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.