How to Write a Good Novel: 12 Tips for Engaging Reads
There are millions of great stories out there, but getting them into book form and published is another matter altogether. So how to write a novel? There is no one right way, but there are many tips and tricks authors use to help them along. Here are 12 tips to help you write a novel.
1. Know how you work, but don’t let it rule you
Do you like to get all your work done bright and early in the morning, or do you prefer staying up all night working? Do you find that you do best in a loud setting, or is quiet important to you? When it comes to being productive, everyone has likes and dislikes. Knowing what kind of environment you like to work in is the first step in creating that environment.
But be careful: Don’t let the lack of a good place to write be an excuse not to write. Sometimes it’s impossible to have the perfect writing conditions. You can’t let that stop you! Writers are tough people who have taught themselves how to work everywhere and anywhere. If you have a novel in you that needs to get out, do it no matter where and when you work.
That said, there is one thing that no writer likes: distractions. Some distractions are unavoidable, especially if you have small children or roommates. But you can reduce the number of distractions in your life by putting your phone on airplane mode or “do not disturb” mode.
Last Updated October 2022
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2. Set aside time
One of the hardest things to do for unpublished writers is making time to work. Most of you have a job that supports you and takes up a good chunk of your week. You have to squeeze your writing time in between your other obligations, and let’s face it: Sometimes you’re just too tired, or it’s hard to get motivated to do something when there’s not a deadline or a boss at the end of it.
But you have a good idea, you love creative writing, and that book idea has just got to come out. So what to do?
The answer is simpler than you might think: You rearrange your way of thinking. In her TEDTalk, Laura Vanderkam provides numerous tips to take control of your free time. The most important ones for writers: Give yourself permission to raise the priority level of your writing time. Make it as important as the time you spend at work. With that frame of mind, it’ll be much easier to make time for your writing.
Another trick for setting aside time is to learn to write in small chunks. Sure, we’d all love to have long stretches of empty and uninterrupted hours to do our work, but that’s just not the reality for many people. Instead, we have 30 minutes here and 45 minutes there. Use those! Thirty minutes is plenty of time to play around with a story idea or to perfect plot points. If you have a long commute on a subway or a train, that’s a great opportunity for writing.
3. Set daily goals
Successful writers know that it’s important to set a goal every day you sit down to write. Setting daily goals has two advantages. First, it stops you from thinking about the novel as a whole, which can be overwhelming. Second, having a set task means you know when you’re done.
What kind of goal you choose to set for yourself depends entirely on you. Many writers prefer to set their daily goal as a word count. In that case, 1,600 words a day is usually standard. However, if word count doesn’t seem like a good goal to you, don’t worry! There are other types of goals you can set. For example, research is a huge part of a writer’s work and requires a lot of time. Or you might be more comfortable with writing out a scene, regardless of word count.
No matter what kind of goal you choose, it’s important to stick to it as much as possible. That’s why you need to set realistic goals. Stephen King might crank out a new book every six months, and legend has it that it only took Jack Kerouac three weeks to write On the Road, but we can’t all be that prolific. Many of us would call 2,000 words a really good day. If you set goals that are too ambitious, you run the risk of getting overwhelmed and discouraged because you can’t reach those goals. It might take a little time, but you’ll eventually find a pace that works for you and keeps you productive.
4. Keep a pen and paper around
This is perhaps the oldest trick out there that seasoned writers like to share with aspiring authors, so there must be some truth to it. You never know when you’ll come across something that inspires you. It might be a conversation you overheard on the subway or the sight of a flower growing out of a crack in the asphalt. It might be something a stranger is wearing. It might even come from a dream. Whatever it is, when you have an idea, you need to be able to write it down immediately. Keep a pen and paper near you at all times. Tucked into a purse, on your bedside table, in your pocket. No matter where, make sure you are never without something to write with.
These days, many people use their phones as their little notebooks. It’s true that phones are incredibly convenient for storing notes in addition to all their other functions. That said, phones need recharging, and a notebook and pen don’t. Phones are also full of things that want your attention before you can even get to the notebook app and jot down your thoughts. So if you choose to use your smartphone as your notebook, do so with caution … and maybe keep a notebook just in case.
5. Join a community of readers/writers
When you think of the word “writer,” chances are that the image of a person sitting alone at a typewriter or a computer comes to your head. And while it’s true that some parts of writing are best done alone, writing a novel or a short story is not a solitary project. It takes a whole team of people to go from a great idea to a published book.
If you’re serious about writing a book, it’s a good idea to join a community of readers and writers. A writers’ circle is a group that meets regularly (usually weekly or monthly). As a member of a writers’ circle, you read other writers’ work and critique it. At the same time, other writers read your work and give you feedback.
There are many advantages to joining a writer’s circle. First, it’s nice to know that you’re not alone when you come across the challenges of writing, like writer’s block or the fear of a blank page. In addition, you’ll probably get fantastic feedback from your fellow writers. Writing and critiquing other people’s work is a great way to become a better writer. If a writer’s circle sounds like something you’re interested in, then look for one that suits your needs. Meetup.com usually has writers’ groups in it. For something more specialized, Shut Up And Write! is a great place to find online and in-person writers’ circles.
If you love the idea of having one or more readers but don’t feel like a writers’ circle is the right choice for you, then there’s nothing like good friends to help you out. If you want a friend to help you, choose wisely. A good reader is someone who is not afraid to give you honest feedback and who won’t lie to spare your feelings. If a passage is terrible, or if a character is not believable, you need to know. Having that feedback helps you identify areas of improvement.
6. Participate in NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that hosts National Novel Writing Month. Every November, they challenge everyone to set a goal of writing 50,000 words by the end of the month. Think of it as a FitBit for writers.
The idea behind NaNoWriMo is that setting an ambitious challenge is a good way to get people writing. And once you’ve done something for 30 days, you can turn it into a habit.
You can participate in NaNoWriMo as much or as little as you’d like. There are communities to join and word trackers to use, but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to.
7. Have a dedicated editor
When it’s just you and your keyboard (or your pen, if that’s how you roll), it can be hard to keep yourself accountable. It’s hard to reach goals without deadlines, and it’s even harder to know if what you’re writing makes sense to others.
If you’re serious about getting your book published, even if you decide to self-publish, then you need to hire an editor. Selecting the right kind of editor is an important step. First, they need to specialize in the genre of your book. A young adult editor won’t be able to help you with your hard sci-fi book. Second, they need to be someone you connect with. Communication is a massive part of the editing process, and it won’t work if you and your editor don’t mesh.
If this is your first book, an editor will want to look at your draft once you’re done with the writing and the self-editing. They will perform something called an editorial review: a once-over that will give them a sense of how much editing and what kind of editing your book needs. The editorial review is sometimes free, but some editors charge a per-word fee for it.
The purpose of the editorial review is to determine what type of editing your book needs. The four types of editing are:
- A manuscript critique. This is a big-picture assessment of your novel. It points out structural, foundational aspects of the book that might need work. A manuscript critique might also include feedback on sections or plot points that need reworking.
- A comprehensive edit or line edit. This is a little more detailed. It focuses on language, voice, tone, and atmosphere. It points out any clichés you tend to use or poor choices of sentence pattern.
- A copy edit. This focuses more on the technical stuff like grammar, syntax, and spelling. It ensures consistency of style, usually using a style guide.
- A proofread. This is the last step after typesetting. A proofreader’s job is to fix page breaks, look for typos, and do some copyediting.
Every type of editing can be valuable. It all depends on the kind of writer you are. If you’re great with a story arc but lousy at syntax, then you’ll benefit from a copy edit. If you write clean copy but are a little shaky on plot development, then a comprehensive edit is right for you.
8. Have an outline
Once you start writing your book, you’ll quickly realize that you’ve got a LOT of stuff to keep track of. You’ll have to account for every little detail of the story. Inconsistencies that might seem minor when you’re writing jump out at the reader or, worse, confuse them. To avoid this, you need to have an outline.
Think of an outline as the skeleton for your novel. It’s the bare bones stuff, the story structure without anything added. Having an outline can help you put together your story in the most compelling way. For example, if you’re writing a suspense book, you might not give your reader all the information up front. You’ll probably keep some of the parts of the character arc to yourself until the optimal time to reveal them. Having an outline can help you track whether you’ve revealed everything you want about the character, and if you’ve done it at the proper time.
If you’re writing a story with two parallel plot lines, then it’s a good idea to have two parallel outlines. This allows you to keep a handle on what’s going on in both at all times. In short, having a strong, linear outline is an excellent tool to write a strong, non-linear book.
Do you have an outline but have trouble getting started? Check out this article on how to start writing a book.
9. Write the good stuff first
If you’re like most writers, your book idea really focuses on one or two excellent plot points, but there are some gaps in the narrative and you’re struggling to fill those in. They might even be a complete blank for now, and this is causing a little bit of writer’s block.
Here’s a tip for you: Skip those parts for now and go straight to the stuff that’s been bouncing around in your head. Write the parts of the story you really want to get to first. Doing this will help you in a couple of ways. First, the act of writing makes it easier to write. To use a couple of clichés, it gets the juices flowing. It oils the gears. Second, you’ll never know exactly how your character acts until you get them down on the page. Now that you have something, you know your character a little better, and you have a better sense of what kind of event or scene will work best with them.
10. Don’t categorize your work
The writing process usually works like this: First, you write a first draft; second, you self-edit; and third, you write a second draft with an editor’s feedback. As you go through this process, you need to remember that the first draft is a labor of love. It’s something you’re writing for you, not for anyone else, because it’s a story that’s in you and needs to come out. It might never see the light of day, and that’s okay.
Why is it important to know this? Simple: because then you won’t feel tempted to make your story fit into a category.
Genres and book categories are an invention of book publishers for the purpose of marketing. Once you’re writing your second draft, chances are your editor will ask you to make changes to fit into a certain genre or category more neatly. But for now, while you’re writing your first draft, genre shouldn’t be on your mind at all.
Worrying about where your book fits as you’re writing it can cause some major issues. First, it can be tempting to edit as you write, which interrupts the creative flow because you’re constantly switching between creation and analysis. Second, it can cause serious writer’s block. If you obsess over genre, then you’re writing your story according to the expectations of others. Since you don’t know exactly what those expectations are, the process can be paralyzing.
Instead, just get your story out there. If it’s good, it will find an audience. Who knows, you might even be creating a new genre!
11. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
If you’ve ever written anything, then you likely know about writer’s block. There are many reasons why writers find themselves unable to write. One of the more common ones is perfectionism. A perfectionist is someone who will have trouble creating something flawed. Since all first drafts have flaws, this can be very tough.
The best thing you can do when you’re stuck on a particular plot point or when a chunk of dialogue feels stilted is to mark it, leave it alone, and come back to it later. This type of work is appropriate for a second draft. For now, you need to get the words on the page.
12. Work on your dialogue
If you’re like most first-time novelists, your experience with writing dialogue is pretty limited. Everything you write feels unnatural and stilted. This is normal. You’re not good at it because you haven’t done much of it yet. In time, you’ll find that it comes more naturally.
As you learn, however, you need to avoid falling into a very common trap: finding other ways of saying “said.” When you write dialogue, the important stuff is what’s between the quotation marks. What’s outside of it shouldn’t grab our attention. Synonyms to “said,” especially the more grandiose ones, like “uttered,” “remarked,” “emoted,” “presumed,” and “vocalized,” steal the focus of the scene away from the action. Just don’t do it! Stick to “said” for now. You’ll find that it doesn’t stand out as much when you’re reading through it.
Break the rules
Those wondering how to write a novel should remember that it is a creative endeavor. You have a vision, and you’re getting it on paper because you want to share it with the rest of the world. That vision might involve breaking some rules of syntax or grammar. You might even need to address the reader directly, as the author. No matter, remember that some of the most influential artistic movements broke the rules in a major way. As the author of your book, you have final editorial say.
Follow the 12 tips above, and you’ll find yourself deep in your story in no time. And when you’re ready for the next step, check out this article on how to publish a book. Happy writing!
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