Today I have a syndicated guest post for you from writer, editor and writing teacher Joyce Shafer. In her post below, Joyce offers some great tips for new fiction writers, and novelists in particular.
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Let’s start with what is for some writers akin to a four-letter word: Outline. Yes, there are successful authors–and I do mean best-selling authors–whose practice is to let their fingers fly and write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsers), but they are few in number. These authors may seem like they’re winging it. They aren’t. They have years (or decades) of practice built upon a foundation of knowledge about technical and creative principles of the writing craft. The majority of best-selling authors spend time on their outlines, even a few months, including doing needed research, before the first word of the draft is typed. This includes sometimes significantly changing or tossing the outline and starting over.
I recently worked with a client who wrote and self-published his first novel. It was written without an official outline, but he had an organized mental outline going on, even though he didn’t realize it. However, during our time working together, he did James Patterson’s online writing course, and saw first-hand how creating an outline would save time. As I write this, we’re working on the sequel, which started with an outline we both reviewed and revised. And as anyone who uses outlines will tell you, just because you wrote the outline down, this doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone. For example, as I went through the client’s outline, several ideas came forward, especially about how to create the desired big twist that alters the protagonist in a monumental way, which is a shift the author was looking for. When such inspiration happens to you, just change the outline and keep writing.
Now, let’s talk about skills. This client has experience writing non-fiction papers and articles, but this was his first foray into fiction writing. He was genuinely shocked to learn he didn’t know how much he didn’t know about the technical and creative aspects of writing fiction. A truth to keep in mind is that a successful author works very hard, using the technical and creative principles, to make writing seem easy. This means you, if you are committed to being a good writer, need to study these principles and put them into practice so they can become natural for you as well.
Initially, the client expressed that his confidence was shaken because of the needed corrections brought to his attention and because of the suggested revisions provided. I pointed out that his innate abilities were obvious to me (they are!) and reminded him that he was just starting on this path, so it was unfair for him to compare his efforts with my twenty-plus years of study and experience. He soon got on board with the learning process. Happily for both of us, he’s a willing, enthusiastic learner. (By the way, he’s ecstatic that his debut novel is getting five-star reviews!)
The more willing and enthusiastic you are about improving your skills, the better your experience and results will be, and the more eager your readers will be for additional books from you. As you improve, you’ll reduce the time it takes to get your novels ready for your audience. If you’re a new writer of fiction, please understand that rushing the process of writing a novel, especially your first one, is never a good idea. Never. Be willing to take your novels through a number of revisions, if needed.
Some other things to focus on when writing a novel are as follows:
Track the chapters: Keep track of chapter numbers and include a brief one-liner about what main thing happens in each chapter. This makes it easier to find your place in the story if/when an inspired idea or needed change flashes in your mind. If this flash happens during the night or when you’re doing something else, make a note so you don’t lose the idea, and then add it in the next day. Also, watch that you don’t make your chapters too long. Look at several books by successful authors and note how long their chapters usually run. The number of chapter pages will differ throughout their books, but you’ll see that sometimes chapters are longer and sometimes they are one, two, or three pages in length. Shorter chapters keep readers reading. Long chapters will keep them reading as long as the content is page-turning good. In longer chapters by these authors, note how often they have scene breaks or scene changes.
Track timing: Keep track of the dates, days of the week, months, and times of day. It’s too easy to slip up. You might start a scene at eight in the morning then three paragraphs or two pages later it’s nighttime but you’re in the same scene that may have lasted only fifteen minutes. Oops. So, it’s also beneficial to keep track of the duration of the scene. Did it play out in fifteen minutes, a half hour, an hour or more?
Track characters: Create a character list. The best way to do this is to write the characters’ first and last names down (and make certain you are consistent with how you spell their names throughout the manuscript), as well as their relationship to the protagonist and or their role in the story. This also makes it easier for you to look up a character’s name if s/he hasn’t been “on stage” for a while. You benefit by doing character profiles prior to starting your draft. The more significant a character is to the story, the more detailed the profile should be.
Track conflict type: You want to pay attention to how many scenes include conflict that is external, internal, interpersonal, and or antagonistic so that you keep the correct balance for your plot and character development. Conflict is required for a good story, and how much and which types of conflict occur have all to do with your genre. Commercial fiction typically has far less internal conflict for one or more characters than literary or light literary fiction requires. The most engaging, page-turner novels have conflict of some sort escalating gradually until the climax point in the story. This doesn’t mean each chapter has so much action or conflict in it that you exhaust your readers. Some conflicts are simple, like your protagonist needing to contact someone in a hurry and s/he can’t reach them, or perhaps your protagonist needs to speak up in a situation but has self-esteem issues.
Track point of view (POV): This is something you can organize when you create your outline. Tracking POV for scenes is important because it’s too easy for inexperienced (and even experienced) writers to include more than one POV in a scene. Each scene that includes POV needs to be in the POV of only one character at a time.
Read aloud: This includes reading passages from books by your favorite authors, but especially your own manuscripts. Once you complete your first draft, print it out (don’t read from the computer) and read it aloud with pen and extra paper on hand. It’s vital that when you do this, you do so from the perspective of a reader/editor, rather than the proud creator. Look for extra spaces, misspelled words, missing words, incorrect punctuation, consistency of indents for paragraphs (be sure you do not include spaces between paragraphs, and be sure you do use only one space between sentences), wrong word choices, boring dialogue, not enough information, more information than what’s needed, run-on sentences, flow, pace, and anything and everything that impedes the writing from being a good story that keeps readers in their mental movie and eager to turn the page. You read aloud what you write because you need to hear how your story sounds, because this is how it will sound in readers’ minds. Do this for each revision. You’ll be happy you did.
There are many, many additional things to pay attention to when writing fiction, and this is why there are so many books available on this subject. One book I highly recommend is Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence & Captivating Readers by Barbara Baig. This is not a book you read like most books: Baig puts you to work, but it’s not hard or tedious work. If you’re committed to being a writer and improving your craft, you’ll find her practices engaging and revealing. Your ability to write better, and with more confidence, will unfold as you move through the material.
Know this: There’s always more to learn. This is why even best-selling authors go to workshops and conferences. Commit some of your time to studying to improve your skills, some time to reading so you study what other authors do, and some time to writing, which is the only way to practice what you learn.
I wish you the best with your writing and progress.
Joyce L. Shafer provides services for writers, with a focus on assisting new and indie authors. Services include Manuscript Evaluation, Substantive Editing, and Silent (Ghost) Rewriting/Editing, which includes converting plays and screenplays into novels. Her clients say she’s part editor, part teacher, part coach. Details are available at http://editmybookandmore.weebly.com/.
Article Source: Some Beneficial Tips for New Fiction Authors.
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Many thanks to Joyce for a valuable and thought-provoking article. I agree with everything she says, especially the advice to read your work out loud. This can be great for spotting awkward phrases and sentences that mar the flow of your writing.
If you have any comments or questions about the article, as always, please do post them below.