Selecting a Theme
Add your suggestions about how to go about selecting a theme for your novel.
It can be anything that really grips your imagination and which you would like to write about. Preferably it should be something you have a fair amount of idea about, because that will save you a lot of research.
At times an idea for a theme would strike you - jot it down. You may not have the time to build upon it just then, but do write down what ever you have thought at that time, for later reference. It may be worthwhile maintaining a notebook or journal for this purpose.
David Langford once wrote that there is no worse advice for a writer of fiction than "write about what you know", because it leads to sterile attempts to recreate one's own experience. Do not be afraid to write about something rare and exceptional and different from your own life either. (Keeping in mind, however, that the emotions still have to feel real, the novel still has to ring true.) Especially now, when information on almost any topic is freely available via the Internet, there is no excuse for fiction writers not to reach out to subjects which they have very little experience with.
But no matter what it is that you want to write about, the thing to do is to GET STARTED. The idea is not to wait for the whole story to crystallize, and not to keep procrastinating; pick up your pen (or get down to your keyboard) and start - that is the only way to get it done.
When choosing a theme, make sure you are writing about a subject you find interesting. One of the best ways to make writing a tedious effort is to write about a subject that you do not care about.
Furthermore, sometimes your best ideas come through your subconscious. When you awake, you may want to write down the major feeling, or what you saw or did; this may be a whole story in itself, or perhaps the missing piece to your character.
When thinking about a theme for your story, be sure not to confuse it with the conflict, as they are two very different things. Conflict is what drives the events of the story, whereas theme is the overall idea or emotion that ties it all together and makes it human. For example, imagine you are writing a crime story, and the conflict occurs when the hero comes home to find a note saying that his daughter has been kidnapped by an escaped convict. Possible themes for such a story could be good verses evil, the strength of the human spirit, or the unbreakable bond between parent and child. If you do not have an idea for a theme before you start a novel do not worry - you will discover it as you go along, because these things develop naturally.
It is very important for a novel to be well researched, irrespective of what the subject or topic is. It makes the story more interesting and authentic. Remember Arthur Hailey or Dan Brown? The research that goes into each of their books is what makes them all the more interesting.
Research can help you add detail and texture to your story that might otherwise be lacking. For stories that you invent spells (fantasy), 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 help in adding small little touches to your novel that make it more interesting to read. For instance, if you know that there is 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
Should you first create an outline of your novel, or is it better to start off and then build it up as ideas come along? Or a mix of both?
I feel it is always better to start off with a broad blueprint or outline of your story. You can build it up and modify it as the story develops.
It is good to have a broad idea of how you want your story to go, but in the initial writing process it is good to have a lot of flexibility to fiddle around with things as well.
Everyone writes differently: some swear by outlines and others swear at them. It is up to you to figure out which kind of writer you are. However, if this is your first novel, you are far more likely to finish it if you have something written down beforehand, something that will show you where to go when you get stuck (which you will). 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 will have a direction to head in and a goal to aim for.
A very good thing to do once you have a basic idea in mind is to carry a small (or big - if it is convenient) notebook around, and keep noting down any ideas that strike you. Ideas have this annoying habit of striking you at the most annoying of moments, just when you are not prepared for them. 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, then go back and make the rest of the story fit. This is especially true of many people who participate in National Novel Writing Month.
Creating your Characters
How do you decide the personalities of characters in your novel? A suggested method is to base them on real people you know (without offending them). Another idea along those lines is to take characteristics of some friends (or enemies) and take them to the extreme. 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.
Take characteristics of yourself, or the opposite characteristics of yourself, and spread them through many characters. Experiment: give your female characters characteristics of male friends, and vice versa.
Another way to build up your characters is to keep your eyes and ears open. Look around you, especially in public places such as airports. Observe the people around you: how they behave - the way they scold their children, the way the wife is obviously annoyed at her husband. You will learn a lot of nuances which you can include. As discussed earlier, it may be a good idea to keep a notebook and pen handy to note down whatever strikes you. And the best part is that the whole exercise would take away the monotony of waiting for the flight.
The way people dress is often reflective of their attitude. A lot of good authors use this technique of describing a person's clothes and thereby reflecting their characters' personality. Try this: notice people in a public place, and try to describe their clothes; try linking this with the way you picture their personality.
Naming your characters is another very important aspect. Here is an excellent article regarding naming characters. http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/name.html
Developing Your Style
Without the motive of plagiarising, you must study your favourite authors carefully and pick up ideas about their style of writing and modify the same to suit yours; how can you create a piece of artwork without appreciating art other artist's work within the genre. Some writers like describing every single thing; for example, the type of wood the table is made of, the smells at the country [?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 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. I strongly urge consistency.
Get feedback. Correct errors. Cut parts out. Perfect it!
Lets face it: nobody can write a perfect first draft. Sooner or later you are going to have to edit it for little things like grammatical errors, to big 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, perhaps third, fourth, it would be a good idea to have someone else look at it. Reading it yourself over and over again is helpful but even then you just do not catch something a fresh reader would. I personally leave something alone for a whole month or so, look at it and correct it, and am sure to look at it again, perhaps another month later. It helps me catch things, but it is usually best to find someone to help you. The more help you can get the better. If you have a book club you like, let them have a look at it - you know they love reading. Perhaps a teacher or 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 might be possible for someone to plagiarise it. Be sure to put it in a place where it is protected and be sure to add a copyright notice - it's your work. Be aware of copyright laws in your country.
Something that might be scary to deal with is plot holes. A reader might point out a little mistake your character said that could contradict something you wrote earlier on. Hopefully it will not be such a huge mistake that you will have to write half your book, but believe me, it can happen. I have rewritten over twelve chapters due to large mistakes. This is where perseverance comes in again - you just have to keep at it. Do not feel bad about making mistakes because everyone makes them. You are not a bad writer because you made a huge mistake and had to rewrite a whole chapter. Rome was not built in a day, and they surely made mistakes along the way too.
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., no character development in a particular scene, a particular scene is not very entertaining, or introduces a minor character that will confuse 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, take it out. I know it is hard. 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 has come out. It is important for you to love what you have written but you also have to understand many writers or 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 consider that.
Putting it All Together
I guess the main thing about getting it actually done is perseverance. You need to put in some amount of writing time EVERYDAY, no matter how busy your schedule is. And even if you don not actually get down to writing everyday, you can at least give some thought to developing your story and/or your characters in your mind. You can do that while travelling, or even while slacking off at work.
Of course, if you are a gentleman (or lady) at large, with adequate time and resources (moolah) 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
There are hordes of aspiring writers out there, besides the well established ones.
Many people believe a literary agent will help with the publishing process. It can be tricky to find the one that is 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 do not know how much money they should get up front, how royalties work, or many other aspects of the business. Agents take care of this for you. Writer Beware: look for agents that will disclose their satisfied clients list. If they are not willing to disclose names, they could very well be a fly-by-night agency. When in doubt, check your favorite author's books for the agency they use, or check with the A.A.R. (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. Be aware, however, that 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.