Q & A: I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

Q & A: The new series in which I answer questions from around the interwebs (mostly Quora) of or relating to read and writing.

The Question
I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

The Answer

Writing a ‘good’ novel can take years of effort. Writing a novel is one hell of a process. Having written one myself, I feel like I can give some advice in that regard.

The write a good novel, the first objective you must have is to complete a first draft. As many writers might confirm, this is actually the most difficult part of the process. I struggled with it for about three years, giving up completely once or twice. So here are some things you could do to make it easier on you:

  1. Figure out your process
    Some people (and I am not one of those people) can just sit down and write with a vague idea of where they want to go in their mind and the story just evolves and plot points arise as they write it. Other people (like me) need to map out the story down to every last detail before they can even dream of starting the story. Story mapping ‘just to be safe’ may not help either – as it could cause people to feel constrained within their outline. So it is very important to figure out: do you need to plan or don’t you?
  2. Give yourself a break
    Many will tell you that you need to write every day and you need to create your own inspiration and all that. While it is important to discipline yourself, if you force yourself to write a story you will eventually start to resent it. It will become and chore and then you’ll never genuinely want to do it. If you miss a day of writing, it’s fine. And if you need a break from your story, take a break.
  3. Never forget: The first draft is SUPPOSED to suck
    The first draft of a book is like the first draft of most anything. It’s messy, the plot development and character development are all over the place, and the writing – it’s a stone’s throw away from garbage. <b>Don’t you edit a thing</b> until you finish that first draft. There is a lot that is going on while you write that draft, and you can make changes, you can move things around. Let the story evolve. But don’t really start editing until you get through that important draft: the shitty first draft.

So when you have something that may someday be a book, and you want to make it good, there are a few things you’re going to want to focus on. For me, the most important thing is the characters.

I can forgive shortcomings in a plot if I love or connect with the characters in some way. Alternation, if there isn’t a single character I can connect with then I quickly lose interesting. You want to write a story full of complex, compelling characters. They don’t just need to seem like real people, they need to be real people. To the creator, at least. There are many things you want to avoid when writing character, like too much power or the everyone-loves-me-even-though-I’m-aggressively-average syndrome or the my-life-is-hard-so-I-get-to-be-an-asshole fallacy (See: Mary Sue and Gary Stu). But there are also many things that you need to pay attention to. The question you have to ask yourself is: Why should people care about my character? And it’s your job to answer that question.

The process of creating a character can quickly become very similar to getting to know a person. Once in creation, you need to give your characters room to breath. If you smother them too much, you could interfere with the natural flow of the story and suddenly Neville and Luna don’t end up together. It’s a tricky balance, that is. There are a lot of really great character questionnaires out there to help you get to know these people, but my favorite right now is The Ultimate Character Builder. The questions are simple, but they go deep. You can really get a lot out of something like that.

After the characters comes the plot. You want your story to be interesting, you want it to seem new whether it’s a new take on an old idea or something you haven’t seen before. The most important part of a story is that you, as the author, loves that story. It is your story to tell, and if you don’t love it then it will be evident in your writing. On top of that, you probably won’t be able to finish a draft in the first place. If you can’t love your story, you can’t expect anyone else to love it either and it 90% isn’t worth pursuing.

There is a lot to be said about the plot of a story. But if you want to make it ‘good’, if you want to make it something that people will praise, then you want to do something different. It doesn’t need to be totally new (very few things are, these days) but you will want it to feel fresh. Don’t become obsessed with this ideal. if you do, it will probably come out lacking. What you want to do is let your own quirks fly out onto the page. You have a very distinct experience in the world in that no one else has ever been you. I’m not saying it’s okay to rip off the plot of Star Wars because no one’s seen it quite like you have – I’m saying that if you have and idea, and you love it and you nurture it, that fresh feeling will usually just come right along with it.

As a final thought, when crafting your story and your characters there are a few questions you’re going to want to ask yourself:

  1. Why is that particular character the protagonist?
  2. What is the catalyst of the story? What got these characters started on this path? What changed everything?
  3. What is the climax of the story? What is your story leading up to?
  4. What id your protagonist’s goal? What are they trying to accomplish?
  5. What is stopping him/her/etc.?
  6. How does he/she/orwhathaveyou change over the course of the story?
  7. What are you trying to say? Why are you writing this story?

If you can answer those questions, you can get a whole lot closer to making something good. Now, this sin’t a magic formula, i haven’t imparted on you some great wisdom. It’s your story, it’s up to you to tell it. You need to trust yourself, you need to trust someone else and ask them to be honest with you, you need to take criticism, but you need to be confident in your work. Don’t be afraid to finish it.

stop letting fear hurt your progress. there are other things in life that deserve fear. this is not one of them. we’re making art, here. it’s supposed to be fun. -raspil

Write well, my friends.

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2 thoughts on “Q & A: I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

  1. Can’t agree with this post more!! For my part all novels begin and end with the characters. The plot can be as captivating as possible but if the characters are lackluster then the audience won’t care a thing about the plot. Great post. I’ll certainly be stopping by again! 🙂

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