Writing A Novel 101: 6 Things To Know

Because it is #subtips Monday (check out my #subtips hashtag on Twitter), here are a few Q&A’s writers frequently ask when they get started writing. 2014-03-03 12.37.52Writing is a complex field with tons of variables and questions and distractions, and sometimes it helps to just ask questions and get answers. Let me know yours below!
Q: Do I have to have a title before I start writing?
Nope. My manuscripts sometimes have a title before they have a first page, and others I’m still struggling with titles for even after they’ve been drafted and revised. Titles often change during the publication process anyway, so I wouldn’t get hung up on finding the perfect title. I’d just start writing, and it may come to you as you go. Lots of authors find their title while writing out those gorgeous lines. Don’t sweat it.

Q: Do I have to have a thorough outline before I start writing?
Nope. Some authors have to have one, and some find it drains the inspiration from the creative process. I’d say you definitely need a firm idea of what the story is about– what’s the main character’s problem? Figure that out, develop it, find out what stands in the way of him/her solving that problem. Basically, know the big events that have to happen. If you don’t like outlines, that’s okay. Just be sure you have a solid concept in place so you aren’t writing enormous tangents or piles of words with no goal. That can be discouraging.

If you have a clear conflict in mind for your characters and you know what’s keeping them from solving the conflict, that’s a great place to start. I use a method that works great for me: I get to know the conflict and the characters, then I start writing, treating my outline like I’m driving in the dark; I only need to see as far ahead as my headlights will show me. Each step shows me a little bit more of what’s ahead, and that’s enough! Just make sure each scene contribute to the main character’s goal/problem.

Q: Is it a good idea to let family and friends read my manuscript? 
In the early stages, I say no– for similar reasons that it’s not a good idea to let your friends and family name your children. They won’t want what you want for the book, if you don’t take their advice, they may be upset, and quite frankly, you love them too much. The opinions of family and friends usually mean so much to us that it can make filtering their feedback difficult, and it also puts you in the awkward position of having disagreements with them over what’s best for the story and potentially doing exactly what they said was a terrible idea. On the other hand, well-meaning advice can set us off on the wrong path. I’d look for feedback from people who are good writers, because they usually have a more solid idea of what to critique and their feedback is usually more helpful.

Lots of us are plenty strong enough to not let relationships cloud what’s best for the book, but even when that’s the case, it’s hard to deal with. Save yourself the angst, and have them read, if you must, once it’s done and you’re no longer accepting feedback. Chances are, they’ll tell you they love it and it’s perfect, anyway. :)

Q: How long should my novel be?
The first thing to know is that writers almost always measure book length in words, not pages. How many words fit on a page can vary so much that it’s just not an accurate measure. Most word processors track the word count of your document for you, so check (probably at the bottom) for how many words you have.  How long your book should be depends on the category and genre. Here’s a pretty solid breakdown from Writer’s Digest. Keep in mind a standard page is about 250-300 words.

Q: What if I screw it up by writing the wrong thing?
You will write the wrong thing. Trust me. Don’t be afraid of it! Here’s the thing: you’re smart, motivated, and creative. Anything you can write, you can un-write. So much of writing is rewriting that I like to think of it as a puzzle. I’ve got all these pieces, I found the corners, and now I’m shifting them around to see what fits where. That’s what drafting is all about. Don’t pressure yourself too much to know everything before starting to write pages.

Legos is a good comparison, too. They can be taken apart and shifted around to fit a different way if I discover my creation isn’t looking like I want it to, or the structure isn’t holding up. It may be painful at first, but you’ll learn from it, and you know your characters and plot better now than you did before. This one is going to be better because of it. Trust yourself– if you made something good once, you can do it again, so if you need to rework something, that’s okay. You can take it down and make something else good, too. Trust yourself to find a good thing in all those building blocks and make it take shape. Reshape as you go. Jump and and do it. And redo it. Good writing is rewriting!

Q: How much revising should I plan on doing?
Well, I like to compare drafting and revising to raising a child. You put months into planning, developing, and writing that book, and when you finish drafting it, you have a brand new book baby! Congratulations. It’s a huge moment. But just like you’re not done when you’ve successfully created a brand-new person, you’re not done with that book yet. You have to shape that child and spend 18 years teaching him or her how to be a successful, happy adult (who are we kidding? We need our parents well into our thirties), and you have to shape, focus, and polish your manuscript. It’s a book now, but it needs a lot more love before it’s ready for the world. Now, hopefully, this won’t take 18 years, but it usually does take 3-4 thorough rounds of revisions with beta readers and critique partners to really make the book live up to its potential. And that’s before agent revisions and editor revisions. However: here’s the great part. All this work can be so much fun. Just like parenting, there are parts we hate and parts that make us cry and parts we wish we didn’t have to do. But it’s worth it.

Do you like this blog series? Tell me, and I’ll keep it going! Submit your questions for the next one!
  1. Love this series! I am always excited to see the tweets, so I think it would be fun to see this continue to be featured on the blog!

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