How to Write a Novel

by A Manly Guest Contributor on August 29, 2011 · 52 comments

in Books, Travel & Leisure

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:


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.


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!


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.


{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe August 29, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Unlike a lot of novelists, I went to college for creative writing. Personally, I’m not someone who tends to enjoy genre fiction very much. I find that literary fiction is usually more fun to write and more interesting to read. It is definitely less marketable, but if you’re looking to get rich off writing books, you are going to be looking for a very long time. This is especially true with the advent of crap like the kindle/ipad/whatever.

From a literary standpoint, I think it is almost counter productive to outline something before you write it. If you are writing a spy/detective/sci fi/whatever genre novel, it is probably necessary, so I wouldn’t advise against it for something like that. When it comes to literary fiction (which includes authors like Hemingway/Steinbeck/London.

The best piece of advice I was given for starting a story or novel is to come up with two characters and get them to start talking. If you have really engaging characters, you will have an engaging story as long as you stay true to them. Oftentimes, I have seen writers go into a story that is delicately laid out and end up with a final product that is very sterile because their characters have no room to grow. In fact, I would say that a writer is better off with little-to-no preplanning of plot, and to make a plan to tackle the revisions afterwards. If a story is boring, it can be fixed. If the characters are boring, you probably have to start from scratch. Just my two cents.

2 Eagelwatch August 29, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Your best advice is to Write What You Like, Write What You Love. I’ve always liked writing stories ever since I was in elementary school when I would write action or adventure short stories with me and my friends as inspirations for the main characters. Of course, my greatest fans were my mother and my little brother. When I went off to college, I wrote my brother a fantasy adventure novella of sorts. I found myself working and expanding upon it as a hobby in between semesters and on breaks. Ten years later I have a series of four books that I’m trying to edit and rewrite in the hopes of getting them published.

3 Michael August 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Great article. I have actually thought about writing a novel for years but have never been able to wrap my head around where to begin. I love reading (I also greatly enjoy spy thrillers), and I have always been a pretty solid writer, so I feel that creating a world and a story robust enough to capture the curiousity of other readers would be extremely rewarding.

I stopped by the Library of Congress for a visit this past weekend and was both inspired to take advantage of its vast resources and disappointed in myself for not doing so sooner (I live very nearby). I think this article has inspired me to start doing some research for my new novel!

4 Cameron T. August 29, 2011 at 5:09 pm is an excellent motivator. 30 days. 50,000 words.

to me, writing is the easy part. Editing is the hard part.

5 Brian Driggs August 29, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Everyday Joe falls into the middle of the action? Sounds awesome. I actually started writing something like that about three years ago. Without an outline, without any particular outcome in mind; mostly as a creative exercise. I had this crazy idea to spin my own heist yarn, wherein a couple guys stumbled upon a nefarious, international heist of some sort. I was going to write it all out of order, then rearrange the pieces later, see where the holes were, and polish it up.

Of course, that’s why I’ve averaged something like 500 words per year since. in the meantime, I’ve moved on to more actionable projects which seek to use writing to help others, shelving my “Day in the Life” project indefinitely.

Still, the idea cross my mind fairly regularly. There’s definitely an outline of some sort sailing the synaptic seas of consciousness under my dome, so it’s entirely possible I’ll return to it one day. Perhaps I just need to stumble across the truest sentence I know, sit down, and have my two main characters start talking about it.

Appreciate your taking the time, sir. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. (Or, should we say, write it?) Cheers.

6 Molly R August 29, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I echo the NaNoWriMo recommendation. I’ve done it 2 years so far, and while my stories were crap (no planning involved, heh) it was a blast to sit down and make a 50K word mess.

7 David August 29, 2011 at 8:32 pm

One thing I can suggest, assuming you used the same syntax for your book as you use for your articles, is varying the sentence length a bit more to create more flow.

8 Dave August 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Outlining your novel is one school of thought. J. K. Rowling is a plotter and many do the outline. Stephen King is on the opposite end. His book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” is a great listen if you get the audio book. He finds two inspiring ideas and sees where they intersect. (Such as in Carrie – a picked on teen who has Telekinesis.) He figures out who these characters, have them respond realistically to their situations and then sees where they take him. In many of not most cases, he genuinely does not know how his novel is going to end when he begins. It is a kind of discovery or unearthing of a fossil. All that to say, successful novelists have done it both ways and you have to play around and figure out what works best for you.

9 Immanuel August 29, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Once you get your book together, you should try for publishing. It’s free to upload and make your book public. They can also get your book on Amazon and other marketplaces. Additionally, if you need a hand with the editing or cover art, they have services for that. Check ‘em out.

10 Adrian August 29, 2011 at 11:27 pm

This couldn’t come in a best timing.

I’m in the middle of writing a novel. And it’s taken so quite long. I can recall at least 6 years.

My novel is an all fantasy novel, inspired by the great books of J.R.R. Tolkien, fusioned with my love for fantasy videogames and movies. To create an entire world, to fill it with real breathing people, to bend physic laws to my will, to make the boring everyday-experience magical (literally). I love all of it.

A tip I can give, based on my own experiences, and mine only. Create the main characters, the world they inhabit, and the laws of that world. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll notice how your novel start writting itself.

Kudos again, Brett and Kate, kudos again.

11 Jade August 30, 2011 at 2:39 am

One thing that I think is of utmost importance for any writer is to be a voracious reader. This goes for bloggers just as well as for novelists. Read as much as you can within your genre. Read other kinds of writing that can bolster areas where your writing is weak. And read books on the art of writing – anything from style and tools of grammar to handling conflict, tension, characters and plot structure. By becoming more aware of the options available to you, you can make better decisions about which devices to use and whether and how to break the rules.

12 Jaron Deerwester August 30, 2011 at 9:49 am

Write – then write some more!

Writing a novel is easy. All it takes is a few good characters and a situation in which they can grow, evolve, respond to the challenges placed in their way (often through their own bumbling). Of course, writing a GOOD novel is harder. That takes a whole lot of rewriting, editing, reediting, proofreading, reevaluation, tweaking, and so on. Writing a novel is easy. Writing a GOOD novel takes practice, and the only way to practice, as far as I can tell, is to write, write, and write some more. Get feedback for your work. Have a few trusted readers to whom you send your chapters – as they’re being written! Great motivation to keep writing (don’t want to disappoint those readers) and to keep writing well (again – don’t want to disappoint those readers!).

Of course, what do I know? I’m an aspiring author, one novel in middle editing stages (planning another four major editing runs, maybe more), a short novel (novella) waiting to be edited, and one novel in the early writing stages – plus a bunch of bad novels sitting on my hard drive, collecting e-dust, but let’s not talk about those. :|

13 james August 30, 2011 at 10:16 am

I agree with the planning aproach. I wrote one book a few years without planning and it took over two years with a lot of false starts. This time I’m doing a short summary of each chapter to give me an idea of where i’m going before beginning to write the 1st draft. 1570 words so far…

14 John Hosie August 30, 2011 at 10:24 am

Thanks. This is just what I have needed. I’ve been trying to get a novel written for the last 40 years, but always started, got about halfway through a chapter (sometimes starting at the beginning, other times somewhere in the middle, or even with the end of it). But I never got much farther than that. Though when I think back to school days, the outline was one of the first things that were suggested for the writing process, I have always done things in an undisciplined way “when I had the motivation”. I even do that professionally in programming and systems engineering, though I do much better with programming when I try to map out the flow first.

Like when I quit smoking, this is the right message, and hopefully, at the right time.

I tried to quit smoking for decades. I went so far as to pray about it on my 90 minute commute each way to the office – while still smoking like a chimney. Then one day I was “quitting” again, and ran into a fellow smoker while he was heading out to lunch and I was heading back to work. I tried to grub a smoke, and his response, as he handed me the coffin nail, was, “Quitting again?”

“How did you know?”

Well, he had quit once before for 8 years. “The only way I was ever able to quit was to just quit,” was his reply.

I thought about it for about 2 seconds, and handed him back the cigarette. “Thanks,” I said. That was in early March, 1993.

About 2 months or so later I was working at a trade show. High stress, long hours, but lots of excitement. When the show was over, the team packed up the equipment and met in the bar for a couple of cold ones. Well, it was late May by that time. I looked around me. All the other guys had lit up, but I had no interest at all in having a smoke. That was when I realized that I had really quit. I hadn’t even thought about it since March, and the only time I even have a little temptation today is when I’m in heavy traffic with the window open and I catch a whiff of it from one of the other cars.

(Well, that isn’t entirely true. A whiff of a good strong and smooth pipe tobacco will also get me wanting to have a bowl. But that is because pipe smoking, after all, is a manly art!)

15 Derek August 30, 2011 at 10:33 am

Thanks AoM for publishing this article – an inspiration to the Everyman to do something bold and worthwhile.

16 Drew August 30, 2011 at 11:16 am

I’ve never been able to get much beyond the short story phase, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel (have some great ideas). I’d never heard of the Nanowrimo site. Thanks for the heads-up.

Lunazul Tequila just started their Facebook page and are holding monthly giveaways. Check it out.

17 Allan August 30, 2011 at 11:21 am

Great article. Writing a novel is a great thing to do. You put your heart, mind and body into that work of art. And it is a work of art. No matter what people say about it – good or bad- its still yours! They cant take that away from you.Writing a novel is a task that most people wont even think about doing. Your breakdown makes it sound so easy. One can take your advise and apply it to everyday challenges. Those could be, lose weight, be a better golfer, learn to sail a boat, rebuild a car, whatever. Outline your task,have passion, steal time and be yourself. A good friend has told me time and time again when I have a challenge in front of me, ” HOW DO YOU EAT AN ELEPHANT-? ONE BITE AT A TIME !” Love the book- I cant want to read your NEXT novel !!

18 DANGO August 30, 2011 at 11:32 am

A tip that I have found helpful:
After you have a sense of the story arc (protagonist, antagonist, the conflict, setting, resolution), consider each chapter as a ‘situation’ that advances the story. It’s a great way to get an outline going.

19 Kevin Aldrich August 30, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I suspect those successful writers who claim they don’t do any planning before they write their novels have so internalized story structure that it emerges naturally for them.

I think the rest of us would really benefit from lots of planning, writing character sketches, thinking about themes, values and controlling ideas, and then writing a detailed chapter outline. I find you have to keep searching for your climax and then work backward.

If you create a 10 to 20 page single-spaced outline, with one paragraph for each chapter, and if you are satisfied that the story “works,” then you will be able to write the novel, since it is then just a matter of grinding it out. I use the work “grind” because for me, writing the first draft is as hard as digging ditches. The real pleasure comes in revising.

20 Josh August 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Check out the book Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing for years and have read several books on writing. Immediate Fiction blew them all away with its practicality. It defines the basic elements of writing and gets you excited and into the process in the first chapter. You’re working on exercises by chapter 3. It’s not some gimmicky method either. He defines the main element of stories: conflict. And then tells you how to achieve it in the most compelling way possible. I highly recommend the book.

21 Missmedia August 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm

It’s very interesting! And I like design of your site ))

22 Taylor August 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I love how the Art of Manliness posts just the right post at just the right time in my life.

Outlining for me is the most important part to this whole thing. Having a structure to work within make everything so much easier in the long run. It’s like swimming vs. utilizing the structure of a boat. Editing is definitely a section I will have to re-read, because it’s got some great ideas that I don’t do as well.

The only thing I would add is the entire non-fiction and informational category. A large part of being a man is being able to relate knowledge and express it articulately to others. The informational side can be a much easier place for most men to get started in their writing careers, as it is more difficult to market and sell a novel.

23 Jake W August 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Good article. Always inspiring to hear how others have managed to overcome the obstacles and get something written.

I’m a firm believer in loose outlines: set a word count target (optional, but helpful); divide into chapters, or sections for a short story; work out where to put plot elements, such as introducing characters, introducing the forces working against the protagonist, the climax; keep the sections vague.

For example, I’m working on a story I’ve divided into 20 sections. Section 18 is labelled ‘Epiphany – how to defeat x’, and section 19 is labelled ‘Climax – x defeated’. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to resolve it yet, but I know I will. Not knowing is what keeps me excited about it and wanting to keep writing. I have enough of an idea of what ‘x’ is and the protagonist is developing well enough on the first draft to allow me the freedom to just run with it and see where it takes me. If it doesn’t quite work out I’ll fix it in the rewriting stage.

I recommend reading the ‘Elements of Fiction Writing’ series (especially Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card) and ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande.

24 Eric August 30, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I am an absolute master at writing first chapters for novels. I am about 3-20 on 2nd chapters and 0-20 on third chapters. I finally decided to stick to writing songs (especially story songs). It is more fulfilling for me personall and fits my attention span.

25 Elliott August 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Loved this post. I’ve written quite a few short stories and really enjoy them but have been looking at tackling a novel for some time now. A lot of the advice, like always have something to write with I already do (never go anywhere without my moleskine.) And I also re-write… probably too much.

I am going to have to disagree with the outline though. One of the things I love most about writing is seeing where the characters go and how they end up handling situations. I suppose you could say my first draft is usually my outline because almost every single time I go back and re-write the entire story, then do editing. Since all I’ve done so far is short stories I can’t exactly say how that’s going to work for my novel but usually working this way will turn a 500 word story into a 5,000 word story.

26 Ian August 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I am going to do this. Thank you for this. I just got a nasty injury that is keeping me out of my favorite time-consuming activity, and now would be a good time to get started on another dream while I heal. Thank you!

27 Elena August 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I think the best advice is to just write a lot, and write every day. I’m a believer, I think, in the 10 000 hours theory.
I’m a non-fiction writer/journalist, and I have learned so much about writing just by doing it and re-doing it over and over. One tool that has helped me get into the habit of writing every day is A good way to get ideas flowing, too.

28 dudemanguy August 30, 2011 at 5:34 pm

A friend of mine took Harry Crews’ writing class at UF and he described this technique to me:

Write cool scenes on note cards without regard to order. Order them on a clothesline. Write them into a story.

It’s about cool scenes.

29 Keri August 30, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Good article! I especially like your tips regarding the benefits of the “rewrite” and “stealing time”. Reading your book tonight (REVERSAL OF PROVIDENCE).

30 Richard August 30, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Good article, and, again, very well timed.

I have several ideas for and beginnings of novels, and a degree in English, but my biggest challenge is finding the resolutions for plot ideas that I come up with. Any suggestions for that?

31 Elliott August 31, 2011 at 2:48 am

On another touch that might be less specific, depending on the person. I’ve always found that getting a bit of a buzz on can open your mind open up to ideas you never even realized were there.

Bukowski, Hemingway, Kerouac, Thompson and countless other writers were drunks. I’m not saying hey lets all go get shit faced and write the next great American novel. I do believe however that a drink while you write can help you loosen up enough a bit to write. I’m not saying it’s the best idea, but I know the best stories I’ve come up with myself, the ones I want to read over and over again I first wrote whenever I was intoxicated.

32 CJ August 31, 2011 at 9:35 am

Great article.
I managed to get a short (40 page) story, in the hard-boiled fiction genre, published through an innovative online publisher called Books to Go Now.
I used the start-at-page-one-and-go method, but for my next, longer and more complex story, I would need to have a detailed outline. I don’t think an outline would sap the creative process at all, in fact I’m hoping it will just give it a nice big structure to play around on.

I’m sure it helps to throw a nice sentence like this one in:
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.”
Well said.

Link to my story at BTGN online publisher:

33 Jay August 31, 2011 at 12:36 pm

I am currently doing the outline approach now. My book will be based on the characters in my blog. I’ve found that outlining each chapter and planning is the best. I plan to use some of what I already have written on my site, but expand on it.

34 Mike Duty August 31, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I’ve been working on a novel for years. I have all kinds of ideas . I have several differnet plot lines running in my head all the time. If you go to Writer’s Digest Book Culb, they’ve had deals in the past where you can get 4 books on writing for free when you purchase two. Also, it’s really cool some of their books come in packages of 2 for 1.

35 herocious August 31, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I agree with Joe, trying to devise a plot if you’re writing literary fiction will work against your story. Allowing complete freedom, especially at the beginning and even 3/4 of the way through your novel, is not only more thrilling for the writer, but it also leaves room for growth/learning something new.

If reading literature increases self-awareness, writing literature should do the same, only exponentially.

36 Jason September 1, 2011 at 1:37 am

This a great article! I appreciate your advice, your insight and your inspirational delivery of the message. I love your example of using the world around us and the people we encounter to help create your story.
I just downloaded your book off Amazon and am looking forward to reading it!

Good luck!

37 Greg Nepini September 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I recently published my third novel with an eBook publisher in Canada. I haven’t been able to quit my day job so far, but I am still very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I highly recommend trying your hand at writing a novel, particularly if the thought has been lingering in the back of your mind. It is a sure-fire cure for spectatoritis.

38 Brad Alexander September 1, 2011 at 9:04 pm

You also have to believe that your work will have a positive impact on people. It is what drove me to the finish because I truly believed people would be inspired by my work. It sounds selfish but it was a great motivator believing that you would do the world a disservice by not writing what you hold in your mind.

Ultimately that is up to others to judge. But think about the great works. Had the authors not written them or not completed them society and human thought would be worse for it.

39 Mike September 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm

I have always wanted to write a novel. Instead I have published a non-fiction book about a passion, classic cars. This article is inspiring, thank you.

40 Michael Vu September 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm

I wrote my first novel in thirty days at 2,000 words per day — totalling over 60,000 words.

I loved it so much (hate the editing part though) that I wrote another. Writing a novel is an extremely personal experience. What got me through it? I listened to Radiohead while I wrote. I set a time each day (morning for me after breakfast) to write, and I didn’t leave the chair until I finished my quota of 2,000 words per day.

I jumped in the air when I was done with my first novel.

I agree with the posts above about outlining literary fiction. I did write notecards in advance, but used them as a guide not as a restriction. My characters and stories usually took turns — as your story should if it wants to come alive.

You will love this experience, if you do in fact choose to write. Nobody will be able to take your novel away from you. Whether it is published or not, there are many things you gain by finishing it. Well, for starters, you learn to love agents say, “Not for me.” But maybe most of all, I gained a certain confidence in myself, a certain confidence that makes me feel like I can do a lot of things I thought I could not.

Can someone please email me their thoughts on self-publishing? Some reliable sources?

Much thanks,
Michael Vu

41 mark niehus September 7, 2011 at 10:39 am

In response to Richard’s post above:

I have several ideas for and beginnings of novels, and a degree in English, but my biggest challenge is finding the resolutions for plot ideas that I come up with. Any suggestions for that?

Reply: have you tried buying some friends a beer and walking them through the story, asking for their suggestions/ thoughts? They might be able to help. In my mind (I am the author of this article)- you run the risk of being “stuck” forever and unable to move forward, unless you figure the resolution out- beforehand. For me, I am still able to add quite a bit of color and twist things around a bit that are more interesting (I do this in drafts 2 onwards-)- but I need to have the ‘bones’ of the story complete first.

Find someone you trust (who will give you bad and good feedback- don’t look for praise, you can always get them from your Mom or your wife) who can vet some of your ideas or writing. Some people join a writing group, some just send documents to friends and ask for feedback.

For those interested in more about self-publishing, check out the blog of JA Konrath. Lots of good information shared by him.

42 Ian September 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

So I’ve been at the writing for a week now, and although it’s slow, it is coming. I’ve found the biggest thing is to keep moving. Yes, the first draft is pure garbage, but most writers’ problem is fearing that. A teacher once told me “lower your standards.” I’m doing that and writing whether I like what I have or not. Making it in smaller chunks has allowed me to go back and change things that I couldn’t stand – like the flaw of beginning to write myself into the story. That’s a no-no unless you’re Richard Marcinko.

43 Pat September 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I’m not a novelist, but I do write short stories when the muse comes around. I write things to get them off my chest and on to paper to be rid of them. Thanks for the article. It’s awesome.

44 TheMindYourMoney September 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm

That is something I always wanted to know.

45 AloneBadman September 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Writing is a novel requires the writer to understand principles and rules of storytelling. Think back to before the novel existed, look to the stories and epics of the past. There’s a reason why a strong beginning, tense middle, and climatic ending work. Simplicity is the key to writing a strong novel. Not a good novel, a strong novel.

It depends entirely on what genre you’re writing in as well. Some writers employ metaphor and similes up the ying yang to illustrate their themes, I’m in the company of writers like Hemmingway. The iceberg principle draws the reader in through inference and lets them form their own ideas about the story and the characters.

Conflict is the most vital part of a story. Characters drive the conflict but without you just have words. Whether you write seedy morally ambigious protagonists and antagonists or a more traditional yarn, they need strong opinions backed up by actions. It’s cliched but actions do speak louder than words. A novel is not reality, it’s an embellishment that focuses on a specific time and setting of the character’s life.

Not every protagonist needs to be likeable. However, they need to be relatable. The idea of understanding someone you hate lets you see what you could have become or might be closer to in reality.

And in terms of pacing, the rollercoaster metaphor works. High, tense action interspaced with low key or normal moments. Life is fast and slow. Reflect in what you write and you’ll write a strong novel. Getting published? That’s an entirely different topic.

46 Brandon L September 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I’m an outliner. Like others have said, it’s a guide to work from, but once I’ve got characters I like on an interesting adventure in an interesting place, I let them explore and grow.

I usually get back to the main arc of my outline, but without that guidepost, I get bogged down with where they should go next. My outline is the backbone and I just work at putting skin on those bones and making the connections make sense.

To me, the most fun is when characters start “writing themselves”; saying and doing things I hadn’t planned.

47 Brandon L September 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Drat! Thee’s no “edit” button!

I did want to encourage everyone with advice I told myself. Don’t psych yourself out by trying to write a great novel. Instead, ask yourself “Can I at least finish writing a mediocre novel?” Finish and it might be better than you hoped or give yourself credit for.

48 John September 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I think the same goes for any piece of literary work you put together.

49 Jeff P September 22, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I have known Mark for 15 years and he is the owner of the company I work for. Mark has to be the hardest working individual I have ever met. He is a great boss and extremely generous with his time. Congratulations Mark on your new book and a great article.

50 Kevin September 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm

In the second paragraph above the picture of the man reading the book, “past-faced” is written instead of “fast-paced”.

51 Kevin C. October 24, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I think it was Falkner who said that writing is not about typing with your fingers but it’s really about grabbing an ax and hacking at a tree . I totally got it.

52 Thom Phan April 12, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Thought this would be an interesting example. I actually did finish a novel 43K before editing (I actually want it trimmed a little) and I think in the end it came down to exactly what the author meant when he said you sit down and bleed.
Most of what I wrote was written when I was going through a pretty painful depression and I found that by writing I could defuse the pain. Honestly, as much as I would like to become the next famous author, the real reason I wrote was because it helped me become a better person. I would not be surprised if no one else ever read the book, and I am perfectly okay with that.

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