books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CAN YOU WRITE A PUBLISHABLE FIRST NOVEL? 8 DOS AND DON’TS TO INCREASE YOUR CHANCES.

Gearing up for NaNoWriMo? Good for you. You’ve always wanted to write a novel and next month you’re going to do it.

But remember that most first novels never see print. Editors call them “practice novels.” Like any other profession, writing requires a long learning process. But there are a few things that will give your first novel a better chance in the marketplace.

1) DO write in a genre that’s being read. You may have always dreamed of  writing a sweeping Micheneresque saga, a Zane Grey western, or a stream-of-consciousness Kerouac ramble, but the sad truth is it’s not likely to see print. Publishing has fashion cycles. I’m not telling you to follow every hot trend—what’s sizzling now will be over by the time you’ve got the book finished—but do be aware of what might be a tough sell down the road. Read lots of book reviews. Be aware of what’s selling. Visit your local bookstore and library often and read, read, read.

2) DON’T write a novel that imitates a screenplay. If you’re under 65, you probably have the TV screenplay format seared into your consciousness. This means that when you’re writing a first novel, you have stuff to unlearn. In a novel, we don’t have to rely so heavily on what the characters say. In fact, they often don’t say what they’re feeling at all.

A reader perceives the action from INSIDE the head of the character/s rather than viewing it from OUTSIDE. In a movie, we’re peeping toms, watching the action through a camera lens; in a novel, we’re experiencing it. A novel is a mindscape, not a landscape.

3) DO avoid an omniscient point of view or constant head-hopping. Choose fewer than three point-of-view characters and you’ll save yourself a ton of grief later on. Omniscient and multiple points of view aren’t “wrong” but they’re old-fashioned and tough to do well. They tend to slow and confuse the reader and turn off agents.

4) DON’T depend on a prologue to initiate tension. There’s much debate about prologues out here in the blogosphere, but a vast majority of agents and editors dislike them. My blogpost on prologues is here. 
Why shoot yourself in the font?

5) DO make sure your story has a protagonist and an antagonist. There has to be one main character. Equality is ideal in the real world, but in narrative, one person has to dominate. If another character walks in and tries to take over, tell her you’ll put her in a short story later. Otherwise, change the focus of your novel. (Not always a bad idea. Sometimes we start with the wrong point-of-view character.)

And remember an antagonist isn’t necessarily a mustache-twirling villain. It can be a situation, a disease, or society itself—anything strong enough to thwart your character for the whole narrative.

6) DON’T choose a protagonist who’s easily satisfied. Your main character has to want something. Badly. Satisfied people make lovely companions, but as soon as your characters get what they want, your story is over.

7) DO activate your inner sadist. Never let your characters get what they need. Throw as many obstacles into their path as possible. Hurt them. Maim them. Give them cruel parents and girlfriends who are preparing to kill them for alien lizard food. It’s OK. You’ll solve their problems in the end. Then won’t you feel good?

8) DON’T put something in a novel “because that’s the way it really happened.” Even if your story is based on your own experiences, remember real life is mostly boring. That’s why we read fiction.

44 comments:

  1. Wise words Anne, even for non-NaNo writing. Thanks for the tips.

    .......dhole

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  2. Great post. One of the best writing books I've read is 'How not to write a novel' It was hilarious but made similar points to the ones you've made here as well.

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  3. Wise words Anne.
    I forget to make my characters suffer.
    I have recently read a book where they gave and took with predictable regularity. I had to force myself to read anything but the start and the end because I knew every good feeling, thought or situation was only going to last for the next two pages.
    I want to write more than one book at a time? Any advice for the overstretched?

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  4. I'm with Emily--'How Not to Write a Novel' was hilarious. Great advice in it, too, just as you have here.

    I've got an entire filing cabinet of "practice novels," some from when I was a kid (first one I wrote was done in fifth grade, I think--oy). Painful to think about, sometimes.

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  5. Thanks Donna! Yeah, I wrote this before I realized how close we are to NaNo, but when I posted it this cold, wintry morning, it popped into my head. November is a great month for writing.

    Emily, I love "How Not to Write a Novel" Brilliant book.

    Elaine, I've never had any luck writing more than one book at a time, but I know successful novelists who do, so it's probably something to cultivate.

    Jenna--me too. And I didn't even save the ones from Fifth grade.

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  6. I like this: "A novel is a mindscape, not a landscape."
    Thanks for the post.

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  7. Love this post! Great tips for everyone no matter where they are in their writing journey.

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  8. Great reminders. I signed up for nano again this year. Not sure that was a good idea but I'm ready!

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  9. Great dos and don'ts. Thanks for the reminders. A new idea for my WIP struck me while reading this. *runs off to write it down*

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  10. Great points! I would say your omniscient one isn't entirely correct, though, as epic fantasy almost always has omniscient POV - and it's almost always more than 3 POVs...at least according to what my hubby says. I don't read much epic fantasy. If I'm wrong I can blame my husband. :)

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  11. Excellent tips. I think the first one is very important. You can write the book of your heart but you must pay attention to what’s selling.

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  12. I am glad i stumbled on ur blog, this was really helpful.

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  13. Thanks Yvonne, Sherrie, Gargi and Joanna! Andrea, best of luck with NaNo.
    Lotusgirl--how lovely my post inspired you--hope you're having fun with your new idea.

    Michelle, because of LOTR, lots of fantasy has been written copying Tolkein's all-knowing epic story teller voice--an imitation of ancient sagas like Beowulf. But as I said, it's considered old-fashioned.

    Actually, what I've been told is that epic fantasy pretty much only sells in MG these days and in MG, having a point of view character makes for much easier reading and reader identification.

    But markets change. Epic fantasy may make a comeback. Everything is cyclical.

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  14. Great post.

    I just have a bit of a problem about number four. My story starts far away from the main action - something else that people apparently hate.

    But I can't change it without a prologue. Sigh.

    Decisions decisions.

    :-)

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  15. Misha, sometimes a story can't be told without a prologue. It's not wrong--just an over-used device. It's a slight impediment to publication, but not a barrier. Kind of like if you queried a book last year that didn't have vampires, werewolves or zombies in it.

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  16. Anne:

    Six and seven appeal to the mischief in me. Teasing instead of pleasure. Aw yes, the joys of making them crazy :)

    Great post. Thanks.

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  17. I don't agree with 5. Poliphonies exist. But since they are RIDICULOUSLY hard to do. And even harder to do well, I'm severely considering reducing my 3 POVs to 1, in my upcoming MS. We'll see.

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  18. Claire, do note I'm not arguing against existing reality--just giving tips on what is easiest to get published if you're trying to break into today's market.

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  19. Great post. I did all of these in my first novel. Every single one, except the prologue. But, I'm doing much better now!

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  20. "...kill them for alien lizard food." I LOVE that!

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  21. This was a really excellent post. Your second piece of advice got to me the most. I'm always a little annoyed when someone says "This should be in dialogue form." Uh, no, I'm not writing a screenplay here.

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  22. Amanda--you're so right. Writing too much of my story in dialogue was a big problem for me with my first fiction. I'd been in the theater for years, so I saw everything as a play. Then, when I started editing other people, I realized most beginning writers do it because of the TV screenplays we watch every day. But if you read really good books, they use dialogue "as a condiment" not the main meal as Noah Lukeman says.

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  23. Found you via your comment on Nathan Bransford's blog - great tips! You've especially made me think about the novel vs screenplay idea - the importance of being insde the characters' head(s), rather than watching them.

    Thanks!

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  24. Great advice! I'm still working on #2. I've had some people tell me to increase the amount of inner thoughts in my ms. Others have told me to cut back on them. Eenie meenie minie mo! ;)

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  25. I found you through Nathan Bransford's blog. Great tips! I'm still not sure if I'm doing NaNoWriMo or not. I have to decide soon, I guess!

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  26. Thanks Anne for the wonderful tips. I love all the points especially the last two.

    Rachna

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  27. Welcome, visitors from Nathan's blog. I hope you'll stop by again. I update on Sundays. And everybody going for it with NaNo--may the muse be with you!

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  28. Thanks for the tips!
    I specially liked #5 and #6; I was six chapter into my last attempt at a novel when I realized my character was not strong enough to be the main character. Sitting right in front of her was the star of the story, and though I had seen that by the second chapter I was too stubborn to change it. Now I have lost of planning to change, but better late than never!

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  29. Anne,
    I found you through your comment on Florence's guest post on my blog.

    Great post!

    Christi

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  30. Thanks for stopping by, Christi. Nice blog. Florence is great!

    Akasha--that's fantastic you could see the protag problem by chapter #6. Some of us are on revision #6 of the whole novel before we get it.

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  31. Anne, "dialogue as a condiment." I like that!

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  32. I wish I would have read this before I started a year ago. :) Great post.

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  33. Wherever we are in the process these are all excellent reminders to keep us on the path to publication.

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  34. Some thoughts make so much sense that, when you hear them, you think, "Of course" as if you knew that already. That's exactly how your contrast between novel and screenplay writing struck me, although it had never occurred to me before. Thanks for some cogent advice.
    Nina

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  35. Thanks for sharing your insights. It's some good general advice, though I don't buy avoidance of omniscient third person. Look at the recent list of the highest paid authors. Dan Brown, Stephen King, Ken Follett, JK Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham - Stephanie Meyer might be the only one on the list to routinely use first person, and her style is the last thing you should advise someone to adopt. I just finished Justin Cronin's smash hit The Passage, which also primarily relies on third person (and a lot of head jumping). Stieg Larsson's books were huge and they're third person. Vince Flynn's American Assassin is the #1 bestseller on the NYTimes list right now and it's third person. If agents look down on third person then they're disregarding something that makes a heck of a lot of money. I've read about this convention towards first person and think it's incredibly shortsighted. A great persona can make a first person story rich (Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lolita), but generally they turn me off of a book for being too flimsy or unappealing. The best general advice I've heard on this is to come up with a great persona for your narrator, or use third person so you get out of the story's way.

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  36. John--You're absolutely right that most successful books are written in third person. But it's third person LIMITED, not third person OMNISCIENT.

    The omniscient, god-like voice of the narrator "Oh, best beloved reader, little did our hero know that..." is old fashioned and not used much in contemporary fiction. JK Rowling uses it, but it works because the Potter books have a mythical feel.

    Third person limited is the voice you're citing in most of these best sellers. "Limited" means you're in the heads of a few main characters, not privy to a god-like view of them all.

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  37. Great article. I especially love #6 and #7. Great characters are why people come back to books over and over again, despite knowing the ending.

    Extraordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances make for great story telling.

    I'll take all of it to heart. Thanks!

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  38. "DO write in a genre that’s being read." I say no to this by the time you are done with your book. That what is hot right now will no longer popular!

    I say write your book the one you want to write. It's it is good, it'll get published right? If it sucks then back to work -cracks the whip- and more studding lol. And its most likely going to suck. I love my book, but I know it sucks too! ha ha. I say don't worry about what kind of book is popular right now if your nea at this like me then by the time your good .. well a few eyars will have passed. (Two for me so far.)

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    1. Darkocean--I wrote this four years ago, before the self-publishing revolution, so this was written for people looking for a traditional contract.

      These days, people can self-publish a novel written in sonnets, a Peyton Place 1950s soaper, or a 200K word Micheneresque saga and find an audience.

      I don't advise anybody to chase trends, but people looking for a trad contract need to be aware there are many genres no agent will look at.

      But these days, you can self-publish, so some of this advice is out of date.

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  39. What about making your characters suffer to much? I'm really mean to them had my main pov become stabled, sliced at, use her ruining powers to the point of snapping her insides, dragged down a flight of sitars, (after being stabbed in the chest) And worse. ... -cough- (Its a fantasy/horror novel)

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    1. Darkocean- Gruesome is very popular with some readers. Just make sure you let people know it's hard-core horror so you attract the right readers and don't let anybody stumble into buying it who doesn't find torture entertaining.

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  40. I must be old fashioned. I write what I want to write in the way that I want to write it, create stories to my liking - anything else for me is too phony and would never, and I mean never make it. I can't write to please a market or the popular idea of how to do it - what sells - at least one person will be happy - and that is me.

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    1. Irene--You'll notice this post was written four years ago, before the self-publishing revolution took off. These days, you can self-publish anything you like. If you don't follow current conventions you may not get many readers, but as you say, that's okay too. As I wrote earlier this year, there's nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. Here's the link to that post http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/01/is-writing-hobby-or-profession-for-you.html

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