How to Write a Novel that Doesn’t Suck
Nine Steps to a Book Readers will Love
It’s in there. I know it. You’ve got a book inside you. The damn thing burns a hole in your brain. You’ve wanted to share a book with more than just your family. You want to create a story people will love — maybe a novel someone will BUY.
If this is your first novel there’s a good chance the book will suck. It’s a rite of passage. But once you get your drawer novel off your desk it’s time to write the book people will read.
I had a terrible time getting this process right. Before I published my first book I wrote a handful of terrible novels that didn’t work. I started over, listened to successful authors, and applied everything I learned. Here’s my story below:
Nine Steps to Writing a Novel that Doesn’t Suck
- Follow the hero — Every great story follows the Hero’s Journey (a sequence of 12 important steps along the main character’s path through the story). We resonate with the Hero’s Journey on a primal level. Most successful movies follow this path. Stick with it and it’ll help you hit the right points in your story at the right time. The Hero’s Journey helps prevent you from missing important milestones that shouldn’t be missed. Please avoid the urge to skip this.
- Plant the question — if you want to create a page-turner you’ve got to plant questions in the reader’s mind. End each chapter with a question. Start your novel with a series of questions. End your novel with a question. We hate open-ended questions. They nag us. We want the answers. We’ll keep reading until we get the answers. Plant questions and your reader will keep reading.
- No one cares about the rug — don’t use too much exposition in your writing. Writers get very self-indulgent with their character descriptions and world-building. Give as little description as possible. Only give descriptions that propel the story. Everything else is filler. No one cares about the color of the rug in the main character’s dining room. You might, but your reader doesn’t.
- People are people — it’s easy to ruin dialog. It’s hard to get dialogue right. I like to observe people in nature and steal their best one-liners. There are tons of my friends’ conversations in my books. Make your character and dialogue similar to reality, but not an exact copy. Reality isn’t that exciting. It’s your job to remove the bits that readers will skip.
- Don’t forget the middle — the beginning and end of your novel consume twenty-five percent of your novel, each. The remaining fifty percent of your book is the middle. There’s a dirty saying in the writing world called the ‘muddy middle.’ This is the place where writers run out of things to say. Your book’s got a beginning, middle, and end. The middle is where you develop characters we love, maybe have a huge battle or two, and show us why we need to care what happens in the end. The middle is critical. Make us want to read until the end.
- Deliver on expectations — Every genre has a specific series of tropes the readers expect. If you write a murder mystery there better be a murder. Learn all the tropes in your niche and don’t try to get fancy. Make sure you hit all the reader’s expectations, or she’ll leave your novel unsatisfied and probably won’t come back for your next book.
- Be unforgettable — Copy an idea that already works, or a story people already love. Make the story your own. Put your style and stamp on it, but you’ve used a successful framework. The story will make people feel at home, but they can’t pinpoint why. Authors do this all the time. Think of how many renditions of Cinderella, or Romeo and Juliet, or Star Wars are written. Use classics as a framework. Change the characters, the location, and the story. You started with a successful framework and you’re more likely to resonate with your reader.
- Enter late and leave early — Write scenes that are already happening as they open. You don’t to write about the main character driving to work. We show her already at work, or as she walks in the door. Same with the end of a scene. The scene is over before the main character walks home. Watch a few of your favorite prime-time TV shows. Television is perfect at this technique.
- Let them see the kitchen — Allow your readers behind the scenes, via your email list and other content. Ask them what they want to see. Show your readers where you write and how you develop your characters. Turn some of your best readers into characters in your books. I offer my best readers an opportunity to be a victim in my thriller books. If you let your readers in the kitchen they become invested in your process. With invested readers they’ll feel more obligated to buy what you wrote.
Don’t reinvent the paperclip
Follow the methods that work. Don’t try to reinvent story structure. Having a framework for your story will not limit your creativity. Structures provide the scaffolding to write a better story.
This isn’t an exhaustive list either. There are many more techniques you’ll gather along your journey, but these ten tips should get you started. Happy writing.
August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.