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Can you write a book in 6 weeks? (Yes!)

Can you write a book in 6 weeks? (Yes!)



Guest author, journalist and blogger Sam Jordison shares how he wrote Enemies of the People in six weeks.


One of the biggest challenges any writers must face is, you know, actually writing. The sitting down in front of a computer and typing side of things. The finding the time. The ploughing on: despite blocks and distractions. The getting out of the words even though you might have a headache. The thinking and the doing and the typing. Did I mention the typing? No books are ever published without typing.

And put like that, it sounds too obvious to even mention, yet the physical act of writing is one of the most fascinating and difficult parts of the process. At literary festivals, writers are invariably asked questions about how they carve out the space to sit down and write, and how you keep going when the going gets tough. Some of the best interviews on the craft of writing in the world are those published by the Paris Review and the first thing they always ask is a variation on the question of pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor?

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When I teach my Creative Non-Fiction Course, meanwhile, I always like to try to address the question of how you physically get the words down. The advice I offer is generally to try to be flexible, because not only is every person different, every writing day is different. One of the worst things you can do is beat yourself up and obsess over the fact that you haven’t hit an arbitrary word count. Equally, another of the worst things you can also do is to fail to get any words down on a regular basis. Most often I try to suggest that people get into a sensible routine that fits them, not to worry too much if progress is slow, but to always try to make progress.

I like to hope that this is good advice. I’ve followed it myself in the past – and managed to produce a dozen books and plenty of journalism by doing so. But more recently, I have discovered two things that can work even better: a fierce deadline and a burning sense of injustice.

If you have a burning desire to write a memoir, a piece of journalism, or a biography then use that energy to propel your writing.

In early spring of 2017, I was asked to write a book about the people that brought us Trump and Brexit and the general sense that the world is spinning off its axis. I was also asked if I could write it in about six weeks. And make it reasonably long.

My first thought was: oh, hell yeah!

The rage I was feeling at the collapse of our democracies and the rise of a dangerous and malevolent right-wing would perhaps start to feel a bit less impotent. If I could channel my anger into a book that would tell the truth about post-truth and provide real facts instead of alternative-facts, I might have a small hope of influencing things for the better.

My second thought was: oh, hell.

I’d have to do an awful lot of writing and research in a very short time. And I’d have to – as already discussed – actually sit down and do it.

But that’s when the two weapons of clock pressure and anger really kicked in.

I didn’t spend any more time wondering about how I was going to write the book. I didn’t have time for that. All I could do was get going. If I wanted to nail the people who had done so much to make things so bad, I just had to get going.

I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. It was stressful and tiring and my head was whirring for six solid weeks. But lots of the things that usually get in the way of writing just weren’t around. There was no putting it off until tomorrow, because tomorrow was too late. There was no wondering if I was doing things the right way – because I was arguing with people who seemed so obviously wrong.

And it worked. At the risk of sounding like a Nike advert, the thing I realised that sometimes the best approach to writing is to just do it. I got the words down. And as I type this article, I’m waiting for the first copy of the resultant book to come through the post. It’s called Enemies Of The People and even though it probably has a few rough edges, and a few clumsy sentences that I might have improved if I had more time, I also hope that the way it was written has given it rawness and energy and a burning sense of indignation. It feels important. And I’m very glad I sat down and wrote it.

Sam Jordison’s Enemies Of The People was published in the UK on 1 June 2017.

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What is creative writing in non-fiction?

What is creative writing in non-fiction?



‘Creative non-fiction’ is one of the trickiest terms in writing. Non-fiction means being factual. Creative means using imagination. Isn’t that a conflict?


At one end, you have textbooks, how-to books, academic and professional work of every sort. In areas like this, factual expertise and clarity matters hugely. Imaginative writing and creative insight may actually get in the way.

At the other end of the non-fiction writing game, you have some genuinely creative areas. Travel writing is one. Memoir and biography can be another. Factual reconstruction of particular historical episodes another. If you want to read a non-fiction book that reads exactly like a novel, then try Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s completely true. But it reads like a novel. Capote, in fact, called it a non-fiction novel. It’s famous partly because of its genre-bending format.

You can also find historians writing quite creatively (try Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings). And some of our own clients have used our help to achieve bestselling success in the memoir category, if you look for John Fenton’s Please Don’t Make Me Go, or Barbara Tate’s amazing West End Girls. Both these books had the freshness and creativity of novels.

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If you’re keen to write creative non-fiction, then you need to acquire a novelist’s skills but deploy them to your own factual ends. You can get a real quick survey of the core novelist’s tools on this blog. You can get a more in-depth guide to those skills by browsing our full set of writing resources. Either way, the core of creative writing in non-fiction is to create immediacy, to get close to character and to the drama of the unfolding moment.

Using web-based resources is a good first step on the path to writing successful non-fiction, but it’s only a first step. Other bits of advice would be:

  • Read a lot. You won’t succeed in non-fiction unless you know the market you’re trying to write for.
  • Take a course. It’s one thing learning from books. It’s quite another getting personal feedback from a top tutor as you start to develop your skills. Courses these days can be quite cheap and can be done from home, so it’s not the hassle that it once used to be. We offer some brilliant courses, so check them out here. Depending on exactly what you’re writing, you may even find that a ‘how to write a novel’ course will be the right one for your particular project – but if in doubt, just ask.
  • Start writing and get help. Finally – crucially – the only way you’ll learn how to write better is to start writing. Just get stuck in. You’ll learn masses simply by plunging in. Then, once you’ve got a good chunk of the manuscript written, you can get expert feedback on what you’ve done – what works, what doesn’t work, what you need to do to fix it. Using that support wisely can make all the difference between a book that publishers love, and one that just accumulates rejection letters.

And whatever your project, good luck!

Other areas of interest

Writing a book for the first time (tips you need)

Writing a book for the first time - how to get started

Writing a book for the first time (tips you need)



If you’re writing a book for the first time, it’s good to have the tips you need in one place. Here are our advice pages on all aspects of novel-writing.


How to have ideas and inspiration



Nothing is harder to come by than inspiration, and it’s not enough to be inspired, you need a concept a publisher is also likely to get excited by.

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Story, plot and pacing




Character



Any good story needs strong, convincing characters to populate it. Even if you’re writing a true story (a memoir, for example), you need to bring your characters to life on the page. Here’s how to do it:


how to get started writing a book for the first time

Prose style and editing your work



Sentences need to matter as much to you as paint does to a painter. And remember that good writing is usually good re-writing, so be prepared to put in the hours.

Our guides:


Next steps



Have we remembered to mention that writing a book for the first time is quite hard?

Help is at hand, if you need it from us.

  • Get editorial feedback on your work. We work with partial manuscripts, as well as complete ones.
  • Try a writing course. Our courses are online, so you’ll be able to work around commitments.
  • Come to our events like the Festival of Writing to meet literary agents in person and pitch your manuscript. Signing up to our mailing lists you’ll be first to hear announcements.

More on how to write a book

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15 Common Novel Writing Mistakes (Beginner Writers Beware!)

common novel writing mistakes

The 15 Most Common Novel Writing Mistakes – And How To Avoid Them

If you’re a beginner writer, then you have to read this. We tell you what the most common mistakes are – how bad they are – and how to fix ’em!



We see a lot of novels here, many hundreds each year. And our writers are an admirable, successful bunch.


We’ve had years of experiences, lots of time spent understanding what agents wants and what they really, really don’t.

It all adds up to a pretty good idea of the most common novel writing mistakes made by newer writers as they set out to write their first novel.

Oh, and we’re going to talk a lot about mistakes in this post – but please don’t think we have anything other than total respect for new writers. I’m Harry Bingham, and I am now a successful author with a ton of novels and other books behind me. I’ve been commercially successful and the mistakes that we’re going to talk about here? Well, luckily for me, I don’t make them any more.

But I did.

My first novel?

Not too bad, actually, by first novel standards. But I still deleted the first 60,000 words of the first draft, because those words just weren’t good enough.

My second novel?

A total, utter, ocean-going, gold-plated, forty-eight carat disaster of a book.

That one made most of the mistakes we’re going to talk about here . . . and was so bad, I deleted it. So my second published novel is really the third novel that I actually sat down and wrote.

No exaggeration. It was that bad.

Anyhow. That’s my confession out of the way. And, like I say, we take our hats off and say, ‘Nice writing, ma’am. Good on you, sir.’ to anyone at all who has the guts to write and complete a novel.

But you want to know which mistakes our editorial team sees most frequently? They’re the ones we gonna talk about right now.

What follows is a checklist of which mistakes are most often made and, more importantly, what to do about them.

To make it more interesting, we’ve taken a stab at guesstimating how many manuscripts commit these errors, giving them a howler rating according to how hard they are to fix.

So draw a deep breath, and take courage.
As Neil Gaiman said, ‘if you’re making mistakes,
it means you’re out there doing something’.

We like that.

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1. A terrible concept



Some concepts just don’t work.

An ‘educational’ novel for Young Adults with reams of explanation about climate science stuffed into a creaky plot. A book for adults that features the life history of the author’s parrot. A sad story about a woman’s not-very-terrible mid-life crisis that ends with her deciding to work part-time and take up baking. None of these books stand a chance of interesting an agent. (Well, okay, if they were handled by an out-and-out genius, perhaps, but almost no one is.)

The stats of doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): *****

Comment:
You can’t fix this error. You must start again. Get help on your elevator pitch, or just firkle out some new and better ideas.


2. A book that doesn’t ramp it up enough



Surprisingly, this is something we see a lot. Thrillers that don’t quite thrill. Comedies that don’t really make you laugh. Romances that aren’t all that poignant or stimulating. Literary fiction which doesn’t really dazzle. And you can’t be so-so about these things. If agents and editors are faced with a choice, and yours isn’t the more thrilling thriller, which do you think they’ll pick?

Short message: Ramp it up.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-20%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

Comment:
You can fix it in theory, and with a lot of work, but sometimes it’s better just to pick a better idea – say if your story isn’t exciting you enough to make it exciting for others.


3. A manuscript that’s written for a different era



Agatha Christie, Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson … these are big selling authors, so if you write like them, you’ll get sales like them, right?

Well, no. Those guys wrote for the market as it was when they got started. They dominate that market – both subject-wise and era-wise.

Unless you know your era very well, as well as do something distinctively new, there is no reason why agents, editors or readers should favour your book. It’s the same with books trying to reprise the 1980s comedies of Tom Sharpe. Or YA authors rewriting Stephenie Meyer, not noticing there’s been quite a lot of vampire-lit since Twilight.

Just don’t do it. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, it’s as well to write for the world as it is now.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-5%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

Comment:
This error is all but unfixable in truth, unless you’ve written exceptionally well. Sorry!


4. A manuscript with no discernible USP



Your USP. Your ‘Unique Selling Point’.

Sometimes, a manuscript only ticks the boxes. It’s a love story with genuine warmth. It feels contemporary. The writing is fine, and perhaps it’ll be top of an agent’s slushpile – but you need to be in the top nought-point-something-percent of that pile to get taken on, and what that’ll tip the balance in your favour is usually an angle, a concept, a pitch that’s immediately captivating.

A tale, for instance, about a time-traveller’s wife? I want to read more. I’d pick up The Time-Traveller’s Wife.

Or a fostered child in Nazi Germany, stealing censored books and visited by death? The Book Thief is an original take in children’s fiction, on a troubling, much-visited subject.

If your book doesn’t an original concept, it’ll hamper the search for an agent – but we’ve clues on building a strong elevator pitch you can read for that.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-30%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

Comment:
It’s a lot of work, but you can fix this. Usually, you need to take some already-extant aspect of the novel, and simply push it further than you’ve so far dared to go. Or you can take some totally new element and ram it in. (So Stephenie Meyer took ordinary teenage angsty-romance lit and rammed into it with a vampire story. Wow! Brilliant collision. The results were . . . well, you know damn well what they were. A global multimedia phenomenon.)

In short: you have to think big and bold to solve this issue. It will be a lot of work though. Tinkering-type solutions will not be the fix. Get better ideas.


5. Lousy presentation



Manuscripts written in purple ink? With awful spelling or weird fonts? And punctuation that forgot to turn up for work?

This is less common than folklore would have you believe, partly because computers and spellcheckers eliminate egregious faults. Nevertheless, tell-tale clues can often be enough.

Let’s suppose I were an agent, and I received a manuscript, and that manuscript had loads of run-on sentences, which is where you have independent sentences separated by commas rather than full stops, and if I was quite busy, maybe I would think I had better things to do than read any further.

If you were the author, you might be quite upset that I never got past the first page – so give yourself the best chance of ensuring this doesn’t happen.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Comment:
On the one hand, punctuation is simple to fix. A problem is that poor punctuation is often allied to sloppy prose, which takes a lot more work. Both things matter. If you are sure that your prose and story are fine, but know you need input on presentational matters, you could think about copy-editing, but be careful. Most manuscripts don’t need copy-editing, just better writing. Manuscript presentation help here.


most common mistakes in writing a novel

6. Lack of clarity in prose



The first job of your prose is easy. It needs to convey meaning, clearly and succinctly. Your meaning must always be clear. When you use pronouns (‘it’, ‘she’, ‘he’, etc), it must be clear who or what is being referred to. Don’t use ‘dangling modifiers’. Your reader needs to know where they are and when, and what’s happening (unless, of course, you are being deliberately mysterious). This is simple and so basic, but not all manuscripts achieve success.

Simple message here: you are seeking to make a living as a professional writer, so the basic quality of your writing has to be good enough. There are no shortcuts here.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 5-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ** to ****

Comment:
Sometimes, a rigorous line edit is all that’s needed, but sometimes sloppy prose equals sloppy thinking, harder to address. In truth, I think it’s very rare that a novel with genuinely poor writing will ever be lifted to a place where it can be effectively published. (And that’s true even if you’re aiming at self-publishing. The standards of both routes are much the same these days, as in the end the readers call the shots.) Learn how to write better prose.


7. Writing is not economical



Most writers don’t think enough about making every sentence as economical as it can reasonably be. Very few books can bear too much verbiage, so prune, then prune again. Be ruthless. If you haven’t cut at least 10,000 words from your manuscript by the time it comes to editing, you haven’t really tried.

We’ve had many beginner novelists offer us manuscripts that needed to lose 30,000 words or more. What we always try to communicate is that they can probably lose that level of word count without actually losing any content.

Like if you have a 12 word sentence that could be written just as well as in only 9 words, you’re not losing content, you’re just removing surplus. Likewise, we’ve seen descriptions of (say) a North African street market which were kinda great, but involved 6 descriptive sentences. Those 6 would probably work more powerfully, if you just picked the 3 best images/sentences and went with those. The reader would actually end up with more sense of the place, not less. And so on.

The short message: be more brutal with your work than you currently think possible. Your work will love you back and give you a great big kiss once you’re done. Learn how to edit a book.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 30-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): * to ****

Comment:
Again, sometimes a good edit is all that’s needed, as long as sloppy prose doesn’t equal sloppy thinking.


8. Writing is over-the-top



Before I started editing manuscripts, I just didn’t know this was an issue, but it really is. We get so many manuscripts that are just loaded with extremities – scream, agony, torture, yelling, misery, overwhelm, fury, all on the first page – sometimes even all in the first paragraph.

Of course, strong language is vital, as is emotion resonance, but you need to be careful, to moderate its use. A surprising number of first-time novels just cram too much all in on page one, then carry on cramming. Nuance is key.

Short message: gently does it. Lead with the character and the story situation. Oblique is better than direct.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 1-3%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Comment:
It’s easy to fix in theory, so long as these issues aren’t deeper than just poor word choice. Again, the root cause is quite often that a first-time writer isn’t properly in contact with his characters and that can be a harder issue to fix.

(Oh, and did you pick up on my non-gender neutral ‘he’ just then? Yep, well, most of our editorial clients are women, but the people who most often make this mistake are men. And by “most often” I mean “90% or more”. Sorry, lads, but it’s true!) Strangely, a good way to write a book with good emotional texture is to really work at your dialogue – the two things often go together. You just can’t write strong dialogue, unless you have a tight handle on what your characters are feeling moment to moment. Our dialogue tips here.


9. Clichés abound



Full-on clichés are (thank goodness) relatively rare in manuscripts we read. We don’t read many ‘wet blankets’, or ‘sick as a dog’ instances, but cliché is so often more insidious than just those howlers. You can have passionate, flame-haired girl. Or scenes of domestic bliss that involve log fires. Or villains who are steely-eyed. A cliché is anything which makes us feel we’ve read this before … and, sorry to say, in that broader sense, we see a lot of these in manuscripts.

Short message: any kind of cliche starts to kill the reader’s absorption in your story. Very soon you will lose that reader completely.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 20-50%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst):** to ****

Comment:
Once you’ve identified a phrase, character or plot device, it’s simple (if time-consuming) to fix. It’s finding the things that’s pesky.


10. Points of view are mishandled



We read a lot of work where one character is thinking and feeling something … then, suddenly, we’re in the head of some completely different character, sharing their thoughts and emotions. And obviously, it is okay to move about between characters, but this transition must be properly handled (normally by moving properly out of one head, before moving into the next). Our colleague, Emma Darwin, has some good advice to follow, but when those transitions aren’t correctly handled, you cause giddiness, confusion in the reader, and are at risk of causing rejection letters to come a-fluttering to your doormat.

Short message: keep control over your points of view. One simple rule to follow is: one point of view per chapter. More sophisticated writers can mess about with that rule but if you’re unsure – just follow it! If you want the real ins-and-outs of point of view, you can get a very detailed guide here.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Comment:
Very fixable, but normally a slew of changes will flow from any initial set of corrections.

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Make the hardest part of writing easier


11. Descriptions absent or bland



We’ve read novels where all action seems to take place in a white and featureless void, where any description is bland or muted. Readers want to be transported to a different world. So transport them. Descriptive writing is actually essential to this goal.

We’ve got some great advice on how write descriptively right here. The techniques involved are suprisingly easy . . . and they can deliver an amazing lift to the novel. More than you think.

Sometimes, however, if a novel lacks emotional punch, it’s not to do with the descriptions – but an absence of drama on the page. In such cases, the issue is nearly always to do with the author telling the reader about the action, rather than just showing us the action as it happens. Too much telling will kill a novel stone dead, and you can’t let that happen to yours. Here’s all you need on show vs tell, in case you need a refresher.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): **

Comment:
Easily fixed, just make sure weak descriptions aren’t masking a broader problem with prose style.


Intermission: Do you need help?

New writers make these mistakes because writing novels is HARD. But we can help – and save you huge amounts of wasted time.



Writing a novel is hard.

Writing a novel for the first time is harder.

Writing a novel for the first time and making sure that your novel is strong enough to be published – well, that’s one heck of a goal to set yourself.

It’s OK to find this tough.
It’s OK – actually sensible – to get help

So, take that sense of place issue, for example. Are you sure you’ve got that right? We’ve got a brilliant video on that exact topic (that also gives you a genius technique for adding a whole layer of richness to your novel.)

Or ask yourself: are you really sure that the basic idea for your novel is strong enough? We’ve got a video on that too.

Or prose writing and cliche? How confident are you there? Well, we don’t have one video on those topics – we’ve got three and they’re crazy good.

You can see some of our sample testimonials here (scroll about 2/3 of the way down), but they say things like:

“Hugely inspiring”

“A breath of fresh air”

“Extremely useful”

“Almost entirely focused on practical application . . .
it encourages and inspires the user to make extremely constructive improvements to their work.”

But there’s going to be a catch, right?

Well, sort of. There is and there isn’t.

This (super-premium, 17 video) course is pretty expensive to buy outright.

So don’t buy it. Simple. Save your money.

Because as a member of Jericho Writers, you get full, free, unrestricted access to that course.

Oh, yes, and all our other video courses. And our filmed masterclasses. And our Cinema. And our Townhouse community. And so much else as well.

And membership of Jericho Writers:

  • Is low cost
  • Is cancel-any-time.
    You can literally sign up, and cancel in the same day, and still enjoy the single month’s membership you paid for. We hope you don’t do that, but if you just want to spend one intensive month using our materials, that’s fine with us. Whatever works for you.
  • Is absolutely stuffed with benefits, and we’re adding more all the time
  • Was developed for writers exactly like you.
    We’ve had over ten years serving writers like you and we’ve got hundreds of them published. We’d love to help you too. We’re sure we can do it.

That’s a crazy-good deal, right? I certainly hope so, at least, because when we developed the whole membership concept, the basic brief to ourselves was, “Let’s just build the writing club of our dreams. Let’s make that thing happen, then charge as little as we possibly can.”

So that’s what we did.

Id love it if you chose to learn more about membership, or just say what the heck, I wanna sign up.

But if that’s not right for you now, sit tight, and we’ll review the last common mistakes that writers make when they write their #1 novel.


12. Unliterary literary writing



We get plenty of ‘literary’ novels. Literary fiction still relies on a wonderful plot or a stunning premise to hook its audience, and if you want your novel to sell as a ‘literary’ one, it has to be flawlessly written. Basic competence is not enough: you must demonstrate something more.

If you don’t read a lot of literary fiction (Pulitzer / Booker Prize type work), then you are probably not writing it either.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 10-30% (of literary novels)

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Comment:
You need to pay careful attention to prose style, but this exercise is usually manageable. You just need to care, a lot, and make sure that you take care with every sentence you write.


13. What happened to the plot?



Strange, but true. Some writers complete an entire novel without really knowing what their story is. And stories don’t create themselves. We’ve got some great (free) advice on plotting here – with further help on plotting and making use of the snowflake method to plan things out – but needless to say our video writing course has got three beefy and important videos on that exact topic. This is an issue you just have to get write, irrespective of what genre you choose to write in.

If you do have a plot, but the book still seems saggy, then revisit the above on economy in writing. Cutting is the answer to many a writing ill.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ****

Comment:
A strong story matters in all genres, and for debut novelist especially. Jane Austen, Shakespeare et al. aren’t above plots, so you’re not either.


14. Unbelievable or bland characters



Sometimes, everything seems to be moving along all right in technical terms. Story, check; descriptions, check; prose style, check. Still, somehow, a manuscript is failing to connect with its readers.

It’s often because the central character(s) aren’t really showing up for work, and that in turn is usually because you, the author, don’t yet know them sufficiently – almost as though you don’t trust your imagination to feel out the limits of the people you’re writing about.

We’ve got some simple free advice right here, but our best stuff is in our writing course. Three fat videos on this one crucial topic.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? 3-10%

Howler rating (5 stars is worst): ***

Comment:
Poor characterisation is easy enough to fix, albeit there’s some work involved. Often the issue is just that a writer was so busy constructing the novel’s plot / settings / research underpinnings etc that they couldn’t handle the additional act of characterisation too. If that’s the issue, then the advice is just, “Time for Draft #2”


15. You haven’t really finished your novel



Yes, we know – you’ve reached the final full stop – but when you reach that milestone, you are perhaps, if you’re lucky, halfway done.

Many novels – even ones accepted by an agent – need to be reworked, re-edited and reworked again. That’s how they get better and why all professional authors work closely with a professional editor, supplied via their publisher. You mightn’t yet have that vital support and advice from publishers, but you can get editorial feedback from consultancies like ours. We’ll check your manuscript for any structural weaknesses.

We also run a unbelievably good self-editing course so that you can develop your own editorial skills. Astonishingly, about 1 in 6 of our graduates from that course have gone on to be published. And there are more popping through the pipeline every month. It’s an extraordinary course. It always sells out. And you should grab it when you can.

The Stats of Doom

How many manuscripts make this mistake? Hard to say!

Comment:
Agents reject 999 in 1,000 manuscripts, so arguably 999 people are sending work out too soon. Explore what editorial feedback may offer or – an easy, low cost, do-it-now option – just sign up for membership of Jericho Writers. We’ll genuinely be delighted to welcome you on board.

In the meantime – everyone – happy writing, and good luck!

Other areas of interest

Free plotting worksheets



Make the hardest part of writing easier


Literary Agents for young adult fiction

How to learn the market for YA fiction

literary agents for young adult fiction

How to learn the market for YA fiction



Something to be conscious of as a fiction writer is the market for which you write. Young Adult (or YA) fiction isn’t a genre, but it’s a defined label in publishing, typically considered for readers aged 12-18, though this too is fluid.


Since the publication of titles like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, YA is a term you need to know if you’d like to write for a teenage audience, as well as convince literary agents and publishers that you can.

The most important thing is to always read debuts in your genre, and for the age you’d like to write for. These are the books publishers are looking for.

Whilst it’s true publishing trends will always shift, books read by your ideal ‘audience’ are evidently the books they enjoy, so it pays (literally) to be conscious of them.

Read on for our top tips on how to learn about the YA market and write for this age group.

Free plotting worksheets



Make the hardest part of writing easier


Step 1: Write your own trendsetter



It pays to be aware of trends and the market, if only so you can buck them a little.

This is a balance, however.

Readers of The Bookseller can see regular updates on new UK book deals, and every spring, may espy annual coverage of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, with ample talk and speculation of what’s hot and selling as foreign printing rights are bought and sold. There will always guaranteed be a sentence or two on trends, on what publishers of Middle Grade or Young Adult books are hunting for.

It’s as well to be conscious of trends, but what’s trendy will soon be outdated. If you’re still writing, a hot topic now could be obsolete by the time you’ve finished your novel.

Trends move fast, and a single book can also change things.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight happened to be a YA phenomenon, but the ensuing paranormal romances ‘competing’ for attention with Twilight blurred a little into one another, even as the tide continued and anticipated the rise of dystopian fiction, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and so on.

The lesson of all this is to try and present an idea (even an old idea) authentically. Vampires have been written about before and Bram Stoker’s titular Dracula preying upon Lucy Westenra laid the founding of an established trope. Twilight just happened to hit a certain chord for its readership and this at once predicated and, in so doing, slightly nullified its trend.

So be careful and cautious of trends, since these can be a double-edged sword. Trends are transient, they escalate and subsist again.

Whilst it pays to know your audience and what’s in the bookshops, to be conscious of the books teenagers are drawn to and reflect on why this is the case, bear in mind trendsetter-novels aren’t necessarily the books you want to compete with. Satiated trends mean a saturated book market (for the time being).

Even if you’re ahead of the bookshops, trying to keep up with publishing news and new book deals, what you know now won’t be the thing your writing can keep up with.

You’ll need to write your own trendsetter.


Step 2: Read, read, read YA fiction



That said, read around and shop as much as you can for YA fiction, obvious or intuitive as this may sound. Your novel can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s no good disregarding what your audience is reading now, so know YA books to know your audience.

You’ll need to write in this subtle tension, conscious of taste in YA, of past commercial successes, making your novel similar enough and yet entirely original.  You must create a book that fits into the market.

Read around the sort of thing already out there you’d like to write, too. It’s not that vampire-human romances hadn’t been written about before Stephenie Meyer’s Bella and Edward. It’s not that Greek gods hadn’t been written about before Percy Jackson and the Olympians from Rick Riordan. It’s been observed how similar J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower are, etc.

You’ll want your book to fit with a canon of similar stories, without just writing ‘copies’ of things done before.

YA novels like Beauty by Robin McKinley, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas or Uprooted by Naomi Novik share links to Beauty and the Beast, but each of those books is still unique. The same is true of books like Ash by Malinda Lo or Cinder by Marissa Meyer, with ties to Cinderella.

It’s just that an old idea was reworked by an author in new ways.

So learn what teenagers like, then read what they like. (If you’re not sure, look up book blogs like The Mile-Long Bookshelf.) How does your novel compare to the YA books you’ve found? How do you feel your own work will be judged?

It’s also worth noting that it pays to read contemporary YA fiction. Classical lyricism and verbosity needn’t concern you so much as writing a resonant, gripping story to hook modern readers.

There have been various game-changers in fiction-publishing for young people. Melvin Burgess’ Junk (or Smack in the US) was one. The book won the Carnegie Prize and Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in the UK in 1996. Whilst its subject (heroin addiction) caused ripples of shock, Junk paved the way to an increasingly mandatory style of authentic, honest, raw writing that’s now commonplace in YA publishing.

The success of Junk among its readers, with its prize-winning status, changed perceptions and sent publishers a message.

What’s needed in successful YA fiction is resonant, emotional experience teenage readers can connect with.


Step 3: Know your subject (and write sensitively about it)


If you’re also thinking of writing on a possibly more controversial topic, explore sensitively and with all due research. Don’t just write to shock. Write to be poignant, and so to connect.

The Fault in our Stars by John Green caused a stir when it was accused of being ‘sick lit’ (a pair of terminally ill teenagers fall in love). Whilst its subject seemed to ‘shock’ some adults, its poignancy that so stirred readers nullifies these sorts of ‘grown-up’ objections.

Who cares?

The Fault in our Stars isn’t a shocking novel. It’s a moving one. It’s been adapted for film, its catch-lines passing into contemporary language via its readership. (‘Okay?’ ‘Okay.’)

Melvin Burgess has shared how his novel Junk, about teenage drug addiction, has been life-changing for some teenage readers, but it’s important to note Melvin Burgess knew his setting. He knew these emotional landscapes.

More recently, Lisa Williamson wrote a resonant transgender protagonist in her YA novel The Art of Being Normal, though she herself is cisgender, but she’s spent time working for the UK’s Gender Identity Development Service. She brought her experiences to her writing.

Bear in mind, though, LGBT+ is not its own separate genre or subgenre, nor should fiction be defined by country or ethnicity, as still per some bookstores.

Patrick Ness’ novel More than This features protagonist Seth, who is gay, but this is incidental to its main plot and it’s okay for this to be the case. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a high-school love story between a Korean boy and an American girl, and sometimes it need only be this simple.

You needn’t write clunkily to make a point.

As Rainbow Rowell herself has said:

“Why is Park Korean?” The first time I was asked that question, three or four months ago, I had a pretty short answer: “Because Park is Korean.” … Because Park was always Korean. Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.

Only by writing sensitively and incidentally can writers help make sure all sorts of characters become unquestioned players of mainstream fiction, not sectioned by ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or anything else.

Everyone, everything, should be mainstream, especially in YA publishing.

Teenagers, who will be faster than adults to question norms and pick up on injustices, should be catered to in the novels they read and not be defrauded in this respect.

Appreciate and accommodate for diversity in your own YA writing.

It’s good also to have first-hand experience of what you’re writing, but if not, the importance of empathy and careful research to create an authentic emotional experience can’t be stressed enough.


Step 4: Know your audience (and keep prose authentic)


This is important. You must know your audience. You can’t write about living in a teenage character’s shoes unless you know teenagers well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write about and to.

YA readers will be looking for experiences outside their own, looking for ways to challenge and break rules, and will be (strongly) averse to feeling patronised or educated in fiction. Write about being a teenager, and never write to educate.

Again – to best do this, read and read up on YA novels that are doing well.

Respecting ‘voice’, too, author Joan Aiken has also observed adolescents are ‘lightning-quick to spot hypocrisy or artificiality’. Never patronise and never attempt a ‘coolness’ that can’t sound organic, at home and natural in your first-person narratives.

An inauthentic teenage voice will destroy your book before it ever reaches a literary agent. This offers a good reason YA fiction should be taken seriously.

A manuscript assessment can also certainly give you invaluable editorial feedback with insights into the commercial perspective that drives YA publishing, and to harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in YA fiction.

Happy writing!

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How to learn the market for Middle Grade (MG) fiction

How to learn the market for Middle Grade (MG) fiction



How aware are you of the market you’re writing for? Despite the MG label being reserved for readers aged 8-12, defining Middle Grade literature is tricky.


Many young gifted readers will move out of picture books and onto Middle Grade fiction before aged 8. Other readers aged 12 or older still happily peruse Middle Grade books.

This is no ‘one size fits all’ age group. (Just as for adults, there’s no ‘correct’ genre, only taste.) Books are all being tested, tried out, at Middle Grade. This outlines some things worth remembering if you’d like to write for the loose label of this age range.

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1: Read all the Middle Grade fiction you can – and make sure it’s relevant



Read the popular fiction you know is being read now by this age group.

Perhaps you’ve heard of L.M. Montgomery or Lewis Carroll, Anne of Green Gables or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but have you heard of Jeff Kinney, author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers,  or R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder?

If not, and you want to write for MG readers, start learning these popular authors writing in the market today. Begin reading their books, especially, the sorts of books you’d like to be writing yourself.

Children aren’t hypocrites, and they won’t wait for pace to pick up or give a book a chance if they’re not gripped immediately. Agents, publishers, librarians – the curators and ‘gatekeepers’ of children’s’ fiction – will be thinking along these lines.

You’ll need to know what books prospective readers are reading, so understand these titles to understand your audience. Popular books are reflective of tastes. What common themes are there? Which characters seem to appeal, and which common elements do you sense are enjoyed, and which could you emulate yourself?

You’ll need your novel similar enough and yet entirely original. You must create a book that fits into the market, but is different enough to pique readers’ curiosities.

There are many books published about animals, for instance, like The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, or The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse.

There are many books about dragons, like Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, or The Dragons of Kilve Court by Beth Webb, to name a few more.

If you are writing a book about dragons, animals, or anything else, how will you differentiate your story and make it authentic, whilst still similarly appealing to all these books readers enjoy?

It’s a difficult balance to find, but reading currently popular Middle Grade titles will help.


2: Engage with complexity



Certain tropes – animal stories, fairy stories – will likely hold appeal always and be revisited by authors and publishers time and again. All the same, don’t take this to feel that anything will do, or that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. It isn’t.

As Joan Aiken, author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has said, a good children’s book ‘should not be perfunctory, meaningless, flat.’ Again, reading and developing your awareness of the market is key. Look for richness.

Whilst some children will always be more sensitive than others, most can handle the thrills and scares of MG fiction. Yours aren’t picture book readers, where any darker elements need to be sillier, funnier for very small children to read about.

The success of books like Lauren Oliver’s Liesl and Po, or Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book shows that MG readers are often braver than adults may credit. In Liesl and Po, Liesl is held captive in her attic room, whilst The Graveyard Book’s macabre premise is set chiefly in a cemetery and about an orphan raised by ghosts, yet is still moving and punctured with hilarity.

You’ll need to (gently) indicate to these children the world isn’t simplistic. Your readers are flexing and growing their imaginations.

Jacqueline Wilson is just one writer exploring children’s issues sensitively through the eyes of her characters; like Andy facing parents’ divorce in The Suitcase Kid, Mandy facing bullies in Bad Girls, or Tracey facing foster care in The Story of Tracey Beaker. The voices of her protagonists are authentic, her stories never condescending.

‘If I write about a problem, I’d like to find some solutions,’ Wilson has said of her fiction. She shares hope.

There’s no need to worry you’ll be dampening moods by engaging with complexity, either. You might be writing the book someone needs. Children look for literature tying in with their experiences, as well as exploring new experiences outside their own. A book could just help change a life.

Alternatively, engage in pure, unbridled imagination to enhance and help build children’s imaginative faculties, like Haroun leaving this world on the back of a mechanical bird in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, or Colin Meloy’s Prue and Curtis discovering Wildwood.

Whatever you write, you should always find means to convey that the world is a sprawling, dark and complex place. Children are growing, but they’re tough, sharper than some adults allow, and this audience mustn’t be underestimated.

3: Leave room for diversity



Whilst there are topics which might not be appropriate for younger children, there’s no need to render books didactic, and many things are writable for younger audiences if they’re written with grace and deftness.

Again, to have an idea of what this deftness may look like, you’ll have to read around.

Read David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin, or The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman. Children needn’t grow up with adult prejudices, biases that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t occur to them. Another means of handling issues, of course, is to dress them up in fantasy.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are the only clear Middle Grade titles of J.K. Rowling’s series. The series, from an early point, has helped increase tolerance in young readers, dealing frequently  with the stigmas attached unfairly to groups (i.e. to Muggles, and to house-elves in the case of Dobby and the Malfoys).

These themes are implicit early on, unpacked later; but at the close of the second book, Harry has compassion on Dobby, rescuing him with ‘clothes’.

Stories can therefore lay the foundations of empathy and acceptance in the real world – and this is a big thought.

You have some responsibility as a writer. Beware overt morals, beware didacticism, and write a story with implicit themes that explores, questions, shines a light and encourages contemplation. (Yes, they’re young. They can handle it.)

4: Remember what children are reading for



Know your audience. You can’t write about living in a child’s shoes unless you know or can remember well. If you can’t remember or don’t care, find someone else to write for.

Middle Grade readers are reading to explore, to flex imagination, and to discover the world. They’ll be open to new worlds and dynamic characters, to hilarity and thrills, adventure and enchantment. Write to appease these traits and to open minds (as opposed to informing them, unless you’re writing non-fiction, which is very different).

If you need more advice on your novel, a manuscript assessment can give you invaluable feedback with insights into commercial perspective driving Middle Grade publishing. It’ll help you harness your own voice in a way that sounds both raw and compelling in Middle Grade fiction.

Or for more encouragement and inspiration, take a look at more free advice.

Happy writing!

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Story structure

How to write beginnings, middles and ends

How to write beginnings, middles and ends



This meditation on story structure in the novel comes from William Kowalski, author of Eddie’s Bastard, The Hundred Hearts and other novels. The excerpt is taken from his ebook/PDF, Writing for First Time Novelists. The full text of that ebook can be downloaded for free here.


If you’ve ever taken a class on literary theory, or read any amount of literary criticism, likely you will have heard the term “narrative arc”. It’s also likely you will have heard a large number of other literary terms as well, but you will find that I don’t concern myself with them in this book, because they are of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever.

If I felt it would make me a better writer, I would do nothing but talk about literary theory all day long. But I have always felt that literary theory makes me a worse writer, in the sense that it makes me more self-conscious and worried about whether my work stands up to a set of academic standards. I think fiction began to die the day it became the property of academia, and I hope it will wriggle free one day and escape into the wild again. Until then, I just keep typing.

Literary theory may describe literature, but mastering it will not make you a better writer, any more than studying Newton’s laws of motion will make you a better baseball player. I write by instinct, not by a set of rules.

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There are some aspects of basic literary theory that are important for any writer to know, but they needn’t be obfuscated by the sorts of complicated terms people typically use to make themselves sound more important. You really only need to know a handful of concepts. Of these, narrative arc is probably the most important, from a story-telling point of view. So what does it mean?

All it means is this: Your story needs a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and each part needs to measure up to a different set of standards in order to be considered successful. In addition, there is the symbiosis that takes place when all parts are working together perfectly to create something that is far greater than their sum. This is when we say that a book comes alive in your hands. You can feel it happening, both as a reader and a writer. It’s quite miraculous, and it can’t always be planned. In fact, it is rarely accomplished on purpose.


Beginnings



The beginning of a book should immerse us in your world right away. Don’t be coy about it, and don’t be disingenuous, either. Tell us what we need to know to make sense of things. Use plenty of detail. We want to get a nice feel for the setting, and we want to be as impressed by your characters as we are by meeting people in real life. When I say impressed, I don’t mean we should think they are great. I mean they should literally impress themselves upon us, through all the senses (except, perhaps, taste).

Your beginning should also give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know where just yet, although we should know before page 50 or so… say, about three chapters in. This is usually the amount of pages an agent or editor will ask to read when they are trying to make up their mind about a book. The reason for this is simple: if your beginning hasn’t hooked them, it probably won’t hook other readers either, and they will put the book down and move on.

Many people will tell you that you need to be even more immediate with your grasp, and that your very first paragraph needs to be arresting, amazing, startling, and unlike anything anyone has ever read before. That’s a pretty tall order. While I am all in favor of strong writing, I have to say that this particular approach to fiction strikes me as something that has evolved in order to compete with film and television. Books were never meant to do this. Novels are for people who are in it for both the journey and the destination, and they’re in no hurry; it’s not necessary to begin your tale with dramatic action in order to hook us. Hook us, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with a book that unfolds gradually, as opposed to one that begins with an explosion, and leaves us to watch the fallout for the next three or four hundred pages.

Middles



If the first 50 pages can be said to be the beginning of a book, then from page 51 up until about maybe thirty pages from the end can be called the middle. The middle is the longest part of any book, just like a chess game’s longest part is the mid-game. This is where all the stuff happens. Nearly everything that is memorable about a book will take place here.

The worst thing that can be said about the middle of a book is that it sags or falls flat. Have you ever seen the St. Louis Arch?

This is the image that always comes to my mind whenever I hear anyone talk about story arc. What if it was to sag? What would it look like then? It would fail at its most basic task, which was simply to arc. If your story sags in the middle, it means that things are not moving along at the same pace they were at the beginning. Readers are growing bored. Something went wrong somewhere.

One simple rule I follow is this: something must happen on every page. Something – no matter how small or seemingly insignificant – must happen always be happening. When things stop happening, that’s when your story runs into trouble.

A story is not as symmetrical as the arch in the picture, of course. The apex of the arc, which we usually call the climax, is actually much closer to the end than the beginning. The whole middle builds up to that climax.

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Endings



And then, of course, comes the last important piece: the ending.

I’ve always secretly resented it that a story has to contain anything, just like it’s always annoyed me that an 80’s-era rock song has to contain a guitar solo. It feels formulaic to me, and when I was younger I really despised anything that smacked of formula. But over time, I’ve learned that stories tend to follow a certain pattern for the same reason that every other aspect of literature exists: because that is what people respond to. This is rooted not in fascism or in the desire of one group to control another group, as my hyper-sensitive teenaged self believed, but in simple human psychology, which in turn has its roots in biology. Storytelling is one of the most important things people do.

To explore this, let’s take what is probably the oldest story of all: the story of a hunt.

Want more? Go get William’s free, full ebook Writing for First Time Novelists, by going here.

If you want more on plotting etc from this site, try our info on Plot, More about Plot, and How to Write Great Characters.

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How to chart your plot mountain or plot diagram

The Plot Mountain

What it is. How to chart it. How to find the right structure for your novel.



Plot structure is one of the trickiest and most vital things to get right in a story, but using the idea of a plot mountain can be a great way to solve your plot problems – and deliver a great experience for the reader.


Plot is loosely defined as a chain of events in a story – i.e. this happened, so that happened.

Notice that little word “so” – it means that Y happened, because X happened. That everything in your story is linked together, literally like links in a chain.

A linear, logical chain of events, though, isn’t all that exciting. You need a story arc – a plot mountain – to engage readers, to build tension and excitement.

Here’s what you need to know.

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Use a plot diagram for story momentum



A plot diagram (or plot mountain or story arc) will deliberately look like a triangle, with action and drama building to excite us before subsiding.

It mightn’t sound inspired. To most readers, a story is a living thing and you’re alive in those writers’ very dreamscapes.

Often, though, rules can help keep a writer on track. (And once understood, they can be bent and broken a little.)

Consider a plot mountain your roadmap for sustaining emotional momentum through the story – and let’s cover some points.


Plotting your foundations (your characters)



Any foundation for a good story is character.

It may veer on a cliché, but think of it as inverse pot-of-gold at the start of a rainbow. The more you bury early on, the more you can mine and dig up later over your plot mountain. Character is only the start of good plotting, but it is no less than that. The best stories are essentially character journeys.

Your protagonist will need to be human and compelling. Your protagonist will also be in need for a story arc to take place, so they must lack something. This is your foundation for a good story. Start here and think of both your character’s goal or goals, as well as your character’s motive(s).

This distinction between goal and motive is important.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter needs love and acceptance (motive), having grown up uncared for under his uncle and aunt’s roof. Then Hagrid appears and Harry ‘needs’ to escape to Hogwarts (goal). Harry’s goals change through the books (going to the Quidditch World Cup, winning the Triwizard Tournament). But his motivation is to fight throughout for peace and tolerance – and his overarching goal has evolved by the last book to be the death of Voldemort and peace for the wizarding community.

So map goal to motive as you plan for your character’s growth, their story arc and your plot structure – and take a look at our character building page for help, ditto how authentic characterisation is essential to help drive a plot forward.

Character needs may evolve as your hero or heroine grows, but goals and motive can’t be ‘illogical’ and cancel out the other (e.g. you write in a goal not in keeping with your character’s nature).

And remember any story is born out of your protagonist desiring something, rooted in overcoming weakness to get to a stronger new equilibrium. (We’ll get to this soon.)


Plotting your initiating incident



Having mapped out your foundation and novel beginnings, you can tie in your initiating incident. A good example might be Harry Potter receiving his Hogwarts letter. Out of the Cupboard under the Stairs, onto Hogwarts. And any initiating incident or call-to-action, no matter how over- or understated, must actually throw the character into a worse-off situation than the start in order to set your novel off on the right trajectory.

Story charts are called ‘story mountains’ in schools, after all, because stakes get higher and things need to get emotionally a lot tougher before they can wind down to a happy ending.

So the initiating incident you just kindled should spark drama. It should lead your protagonist into what we’ll (loosely) call a fraught setup where drama will unfold.

It looks as if Jon Snow’s going to the Night Watch will result in a quieter life than the trauma unfolding for his family in King’s Landing. Jon’s choice leads him to danger instead. And it looks as if Harry Potter will be safe at Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s watch. And it looks as if Jane Eyre will be settled and happy at Thornfield.

A good plot subverts such hope. Your drama builds from this.

The protagonist is placed, somehow, in some jeopardy that rivets us and pushes us to read more, so bear in mind your initiating incident carefully.

You’ll later need to subvert our sense of safety as you ‘bridge’ your way to your next plot points and remember your initiating incident should map back to earlier foundations (your character’s nature). Will they take up their call and be right for your plot structure and story arc?

Make sure it marries up to motive, with the person they are at heart. You need a protagonist to actively take this call-to-action up.

This is true even for reluctant heroes, i.e. Arthur Golden’s Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha or Suzanne Collins’ Katniss in The Hunger Games. Chiyo tries to run away at first, fails, but she finds other reasons to train as a Kyoto geisha and remain in her okiya. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games in her sister Prim’s place, with no choice but to fight to save her sister. Once she’s committed, she’ll fight to survive.

Some protagonists are more proactive and will create their own ‘call’, rather than fairy-godmother-summons. Jon Snow, for instance, opts to leave home and ‘take the black’ in A Game of Thrones. Jane Eyre is at first sent to school, then creates her ‘call’ because, bored years later, she advertises herself as a governess.

Whether your protagonist knows an initiating incident could lead them to danger (as Katniss does), they still can’t help taking up the mantle. They’ll always choose to take up the call, and so it always maps back to intrinsic needs. Katniss needs to save her sister because she couldn’t live with herself if not in The Hunger Games.

And the rest of your plot is about mounting drama and the protagonist reaching their end goal.


Creating plot development



Plot development’s where you get to wreak havoc and brew drama, the clouds and storms gathering up the plot mountain. So play with scenarios and ideas.

Be sure everything is done right when you edit your plot, keeping all that happens to your protagonist relevant and necessary, and don’t meander, but do get your ideas down. Plotting should be fun and, like a first draft, you can edit and hone as you go.

As Edgar Allan Poe wrote, ‘no [plot] part can be displaced without ruin to the whole.’

You also need here to accordingly sketch your antagonist (if not fleshed out yet), and they’ll compete for the same thing as your protagonist.

Yes, really.

According to storyteller John Truby in The Anatomy of Story, a good protagonist and antagonist compete for ‘which version of reality everyone will believe’.

Think of everyone in A Song of Ice and Fire vying for the Iron Throne. This is a story of many people believing they should rule – and George R.R. Martin’s multiple protagonists work as one another’s antagonists. Each has a version of reality they want to assert. And we’ve invested emotionally in all these characters and rivals, which is why A Song of Ice and Fire is so gripping.

Your story arc (or the bulk of it) is in fact about which reality will be established if your protagonist fails and the conflict resulting from this threat is the rising action. This is where your story tension, drama, poignancy and urgency will be born.

And there’s just no point in mismatching protagonist and antagonist, any more than you’d mismatch your love interest in a romance novel, if you want drama ensuing.

Create your character’s very antithesis, then.

Who’d be the worst antagonist for your protagonist to be faced with? Bring them to life. Which gifts would be the ultimate worst-case scenario for your protagonist to deal with? Give them those gifts. Make it personal and keep it human. This isn’t just about plot mechanics, either: a protagonist-antithesis means your character’s journey will end in real growth and change, that stakes will be heightened.

And a face often grips us more than a secret network, machine or monster. There are exceptions, i.e. Frankenstein’s Monster, or White Walkers, but there’s still a ‘humanness’ in really monstrous beings that makes them more sinister. Cersei Lannister is more ominous than Daenerys’ dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire. Cold Aunt Reed and petulant Blanche Ingram aren’t larger-than-life murderesses à la Cersei, but they’re larger-than-life threats to Jane Eyre and Jane’s hopes for happiness.

Bar a gripping (powerful, threatening) antagonist, there aren’t set rules for rising action, but a good story checklist of things to include could be:

  • Create your antagonist with care and add psychological ‘meat’ when setting up an opponent or supporting opponents, something for us to discover (their views, value set, etc.), and write in how something about them hinders your protagonist growing, flourishing, getting where they need to be;
  • Create ‘surprise reveal’ moments with care in your plot structure, sharing new information for characters, and with the result of ennobling or refining protagonist attitudes and goals;
  • Create a protagonist’s goal or plan and your antagonist’s counter-goal or plan, giving equal care to both, no matter your genre (e.g. Katniss Everdeen plans to survive the Hunger Games whilst the Capitol tries to crush her in various ways);
  • Create plot setbacks and comebacks, e.g. Jane Eyre’s seemingly found freedom and happiness on her engagement, before being thrust back (by discovering Rochester’s wife);
  • Create pieces of foreshadowing for readers to pick up on;
  • And create plot events and actions consistent with your protagonist drive, remembering your original character motivation as you weave it through your drama to keep its heart.

You’ll want to throw in allies, true and false, betrayals or misunderstandings, perhaps red herring threats and veiled or surprise threats. And any subplot characters should be dealing with the same issue or issues as your protagonist, or there’s no point to them (at least in your story terms).

If nothing else – be sure you’re building up your character’s desire for their goals. The stakes should be getting tougher. The choices should be getting harder. These things should be building throughout, so the goal becomes more urgent as plot jeopardy mounts in your story arc.

Remember that everything you map here needs to map back to character revelations, to shifting goals. This too maps up to story climax and to your protagonist’s emotional catharsis (when you’re mapping out ‘falling actions’ later).


Pinpointing your character revelations



Character revelations are key to great plotting, as otherwise it all grows rather mechanical – and plotting and characterisation are such infused, melded, twisted-together processes, after all. There isn’t one without the other.

It’s been said we often do the best we can with the information we have. As such, your protagonist needs ‘surprise reveal’ moments where some new information is shared for their character growth and for plot development to happen. So, as mentioned, rising plot tensions should accommodate ennobled motives and, sometimes, slightly altered goals for a compelling story arc.

Again, Harry Potter has several important revelations over his series and these change his goals and the nature of them. Growing up in Hogwarts, Harry gradually grasps his power to make a difference. He starts teaching Hogwarts students defensive magic. Trying to save Sirius, Harry learns even his best efforts ‘playing the hero’ can lead to tragedy. Harry then works with Dumbledore to become less a moving target than an active fighter, as he learns more about Voldemort’s origins, how to anticipate him as Voldemort anticipated Harry’s efforts to save Sirius.

Such revelations should marry up with key plot points (or plot events).

There aren’t set rules, per se, as to when character revelations should appear, how often and which ones. It’ll all depend on story and your characters. But it’s important to punctuate your plot chart with revelatory moments, building in importance for growing urgency.

Revelations are a story’s heartbeat, meat and blood.


Plotting your story climax or crisis



Plot events can be climactic, but there’ll typically be one major climax or crisis. (There are exceptions.) Choose it, build to it, plot it carefully.

It’s Clarice Starling’s showdown with Buffalo Bill, Jane Eyre’s ghostly summons across the moors back to blinded Rochester. In the simplest terms, Robert McKee defines any story climax, in Story, as ‘absolute and irreversible change’. And in John Bell’s Plot and Structure, story crises are transition points called ‘doorways of no return.’

So a story climax is (structurally) also something that’ll set up for a resolution, for falling action and a new order of things. Bear this in mind, especially if you’re feeling confident enough to create multiple major crises (more of a plot mountain range). And whilst your protagonist may have gone through many other big challenges and changes, this should be irreversible, and there should be some self-revelation tied up here.

Clarice Starling’s self-revelation is one of self-belief. She’s not ready to take on Buffalo Bill, but she does. She beats him. And she learns she could beat him. This question of her aptitude hung on Clarice’s many conversations with Hannibal. The story’s been leading us to this point.

A crisis (as above) is the peak of your story arc, and pinnacle of a protagonist’s self-revelation. And the rest is about winding down, dealing with the emotional aftermath.


Plotting your resolution or new equilibrium



Your protagonist’s world is, very simply, either better or worse now the story climax is over. From this, you’ll plot your resolution as your story arc falls.

Your protagonist has either achieved their goals after their battles and evolution and self-discovery – or not – and so there also needs an emotional catharsis. Your story mustn’t lose heart simply because we’re winding down. Your falling action plays a vital cathartic role for both your characters and your readers.

Clarice Starling, for instance, defeats Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, becomes an FBI agent. She has saved her first victim in Catherine Martin, or ‘lamb’, after the lambs’ cries that have haunted her sleep before now (because Clarice couldn’t help or save them).

Think again of Robert McKee’s ‘absolute and irreversible change’, John Bell’s ‘doorways of no return’. Clarice’s door, if you will, has opened onto a new life and Clarice can’t go back to the lesser life experience she had.

This is the new equilibrium. You’ll create the same for your characters as you wind down. In this instance, Clarice is an agent, and Buffalo Bill is gone. But Hannibal is at large. There is still danger in paradise, and scope for Thomas Harris’ sequel, Hannibal.

In A Game of Thrones, the climax is Eddard Stark’s beheading. And with the demise also of King Robert, the new equilibrium is set for dystopia under King Joffrey Baratheon, with Sansa Stark his hostage, and Arya Stark on the run, as Robb Stark rallies in the north. A Game of Thrones sets the stage for its sequel, A Clash of Kings.

In romantic Jane Eyre, Jane is happily united with Rochester. The new equilibrium is a happy ending, but after the novel’s crisis (her refusal to marry Rivers, hearing Rochester calling on the moors), the build-up to Jane’s new equilibrium, her happy reunion with Rochester, is cathartic because it is written as such. The same is true in Memoirs of a Geisha. Chiyo (now called Sayuri) writes readers a dreamy fairy tale end after her final talk with the Chairman, her emigration to America.

So, when you’re ending your tale, think of the new equilibrium you’re establishing and don’t deprive readers of a cathartic end just because you’re in a hurry now to finish plotting.

We know how hard writing is, but we’re rooting for you.

Keep going, and never give up.

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How to write seven basic plots

How to write seven basic plots



Knowing the key plot archetypes can help you get going, so we’re looking at the prospective seven basic plots that underpin all fiction. Whilst your story mightn’t conform consciously to a plot structure, such structures do exist, and knowing them could help keep you inspired and on track.


Pick a plot from The Seven Basic Plots



According to Christopher Booker, there are seven main plotlines, as written in The Seven Basic Plots. If you’re still planning things, why not choose one to place your ideas in so far?

(If you’re at a very early stage in planning, read up on how to have story ideas. Remember, you can mess around a little, too. No story will ever fit only one plotline, there may just be one obvious one. Take subplots, plots within plots, to layer your story and give it complexity and meaning.)

Here are the seven basic plots and how to make each one work for you.

Overcoming the monster

Your protagonist must battle a monster (or a monstrous force) that threatens, probably, more than just your protagonist’s survival in scope and scale.

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Christopher Booker offers the classic examples of The Epic of Gilgamesh or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stephen King’s It falls under this plotline, too, but of course monsters needn’t always be literal. They can be human. They can be ideological.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is (foremost) about the Pevensie children needing to overthrow the White Witch and bring peace to Narnia with Aslan’s help. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is about Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny battling racial prejudice (embodied in housewife Hilly Holbrook) in Mississippi during the 1960s.

To make your ‘monster’ work, you’ll need this threat to chill us. You need a genuinely existential battle of survival to make things work. You’ll also want the monster to represent something beyond just claws and fangs. It needs to be vengeance, or racial intolerance, or something else that really matters.

Voyage and return

Born with Odysseus and The Odyssey (battling monstrosities like Circe, Scylla and Charybdis to journey safe home to wife Penelope) in Greek myth, your protagonist here must journey from home, returning with new strength and experience from challenges faced.

Think of Bilbo Baggins’ journey out of the Shire in The Hobbit. First come trolls, and after (not before) comes the dragon. The key is in your rising action, the threats getting worse as Bilbo carries on, growing in courage.

Your voyage should be getting more dangerous all the time, before your protagonist can safely make a ‘turnabout’ and return (not without transfiguration, since Bilbo comes home braver, stronger). The fact that Bilbo never turns back before the essential point and challenge of the quest is faced is also important. Giving your protagonist chances to turn back reflects growth and heroism when they soldier on, anyway.

To make this plot work, your protagonist is going to be leaving one world, encountering another, ending up transfigured – so raise the stakes. Give plenty of options to turn back (which they won’t take, because something other than themselves is at risk, too).

Rags to riches

The word ‘Cinderella’ sums up this plotline, but the ‘riches’ in this phrasing is relative, and needn’t be literal. The point is that your protagonist should grow in character, strength and understanding, helping them achieve their desire, or better, and be empowered.

Your protagonist should ascend, with newfound strength, from a low point to new heights, sometimes involving romance, and sometimes not.

A good example of ‘not’ would be Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah, where a happy ending simply means being able to attend college.

Other examples include Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, or Aladdin and His Enchanted Lamp from The Thousand and One Nights.

You’ll make this plot work by empowering your protagonist in various ways. Cinderella, in her fairy tale, makes it out of rags to riches but we can assume she won’t still be scrubbing floors at the palace. She’s valued for herself in her new home and free to live on her own terms, so she’s become empowered (inside and out).

This is your key to unlocking plot material.

The quest

In this narrative, your protagonist sets out to find someone, or to find an object, a proverbial ‘buried treasure’.

Famous examples include the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or (broadly) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.

Philip Pullman’s protagonist Lyra in Northern Lights (or, in the US, The Golden Compass) for instance, faces bears, witches and kidnappers to reach her father, before she carries on into another world. Lyra faces worse as the challenges mount up, so she matures and changes with learning and strength.

Ultimately, Lyra makes her costliest sacrifice at the close of her (multiple) quests in His Dark Materials, and so she becomes heroic. We are given final proof of her courage and selflessness as her adventuring concludes in The Amber Spyglass.

You’ll also need to raise stakes, making things harder and harder, before a final ‘good’ deed from your protagonist grants them victory.

Comedy

In comic narrative, the gist is to create a whirl of misunderstandings for your protagonist that becomes more fraught with time. All will ‘miraculously transformed’ near the end, as your action moves happily from dark to light.

Classic examples include any of Jane Austen’s novels, The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding, or Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

Make your comic plot work by continuing to muddle events, feelings and perceptions as we go, right up to the finish line. Bridget Jones remains confused about Mark Darcy in most of the novel (firstly misjudging Mark, then Daniel, then misjudging how both feel about her) before all is happily resolved.

Tragedy

This is the inverse of ‘Comedy’, moving from light to dark. Your protagonist here has an irredeemable flaw or makes an irredeemable mistake, causing their undoing and ‘fall’.

Your protagonist could be reprehensible, like Humbert Humbert from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, or like the example Christopher Booker gives us, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Shakespearean tragedies give a rich choice of protagonists whose flaws lead them to doom, such as Othello and his jealousy, or Lear and his arrogance.

Other tragic protagonists may be more questionable, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

An example of an innocent protagonist falling to tragedy would be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s ‘mistake’ being to fall in love and leave her husband for a man who’ll betray her.

You’ll make a tragic plot work by thinking deeply about all the ‘if onlys’ of your protagonist’s situation. Think how we mull over our own mistakes, wishing we’d seen things coming. If only Othello had trusted Desdemona, or if only Gatsby hadn’t fallen for Daisy. How could all have been avoided? How differently could things have worked out?

Give your poor protagonist routes out (which they’ll not take, e.g. Jay Gatsby fails to accept Nick’s warning that the past can’t be repeated, since Gatsby can’t let Daisy go), then seal off exit options to amplify emotion in your tragic plot.

Rebirth

‘Rebirth’ is poised to be like ‘Tragedy’ but with a hopeful outcome. Your protagonist needs a redemptive arc to their journey.

This is sometimes combined with a hero romantically redeemed by a heroine, or vice versa. Classics examples of this trope are fairy tales like Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast or Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and retellings based on these tales, such as Beauty by Robin McKinley or Uprooted by Naomi Novik.

Other examples are The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emma by Jane Austen (also a ‘Comedy’ tale), or The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Make a plot like this work by making a happy outcome dependent on nothing but the ‘Rebirth’ component alone. Identify what this is, because your protagonist’s success and happy ending will hinge on it.

In a tale like Beauty and the Beast, for instance, love can’t be mutual until Bête lets Belle go free. Emma Woodhouse needs to reflect and change before she can marry someone as good as Mr Knightley. Amir risks his life returning to Kabul, but can’t be free of his past guilt in The Kite Runner until he tries to help his best friend’s son.

The question, after all this, is which general plotline feels authentic for where you’d most like to take your story?



Choose more than one plot and add subplots



Sometimes, more than one plot outline will fit your story material.

In A Game of Thrones, there is a tragic narrative for one protagonist, Eddard or Ned Stark, and the ‘fault’ that kills Ned is his integrity in a dark world. However, A Game of Thrones uses various plot archetypes to tell multiple protagonists’ stories over a sprawling scale. It isn’t only a tragic plot.

J.K. Rowling’s stories don’t fit neatly into a single plot idea, either, since Harry Potter’s overarching tale checks several of these boxes.

Harry’s story could be defined as a ‘Rags to riches’ tale, because he goes from an abusive boyhood living under his aunt’s staircase to freedom, to a successful career and happiness with his wife and children at the series’ close.

There’s also a ‘Voyage and return’ element to each book, as Harry attends Hogwarts every year, only to return to his aunt and uncle every summer (though in the seventh, Harry leaves Privet Drive for the last time).

It’s also an ‘Overcoming the monster’ story, because the spectre of Voldemort haunts Harry throughout the series, as do other monstrous beings like the Basilisk or Dementors, or monstrous characters like Voldemort’s supporters (led by Bellatrix Lestrange), Professor Umbridge, and others.

It’s also a ‘Quest’ because Harry’s ‘hunts’ through the series culminate, in the seventh book, with his seeking Horcruxes and Hallows. The existential question of which is right to seek becomes a determinant of Harry’s success, and overall character development.

There are strong comic elements, strong tragic elements, and there are strong elements of ‘Rebirth’, too.

In sum, stories often can’t be boxed and they shouldn’t be. These plotlines are threadbare for a reason, since they’re foremost guides, and exist to help you build upon them.

3 next steps to penning your plot



Too little plot can be as tedious as no structure at all, so plan with care and remember plotting can be your aide. Plot should serve as a creative constraint, existing to help you produce your best work.

A few steps on what you can do from here with the seven basic plots:

  1. Gather your story material. Review characters, the things you want to happen, and pick a plot for your novel.
  2. Map your key plot events. Adapt them to whichever plot you chose. If it’s a quest, map out testing moments where your protagonist can or should turn back – or, if it’s tragic, map out moments your tragic protagonist could have avoided what they’re heading for, and so on.
  3. Link these moments together and create your resolution to the action.

All this will create a core meaning in your narrative (before you add subplots for complexity).

After this, you’ll be needing a plot mountain, too, for adding the fun bits. Story structures are always there to help, not hinder you.

Happy writing!

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How to Write a Book (10 Doable Steps for New Writers)

how to write a book - in 10 simple steps

How to write a book (in 10 steps)

A super-simple step-by-step guide for new writers



Are you writing a book? Maybe you’re starting out for the first time? Twenty years ago, I was in your exact position. My wife was seriously unwell. I’d quit work to look after her. And yes, a lot of my time was spent caring for her . . . but that still left a whole lot of hours in the day.


I didn’t want to do nothing with that time. And I’d always wanted to write a book. (I’ve still got a little home-movie film clip of me, age 9, being asked what I wanted to me when I was grown up. I answered, “I want to be an author.”)

So, sitting at home, and often quite literally at my wife’s bedside, I opened my laptop and started to write.

That book grew into a 190,000 word monster. I slaved at that damn thing too. Worked really hard. Was perfectionist about every detail.

And I got an agent And I got a six-figure book deal with HarperColins, one of the world’s largest publishers. And the book went on to become a bestseller that sold in a load of foreign territories too.

And best of all? I got a career I loved. I’ve been in print continuously ever since, bringing out about a book a year in that time, and I’ve basically loved every second of it. (Oh, and my wife? Yeah, she’s got a long term condition that will never leave her, but she’s about a million times better than she was back in those days. It’s been an up-down ride, but we’ve been a lot more lucky than not.)

But you’re not reading this because you want to know about me.

You’ve got a big empty screen to deal with. A headful of ideas, a desire to write . . . but no structure for putting those ideas into practice. You want to know: what next?

Well, that’s a good question.  (One I didn’t think about too hard when I started out, but then again I did end up deleting a 60,000 word chunk of my first draft because it was just no damn good.)

So what do you need to do next?  Well, you do this:

If you want to start writing a book, take the following steps, in the following order …

Take one fabulous idea



If you want to know how to write a novel, there is only one sensible place to start, and that’s with the very idea of your book – the thing you want to write about.

Concept matters massively. It’s almost impossible to overstate its importance. Stephenie Meyer writes competent prose, but it’s her concept that turned Twilight into a cultural phenomenon. Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Stephen King are similar. They’re decent writers blessed with stunning ideas.

Agents know this, and – no matter what your genre – a strong premise is essential to selling a book. Given any two broadly similar manuscripts, agents will almost always pick the one with the strongest central concept.

How, then, do you get your amazing book ideas? The answer is that you probably already have them. Your killer idea may be germinating in your head right now. It may arise from a passion of yours; it may come out of a book you love.

It’s not about the seed of the idea. It’s how you develop it that counts.

The key here is

(A) picking material that excites you,

(B) picking enough material (so you want several ideas for possible settings, several ideas for possible heroes, several ideas for basic challenge/premise, etc. You want to be able to make choices from a place of abundance.)

(C) – and this is the genius bit – you need to start combining those ingredients in a way that ensures you have at least one rogue ingredient, one unexpected flavour in your concoction.

So let’s say that you just wanted to write a 1940s, film-noir style, private-eye detective story – an homage to Raymond Chandler and that great generation of writers. If you just replicated all those ingredients, you’d have an unsaleable book. Why? Because they’re too familiar. If people want those things, they’d just buy Chandler’s own work, or others of that era. So throw in – a ghost. A German secret agent. Or set the story in a black community in Alabama. Or . . . whatever. Just make sure there’s one discordant ingredient to make readers sit up and take notice.

Need more help? Then go watch this 10 minute video I put together that walks you through the exact process.


Build a blistering plot



The next essential for any novelist is a story that simply forces the reader to keep turning pages. Fortunately, there are definite rules about how to achieve this.

Here are the rules you need to know:

  1. Work with a very small number of protagonists (ie: main characters in your story. These are the ones who propel the action and whose stories the readers invest in.) You probably only have one protagonist, and that’s fine. If you have two or three, that’s fine too. More than that? Not for a first book, please! They’ll make your job too hard.
  2. Start your story by unsettling the status quo very early on – first page possibly, but certainly within the first chapter. The incident that gets the story rolling is called the Initiating Incident, and it’s the catalyst for everything that follows
  3. Give your protagonist a major life challenge very early in the book and don’t resolve things till the very end. The reader basically read the book to see whether your protagonist gets the thing they’re seeking. Does the gal get the guy? Does James Bond save the world?
  4. Over the course of the book, make sure that jeopardy increases. That doesn’t have to be an even progression, by any means. But by the final quarter or third of your novel, your protagonist needs to feel that everything hinges on the outcome of what follows.
  5. End your book with a crisis and resolution. So the crisis part is when everything seems lost. But then your hero or heroine summons up one last effort and saves the day in the end. In general, in most novels, the crisis wants to seem really bad, and the resolution wants to seem really triumphant. It’s achieving the swing from maximum light to maximum dark that will really give the reader a sense of a satisfying book. (More on plot structure here. And try the snowflake method.)
  6. And finally, one more crucial tip: if a chapter doesn’t advance the story in a specific way, you must delete that chapter. How come? Because all the reader really wants is to know whether your protagonist achieves the thing they’re seeking. If that basic balance between protagonist and goal doesn’t alter in the course of a chapter, you’ve given your reader no reason to read it. So vape backstory. Ignore minor characters. Care about your protagonist with a passion.

Sounds simple?

Well, the principles aren’t that hard to understand, although executing the advice can a wee bit trickier.

So we’ve built you a free plotting worksheet to take you through your plot construction challenge in a really organised and systematic  way. Just grab it by clicking that big friendly blue box below. Easy!

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Add unforgettable characters



Long after a reader has forgotten details of a plot, the chances are they’ll remember the character who impelled it. The two things you absolutely must bear in mind when constructing your characters are:

  1. Make sure that the character and the story bounce off one another in interesting ways. If, to take a stupid example, your character has a fear of spiders, the chances are that your story needs to force your character to confront those fears. You must bring your character into their zone of greatest discomfort.
  2. Make sure you really, really know your character. It’s so often little things, subtleties that make characters seem human (e.g. Amy has a passion for Manhattan in winter; she collects a shell from every beach she’s ever visited.) If you want to check if you know your character well enough, we suggest you use our ultimate character builder.

Oh yes, and one great tip (albeit one that won’t work for every novel) is this: if in doubt, add juice to your character.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Stieg Larsson could have just written a book about a genius computer hacker.

But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers.

But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers and a hostile attitude towards society.

But he didn’t. He could have written a book about a genius computer hacker with Aspergers, a hostile attitude towards society, and who was also a rape victim.

But he didn’t.

He also tossed in a complex parental background, bisexuality, a motorbike, years spent in the Swedish care system, and an aptitude for violence.

It was the intoxicating brew of all those elements combined that created one of the world’s most successful recent fictional creations.

Short moral: if in doubt, do more.


writing a book for beginners - the simple step-by-step guide

Give your characters inner life



One of the commonest problems we see is when a character does and says all the right stuff, but the reader never really knows what he or she thinks or feels.

If you don’t create that insight into the character’s inner world, the book will fail to engage your reader, because that insight is the reason why people read. After all, if you just want to watch explosions, you’ll go to a Bond or Bourne movie. If you want to feel what it’s like to be James Bond or Jason Bourne, you have no alternative but to read Ian Fleming’s or Robert Ludlum’s original novels.

This character insight is one of the simplest things for a novelist to do. You just need to remember that your protagonist has a rich inner world, and then you need to tell us about it. So we want to know about:

  1. What the character thinks
  2. What her emotions are
  3. What she remembers
  4. What her physical sensations are
  5. And so on

It’s OK to use fairly bland language at times (“she was hungry”, “she felt tired”), but you’ll only start to get real depth into your characters if you get individual and specific too. See for example how much richer this passage feels, and how full of its character it seems to be:

seeing the meat, she felt a sudden revulsion. The last time she’d seen mutton roasting like this on an open fire, it had been when [blah, blah – something to do with the character’s past]. As the memories came back, her throat tightened and her stomach was clenched as though ready to vomit.

Because the character has thoughts, feeling, memories and physical sensations all combining here, the moment is richly endowed with personality. A simple “She felt revolted” wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact.



Add drama


Your job as a novelist is to show action unfolding on the page. Readers don’t just want a third-hand report of what has just happened. That means you need to tell things moment-by-moment, as if you were witnessing the event. Consider the difference between this:

Ulfor saw the descending sword in a blur of silver. He twisted to escape, but the swordsman above, a swarthy troll with yellow teeth, was too fast, and swung hard.

(This form of narration is “showing”.)

And this:

Ulfor was badly injured in a swordfight.

(This form of narration is known as “telling”.)

The first snippet sounds like an actual story. The second sounds like a news report.

Obviously, you will need to use the second mode of storytelling from time to time. Telling can be a simple way to convey facts and speed things up, but for the most part, your tale needs to consist of scenes of dramatic action, glued together with bits of sparse narration. If in doubt, look up our free tips on the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.

It’s probably also obvious that drama is most obviously alive and intense when two or more characters are in dialogue. It’s not just that those characters may be engaged in some kind of conflict; it’s also that the action feels like it’s happening almost real-time on the page. So dialogue is good! And great dialogue is better! Read more advice right here.


how to write a great book - how to begin

Write well



It sounds obvious, but it’s no good having a glowing idea and a fabulous plot if you can’t write.

Your book is made up of sentences, after all, and if those sentences don’t convey your meaning succinctly and clearly, your book just won’t work.

Almost everyone has the capacity to write well. You just need to focus on the challenge. So think about the three building blocks of good writing:

  1. Clarity. You need to express your meaning clearly. Of course YOU know what you’re meaning to say, but would a reader understand as clearly? One good way to check yourself here is to read your own work aloud. If you stumble when reading, that’s a big clue that readers will stumble too.
  2. Economy. Never use ten words when eight would do. That means checking every sentence to see if a word or two could be lost. It means checking every paragraph for sentences that you don’t need. Every page for surplus paragraphs. If that sounds pedantic, just think about this. If you tried to sell a 100,000 book that had 20,000 surplus words in it, you shouldn’t be surprised if agents rejected it, because it was just too boring and too baggy. But that’s the exact same difference as a 10 word sentence and an 8 word one. In a word: pedantry matters. It’s your friend!
  3. Precision. Be as precise as possible. This normally means you need to see the scene in your head before you can describe it clearly to a reader. So it’s easy to write “a bird flew around the tree”, but that’s dull and imprecise. Just think how much better this is: “A pair of swallows flew, chirrupping, around the old apple tree.” The difference in the two sentences is basically one of precise seeing, precise description.

If you can manage those three things – and you can; it’s just a question of making the effort – then you can write well enough to write a novel. That’s nice to know, huh?


What if I’m writing for children?



Same rules apply, no matter the age or genre you’re writing for, but we’ve put together a collection of our best tips for children’s authors, including help on how to get a literary agent who’s right for you and your work.

Whatever else, write clearly and economically. If your style isn’t immediate and precise, children won’t have the patience to keep with you. If a chapter doesn’t drive the story forwards, you’ll lose them. If in doubt, keep it simple. Write vivid characters to an inventive plot. Write with humour and a bit of mischief.

But really: if you’re writing for kids, then follow ALL the rules in this blog post, but do the whole thing on a smaller scale. The only really crucial issue that distinguishes children’s fiction from adult work is word count. You just have to know the right kind of length for the specific market you are writing for.

That means:

  1. Figure out what age range you are aiming at
  2. Figure out what kind of books you are writing (books about unicorns for 6-7 year olds? Adventure stories for young teens? Contemporary issue-driven books for mid-teens?)
  3. Get hold of some books in the right niche
  4. Take a typical page in those books
  5. Count the words
  6. Multiply number of words by number of pages. Done!

Oh, and don’t rely on internet searches to give you the right answer. Because there is so much age-dependent variability in kids fiction, criss-crossed by a good bit of format and genre variability, the only safe route to follow is the one we’ve just given.


how to write a novel or book

Set up some good writing disciplines



First rule of writing is this: Good writers write.

They don’t want to write. They don’t think about writing. They don’t blog about writing.

They write.

Sure you can do those other things too, but they’re not what counts. What counts is bum-on-seat hours and that document wordcount ticking ever upwards.

Now the truth is that different writers approach their work differently. There’s no one set of rules that works for everyone. But here are some rules that may work for you. If they do, great. If they don’t, adapt them as you need. Either way, if the rules help you write, great. If they don’t, discard them.

So. The rules:

  1. Set up your writing space so it appeals. Lose the distractions. Make sure you have a computer, pens, and notebooks that you like using. Get a comfortable chair.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Got a TV in your writing room? Then lose the TV. Or change rooms. Get rid of the distractions that most bother you.
  3. Determine when and how often you will write. If you have a busy life, it’s OK if that’s a bit ramshackle (“Tuesday morning, alternate Wednesdays, and Saturday if I get a chance.”) But the minimum here is that you set a weekly allowance of hours, and stick to it come hell or high water. Pair that up with:
  4. A weekly target wordcount. Hit that target every week, no excuses.
  5. Make some kind of outcome commitment. For example: When I have finished this book, I will get an external editor to give me comments. Or: I will share this with my book group. You just need to have in mind that this book will be read. That knowledge keeps you honest!
  6. Commit to a deadline. Don’t make that too tough on yourself, but do make it real. Almost anyone should be able to manage 2,000 words a week, even with a busy lift. And most adult novels are 70-100,000 words long, so in less than a year, you have yourself a book, my friend. With practice, you’ll get faster.
  7. Work to an outline. I said you needed to sketch your plot, right? (You can get that plotting worksheet by navigating to the top of the sidebar on this page.) Use that outline as your story-compass. If you need to tweak it as you go, that’s fine – but no radical changes, please!
  8. Always prioritise the reader’s perspective. Don’t write to please yourself. Write to please the reader. If you need to imagine an actual Ideal Reader, then do so. Write for her.
  9. Don’t worry if your first draft is lousy. It’s meant to be! That’s what first drafts are for. Jane Smiley said, “All first drafts are perfect, because all they have to do is exist.” Same goes for you, buddy.
  10. Take breaks. If you’re a fidgety writer (as I am), you’ll want to take a lot of breaks. If you concentrate fiercely for twenty minutes and take a break for five or ten, that’s fine. Just keep going that way.
  11. Warm up each day. I always edit my work of the day before as a way to warm myself up for the chapter I’m about to begin. If you like to warm up differently, then go for it. Just remember you may not be able to just start writing fresh text at 9.01 am precisely. Most of us need to warm the engine a little first.

And that’s it. Do those things, and you should be fine.


Revise your first draft



Nearly all first drafts will have problems, some of them profound. That’s okay.

A first draft is just your opportunity to get stuck in on the real business: which is refining and perfecting the story you’ve just told yourself.

That means checking your story, checking your characters, checking your writing style.

Then doing all those things again. You’ll find new issues, new niggles every time you go back to your work (at least to start with), and every time you fix those things, your book will get better. It’s a repetitive process, but one you should come to enjoy.

Don’t get alarmed by the repetitions: think of this rewriting task as climbing a spiral staircase. Yes, you are going round in circles, but you are rising higher all the time.

We’ve seen hundreds of new manuscripts every year, and we’re pretty good at recognising common problems. We’ve even got a checklist of recurring issues we find. Most are fixable, so you don’t need to worry too much if some of those apply to you.

The thing is simply to figure out what the issue is, then sit down to address it. Remember that all successful novelists started the same way as you did: with a lousy manuscript.


Make friends, get feedback



Writing a book is hard work. It’s lonely. Those around you are seldom equipped to offer expert feedback and advice – and, of course, this is a difficult road. Most first novels do not get published.

So please don’t try to go it alone. Here are some things you can and probably should do:

  1. Join a writing group or online writing community. We’re just building our own community, and it’ll be live – and free – very soon. Just watch this space.
  2. Go public with some of your writing goals / achievements. That could just mean updating your Facebook page, or talking with your friends at the office. The main thing is to avoid your book feeling like a dark secret you’re not able to share.
  3. Get friendly peer feedback when you think you’re ready. When you’re book is finished and roughly edited, it can be useful to seek supportive feedback, of the “Wow, you can really do this!” variety. You’ll need to get tougher in due course, but that early support can work wonders.
  4. Build your skills. That could mean taking a course, or working with a mentor, or attending an event. Whatever you choose to do, you will improve as a writer and writing & editing your next book will come easier than it did this first time round.
  5. Get professional feedback once you’ve done as much self-editing as you can manage. There is absolutely no better way to improve a manuscript than to get a rigorous set of comments from an experienced third-party editor. Watch this video for tips on how to process and make best use of that feedback.

Remember, you don’t have to do all of this at once. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So go easy with yourself when setting out your goals. Under-commit and over-deliver, right?


Bonus Tip: Get a literary agent



Literary agents only take about one book in a thousand, so before you take this final step, we do suggest that you’ve completed numbers 1 to 9 properly. You should also take a look at our advice on manuscript presentation to make sure you’re really prepared for the next stage. That said, if your novel is good enough, you will find it easy enough to secure representation. Just follow these steps.

A) Select your target agents. We have a complete list of literary agents and you can filter all data by genre, agent experience and more. It’s the most complete source of its kind.

B) Choose about 8-12 names. You’re looking for agents keen to take on new writers. If they happen to represent authors you love, so much the better. (More advice on how to start your agent search.)

C) Write a fabulous covering letter, using this advice and this sample letter.

D) Write a good, clear synopsis. A process that terrifies most writers, but this is easier than you might think. Just follow these tips.

E) Get your stuff out there.

And there you have it: 10 steps to get you started writing that novel.

Happy writing, Good luck. And keep going!


About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)

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