Writing novels when you have experience is daunting. Writing a first novel, then, can seem like an impossible task, especially when you have nothing going for you except desire and a head full of ideas.
I recently commented on a book from someone who asked for a review through my Review Exchange offer. I could tell after reading only a few sentences that this person was new to writing. At that point, I had to make a decision. I could have said, “No way, come back with a revised draft.” But I decided not to. I know how hard it is to write and how terrifying it can be to have my work reviewed by ‘someone who knows what they are doing.’ Also, new authors are told all the time to “get experience” or to “go back to the drawing board”, but don’t they need guidance and support in order to do that?
I decided to read the book, and rather than write a review, I wrote feedback in the manner of a beta read, which I hope the author will see as constructive and motivating. It was while I was writing the feedback, that I thought it might be helpful for other authors starting out to read the notes.
Now, I am not an authority on novel writing. I’ve been lucky that people who read my stories and novels enjoy them. But like the author above, when I started out I had no support network; I just wanted to write. People reading my early drafts must have rolled their eyes and gone, “Oh great. Another wannabe.”
For those who don’t know my journey, here’re a few lines of intro: I started writing short stories, poems, and plays when I was a kid, but when I got serious about it about 5 years ago. Essentially, I learned by reading and reviewing. Before I wrote my first book, I read classics to remember basic sentence structure and what ‘proper’ writing was. Then I got joined an online writing site and, by reading and reviewing short stories, learned to break them down to find out what worked and what didn’t. Then I moved to another site where novels were broken down the same way. Along the way, I met helpful writers, editors, and beta readers and learned from. Often, they tore apart my books–and it hurt A LOT–but I learned a ton. I’m still learning, almost 5 years later.
When I do a beta read, my goal is to be constructive but honest. No one learns when they are told that everything is ‘wonderful’ and ‘perfect’. Every book out there, for the most part, can be improved in some way. And, I figure it’s best to get feedback from someone who cares about the story and an author’s growth than from those who seek only to destroy (i.e. Trolls).
Anyway, let’s begin. Below are some points I think that any new author should keep in mind when crafting a book:
- 1) Edit/proofreading: Solid editing/proofreading can make or break a book. If the novel’s readability is compromised by punctuation problems, misspelled words, weird quote marks—anything that messes with a sentence’s clarity—it must be resolved. If a reader has to work too hard to understand what is being communicated, they risk becoming confused, or even frustrated, and quit reading the book. Not good.
- 2) Content editing: 1) Nice settings and world building go a long way, but what is the central theme or story being told? Is it clearly told, or is there too much fluff (over-writing, too many tangents or sub-plots, etc.) getting in the way? Are the characters well-rendered so that we care about X or Y? Is the genre clearly defined so that we know if it’s a mystery, a love story, or a thriller? Here’s a hint: if a reader can’t tell what the story is about from the first chapters—some say as early as the first chapter–then you might want to rewrite. 2) Also, people’s motivations are important. Why do they do what they do? And do their motivations match their actions in the story? Nothing is worse than when a character does something that doesn’t make sense for him or her. When that happens, the story feels forced which can work against it. 3) Lastly, a quick point on characters: carefully consider the struggles/risks they face as these are critical for building necessary tension. Done well, those elements capture the reader’s attention so that they want to see what happens next.
- 3) Structure: Novels needs structure. A beginning, a middle section, a climax and a resolution. The story arc. Not every book must have a nail-biting build up and climax but it should feel like the reader is being brought from one place to another through the narrative. Knowing where to put that climax is key: too soon and the book feels finished before it even begins, and too late and the ending might feel rushed.
- 4) Dialogue: This can make or break a story. Dialogue should be believable. It should sound like how normal people speak. Consider the times/era and physical setting so that the speech patterns are consistent. Listen to how real people speak. Read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds corny or unrealistic, it probably is.
- 5) Decide what kind of book you want to write: Knowing your genre and setting the right context for your reader is important. For example, I hate when I pick up what is billed as, say, a ‘sci-fi romance’ and discover it is a ‘romance with sci-fi in it’. For me, that is cause for teeth gnashing.
- Also, love stories, thrillers, mystery novels, etc. all have their own structures and tropes which help situate readers so they know what to expect. Of course, there are books that break or combine boundaries, but I’ve found that the good ones are well-conceived conceptually so that the reader can easily adjust to the new ground laid in the story.
- 6) Practice writing your pitch/book blurb: Ugh, this is notoriously hard to do well, as it’s important to give enough information so that a reader can, in a few short words, grasp the genre, basic story without giving away too much (or not enough), as well as include a hook to motivate them to buy YOUR book instead of the millions others out there. My advice is to find people who know what they are doing and ask them for help.
- What about you? Do you have tried and true tips or suggestions for new authors? What was your experience like, learning how to complete your first book?