Tips for writing a novel that doesn’t suck

About two months ago, I decided to sit down and finally write the novel.

Yes, we know all about the novel.

The novel that was supposed to justify why we chose an English degree over something more useful like, oh I don’t know, anything other than Philosophy (which I also majored in wtf); the novel that was supposed to get back at Doug Hamilton and the rest of his 8th grade crew who never invited us to play laser tag; the novel that was supposed to ellevate the world and our bank accounts to new heights.

And yet, 50,000 words later, my “novel” was garbage.

But at least it was out of my system, and I was able to learn a lot of things about myself and my writing. Here’s some tips for writing a novel that I learned along the way that will help unsuck our writing in the future.

Stop trying to be a great writer
Perhaps you are Mark Twain, and you will write the next great American novel. If so, I commend both your writing prowess and your mustache mastery. But for me, the moment I stopped trying to write the greatest story ever told, I was able to start writing. Like, a lot. Tons more than I ever had before. I wrote a 1,000 words per day (not as much as some, but a lot for my current schedule).

Sure, quality over quantity. But at least getting my story all on paper allowed me to flesh out characters, free write new ideas, and develop a basic structure. If I had spent too much time focusing on mastering my description of the barks, the leaves, and the twigs, I would have never been able to write the forest.

Know your beginning, middle and end goals
In Nancy Kress’s very helpful book Beginnings, Middles & Ends, she writes that the beginning of your book makes a promise, the middle develops that promise, and the ending delivers on that promise. When you are writing your novel, make sure each of your sections accomplish these tasks.

Think about what the beginning of you book suggests to the reader. Since the reader knows absolutely nothing about the amazing plot and theme you are about to create, you’ll want to get them on board as soon as possible. If you promise big laughs and gnomic elves, the first scene should show your main characters snappin’, cracklin’ and poppin’ at their funniest.

Once your readers know what’s going on, think about how you will give your promise depth. Your characters will need motivations and dilemmas that relate to the larger theme, and their decisions, in turn, will grow your story. Think about your descriptive writing as theme developing as well.

Regaring the ending, Nancy Kress writes it best in Beginnings, Middles & Ends, don’t promise apples and give us oranges. That means:
  • If the ending uses different characters, it will fail.
  • If the ending tries to switch to some other last-minute conflict, it will fail.
  • If the ending evades the promised collision, it will fail.
If you have promised your readers humorous gnomes, don’t have Cap'n Crunch swoop in at the last minute and save the day. Of course, there are many endings to a story, but everything about it (character changes, emotional forces, and tone) should grow logically from the expectations set beforehand.

Make the commitment
I have always loved talking about the joys of writing a book…right until somebody asks how much I’ve actually written down.

Why? Because the answer was usually zilch.

Not because I am a lazy person (lots of lazy people write books ☺), I wasn’t making book writing a part of my schedule.

When the jealous Father Time put a deadline on our date with Mother Earth, he also limited the things we can be great at in life. That is to say, if you can’t find the time to be a great businessman, basketball player, parent, scientist, jazz musician, AND a great novelist, then you need to give something up (might I suggest jazz?).

You may be good at all these things, but greatness takes a lifestyle. Want to know a secret? There’s no secret to writing. Write a lot, read a lot; both of which take dedication. The number one rule to being a great writer, in my opinion, is just to never stop writing.

For me, I had a summer off of my graduate studies, so I made sure to go to a coffee shop and write until I had written 1,000 words. And, even though the book sucked, now I have a general idea how to attack the next draft when I’m ready.

Outline now, save time later
Before I wrote my first draft, I had a draft that I now call draft zero. About 8 months ago, I had a basic idea of a book I wanted to write, and so I decided to start my writing engines and go.

The result? I spent 20,000 words worth of time, energy, and creativity on something I couldn’t use. Not to say that it didn’t make my next draft better, but the characters were inconsistent, scenes weren’t pertinent to the theme, and I eventually had to stop because the story was going absolutely nowhere.

I’ve read some writers don’t need an outline. I do. If you do too, here are some great resources:
A tip on becoming better at outlining, start reading novels with pen and notepad on hand. When you read, simply make an outline of what’s happening, why it matters, and character motivations. You’ll not only be able to impress your literary friends, your pro-reading will help you become a pro-writer.

The novel doesn’t exist
I always thought there was a story ingrained in my being that I was destined to write. I dreamed as I put pen to paper, divine inspiration would guide the ink, pages would fill with eternal wisdoms, and the act of writing the novel would be complete. After writing my first novel, I have given up that idea and said good riddance.

Once I stopped imagining the novel, I just focused on writing a novel. A good one. One with interesting characters that made some sort of development, with tensions that kept the story moving, and descriptions that weren’t overbearing. I left behind my emotional attachment to everything it was supposed to be, and realized my book was simply one more step on the stairway to heavenly writing.

Ten more tips for writing a novel
  1. Plot (what happened), themes (why it’s happening) and character motivations should always be on your mind.
  2. Have your friends read your writing. They will not only catch things you missed, their comments will boost your writing confidence.
  3. Write like your book won’t sell, because it’s very likely that it won’t. Not to say you shouldn’t focus on quality, but the process should be intrinsically fun.
  4. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish Little House On The Prairie until she was in her 60s, the average age of new novelists is 36.2 years old. You don’t have to wait, but don’t feel bad if you did.
  5. Good writing is good editing. Try connecting with freelance editors on I have found them to be friendly, experienced, and affordable.
  6. Write flash fiction. It allows you to work on your voice and to practice all the parts of a story in less than 1000 words!
  7. Read Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting to improve your writing. Easily my favorite book on decriptive writing.
  8. Get ready for a rewrite. Jeff Goin’s blog has a compelling article about a 5-draft method to novel writing, where the rough draft doesn’t happen until draft 3! I suppose I am technically outlining my 3rd draft, which means I haven’t earned “work-in-progress” status. Oy vey.
  9. For God’s sake, be different. A work that’s truly original will be forgiven of almost everything else.
  10. This last tip is left for you! Comment below if you have any additional tips for writing a novel.
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