Learn to Write a Novel

Some people seem to think that because they can write a sentence they can write a best-selling novel. This is like assuming that because you can blow air out of your mouth you can sing opera, or because you can drag a paintbrush across a canvas you can paint a masterpiece.

Writing a novel that people actually want to read is a skill. Like all skills, it takes time and hard work to develop.

Some people go to college to study creative writing. This is certainly one way to do it, but it's not the only one path to publishing. You do not need a creative writing degree to become a successful author! Yes, a degree program can provide you with information, encourage good writing habits, and expose you to critiques, but there are other ways to do this. Because you're currently reading a site for aspiring authors who don't want to spend money, I'm assuming you're not interested in an expensive degree. 

Writing workshops are another option, and generally a much cheaper one. Check your local bookstores and libraries. Also consider online programs.

If you cannot find an affordable workshop, don't worry. There are other ways to improve your writing skills and learn to write a novel.

1. Read books on writing. Stephen King's On Writing is widely considered one of the best sources of tips for aspiring writers, and it's certainly a good place to start. Read a variety of books until you find one that clicks with you.  

If you can't afford to spend money on books, go to the library. Please don't pirate! As an aspiring author, I hope you respect authors enough not to do this. Your best resource for free books is always the library. If your library does not have the book you want, you can request it for purchase. Used bookstores are another inexpensive and ethical option. 

2. Read books in your chosen genre. If you don't like reading, you might not be cut out for a career as a novelist. Hopefully, you love books and will enjoy this task. Read as many books as possible. Read them for pleasure and to absorb the information. 

Also study the books you read. Many questions that aspiring authors ask can be answered by simply opening a book and seeing what published authors have done. As you read, ask yourself questions, including:
  • What is the point of view? Is it first person? Third person? Are there multiple point-of-view characters?
  • How would you describe the writing style? Is the prose simple or flowery? Does the writer use contractions? What about adverbs and forms or the verb to be?
  • Is the book written in the present tense or in the past tense?
  • How is the dialogue punctuated? How much dialogue is there?
  • How long are the chapters? Are they all the same length?
  • What is the plot? Summarize it and study the structure.
  • What are the subplots?
  • How long is the book? (You may need to look the word count up online. Page counts can be misleading and are not how industry pros describe book length.)
  • If you're writing for children, what is the age of the main character? How does this age compare to the age of the target audience? What themes and topics are present? 
Once again, the library is a great source for free books, and used bookstores are a good option for inexpensive books. Please don't pirate!

3. Use the internet. There are many, many helpful websites that provide information on improving your writing skills. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Absolute Write is a great community filled with experts and newbies alike.
  • Picture book author Tara Lazar runs Storystorm, a free event for picture book writers, each year.
  • Nanowrimo is great if you need motivation to sit down and write every day.

For more resources, see Resources for Authors.

4. Get feedback on your writing. Joining a critique group is a great way to meet other writers and get feedback on your work. And yes, you do need to get feedback. Every writer does. It's understandable if you feel nervous, or if negative feedback makes you feel bad, but this is how writers improve. And critique partners are usually much nicer than reviewers!

As a new writer, you might feel like you don't have anything to contribute. Of course you do! Just point out what you like and why, as well as what you find confusing or uninteresting. The goal is to be encouraging but also helpful. Pure praise is not helpful, and neither is cruelty. Provide constructive criticism, and keep in mind that one person's opinion is just that -- one person's opinion. 

Check with your local library to see if there's a critique group there. You might also be able to find one on Meetup.com. If you can't find any groups that work for you, consider starting your own.

Another way to get feedback is to find a beta reader. A beta reader is usually another writer who reads your entire manuscript and provides feedback. Often, writers exchange manuscripts and beta read for each other.

You might also be interested in getting professional feedback. The catch here is that you generally have to pay for it -- professional writers, editors, and agents don't usually work for free, nor should you expect them to.

If you're a very new writer, paying for feedback might not be a good investment. Work on developing your skills with the help of critique partners and beta readers first. Later, if you're interested in paying for professional feedback, consider starting with a partial critique, say of the first ten to fifty pages. This costs much less than a full critique, and it will give you a good idea of your current skill level.

You do not need to pay for professional editing before submitting to agents or publishers. Some writers do, but it isn't required. If your book sells to a publisher, the publisher will provide professional editing at no cost to you. Many agents also offer editorial feedback.

If you're planning to self-publish, the situation is different. In this case, the only way to benefit from a professional editor is to pay for one, and this is probably a very smart idea.

5. Write Another Book. You've worked hard on your first book and you want to see it published, but that might never happen. Many authors don't sell their first book. I certainly didn't. There's no shame in this. Writing novels at a professional level is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.

Readers usually only hear about the first book that sells, so they may never know that the author toiled away on multiple manuscripts before that. It can make it seem as if successful authors achieve their success overnight. This is usually very far from the truth.

Don't think of the time you spent on a book that never sells as wasted. It isn't! This would be like saying a surgeon wasted time in medical school -- he should have gone straight to operating on patients. It's a ridiculous idea. Any time you spend learning and improving your skills is time well spent. 

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