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9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

I regularly see social media posts from aspiring fiction authors looking for tips on writing their first novel. But there is more to writing than just writing. At least, according to Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot - Stephen King

I’ve been reading Christian fiction for over twenty years.

I’ve seen trends come and trends go, which means I’ve got a good feel for the genre and have learned what publishers buy.

And I’ve been working as a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction for the last seven years, which means I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, good and bad, and have learned something about the craft of writing from each one. I’ve attended conferences featuring speakers such as James Scott Bell, Michael Hauge, and Damon Suede. I’ve undertaken online training courses from the Christian PEN, Author Accelerator, and Lawson Writer’s Academy, and I’ve completed a hands-on immersion course with international speaker and writing coach Margie Lawson.

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing craft and dozens more books on book marketing. Each has contributed to my understanding of how to write, edit, publish and market books in this new world. A world where aspiring authors don’t need an agent and a big-name publisher. A world where authors can self-publish without the stigma of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I’ve learned a thing or two.

So here are my nine keys to writing your first novel. Or your tenth.

1. Understand Genre

Publishers publish by genre, booksellers organise their stores by genre, and readers read by genre. Your book has a better chance of succeeding if you understand what genre it is, and meet the expectations of readers of that genre. For example, a romance novel has to have a happy ending in which the hero and heroine are together. If he dies at the end, it’s not a romance novel.

Yes, authors do can do genre mashups (Amish Vampires in Space springs to mind), but even that adheres to the expectations of each of the constituent genres (I think. I don’t read vampire novels, so don’t know how it stacks up against them).

Understand your genre, and write to the norms of that genre.

2. Write What You Love

If you love trashy romance, write romance novels. Don’t write highbrow literary fiction with beautiful language but where nothing much happens. Don’t write gung-ho action adventure novels in which the hero fights his way through innumerable blockages in order to reach his goal and get the girl. Conversely, if you read literary fiction, don’t write Amish romance because someone tells you that’s what sells.

Write what you love for two reasons. If you’re writing in a genre you love to read, you’ll know the conventions of the genre and what the reader is looking for. And your writing will flow better because it’s something you want to write (unlike so many of those creative writing assignments in school).

3. Read what you write

Read in your genre. Read outside your genre.

Read old books. Read new books.

Read novels which have won awards, and try to work out why they won. Read award-winning novels as judged by industry professionals (e.g. the Christy Awards), by writers (e.g. the Carol Awards) and by readers (e.g. the INSPY Awards). Read the Christian novels I review on my author website.

4. Study the Big Picture

The big picture element of writing is the relationship between plot and story and structure and characterisation. Most craft books focus on one or two of these aspects, but the more I read, the more I come to believe that you can’t look at any one of these in isolation. They all need to be considered as you’re writing your first novel.

Here are some books I recommend which examine these big picture elements:

5. Study the Technical Craft of Fiction

You also need to understand the basics of modern fiction. Yes, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were great writers, and you can look to them for insight into the big picture elements. But don’t try and emulate the way they wrote.

Novel writing has changed a lot in the two hundred years since Austen was first published. Writing your first novel in Jane Austen’s style won’t win you many fans. Even novels from the 1990’s might be too old-fashioned in terms of style to be of benefit in terms of their technical writing craft. (Although they will still be of benefit in terms of the big picture elements.)

The modern writer needs to understand:

  • Point of View
  • Showing not telling
  • Scene and sequel

For advice on these issues, try:

6. Understand the Mechanics of English

There is no point in knowing how to craft a great novel if you don’t have the technical writing skills to get it on the page so people can read and understand it. Christian editor (and founder of The Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network) Kathy Ide calls this the PUGS: Punctuation, (word) Usage, Grammar and Spelling. There is nothing worse than picking up a novel which is hard to read because the author doesn’t understand how to order words in a sentence for maximum reader impact.

For advice on actual writing, I recommend:

7. Join a Community

You’ll learn as much from your fellow writers as you will from books, so join a community of writers. This could be online (e.g. Facebook groups such as Australasian Christian Writers). It could be a formal organisation (e.g. Romance Writers of America or Australia or New Zealand, American Christian Fiction Writers or Omega Writers or New Zealand Christian Writers). It could be a Christian group or a general market group. It could be for fiction writers or all writers. Just find a group, join it, participate, and learn.

8. Write

You can study too much. It was true when Ecclesiastes was written and it is true today. Study, but ensure you get words down on paper as well. Or get pixels on a computer screen.

9. Learn to Self-Edit

Yes, I’m a freelance editor so you’d think I’d have a vested interest in people not editing their own work, to give me more to do. But correcting simple mistakes the author could have corrected for themselves isn’t much fun, and means I might get too focussed on correcting commas and hyphens at the expense of more fundamental questions of plot and style. And anyway, the cleaner the manuscript in terms of writing mechanics, the cheaper the edit.

Tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help with the most technical side of this self-editing, identifying things like passive voice and overused words and commonly misused words.

But you need a human to pick up that your heroine’s hair colour changes three times without her ever visiting a hairdresser, or that there is headhopping in Chapter Four or that you have a nasty habit of structuring every sentence the same or that your mute minor character actually had a couple of lines before she miraculously started talking again.

For advice on how to self-edit your novel, I recommend:

Do you have any questions about writing? Ask in the comments.

Finally …

This is my last post for 2018. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family, and will be back on Wednesday 9 January. I wish you all the best for a blessed Christmas and a happy and productive 2019!

Six-Stage Structure

Plot and Structure: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure since attending his all-day session at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August 2016. I did write a summary post (Identity, Essence, and God), but I didn’t cover the detail of his approach to writing novels and screenplays.

I couldn’t. Because it can’t be boiled down to a 600-word blog post. But over the last year I have come across some free and paid resources where Michael Hauge explains his approach to plot. So I’m going to share those instead of trying to cover everything myself.

Michael Hauge is best known as a screenwriting consultant, and his books do tend to focus on screenplays. But (as he argues), the essential elements of fiction are the same, whether the medium is novel or film or TV. And many writers would like to see their novels adapted into a film—it seems to me that we give ourselves the best chance of making that possible if we start by writing a novel that is structured like a film.

Yes, structure is the key.

A lot of writing instructors focus entirely on plot or structure. It’s not that they ignore character. It’s more that they place structure first. Plot then falls out of that, then character. But if you’ve tried to write a book like that, you’ve probably found it more difficult than it sounds. I think the reason is that it’s easy to explain structure: it’s a formula (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s engineering, and there is a right way to build a story.

Character is harder. Everyone is unique, and our characters also have to be unique. But trying to develop unique characters can’t be reduced to a formula. And that’s where Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Structure can help. (Click here to download a copy.)

Hauge’s methodology complements the work of many other leading writing teachers, e.g.

Here are a few key lessons from Michael Hauge:

  • Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.
  • The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader (or viewer) and gets them to care.
  • You can manipulate conflict using techniques such as a ticking close, or superior knowledge.
  • All stories are about a character who wants something, but something stands in their way. This must be a visible goal.
  • All characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome, and the best way to reveal the wound is through dialogue i.e. show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid multiple-hero stories.

For more information:

Film Courage Interview

Film Courage interviewed Michael in January 2017, and the 90-minute recording is available on YouTube. It’s their most-viewed interview of 2017, and I can see why.

Udemy Course

The interview references some work Michael Hauge did with Chris Vogler, integrating Hauge’s Story Structure with Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. This is available via Udemy. The full course includes over six hours of video. The full price is $175, but Udemy hold regular sales (I got it for $10). I suggest signing up for Udemy’s newsletter so you get notified when they hold a sale.

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Michael Hauge has several books. I’ve read Writing Screenplays That Sell, which I recommend. Hauge goes into a lot of detail about character development, theme, and structure, then moves into how to write and format a screenplay. This section is of less use to novelists but is still worth reading for the occasional relevant nugget. But the book is worth the price for the information in the first section.

You can read the introduction below:

Best of the Blogs

Christian Editing Services | Best of the Blogs | 18 November 2017

We’re more than halfway through November already! For those of you attempting NaNoWriMo this month, how are you going?

I’ve flunked. But I have written and loaded a heap of blog posts, almost finished the visual rebranding for a group blog (we’ll roll that out over the Christmas break), and I’m currently doing two online courses with Lawson Writer’s Academy, one on writing craft, and one on marketing. The writing course has shown me how little I know my characters … which is why I’ve flunked NaNo.

Anyway, on with the news …

Writing

Theme

Michael Hauge asks What’s Your Theme? A novel needs an overall theme … but it’s something a lot of authors either skim over, or try and shoehorn in at the end.

What Are You Writing?

David Farland asks Are You Writing a Book, or a Movie? He goes on to explain the differences in point of view for novels and movies. As it happens, I’m currently writing a blog post on this subject, inspired by a course I’m taking through Lawson Writers Academy.

Publishing

Cover Design

Paul Barrett, Art Director of Girl Friday Productions, visits Author Marketing Experts to share Book Marketing 101: 10 Things Not to Do on Your Book Cover. There are so many bad book covers out there! Unfortunately, the authors don’t know they’re bad (because surely you wouldn’t deliberately allow your book to go out with an awful cover?).

I suspect that’s because many newbie authors can’t see beyond it’s a book! With my name on the cover!

They don’t know the principles of good design … and it’s something you need to know before you start designing your first book cover (actually, for many authors, that’s their first mistake. Designing their own cover).

Fighting Piracy

Following Maggie Stiefvater’s blog post about her experience with book pirates, Jana Oliver visits Fiction University to share what she’s doing to fight the book pirates in Why eBook Piracy Matters.

Marketing

Branding

Belinda Griffin of SmartAuthorsLab visits The Creative Penn to share 7 Best Ways to Build an Authentic Author Brand.

If you’re interested in learning how to build your brand from nothing, I have two suggestions:

1. Follow my blog. I have a blog series on branding coming up in February 2018.

2. Click here to sign up to my Kick Start Your Author Platform information list. I’ll be running the programme again in March 2018 … and there will be more information about it coming up soon!

Cross Promotion

Diana Urban visits the BookBub blog to share 14 Ways Authors can Cross-Promote Each Other’s Books. You will note none of them include commenting on blog posts (although that’s always welcome!).

Facebook Chatbots

Louise Harnby introduces Facebook Chatbots in How To Market Your Book and Build Your Author Platform Using a Chatbot. What are chatbots? Are they the next big thing in book marketing? Who knows? But they are currently underutilised, and if there is one thing I’ve learned about book marketing, it’s that it pays to be at the leading edge of the curve.

That’s my top seven posts for this week. What’s the best post you’ve read this week on writing, editing, publishing, or marketing?