How Do I Write a Novel?


A guy the AKA (Gwen Hunter) knows, a lawyer who did some work for us back in the 1990s, asked me/us to read his book opening. Actually it was 16 pages of concept thrown onto the pages, single spaced, a lot for shock value. It read like a short story that needed a lot of work, or like a rough outline for a novel, with a JD Salinger ending. I read it and sent him a letter back, then we talked on the phone.

I know this guy. (Let’s call him Simon.) He’s a smart, funny, Southern lawyer, who can talk rings around me, and most other people. He’s my age-ish, he writes legal papers and briefs, and now the idea of writing this book has taken him over. Suddenly Simon has a burning desire to write. It’s fun to watch the writing-bug grab hold of a new vict…er…person.

NOTE: Each individual bit of the advice I gave him would not fit everyone here, because it was tailored to fit him, his personality, legal training, and his project. Yet, because most of my advice was basic to any genre, I asked his permission to present it here at MagicalWords.Net. Without giving away Simon’s story (changing parts but still keeping the flavor) and with his permission, here it is:

General Comments From Me:

Your novel has three parts: The intro, where he fights the court-ordered AA-type meeting, the middle where he suddenly, for no reason, feels a change coming over him and launches into this tale of murder and its solution, and the ending, where he sorta flips off the reader, having gotten the reader invested in the tale and then, in the last line, tells the reader it was all a lie to satisfy the leader of the AA meeting and get out with the required signature.

The 16 pages have a good voice and a good story, but the presentation implies it could be more than one story. Or it starts in the wrong place. It starts off as a tale of redemption because major scenes take place in rehab. Frankly, because there are a blue-million of them, rehab stories about the fight to sobriety won’t sell in NYC unless you do something funky with it like make a fantasy story and he’s attending WA (witch anonymous.) That might sell, but it isn’t what you are writing.

Then the story switches and becomes a murder mystery, which has a better chance of selling. Because it’s a first novel, however, you will need to present your story within a commonly accepted murder mystery format with a commonly accepted (bang for your buck mostly happy) ending. You don’t do either. An editor will not know how to slot your book (market your book among existing company models), and will, therefore, have less of a chance of buying it.

The plot line wanders. A lot. You need to decide what your book is about and write that.

The character voice wanders and needs to be solidified, but in places is crystal clear and reads like really good Southern fiction. Three stories: Redemption, Murder, Southern Fic.

It you just want to write a novel for self expression go for it with what you have. If you want to write a novel to sell, I do have advice.

From Simon:
I want to write it to sell. But I don’t know how to go about it.

Below are the back-and-forth comments about his novel and how to craft one. My comments are in parentheses at the end of each segment, with more afterwards.

  • whoooew. never took a creative writing class so not used to being critiqued. no hurt feelings; just trying to put it in the context of what i’m supposed to do to fix it, but i reckon that’s what writing at night and thinking about it is for… (Me: Yes. Exactly.)
  • one sentence summary of my story: it is a murder mystery where this kid tells his story to a randomly picked rehab group, and i picked a group only so he’d be telling it to someone and have a reason to be telling the story…but i could just have him telling the story to the reader while describing this life in this society in which he lives, which was really gonna be a “great southern novel meets Holden Caulfield (the character in Catcher in the Rye) meets murder mystery” …and i was going to just go thru the story and his search for the killer; and was thinking about having him leave the church at the end and having (the murder victim herself) pick him up in her car to go home. (Me: The opening is long enough to lead me, as a reader, into believing that this is a tale of the streets where a street kid makes a turn for the right path. It lasts all the way through the book, to the *screw you* ending. It’s a *screw-you* ending because there never was a murder. He never actually recovered from drug abuse. This would totally tick off the demographics: the redemption book readers who what him to succeed, and the mystery readers who want a satisfying ending. As a literary novel it might work. This isn’t a literary novel. As straight Southern Fic it might work. This isn’t that either, though it has many elements of a Southern Mystery.)
  • the problem i already see are how is he as a kid gonna do all this, so i may change his age up a little bit. (Me: Perfect. Your brain is already picking apart the holes. You are already thinking like a writer or an analytical reader. Yes, he’s too young in the scenes from his early POV. The main character in Grisham’s The Client would be as young as you should go. The Client would be a great novel for you to use as a teaching tool.  More on this later.)
  • how does it come off as a tale of redemption…because he is at rehab? (Me: Yep. And because all the important scenes take place there. Three scenes are about other people and he is just an observer. His own story doesn’t start until over a third of the way through. This is his story. You should start a novel in the direction it is supposed to go. The reader should have a grasp of what they are reading by end of page 1.)
  • when you say it wanders and needs to tighten up do you mean not to interject unrelated issues or things into the tale as i go, or use them later? (Me: Right. Both. Suspense requires info be doled out slowly, not given all at once as an info dump. You want these southern relationships to be the flavor of the book, the special stuff that makes it read as a Southern Mystery, so you want to place bits of it at a time, like the onion in a lasagna.)
  • i guess i was talking about the other folks in town, legal stuff etc to try to cram it all in…would filling in a lot of details, transformations, etc to space out and organize this stuff better be what you are talking about…? (Me: Exactly. This stuff is not the story. The story is a Southern murder mystery / who done it. These Southern details are the flavor of the book, the details of small town life that will ratchet up the tension and give you, the author, things to draw on that will make the reader care about the people and the main character. Empathy is vital and this stuff, these details of life, will give the reader empathy, will make him care.)

If Simon were John Grisham he could write it as outlined. If he was an established literary writer, he could pull it off. As a first time mystery novelist, no one is gonna buy it. Though there are exceptions, 99% of first time novelists have to follow a format, must put their story into a shape and form that is familiar to an agent, editor, and first-time reader, and give the reader an ending that makes him happy, not an ending that makes him feel like a fool.

Now, let’s deal with the larger questions in light of who Simon (the writer) is. First, he needs to learn how to impart the plot line (the facts and conflict of the story) in a way that will build suspense. John Grisham’s The Client is a novel by a Southern lawyer, about some kids who discover a dead body in a car in the woods. It was great. He needs to learn how to parse out his book concept like that.

I suggest that he go buy the book, 3 or 4 different color markers, and colored sticky notes and read the novel with a pen, a legal pad, and the new supplies handy. One color marker will have one purpose, to mark sections that increase suspense. One color for stuff he hates. One color for setting, color, and flavor. Maybe a fourth color for How Tos: how write a flashback, how write dialogue, how to write courtroom scenes or action.

On each page where something happens to further the plot, put a sticky note and on the note, give one short line what happened. Tear the book apart. Write in the margins. Make notes. And on the side, on the legal pad, outline the book. Put page numbers so you can see the progression page by page, scene by scene.

Simon is a lawyer, so I advised him to think like a lawyer, learn to be a writer like a lawyer might. That part of his brain, that *dissect, devour, and destroy* part, is already honed and sharp. For all of us: Use the skills and talents already in place and build your creative thinking around them.

Last thing (and this I didn’t share in quite this way with my friend on the phone, so he’s reading it for the first time here) a character should never tell his story. He should experience it. If the story starts like it currently does, at an AA meeting, then, when he starts to tell the tale, it has to be written as a flashback, dropping the reader into the past and making it immediate. (This is called a story within a story novel or SWAS.) Not a narrative as it is written now. He can’t tell the story, he has to live it so the reader will live it with him. So the reader will empathize. Will care.

I don’t give this kind of advice to every writer wannabe who comes to me for advice (though becoming an analytical reader is always helpful) but it fit this particular guy, this particular brain. All real advice has to be tailored to the person asking. And the person giving it has to then step back and let the writer in the wannabe develop and take over. That’s hard for a control freak. (Me???) So if you read this advice it and toss it across the room, or blog about how awful it is, I’m not offended. (grins) Really.
But I might sic my lawyer on you! (laughing)


39 comments to How Do I Write a Novel?

  • Wow! It’s awesome that you did that for him. 🙂

  • Faith,

    This was very helpful for me. I started thinking about my current ms and asking myself the questions you posed for Simon. I love breaking the story down and exposing its strengths and weaknesses.

    Your advice to Simon worked for me as a fantasy/science fiction writer; it’s easy to apply the principles you outlined and the critical reading to any genre. What is hard for me is actually doing it, but posts like yours get me thinking again, and more importantly, applying!

  • Having just completed reading a long complaint from a writer who desperately wants to be mainstream-published, your post came as a breath of fresh air. I think the strongest thing that you’ve shown your lawyer friend (and us!) is that the vast majority of questions come back to marketability.

    Yeah, I might write a novel that is a literary exegesis of KING LEAR, exploring humanity’s tendency to view all things, but especially sexuality, as a normative two-fold system best illuminated through the lens of Hegelian dialectic, but it ain’t gonna sell. At least not beyond a university press. Until I win the Nobel Prize for Literature, I’m going to stick with more marketable story. (But trust me – the LEAR novel is really incredible, in my mind!)

    Thanks, Faith, for the needed reminder!

  • Wow, Faith, what a wonderful thing to do. I hope your lawyer appreciates it. And the advice is great for everybody. Particularly the idea of analyzing other author’s works. That’s a biggie. Aside from actually writing, reading with an analytical eye (or highlighters in your case) is key to becoming a successful writer. Once again, great post!

  • Jess, in all honesty, I likely would not have done it for an entire book, not for free. I’d have had to charge for my time because that would have taken way too long. However, for a short piece, and someone I have depended on myself from time to time, well, why not? When I pick apart the problems, issues, strengths of someone else’s writing, it helps with my own. Pluse,. it gave me a post for this week. 🙂

    Alistair, I think that critical reading is the single most important thing we do as writers, though I admit that when it becomes habit, it spoils reading for fun!

  • Thanks, Mindy. Mr. or Ms. Wannabe-Writer seldom understands that a book can have it all, but to be published, it has to fit into someone *else’s* framework — agent, editor, etc. And it has to fit a certain demographic, a clear vision of who will buy that book from the shelves. How it can be marketed. As to Lear — um — yeah, I can see how that might not be a very marketable story for today’s book buying public. 🙂

    Stuart, thanks. I have heard from Simon. He already bought The Client, the markers, sticky paper and has started work. Good for him! Will he write a saleable novel? Don’t know. Time will tell. But he will have a lot of fun with a new project.

  • Sometimes when I’m trying to explain book marketability, I bring up the example of clothing. Imagine you go into a store hoping to buy the perfect little black dress. While you’re there, you see a bright orange off-the-shoulder maxi dress with a pink pleather belt and green tassels around the neckline. It might be interesting to look at, and I’m sure the designer felt that it was his best work ever, but you won’t buy it, because where on earth would you wear something like that?

  • (laughing) Belly dancing?
    Good point, Misty. A book has to be a one size fits all project. It has to sell in every store, to every buyer who is looking for for a book to read. Esoteric, hard to slot books likely won’t make a publisher any money. Why would they buy it?

  • This is so generous and helpful, Faith. I might suggest that as your friend reads the Grisham book he also takes notes about what happens when by page number. Then he can step back from it, figure out the overall structure of the story and see how it beats it out. I think this is a great way of understanding the shape of a genre. (You can also do it by time index in movies).

  • AJ, so true. The concept of story arcs is confusing to most writers. Okay — it was confusing to me when I started out. Maybe others have no problem with it. But keeping track of page numbers can teach a wrter to develop an instinctive understanding of timeline and pacing. Story arcs fit nicely into this understanding.

  • I want to echo what others have said here and what I have said before — I don’t think I know any writer who is as generous with his/her time and creative energy as you are with yours. I’m blown away by what you did for “Simon” as well as for others you’ve mentored. I think the piece of advice you offer here that resonates most with me right now is this: “Use the skills and talents already in place and build your creative thinking around them.” In other words, it seems to me, you’re saying that our art needs to be true to who we are. It should draw on our talents and our knowledge and experience. But more than that, it should draw on our passions. Simon is obviously fascinated by the legal stuff — AND he knows so much about it. Of course he should write about it. Obvious, in a way. But so wise.

  • Deb S

    You’re a jewel, Faith. Thank you and thank Simon for sharing.

  • David, thank you. And (slaps own head) I forgot to mention our passions! Yes! When we write the things we are passinate about, it moves the story ahead so much more quickly. And writing our passions makes it more fun to learn how write a novel. It makes our brains go into overdrive and it becomes, well, fun!

    Thanks, DebS!

  • Faith – Thank you for a wonderful post. This is really helpful, especially because it lets us newbies understand a little bit more about big picture critical thinking from an outside perspective.

    Another exercise that might be helpful to Simon is to outline each individual scene from The Client on a notecard. Each scene description should only be three or four sentences, less if you can do it, but should provide the main action, the turning point, and the conclusion of the scene. Having the descriptions on separate notecards keeps each scene separate in your head. I did this once and it taught me a lot about story arc and scene structure.

    David – you said: “our art needs to be true to who we are.” This always sounds like such a “duh” statement, but it’s sometimes easy to forget. Thank you for the reminder!

  • Megan, I like that idea. I did that for the AKA’s Betrayal when I was turning it into a screenplay. You are right, it woudl make a wonderful teaching tool. I like!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I just wanted to add a comment to the “who we are” discussion. I very much agree that we should all focus our efforts on things that we are passionate about, and that if we’re trying to work on a project that doesn’t make us jumpy-excited at least some of the time then, well, then that’s sort of a waste of the gift that is our life. At the same time, we shouldn’t try to over-constrain “who we are” and then focus only on that (unless that’s really THE thing that makes you happy). If I told someone I was working on a novel, because of my studies, they would expect it to be hard SciFi. It’s really really not, and, as far as I can tell, uses none of the knowledge base from my studies. But it does come from who I am. Sorry if I sound grouchy. I don’t mean to be. I’m just a little bit alarmist when it comes to ideas with the potential to box people in.

  • Hi Hep. Sorry you are having a bad day. Passion and study are aften very different things. Here is my take on it:

    Being passinate about something should never box-in anyone, though I suppose passion can be both freeing and addictive.

    I study lots of other things (certainly not just fantasy writing) and I don’t write about them. I am passionate about jewelry making. But I don’t write about it either. I am also passionate about basil and fresh tomatoes…

    See what I mean? Perhaps for you, getting away from the study area is what ignites your passions. That doesn’t mean you dump the study. Hope that clears it up.

  • Faith> but your jewelery making and the tomatos and basil do show up in your writing! Jane’s necklace, Molly’s cooking… I really noticed and liked the way you use food in the Jane Yellowrock series. But I’m becoming a foodie, and if I could go back and write my dissertation about something else, it might be the ways food is used. 🙂

    Very helpful post! I can’t help it now when I read. I read with the “Wow, how did s/he DO that!” The “break it all down on a notepad” thing is a great idea.

    Like I’m rereading the first Harry Dresden novel and, at least as far as I’ve gotten it looks a bit like this:
    Problem 1: need money
    Potential solution: take case from new client
    Potential solution 2: take case from police
    The two clash a little.
    Problem 2: Newpaper reporter can hurt solution 1 and 2
    Problem 3: paroll officer thinks Harry’s the killer in potential solution one…

    It’s neat how each move forward opens new problems, or solves others. Since it is early on in the book still, there are more problems than solutions, and the solutions open up a set of tasks (solve the mystery, take the quest, etc) that make up the bulk of the plot arcs. It’s simple when I spell it out, but it is well done, so the mechanics aren’t obvious unless your reading to see them.

    I’m in a place where I’m finally letting my writing passion out to play a lot in my life. And it’s a lot of work and a lot of fun. And, btw, the Beta group is VERY helpful!

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks for the article, Faith! Really helpful. I’m not sure if this is strange or not, but I love the writing bug. I always want to write and I think up stories while staring out the window. Once you get over the fact it takes years to hone the craft, most people are upset. To me, it means I can write and write and it’s just all practice. No stress, no deadlines. But I do hope to change that someday…

    John Grisham wrote a YA book, Theodoore Boone. I loved the voice and the suspense he brought into it, but it was a stretch soemtimes. The kid had WAY too many connections and he could acesses anything he wanted to. Age was never a problem for Theo. I think I’ll try and steal one of his more mature books from my parents.

    I almost gave up on a book the pther day. I swear I’m not exaggerating when I saw there were at least two of these… or these- – on everyt page. And soem didn’t even make sense! She would trail off when talking about weather or tea. Would you like more tea… Or, I liked Ethan… It was beyond annoying. The first page where she didn’t use morse code was page thirty. Thirty! That really aggraviated me. But I didn’t have anything else so I stuck to it. Not much of a climax but oh well. It was better than the middle and begining.

  • Pea / Emily, I suppose you have a point about the food. Mercy Blade, book 3 in the JY series, focuses quite a bit on food, which I didn’t even think about until you said so. Of course, Beast eats hers raw, and sometimes still kicking, which puts a different light on food. And the jewelry. Yeah. (laughing) I see your point!

    The first Dresden novel is a *great* one to dissect. It launched a bestselling series, advanced the subgenre Urban fantasy, and is still selling like blueberry pancakes. Excellent choice! When you get done, let us know how you feel about the book and what you learned about story arcs and pacing.

  • Young W, you are wise beyond your years to understand that honing a craft means taking the time to learn. Enjoy this time when you can go literally *anywhere* with your work and your passion.

    There was a time in the 90s when the use of ellipses and M-dashes were horribly overused and not reined in by editors. Most editors these days remove them in the copy edit stage.

    I confess to a love of … early in my career. When my early work is reissued, I always go back and make changes, taking out most of them.

  • YW> you really want to see a lot of dashes–go read Emily Dickinson poetry. LOVE her stuff, but she was a terror with the dash (so much so that early editors simply left a bunch of them out. Later editors have been truer to her work. Since she died before all but I think one of her poems were published she never got to comment on the dash!)

    I admit I over use the dash. I let myself go with it (to a point) in the first draft and then cut a ton later. I do it in my academic work, as well–I just like the way it looks. )

    Faith> I’ll put together a plot thing when I get done with Dresden #1. It will be a good exercise, even as I’m readng it for fun!

  • P. Emily, Great! I’m looking forward to seeing it!

  • A lot of folks still use quite a bit of the emdash nowadays. Seems the in-thing now for interruptions in thought instead of using parentheses. Rarely saw that in the days when I started writing. It was mostly commas. I use ellipses and the emdash, hopefully not too much, certainly not every page. Mostly for the occasional trail off, sudden interruption, or stutter. I mean, without the ol’ dash Shaggy couldn’t say, “like, did ya have to say, g-g-g-ghost?” and Dracula wouldn’t sound near as cool without an ellipsis when saying, “I don’t drink…wine.” 😉 😉

  • Deb S

    You can always combine your love of writing with your love of cooking and pen the ultimate recipe.

    Recipe for a Novel

    Trim marinated premise into a bite-sized morsel. A large piece may look tempting, but too much fat is hard to chew and digest.
    Place in pot to stew.
    Add setting and genre and bring to low boil.
    Toss antagonist directly into hot pot and stir with inciting incident. If done correctly, flames will spark.
    Ease in subsidiary characters more slowly.
    Grate in antagonist along the way.
    Lower heat and allow everything to simmer. Things may look jumbled or taste bland at this point, but do not abandon the pot.
    Allow flavors to deepen.
    Sprinkle in some spice and slowly raise the heat again.
    Stir antag and protag together. They will clash. Your eyes may even water, but do not temper the heat or separate the ingredients.
    Layer in some stakes, the juicer the better.
    Flambee over high heat.
    Discard seared antag
    Flip stakes a final time
    Finish with a warm gaze.

  • Don’t forget to drizzle with a satisfying ending. 😉

  • Sarah

    Deb – I love the novel recipe. It made me laugh and it reminded me of an SF short I read years ago called (I think) Le Cuisine Humane. It was written like a foodie review for a travel magazine, but written by an alien for other aliens wanting to experience human cuisine. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite work as the commentary on humanity that it tried to be, and I’ve been wanting to rip off the concept and re-write it for years. Not sure I could do better than the original author, but it’s one of those story concepts that niggles at the back of my head.

  • Daniel…(snerk) — (grin) and (lol)

    DebS that was fabulous! (laughing) Loved it!

    Sarah, don’t you hate/love those ideas that just won’t go away?

  • Heh! And let’s not forget that Captain Kirk wouldn’t be near as funny without ellipses.

    “We…of the United Federation of Planets…comeinpeace.”

    “Scotty…two to…beam up.”

  • I LOVE William Shatner. He is genius!

  • I’m there with Simon. It is turning out to be a lot harder to write a marketable novel than I thought. Churning out words isn’t a problem, I think it’s churning out words people want to read that is (and pay for).
    Faith, you told Simon to read The Client as a good example of the sort of novel that fit his genre… well I found a great anti-example for epic fantasy. I won’t mention it by title or author because I don’t want to sound personally critical (my work isn’t exactly Shakespeare) but it was a self published epic fantasy free to download novel. I read a bit of it and so easily saw the mistakes I was making in my own by how they stuck out in this one (formatting, pov, tense, description/exposition and timing). I think you can learn so much from a good example of what is bad as you can from a good example of what’s good.

  • Scion, you are so right. It’s easy to see why some works just aren’t publishable by a commercial press. You are wise to not mention name and title!

  • You gotta have Faith! (George Michael version) Such a giving spirit. Wow.

    Wrong topic, but I bought a pack of highlighters today to take apart my own first draft as per revising post many moons ago. Thanks.


  • (Laughing) Now I got that song in my head!

    Perfect, NGD. Highlighters are good for that too. I keep blue and yellow, sometimes purple. Used to keep pink but it was sooo bright I found using it dragged me out of the work. You can also do teh same thing with highlighting text on the e-file, but having that visual of the *entire mscpt* was is helpful.

  • Young_Writer

    The 90’s would’ve drove me insane! Haahs, lucky I could only read Dr Suess back then. 🙂 And I love your recipe, Deb. Sounds yummy! Misty might be jealous…

  • Faith, I’m coming in a little late as usual, but I like the gist of what you’re saying. Basically, we should be willing to ask questions about our work: “What’s not working? Why isn’t it working? How can I tell this story better?” … right?

  • Young W — They 90s weren’t so bad. Everything in context! And hey — Dr. S was *always* cool!

    Moira, Always. And if you think it’s good enough, read it aloud with markers in hand. Things will jump out at you!

  • Faith said, I confess to a love of … early in my career.

    I use them more often than I should, but I try to avoid reaching the Barbara Cartland level. Do you remember her Regency romances from the 70’s? Every single heroine talked in ellipses. “Oh, Baron MacDougall…I never knew…that love…could feel so…indescribable…” and so on.


  • She was the queen of the gasping virgins!