Books, Travel & Leisure

How to Write a Novel

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mark D. Niehus.

Ever since our ancestors first scratched on a dark cave wall a tale of great conquest or success on a hunt, man has strived to write. Great men and great novelists like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London wrote stories to share experiences, to boast, and to leave their own unique mark on the world.

Many men have dreamed of writing a novel. Perhaps you have been told by a teacher that you have a knack for writing. Maybe you’re an avid reader and you think you could do just as well as the authors of the books you enjoy. Or perhaps you see writing a book as a challenge for yourself.

The good thing is this: anyone can do it! Nothing is stopping you from firing up your laptop and hammering away to create the caper of the century. There is no barrier or cost to entry. All you need is paper, pen, and the will to succeed. As the great Hemingway said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Figuring out why you want to write a novel is critical, for it is fuel for the fire to complete what will likely be a challenging task. For me, my desire was driven by a belief that I could create yarns as exciting and compelling as some of my favorite authors, men like Frederick Forsyth, David Morrell, Vince Flynn, and others in the male-oriented spy thriller genre. It was also a personal challenge to myself, something I had daydreamed about for ten years but had done nothing with. I have a good friend who plans to write a novel only for his eight year-old daughter to read, a unique gift that he will dedicate to her. Pretty neat, pretty noble, and well worth the effort, in my mind.

Once you have uncovered the why and made the decision to write a novel, then figure out how. It can be a daunting task for anyone to create, from the starting point of white blank screen, two hundred pages of a compelling story. But it’s like many things in life–simply figure out what others did and do the same thing. Thus, I took the same approach by carefully studying successful authors and the market for thriller fiction.

Some basic tips for success that are a great start for any novelist:

Outline

I am a firm believer in outlining your story fully, before you begin. I learned this from Ken Follet, one of the most successful and prolific novelists of the last twenty years. On his website there is a section  that describes his process of writing, illustrating how outlining carefully is absolutely critical for him. This is different from what many think of the stereotypical author who waits for a flash of inspiration to bowl him over, then huddles over the keyboard to start on page one, with no plan in mind, just the emotion of the idea driving him. Guess what? Most people, pros or not, sputter out at page fifty with this approach. They write themselves into a corner or create part of a novel that will not work. Then what happens? They stop. Maybe you’re one of them. You had a great initial plot and inspiration–but your tome (all forty-seven pages of it)–is still parked on your laptop from 2001 and has never moved. You tried, you got stuck, and you quit.

Think of outlining a novel in the same way you might for a business report (or any similar work-related document). Do you simply start hammering away at the keyboard blindly? Probably not. You most likely first sketch out individual pieces that will complete a whole. For example:

  • Section One: General overview
  • Section Two: Sales and marketing plan
  • Section Three: Competitive analysis

And so on. Break the whole into discrete pieces that can easily be tackled bit by bit. And so it is with a novel.

  • Prologue: Description of Russian general who invades Chechnya in 1722
  • Chapter One: Incident in which protagonist gets in car accident with mysterious foreigner
  • Chapter Two: Back story and description of childhood of antagonist

And so on. I did this for my novel. I broke the story down into thirty-nine discrete chapters, and I planned at the outlining stage exactly what happens at every juncture. By doing so, I could both ensure that I had a workable, believable story and also break the writing task into small, measureable pieces. Could I create a fast-paced thriller that spans four centuries, ten countries, and six main characters all by the seat of my pants, starting on page one? No way. But writing one chapter, four to six pages, with a limited sphere of characters in one scene? Very doable, in sessions of an hour or two at a time. And much easier to eat the task this way, in very little bites.

Write What You Like, Write What You Love

This is pretty obvious to most people but worth mentioning. Part of my drive for fiction writing is that I strive for commercial success. I want to make money by creating and selling novels. But if all I want to do is make money, I might be better off by targeting the market for romance novels which are bought primarily by women. This is the biggest and most lucrative sector of the fiction market. But this doesn’t interest me in any way. I thoroughly enjoy reading a good escapist spy thriller, and I thoroughly enjoy writing one. Simply put, if you do not absolutely love what you are creating, then it’s doubtful you’ll ever finish.

Know the Structure of a Story

Novelist Robin Cook said that before he started writing fiction as a young medical student, he picked the top one hundred popular novels and read them to understand story and structure. If you follow the normal structure of storytelling, you will be fine. If you don’t, you probably won’t have a coherent or marketable novel. Understand and study the main elements of a story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, arc, climax, resolution, etc) before you craft your novel and you will find the path much easier.

Steal Time

One of the immediate responses that an uncommitted dreamer will use to kill his own idea before it is even fully developed is to say “I don’t have time.” No doubt, novel writing and world-building takes time. Months, years for most. So you’re busy. So are most men. Work, family, hobbies, life in general. Life was very busy for one talented, bored insurance agent who had a family to feed. But he took the time, a few hours every morning, to write before he had to start work. He finished The Hunt For Red October and the rest, as they say, is history. If you are committed, you will make the time. Writing is obviously a solitary pursuit that demands longer periods of concentration. I found I could do my best work when I had a two hour window, alone. And I did it while working sixty hours a week running my own business, while still spending time with my wife, friends, family, and hobbies, including training for and running a marathon. If you are serious–you will make time. And while solitary periods alone in a quiet corner are best for most people, you can also steal time in small chunks. Always carry something to write with, and always write down your ideas or observations. As the great author David Morrell (the creator of Rambo from his novel First Blood) teaches, writers are astute observers, always ready with a keen eye and an open ear for bits of real life that they can blend into their novel. It could be snippets of conversation between a bickering couple in an airport you overhear, or a great idea for a plot twist that comes to you from nowhere.

I don’t know how many hours I put into my novel, from the initial heady spark of inspiration to ninth-draft, polished novel, but for me it was a labor of love. And more importantly–it was a promise that I made to myself, a goal, a challenge met. The reality is that many successful novelists use these same tactics. Even the busiest person can find a way to write just one page a day. One page.  About four hundred words. One page a day yields a complete, 365-page novel in one year. Great man and novelist Jack London said it best:

You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.

Rewrite

No matter how good you think you are, or how much someone may have praised your writing–your first draft is only a start. Usually, the first draft is pretty bad. Or worse. Hemingway was certain of this:

The first draft of anything is s**t.

Maybe it’s coherent, but full of holes. Or clichéd characters. Or something else. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done (you did just complete a novel, after all), put it away for a few weeks, then look at it anew with fresh eyes and start making it better. Don’t be afraid to rip, rip, rip and get rid of every word that does not contribute. Only by rewriting (improvement) can you hone and perfect, till your novel gleams like a polished jewel. I know I spent much more time rewriting and ultimately improving my novel, then I did on the first draft.

Be Yourself

You can admire and emulate others’ work, but don’t try to be another author, for you will just fail. Discover and use your own words, your own characters, your own mark of uniqueness. This is what is called “voice.” Don’t be afraid to be different, to bare your soul a little. For me, I wanted my novel to appeal to readers who enjoy the popular spy thriller, but with my own little twist of making the protagonist not the typical cardboard cut-out of an invincible secret agent, but instead an everyday Joe who literally falls into the middle of the action. At the end of the day, make sure to enjoy your unique adventure. Some days will be hard, some will be easy. But they will all be your own.

How do you start? In the wise and immortal words of Hemingway:

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.

Are you a novelist or an aspiring one? Share your writing tips with us in the comments!

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Iowa native Mark D. Niehus is a technology entrepreneur in Seattle. REVERSAL OF PROVIDENCE is his first novel. He is hard at work on the sequel.

 


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