Today, I'd like to share my A-Z guide that uses the letters of the alphabet to examine key parts of being a novelist. Check it out!
Though experimental short stories can sometimes get away with not having a conflict, every novel needs to include at least one: one reason why the main character can't get what they want or need. This means that every novel has an antagonist! Antagonists can come in the form of characters who cause trouble and get in the main character's way, but they can also be more abstract. The main character may be their own antagonist at times (which I love to explore), while other common antagonistic forces include nature and time. Make sure that you know what your conflict and antagonist are and that you make full use of them in your story. (Also keep in mind that there are often multiple conflicts and multiple antagonists in longer stories like novels.)
B: Beta Readers
It's important to choose people, besides your mom and your agent, to read and critique your work prior to publication--friends, family, fellow writers, even random people you come across online. These are your beta readers (or critique partners if it's a mutual thing). They give you early reader reactions, help you perfect your writing, and encourage you on your path to success. As tempting as it may be, if you want to be a career writer, you can't hide your work from the world. So go get those critiques!
Even though it's important to stand out, you also have to fit in enough that librarians, bookstore owners, and others can shelf and market your book appropriately. That's why you need to know your category and genre and keep to them as you write, edit, and promote your book. This is the first step in determining your audience, which can be a key factor in creating an effective story.
The most important quality you can have as a writer is determination (aka stubbornness, although that word is generally seen as more negative). You need it to get a novel written and edited, and you need even more of it to get through the many, many rejections and failures that successful novelists encounter. Don't allow yourself to give up! Pick yourself up every time you fail and try again.
Though it's important to know the basic rules of writing, you also need to be bold enough to break free from them. Experiment with something new and different in every piece you write! If you pull it off right, you'll have something amazing to give to the world. If you don't, you've still learned something. You can read more thoughts on challenging yourself as a writer here.
F: Friends and Family
All artists put some of themselves into their artwork. This comes most deeply though emotion. You have to feel your story and then express that feeling in a way that makes your readers feel it too. Don't get blocked by an inability to face up to yourself. Writing is actually a great way to better understand the issues you face in real life! (Do be careful, however, not to go overboard and put so much of yourself into the story that you lose the audience. Like most of life, writing requires balance.)
Before you send out to agents and publishers, you need to do your research and find out which materials to send to whom and in what way. This is not the time to exercise your boldness or creativity; follow the stated guidelines exactly. That means with formatting and all. This is a business, and your prospective team needs to know that you can be professional and cooperative.
What does your main character need or want most? What's getting in their way? (See letter A.) What makes your story unique? (See letter U.) These are the key questions that you need to answer to hook the reader into your story. Focus on the answers while editing, querying, and marketing.
It's important to constantly read the works of other writers so you can a) keep up with the market and b) better understand how storytelling works in every category and medium. Pay particular focus to the writers you idolize most. Figure out what it is about their writing that makes them so powerful and apply it to your novels!
No matter how serious and intense your story is, you need to give your reader (and yourself) a break every once in a while. Create contrast by juxtaposing dark moments with lighter ones. This helps emphasize the emotions on either side, ensuring that they are truly felt for what they are. Without that variety, there won't be enough emotional strength left for people to make it all the way to the end! Your story's intensity must move up and down like a wave on the ocean.
K: Killing Your Darlings
I endorse this common piece of editing advice. There will be lines, paragraphs, and sometimes whole scenes you've written that you love but that just don't fit into your novel. Even individual word choice can be an important matter when you're editing a book--you probably have some "darling" words that you personally overuse. You have to cut them. Kill your darlings! Don't let them get in the way of the story. (You may also have some darling characters that you have to kill for the sake of the story, but that's not what's traditionally meant by this phrase, LOL.)
L: Literary Agent
Literary agents are the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing industry, and they are important business partners of career novelists. Once you sign a contract with an agent, they will do vital work in critiquing your writing, getting your foot in publishers' doors, negotiating contracts, collaborating with the rest of your publishing team, and guiding your career. I recommend you get one, instead of wasting time trying to do all that yourself. .🤷🏻♀️
M: Main Character
Without a well-written main character, you're unlikely to have a good story. Stories are all about connecting with humanity through the eyes of fictional people. Characters are what readers tend to care about the most! When creating your protagonist, the most important quality to keep in mind is relatability, though likability and general intrigue can also be useful. Your character's wants and needs form the core of their development, and appropriate details about their personalities, interests, and more finalize your creation. When your character starts running the story themselves, you'll know you've accomplished your task. Read some more about that in this post from the perspective of one of my own main characters!
N: Not Just Art
While much of writing is about art, being a novelist is a business too. It's a hard dichotomy to balance, but you've got to find and channel your business self if you want to make this into a successful career. You need to have the right mindset for querying, publishing, and marketing. I wrote some related tips based off of James Patterson's work here that you can check out..
O: Other Characters
Human relationships are the most interesting topic to explore in storytelling: they're diverse, complex, and incredibly emotional. In my opinion, there's nothing more important! Beyond just antagonists, you need friends and family to better reveal the nature of your main character through their interactions and to deepen the overall story, e.g. through subplots. Put some thought into each of their different qualities, interests, and interpersonal dynamics! Character archetypes can be of some help here, but don't forget to push past the tropes too. Over time, you'll develop your own standard cast of characters.
P: Publishing Team
Whether you choose to make a career through traditional, hybrid, or indie publishing, your success depends upon your ability to find and work with a team of specialized professionals. In traditional publishing, a literary agent (see letter L) is a core team member, but every publishing team includes editors, formatters, designers, and marketers. In book publishing, teamwork truly makes the dream work!
Once you move into the querying part of the process, it's definitely time to make that switch from the art brain to the business brain. It's hard to write a good query. You have to form the perfect short pitch, which takes practice to master! So don't skimp on putting in the work at this point of the process.
Not every story needs a romantic subplot (or main plot), but love is one of the deepest and most vital human emotions. So don't shy away from exploring love of all kinds in your stories, romantic love included! Here's a post I wrote early on in this blog that can help you if you're unfamiliar with writing romance.
Don't forget, in all of this, to stay true to the core of your story. What you are creating is one small piece in the giant story that is humanity, and it deserves to be given its proper place! To get a better idea of how you fit in (which will help you create the best novel possible), you need to consume media of all kinds. Over time, you'll develop a natural sense that tells you when you're moving away from what each storyline needs to be. Examining the craft itself through plot structure worksheets and the like can also be helpful.
"Timbre" is a musical term used to describe the difference in sound between various instruments and voices. Each story (and each writer) also has its own sound that needs to be utilized in the most appropriate way in order to join the larger symphony in creating beautiful music. Character and author voice and tone are important pieces of this. Thus, one way to play with your timbre is by experimenting with perspective.
As indicated in letters C and H, you have to strike a balance between fitting in and standing out if you want to be marketable. I find that "standing out" is the harder of the two. So it's important that you figure out what about your book is unique and make that your priority. If you're having a hard time with this, consider why you chose to write this story in the first place. Most likely, there was something unique that drew you to it. If you can't think of anything original to highlight, it's time for either a serious rewrite or a trunking.
V: Very Slow
One important thing to know about the publishing industry is that everything moves at a really slow pace. It takes years to write and edit a novel, probably years to get a contract, definitely years before your book gets published. You've got to keep your expectations realistic--but also be prepared for the stress of deadlines, which can make it feel like the whole process has sped up rather dramatically!
Worldbuilding is one of the hardest and most important aspects of writing, particularly when you're writing speculative fiction. After all, setting is one of the three pillars of storytelling, alongside plot and character. It determines a lot of what happens in your novel--and the devil is in the details! One great thing to remember, as I learned at Ch1Con 2014 from Patrice Caldwell, is that worldbuilding should be filtered through your character's perspective.
Here's a hard truth: there's something to being a novelist that's totally beyond your control. Luck is the x-factor that determines whether you hit the right notes at the right time with the right people to have success. Keeping this in mind will help you be more patient and persevering. Focus your energy on what you can control and learn how to recognize and let go of the rest.
You are a key part of this whole process, so take care of yourself! The best inspiration and motivation comes from life, and you can't live life just by writing, unfortunately enough. So give yourself breaks. Explore other interests. Make other friends. Don't lose yourself entirely to the art! (A core discovery I've made since first writing this post that would also be relevant here is that finding the way of writing that fits you best greatly increases your chance of success. It can take some experimentation, but it's worth making both the story and the process of creating it especially your own.)
A lot of writing is about resurrecting the old to create the new. You can create zombies out of your past experiences, out of other people's artwork, or out of tropes and archetypes that have existed for centuries. I find a lot of ideas through my own unpublished writing--trunked novels and old diaries and the like. Every piece likely has something that can be reinvented in future stories!
Hopefully, this is helpful for you! Thanks for reading. Are there any key points you think should be added to this guide?
Previous: Writerly Things They Don't Teach in School
Next: On Knowing Your Audience
Images via Clkr-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay, AntanO and Townie on Wikipedia, and polinaza0 on Pixabay.
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