How to Write a Novel

April 25th, 2005

Hello, I'm feeling much better now. Thanks for all your get well wishes. Really, I could not have gotten better without them. Or antibiotics. Or bad made-for-TV movies, like LOCUSTS, which had moments of badness that actually bordered on brilliance.

But we will have to discuss the brilliant badness of LOCUSTS on another day, because we have other things to address today:

A lot of people want to know who wrote Generic Romance, the book I blogged about a few entries ago. The author is, sadly, unknown, and destined to remain so, as this fine piece of entertainment is out of print (and besides, I don't think whoever wrote it actually put her name on it).

So we may NEVER know who wrote Generic Romance. But if I ever find out, you will be the first to know.

But, gentle reader, don't despair! Because I have composed the following for you so that you can write your OWN generic romance novel (or any sort of novel, really).

I did this not only because so many of you write to me, asking for novel-writing tips, but because this way, you no longer have to be dependent on us unreliable, slow-writing, slacker professional writers. Now you can make up your own books and, with luck (luck = 95% preparation and 5% opportunity), get them published!

Without any more ado, here are my top ten tips for writing a novel (note: these are just MY tips. Other authors may disagree with them, or have their own tips. I am not saying these tips work for ALL books or ALL writers. They are just things that have worked for me, as a writer and a reader):

1. Figure out what your book is going to be about. You wouldn't start a trip without knowing where you're going, would you? Well, the same is true with a book. You must know how your book is going to end–and have a general idea of how you're going to get to that ending–before you start your book. Otherwise, chances are, you will never finish it.

2. Figure out how long your novel is going to be. Publishers go by words, not pages. Most historicals are at least 90,000 words. Chick lits are about 75,000-85,000 words. Mysteries and sci-fi novels tend to be about 70,0000-90,000 words. My YAs are about 55,000-60,000 words.

How many words are there to a page? It depends on the font you are using, of course, but in general, using Times New Roman 12 point (remember, editors read a LOT. Do not make them go blind by using anything less than 12 point), 250-300 words per page.

Therefore, a 55,000 word book should be about 200 manuscript pages. A 100,000 word book would be about 400.

Yes, you're right: That IS long.

3. What writing program should you use? Whichever one you like. I like Word, but Wordperfect is very nice, as well.

Can you hand write your novel? Of course you can. But you cannot turn a hand written novel in to a publisher. You have to type it out first. Or pay someone else to type it for you. Moms are excellent in this capacity. $1 to $3 per page is standard.

4. Depending on how long your book is going to be, and also what kind of book it is (for the sake of consistency, I am going to assume you are writing a romance, because if there's no romance in a book, what's the point? Just kidding. Well, not really), you should plan on your hero and heroine meeting each other somewhere around pages 1-50. I prefer them to meet around page 10. You can have them not meet until later, but some readers won't stick around that long. Remember that the majority of us readers just want to get to the hot guy already.

5. There have to be some obstacles in the way of your hero and heroine getting together right away, or else your reader won't be compelled to read for the next 50,000 words or so to find out what happens. Remember, in a romance, what the reader is mostly interested in is: Will these two people ever find a way to make their relationship work? All other plotlines are secondary to the romance plotline, if you want your book to be a romance.

The same goes for a mystery—the plot is finding out who did it. Or sci-fi—the plot is will the aliens take over the planet or be thwarted by the ragtag band of human rebels?

Secondary plots are fine, but don't get side-tracked from the main plot.

6. Chapters: I like my chapters to be no longer than 10 pages each, with one scene per chapter. But you can have as long or as short a chapter as you want, with as many scenes in each that you want. You can even have no chapters, if you want. But remember, readers have busy lives, and at some point they will have to put your book down to go the grocery store. It would be nice if you have chapter breaks so they could do this easily.

Some authors make an outline plotting out what will happen in each chapter, before they sit down to write the book. While I do think it's important when you're writing a book to know where you are going (and how you are going to get there), that kind of detailed plotting pretty much kills the fun of writing for me, so I don't do it. See what works best for you.

7. In keeping with being easy on the eyes for readers, I like short paragraphs, no more than two sentences long. I know your teacher said all paragraphs should be 4 sentences long, but long paragraphs like that, which can take up an entire page, hurt my eyes, forcing me to skip them when I read. Give your readers a break and leave lots of white space on the page if you can. They will thank you by buying your books.

8. Another trick of popular authors is giving your main character something to love other than the hero/heroine. Giving your character a pet or a sibling gives her a chance to show her softer side. Readers like characters who are kind to children and animals, and this is an easy way to show that your character is likable, even if she is mean to everyone else.

9. A lot of people write to me and go, “I want to be a writer, but I can't seem to find time to sit down and write.” That is the difference between someone who WANTS to write, and someone who DOES write. The person who FINDS the time is the one who is going to become a writer. The person who doesn't, won't.

You have to decide what's important to you. I didn't write very much while I was in school because I had too much homework/hopes for a social life. There is no shame in waiting on the writing thing until you have more time. I know there are some published writers who are still in their teens, and that is great for them. But I didn't get published until I was 30, and I turned out OK, I promise.

But one thing you should NOT do is say to a writer, “I don't know how you find the time to write. I just have too many friends and social engagements ever to get around to it.” Because that is basically calling the writer a giant loser with no friends.

Please don't do this. Thank you.

10. If you have made the time to sit down and complete your novel, you are 100% ahead of most people out there. Pat yourself on the back.

Then go to the On Writing thread here and get yourself an agent and a publisher.

Good luck!

More later.

Much love,

Meg