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Learning How to Write a Novel

There are two main responses I get from people when they find out I write novels. The first is the dreaded “I too would write novels if only I had the time” (as though I just sit around with nothing but buckets of spare time… cue eye roll). The other is something to the effect of “I have no idea how you do that.” The fun part is, for both of these responses, my reply is roughly the same. It’s that writing a novel does indeed take time, but you know what takes even more time? Learning how to write a novel in the first place.

I’m going to start this post with the caveat that I do not have anything resembling a degree in creative writing. I wish I’d had the guts to pursue that in college, but instead I went for a safer, more traditionally “marketable” major (ZERO shade on all the badass, hustling creative writing majors in the world, for the record). The good news is there are a ton of resources out there for folks like myself who have not academically studied fiction writing!

There are a thousand different ways to write a novel, of course, so there isn’t really One True Path to follow, but here are a few (hopefully) evergreen tips that will help any writers out there along their journey to novel-writing success!

  1. You are not special. Okay, that sounds super mean, I know. But realizing I wasn’t special was a game-changer for me in my writing career. Thankfully I learned it pretty early on, but still, I wasted several months refusing to learn anything new because I thought I “knew better” somehow (as someone who had never done this before? Wtf, Past Me?!) Here’s your dose of tough love for the day - I don’t care how talented your high school English teacher told you you were. Writing a paper or a story in school is drastically different from trying to pen something people will be willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on. The sooner you realize you need to grow, the sooner you’ll be able to.

  2. Learn ALL THE METHODS! Like I said above, there are a THOUSAND ways to write a novel. Some people outline and plot beforehand, some people prefer to let their characters guide them through the story as they draft. Some people strictly follow rules like the Three Act Structure and Save the Cat, others… don’t. The main thing is, if you want to break the “rules” of writing, you need to at least know what the rules are first. If you’re breaking rules without knowing they exist, you’re not being groundbreaking, you’re just uninformed. There is a difference, and your readers will know it!

  3. Explore different sources of information. There are countless books on creative writing. There are also conferences and seminars if in-person lessons are more your thing (on hold for COVID at present, of course, but not forever, I hope). If you’re not looking to drop any cash - which is a legitimate choice, since we don’t all have a ton of expendable income - check out some of the thousands of blogs on the subject! Are all of them going to work for you? Definitely not. But chances are if you read through enough of them you’ll start to pick up on some writing nuggets that you’ll carry with you the rest of your career - I know I have!

  4. Seek feedback early and often. If it’s possible to write a quality book in a vacuum… well, I haven’t yet met the person who has accomplished it. Books are art, for sure, but if you’re hoping to do this professionally it’s also a business. Feedback on art is important as it helps you grow as an artist, but if you’re expecting total strangers to shell out real cash to read your words, you need to take every possible step to make sure your story is worth their money - otherwise guess what? They’ll never buy another one. Work with critique partners, beta readers, editors, you name it. Just get other eyes on your work, and actually listen to what they have to say - after all, you asked them for their opinion, right?

  5. Write a damn book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The only way to really learn how to write a book is to write one. Absolutely seek out information, absolutely read books and blogs and attend conferences if you’re able. Absolutely read broadly and with great purpose inside and outside your genre of choice. But, ultimately, eventually, you’re going to have to put pen to paper yourself. It might take you a few tries to get it right. I have said before that my debut novel, AMONG THIEVES, is the fifth book I wrote. Trial and error, baby! Don’t be afraid to fail, just write with wild abandon, then edit the shit out of it later. And if none of that works, try again later with something entirely new. Rinse and repeat.

In short, writing a book is not something you absolutely need a degree in order to accomplish. There is no credential that guarantees you a publishing deal (besides perhaps being a giant celebrity or something). Every single writer has to put in the work and the effort to learn what works for them, and what doesn’t. They say professionals are just the amateurs who don’t give up. I totally agree with that sentiment, but I’d also add that all professionals started as amateurs who realized there is always room to grow.

What tips have you found helpful along your writing journey? Tell us in the comments, or chat with me on Twitter @mj_kuhn.

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