Previously appearing on Medium.com
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How To Write A Novel
I’ve written one novel. It took me about ten attempts to write that novel, so in theory, I’ve written about ten or twelve books. That’s as good a qualification as any to help you understand at least what my process is when constructing a novel. The truth of course is that I never had a process. That’s why it took me so long to write my one novel. This article is my attempt at streamlining my process both so you can have a better idea of how to compose a novel and so I can plan my next project.
So, you’d like to write a novel. You must be some kind of idiot. That’s alright. You need to be either a little dumb or a little crazy to want to write a novel. Novels take a lot of patient, hard work, and there is no guarantee of any sort of extrinsic reward. You have to want to make one for its own sake.
To write a good novel, you first need a good story. There are only two keys to writing any story, three if you want anyone to care about it:
The first key is character. You need to know who the book is about. How many characters are there? What do they want? What’s preventing them from getting what they want?
That act, the prevention of the attainment of a character’s desire, is called “conflict.” You need conflict to have a story. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, just a report.
Do any of your characters have an arc? They don’t have to, but it can help. Character arcs tell the story of how the character changes. Characters can change because they got what they want and realize they don’t want it. They can change because they didn’t get what they want and realize they don’t care. They can change because they got what they wanted and are more complete. They can change because they didn’t get what they want and become embittered.
The second key to a story is the plot. You absolutely need a plot. Something has to happen in the story. If nothing happens in your story, you have written something literary that probably won’t sell very many copies, but critics will love it, and high schoolers will be required to read it and hate it with a fiery passion.
A plot has three main parts: The beginning, the climax, and the end. The beginning is the longest part. It’s where you introduce your characters and setting, as well as the initial conflict or conflicts. The climax is the moment when the character makes some big attempt to get what they want. It’s the moment of highest suspense. The character is poised at the brink of failure and snatches victory. Or the character is about to win big and loses everything. Those are your two choices. The end of the story should come as close as possible to the climax. Maybe not on the same page or in the same chapter but pretty close. Endings resolve most if not all conflicts and leave your characters with complete arcs or incomplete arcs that promise completion at some undisclosed future point.
The third key to writing a story is an audience. Your audience can be you and you alone, but if that is the case, you shouldn’t expect anyone else to care about it. If you have any interest at all in writing something someone else may care to read, you need to have someone else in mind when composing your novel. This person can be real or imagined. They can even be a dog. But if you’re not writing for someone else, it will show in your work, and few will have any interest in reading it. This is because most people are fairly similar. If your writing appeals very much to one particular person or type of person, there is a good chance your writing will have mass appeal. If you write only for yourself, there’s a danger that your writing won’t have mass appeal and will only appeal to you. No one seems to know just why this is the case, but here we are.
Figuring out your audience can be as difficult or easy as you like. You can do a ton of market research. You can read articles on the Internet or watch videos or listen to podcasts or read books on the subject. There are authors who’ve made their entire careers around helping other authors tell stories. It’s quite a business. I’m lazy. I usually write for myself and don’t put much thought into character arcs, and while I’ve written dozens of stories, the number of stories I’ve sold is two. This is not a coincidence.
Now that we’ve covered the keys to a story, how do we make a novel? Novels are more than just super long stories just as skyscrapers are more than just super tall buildings or pyramids are more than just efficient piles of rocks. Novels are crafted, start to finish. There are multiple characters, most with arcs, and conflicts which twist and turn. They were born in the 19th century, though the roots go back farther. What used to happen was that authors would write short stories that would get published in magazines. They’d sell one short story and pay their rent. Sell another, buy food for the week — or more likely, afternoon. Writers don’t make very much just from writing.
In any case, one morning some writer somewhere realized they could make a lot more money by writing a short story in multiple parts, called chapters. One chapter could be published every month, the more chapters, the more the writer got paid. That’s why 19th century novels are so long. Writers were paid by the word. Anyway, the best of these serialized stories got collected in single volumes. Perhaps you’re familiar with some of these names: Les Miserables, Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace. These stories often had multiple plot arcs, multiple character arcs, etc. They were the Youtube channels and podcasts of their day.
Today, novels are published all at once, rather than serialized. Standards are much higher, and few editors nowadays will let you spend hundreds of pages describing the sewers of Paris or the intricacies of Waterloo. Some people call this progress.
So. What is the difference between a novel and a series of short stories? Density, quite simply. A series of short stories is like a jar of cookies. The stories can be chronological or not, but you don’t need to eat all the cookies to enjoy just a few. Novels are more like a seven-course meal. There will be a connecting theme, overall, but the dishes will vary in complexity, texture, and taste. The best will have some bit of mirroring between the beginning and the end.
As mentioned earlier, I normally give little thought to my audience, but today, I wrote this article just for you. I wasn’t thinking of anyone specific, but I was thinking about particular writing students I’ve had in the past and also ones I’ve met. These are mostly younger, less experienced writers, newer to the profession. More experienced writers may find little here of value and plenty to criticize.
Now, there is no shame in being a new writer. I’ve been a new writer for nearly 30 years. It has been a little depressing and a source of constant frustration, but it’s a situation I’ve come to accept. I think maybe by the time I’m 60 I could be considered a middling or experienced writer. We shall see. In the meantime, I hope this article has helped you figure out how to write your novel. Remember, for a good novel you’ll need 1) characters 2) doing something 3) for someone else’s entertainment. That is all.