Selecting a Theme
Anything that really grips your imagination that you would like to write about can be chosen. It should be something you have a fair amount of idea about, because that'll save you a lot of research.
Whatever you have for themes and other things, write it down. You may be too busy building upon it at the time, but had you let the thought go, you may have never gotten to write about it at all. Whatever ideas you get, have a tool nearby to save and record them. Some people enjoy penning with a notebook or journal. Some talk into a cassette recorder. Others use a note-taking app. You shouldn't be told what tool to use, only that you have the ideas somewhere. Authors will have different approaches to every part of the process, but do not try someone else's just to see if it will work for you; it has to be easier than your own methods.
Likewise, regardless of what it is you want to write, you have to get started at some point. Don't wait for the whole story to crystallize, or keep procrastinating; pick up your pen (or get your hands on the keyboard) and start. That is the only way it can be done.
When choosing a theme, make sure you're writing about a subject you find interesting. One way to make writing a tedious effort is to write about a subject you don't care about.
Furthermore, sometimes your best ideas come through your subconscious. When you wake up, you may want to write down the feeling, or what you saw or did; this may be a whole story in itself, or perhaps the missing piece to an existing story or element.
David Langford put that there's no worse advice than to "write about what you know", because it leads to sterile attempts to recreate one's own experience. Don't be afraid to write about something rare and exceptional and different from your own life either-- just keep in mind, however, that the emotions still have to feel real, and the novel still has to ring true. Especially now, when information on almost any topic is freely available via the internet, there's no excuse for writers not to reach out to subjects which they have very little experience with.
Be sure that what you're thinking of is a theme and not a conflict, as those are two different things altogether. Imagine a crime story. The hero comes home to find a note saying that his daughter has been kidnapped by an escaped convict. The themes you can portray for such a story could be good versus evil, the strength of the human spirit, or the unbreakable bond between parent and child. Conflict is what drives the events of the story, but when we think of themes, we think of the overall idea or emotion that ties it all together and makes it human. If you don't have an idea for a theme before you start a novel or as you write it in the beginning, do not worry because you can discover it as you go along (or someone peer reviewing your work could point it out for you). In most cases, it develops naturally.
It is very important for a novel to be well-researched, irrespective of what the subject or topic is. While you can derive a worldbuilt society that breaks conventional norms, staying true to reality and history tends to make the story more interesting and authentic. Arthur Hailey and Dan Brown are just two examples of authors that showcase an advanced amount of research in each of their books. It makes their stories way more engaging.
Research can also help you add detail and texture that might otherwise be lacking. For fantasy stories where you invent spells, research into existing methods of magic can help you come up with ceremonies that you might well be able to adapt, adding a colorful touch to your fiction.
It also adds small little touches to your novel that make it more interesting to read. For instance, if you know that there's one particular bird who can only sing one note, you could use this as interesting foreshadowing:
- As Charley reached for the door, he heard a solitary chirp.
"A C-sharp," he murmured...
Creating an Outline
The question of whether to create a rigid outline, or start off and then gradually build it up is often asked. Here is our advice: You want to have a broad idea of how your story should play out, but in the initial writing process, you shouldn't compromise a lot of flexibility so that you can tweak things as the story develops.
Do note that everyone writes differently: some swear by outlines while others swear at them. It's up to you to figure out which of these you do. However, your first novel is far more likely to be finished if you have something written down beforehand, something that will show you where to go when you get stuck-- and you will get stuck; it is inevitable. At the very least, know how the story is going to end before you begin. It may change along the way, but at least you'll have a direction to head and a goal to aim for.
Earlier we mentioned having the tools like small journals and phones, and a very good thing to do once you have a basic idea in mind is to carry it around, and keep any ideas that strike you. Sometimes you may get them at the most inconvenient of times; remember Archimedes?
Some people, however, will begin a written work with very little knowledge of what is to come. Many of these people will write until something coherent comes out, and then go back and fix the story accordingly. This is especially true for people who participate in the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.
Creating your Characters
When coming up with personalities of characters, one suggested method is to base them off of real people you know (without offending them of course). Something similar would be to take characteristics of some friends (or even enemies) and take them to the extreme. Take characteristics of yourself, or the opposite characteristics of yourself, and spread them through many characters. You can experiment and give your female characters characteristics of your male friends, and vice versa.
Something else you can do is to look around in public. If you're ever taking a plane and have to wait in an airport, this is a good way to reduce the monotony of the wait. Pay attention to how people behave; the way they scold their children, the way the wife is annoyed at her husband. You'll learn a lot of nuances which you can include.
People's attitudes are (more often than not) reflected in the way they dress. A lot of good authors use this technique of describing a person's clothes and thereby reflecting their characters' personality. Notice people in a public place, and try to describe their clothes; try linking this with the way you picture their personality.
Breathe life into your characters and make them think on their own. Once your characters are living breathing creatures, the plot should fall around them.
The names you give your characters is another very important aspect. If you want things to click, consider reading this article on naming characters.
Developing Your Own Style
Study your favourite authors carefully and pick up ideas about their style of writing-- without the motive of plagiarising of course. See if they can suit yours; how can you create a piece of artwork without appreciating others in the genre. Some writers like describing every single thing; for example, the type of wood the table is made of, the smells at the county fair, or the deep blue-green scales of the invading dragon. Some people keep details sparse and include only things necessary to get the plot moving along.
Another important literacy style is the use of proper pronouns and narrative perspective; third or first person. Find out what sort of style you like writing best, and be sure to stick with it. Unless there is some specific reason for writing different parts of your novel in a different style, your readers are going to be very confused when you give a rich first person view detailed chapter and suddenly switch to a whole other writing style entirely. Consistency is recommended. On the note of perspective, unless you're writing something like a gamebook or a fictional instruction guide, do not use second person pronouns for the story.
You can only perfect your work with modifications. Get feedback. Correct errors. Cut parts out, and expand on others.
Let's face it: nobody can write a perfect first draft. Sooner or later you are going to have to edit things as little as grammatical errors, or as big as plot holes. The first draft will be very basic, but once it is written you can add more detail and fix most errors; do not worry about fixing grammar or punctuation errors until a later draft, as the story is much more important at this stage; furthermore, editing too much errors in your first draft will be messy and confusing. For later drafts, it's a good idea to have someone else look at it. Reading it yourself over and over again is helpful but sometimes you cannot catch something a new reader would. The more help you can get, the better. If you have a book club you like, let them have a look at it. Perhaps a teacher, mentor, or even a friend can look at it. There are also lots of places online such as writing.com. While posting your work online can help get people to look at it, it's also possible it can be plagiarised. Be sure to put it in a place where it can be protected, and assuming you don't trust your peers, be sure to add a copyright notice since it is your work. Also be aware of copyright laws in your country.
It might be scary to deal with plot holes. A reader might point out a little mistake your character said that could contradict something you wrote earlier on, and could potentially mean half the book needs rewriting. This is where perseverance comes in; you should just keep going. Don't think you're bad for making huge mistakes in the narrative. Writers have had to go back to an astounding number of chapters finding these kinds of things, but not once did they stop because of their self-esteem. Rome wasn't built in a day, and they made mistakes as they built it.
A hard lesson you may have to learn is simply letting go of things. It depends on what you are writing, but if there is something in your novel that is completely unnecessary (i.e., a character develops, it's just not entertaining, or a minor character comes in that confuses things later) you may need to erase it and forget about it. You might have gotten really attached to Jim and his scene at the skating rink, or you may have loved Dorothia's cute little quirk, but if you really need to let go of something, let go of it and erase. Perhaps you can put Dorothia's little quirk on another character or Jim can show up later, but the point is no matter how much you love something, if you know your novel would be better off without it, just take it out. It is hard, and it has happened. But before you erase big parts of your novel, however, SAVE EVERYTHING! Especially on a computer. If you delete a 12-page scene, save it and hide it away; there may have been something there you wanted to use after all.
Even with heavy editing, you may not be pleased with the way something's come out. It is important for you to love what you have written but you also have to understand many writers and artists are never pleased with their work. This is another reason feedback is important. You might think it is the worst trash ever written but if a hundred other people think it is brilliant, you need to take that into consideration.
Putting it All Together
The main thing is perseverance. Put in some amount of writing time everyday, no matter how busy your schedule is. And even if there are days where it doesn't happen and you don't get to write that time, you can at least give some thought to developing your story and/or your characters in your mind. You can do that while traveling, or even while slacking off at work.
Of course, if you're a gentleman (or lady) at large, with adequate time and resources (money) at your disposal, you can take the time off and head out to the mountains or Caribbean and rent a cottage to devote time to your literary pursuits. But most of us are not as lucky-- at least, not for the first novel. So the requirement of juggling time between managing a full-time job and yet finding the time and inclination to write while keeping the wife and family happy at the same time.
Getting it Published
- See also Publication
Many people believe a literary agent will help with the publishing process. It can be tricky to find the one that's right for you, but agents know about the business, have contacts in the business, would know what publishers would be most receptive of your work, and generally they can get a better contract than you would be able to negotiate yourself. Many new authors don't know how much money they should get up front, how royalties work, and many other aspects of the business. Agents take care of this for you. However, look for agents that disclose their satisfied clients list. If they're not willing to disclose names, they could be a fly-by-night agency. If in doubt, check your favorite author's books for the agency they use, or check with the Association of Author's Representatives.
It should also be noted that many of the larger publishing companies have what is called an "open call" for unpublished authors. Many of these even accept submissions from authors without agents. Most of these companies have very strict guidelines of how a manuscript should look when submitted. Check with your favorite publisher's website to see if they have an open call.