Don’t you hate it when you decide to write a story, make it most of the way through, and then realize that the pieces of it are just not fitting together properly? Kind of like a Rubik’s Cube. You get a side done but as you are working on another side, pieces that were in place a moment ago are once again jumbled, and who knows where that one edge piece you need went?
Writing can be a very rewarding hobby (or career), but it can also be extremely frustrating without the proper preparation work. Here are some tips that I have learned firsthand while writing my first novel, Winter’s Bite.
1) Begin with a very general concept for the main plot. Something as simple as “The hero wanted to rescue the princess from the tower, but had a series of tests to pass to complete his mission” sounds cliché, right? Yes! It is! And that’s a perfect start to your story. You’ll break away from the cliché later on. Just start basic, no matter how lame it sounds at the beginning.
2) Get an estimate on how long of a book you would like to write. Many authors would suggest just writing the story and dealing with chapters later (and that’s great advice, if it fits your writing practices). But for me, I want a general target I’m shooting for. Calculating the words on a typical paperback novel, it seems to be an average of 10 words per line, and anywhere from 32 to 40 lines per page, depending on how the author/publisher has it set up. I like to estimate 350 words per page, although it seems closer to 325. Decide how many chapters you’d like to shoot for (for instance, if you want a 360 page book, and you want 30 chapters, they should each be an average of 12 pages, or 4200 words…but I prefer smaller chapters, 6-8 pages on average, with a few longer chapters thrown in).
3) Once you know how many chapters you want to shoot for, write 120% that number of major events to move the plot from start to finish. I started with wanting 25 chapters, and so I wrote 30 events. Then, combine a few of those events and order them into the chapters. None of this is written in stone (more like soft butter) but it’s a guideline.
4) The next step involves making an outline. This is a very important step to perform. There are many authors who just write by the seat of their pants (often known as pantsers) and don’t even use an outline or come up with a story beforehand. They start writing a scene, and then continue with what happens next, making it up as they go along. If that’s you, great! You’ve found a style that works for you and you know how to manage your story. But for myself, I want an outline. And if you are just starting as a novelist, I would suggest using one until you’ve played around with different writing styles and found your niche.
So what do we want to include in the outline? I usually take the events I have for a chapter and use that as my level 1 entry. For example: “Chapter 7: Two-thirds of the people move to the new keep. Reward of those who stay.” This is a basic overview of what the chapter is about in a sentence or two. I usually then make from 4-8 things that need to happen in the chapter, and I denote them by lowercase letters.Find the Chapter 7 outline entry below:
Chapter 7 – Two-thirds of the people move to new keep. Reward of those who stay.
a) DC performs a ceremony, calling all people in the land to hear his speech. Masses of people show up.
b) He speaks and provides two choices: move to the new keep and no longer be under his rule and protection or stay here and remain loyal to him.
c) About two thirds of the people move to the new keep.
d) Joyous but difficult journey in the heat.
e) Next day DC calls the remaining people for another ceremony where he bestows upon them more land as a reward for staying.
5) I just mentioned above that the outline is one of the most important steps to perform. Now I’m going to tell you – you DON’T have to stick with it! Things are going to happen. Your characters may do things that you did not expect, and that could change things around in later chapters. You may notice holes in your plot that need to be fixed, either through adding new material or through changing what you have planned out. The outline is just a guide to keep you moving. After writing much of my novel, I look back at my original outline and find it is very different; but I never would have arrived at my current destination without it!
6) Once you have your outline, you have a great opportunity for writing the content. In many cases you can jump around – you don’t need to write event 1 of chapter 1, then event 2 of chapter 1, etc. You could start with event 4 in chapter 17, then write events 1-3 of chapter 2, and back to event 2 of chapter 17. For me, I find that there are many places where I cannot write the scene until I have written a scene that comes before (and often need to write a scene or three before that, heh). But each chapter and scene may have its own mood. Maybe you have a fight scene and a romance scene, as well as a description of how the trade ministry is being audited. You might be in a bad mood from something that happened through your day. Write the fight scene! You’re angry! You’re feeling like punching a wall! You’re violent! Channel it into your scene! Later on, after your significant other has comforted you and you are feeling sappy, write that romance scene. You’re emotional and holding your partner in adoration. They know just how to make you feel better. Channel that into the romance scene.
7) Don’t be afraid to make changes! This has nothing to do with editing your work. It has to do with knowing what you have, knowing what you want, and bridging the gap to get there. Like the song The Gambler says, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them. know when to walk away, know when to run.” Sometimes your chapter needs to be discarded and done over. But then, sometimes you can just edit it to fix a problem. Know when to do each.
8) As you write more and more, you will notice your writing style change. Somehow, writing 80,000 words (or 200+ pages) helps your writing to mature. GO BACK AND UPDATE YOUR EARLY CHAPTERS! Rewrite them as if you were writing the same information in your new, more mature voice. You might not need to redo every chapter. You may have a gem or two in there that you don’t want to touch. That’s fine. But make sure your early chapters are written up to par with the rest of your book. If you start out weak, you may lose people’s interest and they may not see the greatness to which your writing has evolved.
In line with this tip, redo your later chapters! But that makes no sense, right? Aren’t my later chapters the most mature writing I’ve done?! My answer to that is no. Your best work will be the middle of your writing. Your early writing style isn’t quite developed yet and your later writing is rushed in anticipation of finishing up. Don’t rush! Write! Or you’re getting burned out because you’ve written over 100,000 words. Funny how there’s a fine line between being “fired up” to write and “burning out”. But it’s going to happen. No matter how good your story is, you’re going to get bored writing it. You’ll struggle between wanting to quit and wanting to rush the end. That’s why it’s so difficult to bring a story to a satisfying conclusion. But you HAVE to leave the reader with a display of literary strength! They may not remember how the story started. They may not remember all the scenes that got them to the end. But they certainly will remember whether or not the end gave them satisfaction.
9) Plotlines. Be careful with these! It’s one thing to provide a single plotline for a story. That’s easy to follow with your writing. But having multiple plotlines in the story adds depth. It adds depth…and challenge! I have learned firsthand that you NEED to plan them out before you write them. I have two plotlines in Winter’s Bite that I found to be incompatible on the timeline. If I had planned them out beforehand, I could have saved myself a LOT of headache. As it stands, I am now needing to review the timeline of the entire book and will likely need to add much more content to one of the plotlines in order to help them match up. And what happens when you make one change? Domino effect! Who even knows if the new events will lead to the unexpected death of a character? And if they die, they obviously can’t perform the activities they are needed to perform later on, so we just changed the story again. Hrmph! And we thought we were almost done!
10) Finally, if you learn anything from this article, let it be this: Do NOT let other people dictate how you should write. That includes me, my good reader/author. There is no right or wrong way to write. What you need to do is find a style that works for you. Some people like mayo and barbeque sauce on their cheeseburgers, while others like ketchup and mustard. Find what works for you and develop that. And if any of these tips help you develop your style, then I’m honored. But some people are going to tell you that you have to put ketchup on your burger. That’s the only way to eat them. That’s the best way to eat them. That may be true for them (and their writing style) but you are not bound by that. You are the author of the words, the sentences, the ideas in your mind. Speak them in your own voice, and not that of someone else.
Now like I said, it isn’t easy to write a novel, and there will be challenges. But you can do it! I don’t care who you are, there is a writer inside of you that longs to come forth. And the world is just waiting for “you” to emerge!