novelry, we work with you on your novel, from first draft to a finished manuscript ready to be published. We’re the world’s leading specialist school for novel writing, loved by fiction writers the world over.


Novel Writing 101

Here’s our list of helpful tips for writing novels:

  1. Have ambition
  2. Make it harder
  3. Include life & death stakes
  4. See the theme as a tug of war
  5. Make sure there’s something wrong here
  6. Start with you
  7. But don’t make it about you
  8. Stop being mean to yourself
  9. Write against type
  10. Change your habits

1. Have ambition

The very first thing we ask our writers on arrival at their first writer coaching session? What’s the ambition?

No time or place to be coy. We don’t hang around. Whether you’re shooting for a career as a bestselling author, literary awards, or self-publishing sales, it’s good to get the goal in clear sight.

If you mean business, know where you’re heading. Have intention. It will help you make decisions about the kind of story you’re writing.

whether you're writing a novel or a short story, first person or third person, you should always have ambition

The genre for instance. Not all genres are equal, and we guide our writers on how to choose wisely to achieve their ambition.

So, own up. What do you want? Then start writing the right kind of novel to get there. Got that? Good, let’s move on.

2. Make it harder

Raise the game! Stretch yourself! Exaggerate – it’s called drama. Apply some irony.

Get that story idea into a single sentence (the elevator pitch) that does not embarrass you to speak aloud. In fact, it excites you because it’s daring. If it excites you, it will excite readers. If it scares you too, that’s good. Writing a novel is scary, it’s a daunting task – especially a first novel. You’re going to be thrilled every day you show up to your novel to find out what happens next. Novel writing is not about playing it safe.

Tip: publishers want not just plain old good fiction. They get plenty of that. They want stand-out fiction. As an editor at Simon & Schuster explained it to us: I know I want to publish a book when it’s a little bit mental.

3. Life & death stakes

If it doesn’t matter, if there’s no urgency, no one’s going to pick that book up. Pageturners are constructed, they don’t happen by accident.

So why does it matter? Whose life is at risk? What’s the reward? What will happen if you don’t deliver the right and just ending? Again, work that one-liner hard. Make sure it hooks readers.

Add a setting that makes things better or worse (that adds to the romance or tension). Add people who make things harder or easier for your hero, put some time pressure on things and ramp up the character development. And consider your main plot as the vents which unfold to hurry that story along and keep the reader’s attention.

4. The theme as a tug of war

You’re an author. You have something to say.

During the first draft of a novel you’re finding that out for yourself. The second draft is where it becomes art. You’ve probably been a little surprised to find out what the book is whispering.

Consider your theme as a rope with your hero in the middle and people pulling from either side of the positive or negatives of your theme until you, the author, weigh in and pull to a decisive conclusion.

conflict in a novel doesn't just happen between two characters or one character's perspective - it's your theme

It’s ok for the theme to be straightforward – money versus love – for example, is a classic. The theme doesn’t need to be original. Better if it’s not, it resonates more with a wider audience and makes a story more universal. The originality comes from the grip of the death-defying premise of your story and a killer inciting incident, as we explained above.

Keep the theme simple and pull hard!

5. Theres something wrong here

Creativity is simple. It’s 1+1=3. Take something familiar. Add something new, and if you want to get attention and build tension, make that something a thing that should absolutely not go with the first thing. Strike up a provoking contrast.

6. Start with you

You may not be writing what you know in your fiction, but to find that second thing that doesn’t go there, take something of which you have special knowledge and experience. This is a good practice to help you avoid the trap of appropriation too.

So take a best-loved tale and give it your own twist. Make the setting a place you know, or give it some events you’ve experienced or introduce some people you’ve met.

let your world grow in your novel writing from your first chapter - the story isn't second person but readers still hear your voice

7. But dont make it about you

Do not put yourself in that novel as the main character. The writer as the protagonist won’t work. You’ll be sick to death of spending time with yourself at about 30,000 words in. You’ll be mean to the main character, too damning and cruel.

We pity ourselves least of anyone and it shows in the prose. Leave yourself out. Divide yourself up instead, that’s our suggestion. Take the bad parts of yourself or a problem of yours and give them to your hero to deal with. Let someone else clear up the mess you make within the safety of your plot.

8. Stop being mean to yourself

It just won’t change anything how awful you think you or your writing are.

The point is to keep making it better word by word. Keep your eyes on the prize of the storyline. Sketch it out.

You don’t have to be smart to write, you have to have insight into why we all hate ourselves so much and you need to feel sorry for your fellow humans who feel as bad as you do. See them as three dimensional. Give them a little hope.

9. Write against ‘type

This is one of our favourite tips. Always, always write a person against typecasting. So, the ex-con is the sweetheart. The alpha male has a feminine side. The dog has cat-like qualities.

It’s a highly economical and effective way of bringing life to your writing fast. And we’ll all love you for it. Compassion ought to be running through the pages of your novels.

10. Change your habits

At The Novelry, as soon as you begin one of our creative writing courses, we give you a writing lifestyle shakedown to drop some old bad habits and pick up some new ones.

If we had to choose between routine and inspiration, we’d choose routine every time. Show up and the writing will get used to showing up at the same time with you.

And finally, stop being mean and humble and go play God. In this one small part of your life, in the stories you create, you get to be the creator. Go give ’em hell.

No rules. Mischief all the way home.

Start with one bad idea. Then snowball it, adding unrelated elements to it. Next, your characters start doing things they shouldn’t do. And you read and read and read all the time and you eavesdrop and poke your nose into other people’s business to get more material to add to the fire of that story that’s burning.

If you’re serious about getting your novel done and honouring your story ideas, you’ll do the sensible thing and follow in the footsteps of all the craftspeople of all time and take an apprenticeship to fast-track your skills and knowledge.

Work with an author you admire. Or a few. Come and join us for one of our online creative writing courses at The Novelry. Affordable, effective, no-nonsense and a whole lot of fun. Start today!

Members of The Novelry team

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