Write Your First Novel: 8 Strategies for Creating Great Fiction

Literary agent gives top tips to writers
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As writers, we know that the process of writing is composed of work and worry. The work is a grind of word counts and applied methodology, but the worry — a mix of fear, doubt, stress and resistance to the process — can be more difficult to navigate.

During the four long years I spent writing my first novel, A Propper Man, I learned the importance of craft and routine in managing both the work and the worry.

If you’re working on a novel or another fiction project, these strategies could help you meet your goals with less stress and fewer struggles. The thoughts on craft help form a plan of attack for completing your daily work, while those focused on the routine and ruminations about the writing life help you put that plan into practice and find the will to finish.

Craft

Although the idea of craft can seem like a witch’s brew when applied to fiction, it’s no magical thing. Sure, there are elements of fiction that are useful weapons for your arsenal, as well as tried and true storytelling methods that are helpful to know about. Mostly, though, the craft of fiction is composed of relentless practice and process: the stumbling, mealy-mouthed verbosity of beginning and ending and revising that you must apply repeatedly, ad-infinitum.

As a writing professor once explained on the first day of class, “I’m going to dump out my toolbox here on the floor. Take everything you need — but know you might not need everything.” Below are a few to consider.

1. Have a roadmap

The word “outline” is a polarizing one for fiction writers. We all know about this structure, but depending on our experience and mindset, we either love or loathe it.

Whatever opinion you have about outlines, it does help to have some sort of map for where you’re going, even if you only know the approximate route and have a few key landmarks scribbled on a bar napkin. As E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I experimented with four different outline systems before abandoning them altogether in favor of building my own. I used notecards that each held a simple statement about the action that occurred in each scene, then taped each card in chronological order to a whiteboard in front of my desk. If I needed to replace a scene, add one, or move a few around, it took seconds. And when I lost my way, I only had to look up to my roadmap. From there, I moved to a more detailed scene-level outline that helped me to structure the cause and effect that advanced each scene and the story as a whole.

It took time to find an approach that worked. Experiment to find what works for you and then modify it to align with your approach to storybuilding. But have a map — even at night, you may need to pull over and refer to it now and again.

2. Consider the importance of conflict and stakes

Among Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips on how to write a great story is this gem: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

What makes a story truly compelling is how that character goes about getting it. What stands in his way, and how will he overcome those impediments? One of your tasks as a storyteller is to manipulate your character in such a way that the journey feels worthwhile for the reader — even if all that character wants is a glass of water. Fundamental to this reader buy-in are the elements of conflict and stakes.

In literature, conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Conflict creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome.

Be clear about your conflict: how the setting, other characters, or even local and global events slam into your character’s desire to get what he wants. When conflict is clear, you help the reader better understand what drives your character’s motivation.

Stakes show the reader what happens if your character doesn’t get what he wants after the altercation with conflict. Have some fun raising the stakes to force your character to take action that might be abnormally, even fantastically, out of character.

Consider this scenario: A man sits on the highway twenty-five cars back from a slow-moving roadblock on the interstate, thirty minutes from his home. He could be stuck there an hour, maybe longer. With low stakes, he’s annoyed because he might miss the first quarter of Monday Night Football. So he flips on the radio, checks his smartphone and ekes along in line.

Now, what happens if the man receives a message that his young son is mortally wounded, and he’s the only one who can reach him in time to save his life? Suddenly, he’s offroading into the median, blowing past the roadblock and racing toward his house at 100 mph with police cruisers in hot pursuit. High stakes change motivation and put your characters in interesting situations you didn’t initially imagine, which results in compelling, page-turning fiction. (Click to tweet this idea.)

3. Maintain measured scene beats: Your novel’s heartbeats

Scene beats, or micro-tension, make up the dramatic action that propels a story forward. In his Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer calls them “micro-cycles of ebb and flow, progress and setback playing out within a scene.”

I wrote four versions of my novel before I finally pegged its current course. The challenge? I wrote a collection of disparate and at times tangentially-related scenes. In a vacuum, these scenes were fine, but when woven into a tapestry of scenes and chapters, many of them fell flat. The setting, the dialogue and the characters didn’t exhibit enough micro-tension to move the story forward.

While most readers won’t identify that your scene is missing a beat, they’ll likely feel it in the way their minds drift as they consider turning another page or picking up their smartphones to check the latest Buzzfeed list.

Be sure to analyze the beats — the cause and effect — in order to maintain a measured progression of the scene’s shifts in emotional tone. Make sure they build upon one another. The character enters the room thinking one thing is going to happen, only to find something else. As he realizes this, it’s a beat. Or, the character is investigating a mystery, and discovers something shocking that changes the purpose of her quest. How she feels about that discovery, in that moment, is another beat.

If you’re struggling with a scene and you can’t quite figure out what’s wrong, lay out the beats on the page. After each beat is a decision: open the door or pretend you’re not home; get in the car or call a cab; take the blue pill or grab the red pill. What does your character choose, and how does that choice affect her? Once on the beats are laid out, you’ll be able to see where the scene is lagging — likely, where it lacks stark emotional shifts.

4. Approach the revision process with passes, not drafts

Drafts are hulking, beastly things. They sit in the corner and sulk as you plod through, page by page, trying to do everything at once to reach the Second Draft.

Instead of looking at your revision process in terms of drafts or versions, think of passes. Passes are lighter, more jovial folks. They allow you the freedom to consider elements of revision and to move more quickly through the process, like a painter adding layers of color to a painting that is not fully realized.

One pass might be for research, another few for character development and continuity; perhaps you add one pass each for setting, tone, and consistency of speech. Editing and re-editing the same copy repeatedly can seem Sisyphean — and eventually leads to unproductive tinkering. Identifying the passes necessary to finish your project, then remaining disciplined as you move through each pass, makes the revision process seem less arduous.

Routine

Once you have the right tools and you know what you’re going to build, how do you go about doing it? That’s where a sound personal approach to the psychology and routine of fiction becomes crucial.

You first build a novel in your head, so it’s important to ensure it’s a safe and productive place to work.

5. Recognize and overcome resistance

In his fabulous book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield focuses on resistance as a primary culprit in avoiding creation. The forms of resistance are myriad and highly personal.

For me, the usual suspects were errands, cleaning and looking for “legitimate” jobs online. I ate up hours, even entire days, resisting the process of putting words on the page, until I was honest with myself about how I resisted writing. I kept a list and acknowledged my modes of resistance each time they popped up.

What modes of resistance do you fall victim to on those days when writing doesn’t feel fun? Write them down on big piece of paper and hang it over your desk. In time and with practice, when you recognize resistance, you’ll stop what you’re doing and return to work. Your ability to overcome resistance is fundamental to establishing a routine. Maintaining that routine is often the only thing that will help you through the pits of despair in the middle of your novel, when the fun has drained from your writing and you’re left with the ditch-digging required to finish the project.

6. Write to a word count

Time and writing are strange bedfellows. Who is to say how long it should take to finish a story? But we all face a simple truth: You can’t write a novel if you don’t put words down on the page.

Writing 100,000 words takes time, discipline and some semblance of an organized routine. Each writer approaches this process in their own way, but my routine involves a commitment to a daily word count rather than a time block. Writing to a word count rids me of the pressure of feeling constantly short on time.

Some days, a thousand words takes me forty-five minutes. On others, I might stretch three writing sessions out across several hours: at the coffee shop, at home while making dinner and waiting for the rice to cook, and sitting up in bed for a few minutes after I finish reading. Looking back, I won’t remember the amount of time each session required, only that I hit my word mark.

Set your own word count and make it achievable. Is five hundred words all you can manage? Great! Shoot for that mark and hit it. Then stop. Don’t edit, don’t ponder, just go and when your hand or fingers need a break, tally up the words. My guess is you’ll find you have written more than your daily target.

If you’re inspired to write more words, do so. But give yourself the opportunity to stop. And when you stop, think for a moment about what you’ve accomplished, and how it felt. Learn to finish. Now do it every day, forever… until you need a cheat day.

7. Have a cheat day

Dieting is a dirty word, but I love the concept of a cheat day: the one day each week when you eat anything you want and refuse to feel guilty about it.

Sure, we all want to be perfect adherents to the dogma that writing every day is the only way to improve, but sometimes life just gets in the way. And that’s okay. You may have kids, or kids and a crazy job — or all the above, plus a house with a yard. If you can make time for writing, great, but if you can’t, allow yourself one day where you don’t judge your perceived lack of productivity.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle posits that the mere act of observing something ultimately changes that which is being observed. So stop focusing on the days you don’t write. Look away. In time, you may find removing guilt from the process, focusing your attention elsewhere, makes it easier to commit to a routine. Funny how that happens.

8. Learn to separate fact from fiction when dealing with fear and doubt

Fear and doubt are perhaps the most damaging forms of resistance; they’ve likely prevented more art from reaching humanity than any other form of artistic oppression.

When you’re experiencing fear and doubt, take a moment to separate fact from fiction. Break apart those things you know as fact; “writing is hard,” “finishing a novel requires that I write a lot of words,” “publishing is complicated,” from the fiction: “no one will ever read about what I write,” “writing is a waste of time and effort,” and “I have no talent.”

This is a key practice of mindfulness and it merely requires that we actively recognize and compartmentalize thoughts. We all tell ourselves various fictions about creating art. The key difference between those who persevere and those who quit is the ability to recognize the fallacy of subjective thought, and power on through despite it. To paraphrase Seth Godin: the question is not how to get rid of fear, it’s how to dance with fear.

Putting it all into practice

The truth of the matter is that there isn’t any one recipe for creating great fiction. If it works, it works. The old saying about methods and madness is true: no matter how crazy or esoteric an artist’s routine, there is almost always a method present. Building your own is crucial.

If you’re like me, you find little joy in finishing a novel; you want to finish a great novel. You also want the next novel to be even better. Crucial to this process is understanding yourself: your your innate abilities, and those that require more work and practice.

Listen to and record what you learn from your writing projects. Take from your writing the lessons that teach you as much about yourself as they do about your craft. In time, and with hard work and faith, this discipline will help you finish the personal masterwork you’ve always dreamed of creating. You will build the method behind the perceived madness of your creative process, and the work emanating from it.

Have you written a novel or other fiction project? Do any of these lessons resonate with you?

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W.B. Sullivan lives in San Francisco. He is fiction writer and the head of marketing at TheRightMargin a goal-integrated writing tool... .

Website | @therightmargin

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Comments

  1. Lots if great advice! Thank you, as I’m in the midst of editing my first novel, this really talked to me: “Identifying the passes necessary to finish your project, then remaining disciplined as you move through each pass, makes the revision process seem less arduous.”

    Is there any check list of such passes that you would recommend me to use?

    Thanks again
    Moshe

    • Hi, Moshe. Glad you found the article helpful.

      With regards to passes, I think they’re somewhat personal to your writing style. I’m comfortable with dialogue, but not so much with setting description or internal monologue. So, the latter two become separate passes for me.

      After the first draft is complete, I usually go back through as follows:

      1. Cause and Effect – Does the action in one scene lead logically to the action of the next? If not, why?

      2. Dialogue – As this comes more naturally to me, it’s what I look at first. Mostly, am I using too much dialogue? Do my characters drone on and gives speeches? Where can I cut down on words to make the speech more natural?

      3. Setting. Is my setting accurate? Am I missing setting details that add depth and subtext to the scene? Is my setting description interspersed evenly or in big blocks? Do I need to do more research?

      4. Characters. Are all characters necessary outside the primary actors? Which characters do I arc and which merely need to add subtext and detail? Does their dialogue sound unique?

      5. Conflict and Stakes. One might argue that this should come first. They’re not wrong – but it’s something i find I can’t look at objectively until some of the other issues in the story have galvanized. As my scenes and characters and setting gain structure, I find it easier to see where the conflict, stakes and motivation are lagging (or worse, nonexistent). For me, that comes only after everything else comes to life.

      Beyond this, I typically dive into the art of “killing my darlings” – taking a look at areas that I like (maybe love) but that don’t ultimately advance the story or build the character and setting. In this pass, I go through and highlight all my darlings, and then go back and again and cut them into a “darlings file”, which contains all my snippets and cuts that don’t belong in my story, but that i don’t want to remove forever.

      Then, it’s on to proofing and spelling. I’m still working on the best approach for this. My latest approach is to use Scrivener’s editor, then Google’s, and then a new bit of software I recently discovered called Pro Writing Aid http://prowritingaid.com/ . Thus far, I’ve been very impressed with the tool’s power.

      Hope this helps! And thank you again for taking the time to read the article.

      Wil

      • Thank you Wil for the great list! I’ll definitely use that and adjust for my needs. Being new to the craft, I know that I also have to pay closer attention to POV, the right balance between showing and telling, filtering etc.

        Thanks again!
        Moshe

        • Will Sullivan says:

          No problem! I think one challenge that isn’t often mentioned enough is that of applying what you learn while you are writing. That doesn’t work for me – I can only do it after, when I’m looking at a completed scene. So, don’t feel too encumbered by craft – just knock out the words and then apply what you’re learning in your passes. If you find anything out there that resonates, let me know!

          • That’s exactly what I did! I actually wrote the entire novel through NaNoWriMo last November, so believe me, I didn’t think “craft” at all! All I had to think about was 50,000 words… 🙂

  2. Thanks for the shout out to my beat sheets! This is a great, balanced post–get the words in but cheat days are okay. 🙂 Some good reminders here!

    I draft in Scrivener, export to Word for revisions (where I use macros for the nitpicky word choice and polishing edits), and then collapse. LOL!

    • Will Sullivan says:

      For sure! I’m a huge proponent of applying scene beats on the page in revision and your approach is awesome for that effort. Macros – one day I’ll master those. For now, I move straight to collapse (and red wine).

  3. Solid.

  4. Great post, Will! We need more advice re: writing fiction, so thanks for chiming in with your experience!

  5. Stephanie says:

    Thanks Will-
    Your article was great. It is encouraging to know that other writers get doubt and fear and side tracked. Although I want to write non fiction your article is very helpful. I have been delaying because of where to start. Now I will outline. Thanks to your article and advice. I will out line my past and go from there. The conflict and stakes was really interesting to me as well. All of your advice is what I love about reading. How the author captivates me with the character and what they will go after. It’s really neat you clearly numbered and stated what needs to happen for the writer to be successful. I have a really awesome idea for my book and I know it will be great, just getting it on paper has been the problem. One author told me whatever doesn’t further the story leave out. I will archive your article and use as a reference. Thank you! Grace and Peace in Him~ Stephanie

    • Will Sullivan says:

      Glad you found it useful, Stephanie. Don’t worry too much about all the craft advice while you’re writing. The most important thing is to write as often as possible and not to judge what you put to paper. As the old saying goes, there is no writing, only rewriting. The supplemental passes through your story are where you can focus on applying the more technical aspects of fiction – don’t let them bog you down when you’re feeling the creative flow and want to write whatever comes to mind. Just go for it.

  6. Frankie says:

    Thanks for these tips! I have browsed a few other ones on your site, and they are truly helpful. It is fantastic to learn that I am not alone in my writing roadblocks!

    • Will Sullivan says:

      No, not alone at all. We all face our own particular roadblocks – thankfully there are methods that we can use to move beyond them. The trick is just to keep going! Thanks for checking out the site. If you have any tricks of the trade that have worked for you, please let me know! And thanks for taking the time to read this article, and others on my site.

      Will

  7. I really enjoyed your post, and found it very thought-provoking and inspiring. I’m especially intrigued by your mention of the usefulness of mindfulness in overcoming negativity. I’m going to give that a try! Thanks a lot for being so generous with your advice.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it, Liana! So glad you found something useful, here. Mindfullness is obviously a hot topic these days – but I think it’s mostly mis-represented. It can be very powerful for writers as it helps us avoid the needless suffering of doubt, regret, etc. based on subjective analyses. Most of what we feel bad about is fiction (ironic for fiction writers). And learning to just be aware of that – to accept it and move on – can really help you continue the work of an artist without all the negativity that can derail creative pursuits.

  8. I am definitely going to take the note card idea. I should have thought of it myself since I always used it for long research papers. All of your suggestions are great. Common sense is always the best route.

    • Glad you found a snippet in here that was useful to your writing, Sarah. Thank you for taking the time to read the article. Common sense is indeed an important part of confident writing – learning to trust your instincts, when to apply traditional “rules,” and when to break them in favor of taking artistic risks. It’s quite an adventure.

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  3. […] to life? Was it the wrenching appeal to your emotions, the vivid and brutal action scenes, or the high stakes facing a character? Mastering these and other storytelling methods is the key to writing your own […]

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