The dream of writing a novel is a common one. And probably most people sort of know what they’d like to be writing about. Their own personal experiences, perhaps, or something out of history that’s fascinated them or maybe wild sci-fi theme.
But what is the best way to start? Going to university to get a Master of Fine Arts degree is one way, but many people just don’t have the time and money for that. And, perhaps surprisingly, there apparently isn’t much correlation between having an MFA degree and being a successful writer.
Most people take simpler steps. Just sitting down to write is a good first step. You soon discover though that you need more than this. Writing is communication and to communicate well you need to learn the rules—the art and craft of writing. There are many ways to learn the rules.
Rule #1: Read, Read, Read. Not just the ordinary reading you do for fun but teach yourself to observe and analyze as you read. Analyze the passages that really turn you on. What is it the author has done to communicate effectively, to make characters come to life, to create a plot that pulls you into turning the page?
Rule #2: Use resources like the Library and Internet. To craft a good book, you need to understand a lot about such facets of writing as plotting, building characters, point of view, tense. Browse the reference section of a library on writing, look through the contents page to seek out these topics. Alternatively, the Internet is a fantastic source. You can feed in a phrase like “point of view literature” and see what comes up. Probably almost too much information which is why a good book or two may be more helpful by summarizing and organizing the information for you. (Try Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.)
Rule #3: Mingle with other writers. Take a class at a community center, join a book club where several people read and discuss the same book, go to authors’ events at your local library, join a writing critique group where writers meet to read their own work and have the group critique it. Last, but not least, consider joining a writers’ club. The California Writers Club, for instance, holds regular meetings featuring guest speakers, can put you in touch with critique groups, has news about conferences, workshops, and contests.
Rule #4: Develop a thick skin. To improve your writing, it is essential to open it to criticism from others. You can get practice in this through writing classes and critique groups.
Other [yawn! boring!] stuff it’s good to be comfortable with. These include rules of English usage, grammar, spelling, punctuation—knowing when to say “whose” and when to say “who’s”; knowing when to use “I, he, she, we, they” and when to say “me, him, her, us, them.” Don’t rely on Spell-Check; that doesn’t know the difference either. This is one reason it’s imperative to get a good editor before submitting a book to a publisher. But it’s a good idea to get a feel for this stuff yourself. (Try, for example, The Elements of Style by William I. Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White and The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.)
On June 19, I’ll be on an authors’ panel at the San Mateo County Fair, the topic of which is “So You Want to Write a Novel.” I’m sure to pick up tips from my fellow panelists (Jon Corey, A Plague of Scoundrels; Judith Marshall, Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever; and Teresa LeYung Ryan, Love Made of Heart )and will pass them on in this blog.
Coming soon: A link to my interview with Don McCauley of “The Authors’ Show.” Also my interview with Kim McMillon on her blog talk radio show. This was originally scheduled to take place at noon on June 8 but had to be cancelled due to technical difficulties. It is now tentatively rescheduled for June 24–more details to follow.