When I got serious about selling a novel, I got a multi-book contract six months after I made a decision — I decided that if I didn’t sell my first novel within a decade, I’d give up. (This was in the early 1980s.)
It’s unheard of to sell a first novel just on a couple of chapters and an outline, but I managed to do that. I’m not particularly smart, but I am determined.
I taught myself how to write fiction, and I’d written many (totally hopeless) novels and parts of novels before I became determined to SELL.
Here are nine secrets I wish I’d known when I started out writing fiction.
Secret 1: Bad stuff must happen to your characters
You’ll grow to love your characters. However, if they have a wonderful time, your readers won’t. Put your characters into a tough situation at the start of your novel, and then make the situation worse… and even worse.
To see how it’s done, read, and then read more.
Read the kind of novel (mystery, thriller, romance) you want to write, and pay attention. Take notes on your own reactions to the characters, and what happens to them.
Secret 2: The bad stuff must make sense (things must go from bad to worse, then much worse)
You can’t just dump a load of misery onto your characters. Put them into a bad situation, and ensure that the “worse” happens because of your characters’ actions. Avoid coincidences, and random events. Everything must happen for a reason — the reasons are always something your characters did, to get out of their initial bad situation.
For example, let’s say your main character’s a wonderful guy. He gets fired, because he sees something he should not see. When he gets home, he has a fight with his wife. He heads to a hotel. When he goes home to collect some clothes, his wife is dead. The cops arrive, and he’s arrested for the murder of his wife.
None of the events should be random. Your character gets fired for a reason (you can tell readers what that reason is in Chapter 2, or 22); his marriage is on the rocks (explain later); he rushes out of the house, so he forgets his clothes; he can’t believe his wife is dead, he picks her up and is covered with blood; the police arrive for a reason (explain LATER.)
Life is filled with random events. Novels NEVER are. Everything in your novel must happen for a reason.
(See Secret #9.)
Secret 3: Your characters must be sympathetic (viz: Save the Cat)
I love the Save the Cat books. “Saving the cat” is a way to make your characters likable.
Tip: even the villains need one redeeming attribute. No one is all good, or all bad.
Secret 4: Write your first draft straight through — no turning, no stopping
When you’re writing your first draft, just write it, straight through.
Make notes (you’ll have lots of notes) on changes you’ll make, but don’t go back and make the changes.
Your first draft is your raw material. It’s the straw you’ll spin into gold. Keep writing — NO stopping.
The following secrets all apply to subsequent drafts. The only thing you need to do in your first draft is to write it.
Secret 5: Contrast your characters — the more colorful the better
Have you seen the movie The Odd Couple?
It’s a funny movie. It’s worth watching, because it teaches you a big secret of characterization — contrasting your characters (and making them sympathic). Watch the movie.
Secret 6: Everything happens somewhere — pay attention to setting (scout locations)
Setting is at least as important as character in your novel. Keep your characters out of the kitchen!
They need to be somewhere, doing something. The more dramatic you can make your locations, the better.
For example, in John Sandford’s novel, Bad Blood,
the murder which kicks off the action happens in a grain elevator. That’s spooky, and it’s a genius setting for a murder.
Write your first draft straight through, and then take your characters out of the kitchen and put them into exciting, intriguing locations.
Alfred Hitchcock was a genius at locations. Think North by Northwest, Psycho, Strangers on a Train…
Secret 7: Contrast your storylines (you need at least two) — create cliffhangers at the end of chapters
Forget plot and “sub-plot”. Think of your two plots as two different stories.
For example, in a mystery, the first story is the crime — what happened, why it happened, etc. The second story is the solving of the crime.
Every novel contains at least two stories. When you think of them that way, it’s easier to work with them, so that something is always happening in your book — there’s lots of ACTION.
After your first draft, intercut your two stories. Switch them, so that each chapter ends at a cliffhanger. You want your readers to keep reading.
Secret 8: Add humor in your third draft (at least one of your characters must be a wiseass)
A touch of humor is essential to your novel. Shakespeare knew that. Once you’ve got your setting, and your storylines set up, at around the third draft, add some humor.
Give one character a smart mouth — or all of them, if you can manage it.
Secret 9: Keep your backstory out of your story (keep secrets from your reader)
Never, ever dump a lot of information about your characters’ histories. No one (least of all your readers) wants to know. YOU need to know your characters’ histories, your reader doesn’t, until something from a character’s background is essential for him to know.
The more secrets your characters have, from each other, and from readers, the better.
OK, there you have it — 9 secrets which will help you to write your first and subsequent novels. Have fun. 🙂
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