So you’d like to write a novel. It’s been a lifelong dream or you have a story idea that’s been on your mind for months if not years. You have the time and energy to do it, and you think you can write well. You’re pretty sure you can pull off writing a good book.
But can you?
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. As a small kid, I would go around telling everyone with an ear that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. By the time I was in my teens, I was reading a lot of books about writing styles, character development, and conflict. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I felt I was ready to actually take the story ideas out of my head and put it to paper (or computer screen), and fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a published author.
However, one thing I learned about writing a story is that you don’t actually learn how to do it until you set out to do it. Even though I read books and bookmarked websites on how to write a novel through the years, I wasn’t aware of the actual task until I got serious about writing one.
As I typed away the work that would become my first book, I realized there was a lot more to a novel than beautiful language, well rounded characters, and tension and surprises that would make the reader want to absorb more. Yes, those aspects count a great deal, but that’s only one layer of storytelling. There is more that makes a novel a novel.
The first thing I realized was that everything counts. Every scene, every character, and practically every word is meant to move the story forward. You can’t have a brief scene in your book if it really doesn’t play a role in it. You also can’t have a character who had little to say or do, and no word can be taken for granted. Every word – save for all the “its”, “ands” and “thes” – is supposed to reveal what the character, scene, setting and the entire story is about.
“Duh, I know that,” you say.
Well, even some of the most famous stories in the world have that slip-up. I read Frankenstein back in college, and even though I enjoyed it overall, I didn’t understand why Mary Shelley devoted an entire chapter to the background of the family Frankenstein’s monster spent time with. This one chapter tells the history of the family, even though it did not advance nor explain the novel in anyway. That whole chapter should have been edited out before Frankenstein was first published.
So please, remember that everything little thing in your work in progress has to matter.
Another thing I learned while writing this book was to be realistic about the story, the characters, or both. In your head, your tale might seem fun and believable, but would it to the masses? Would your main character be believable to anyone other than you? And could your readers tolerate someone the same way you do? For example, in my novel, The Dark Proposal, Samantha DiCarlo is one of the roommates and dear friend to the main character, Claire McCormick. Samantha is outspoken and doesn’t hold back when expressing her opinions. When I first wrote about her reactions to Claire’s relationship with Daniel Bertrand, I thought she was awesome and brought some fun to my story. But as I read over what I wrote, I decided that perhaps Samantha’s quick mouth would be too much for some readers. No, I didn’t eliminate her outspokenness altogether; I just toned it down so she wouldn’t be so annoying to anyone. Even I had to admit that reading Samantha’s opinions for just about everything would’ve overwhelmed some scenes.
In other words, you are not writing a novel for yourself.
Really, you can’t write a novel based on what you like and what you think works, and expect hundreds or thousands of strangers to love it the same way as you do. That is not how the world works, that is not reality, and that even reeks of self-absorbness.
No, you cannot predict what 500 or 5,000 people may think of your story. Some may like it, others will despise it. But you have to sum up what the average person would think about certain aspects of your book and whether they are realistic or not. If the majority of your readers believe a situation or a character is not believable, then you didn’t think those parts out very well.
That is why you need beta-readers, writing groups and an editor or two. You need as many eyes on your work as possible in order to gain perspective on what you want the masses to read. If you honestly think you don’t need any of that, well I honestly think you need a reality check.
Yes, that may be quite harsh, but its the truth. You may read how-to books and websites and attend writing workshops, but you do not know what you are getting into unless you actually do it. You must keep an open mind and be willing to learn if you sincerely want your work to do well. No one is born a wonderful author – and if they are, screw them! 🙂
But really, writing is a craft and you need to develop it and get better at it as time goes on. Now some of you might be thinking, “Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot of flaws in it, but it is a runaway bestseller! EL James is filthy rich now!”
True, but that book is literally one in a million. Thousands and thousands of books are published every year. It is very rare that a book that isn’t well written becomes a phenomenon, so please don’t count your work on doing the same.
I am simply sharing with you what I learned while writing my first novel. But remember that this my first book and I intend to write more. Therefore, I admit that I have lots to learn on novel writing. But I’m up for it, simply because I adore writing and storytelling, and can’t imagine doing anything else. Writing is a journey, and I will keep you posted as I go along.