Setting Up your Novel for Success
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What is a novel?
A novel is a work of fiction that is approximately 50 000 words, that tells a series of connected events and the characters who experience them.
Your story may be based on real events but you have taken the ‘fiction leap’ and woven a tale around the people and events and made it into a compelling story. Real events often unfold chaotically but as a novelist, the portrayal has shape and meaning.
What will you write?
A novel can either be literary or genre fiction. Literary fiction is serious stuff and it aspires to higher literary standards, also it cannot be easily categorised (most of the time). Genre fiction falls into specific categories and is written to conform to the conventions of a particular genre, e.g. romance.
‘Mainstream’ or ‘general’ fiction are loose terms that are used to refer to novels that are easily accessible to the average reader than say a literary work, but it cannot be easily put into a genre. ‘Mainstream’ fiction mostly has a strong premise or hook that enthrals a broad range of readers. The novel is either plot or character-driven, though the plot conforms to traditional structure rather than experimental structure (it is simple). The writing assists the story and doesn’t draw attention to it.
What are the genres of fiction?
The main genres of fiction are romance, science fiction, thriller, mystery and fantasy. Readers expect these novels to appreciate the conventions, or rules, of the genre. When writing a genre novel it is important to read them and understand them – even if you plan to break them all! 😉
- Mystery: a mystery novel is usually about a crime, most often a murder, and involves a fictional sleuth following clues to solve the crime. The sleuths can be professionals or amateurs, young or old. Some have even featured animals as the sleuths!
Mystery novels can be stand-alone or they can be part of a series. In a series the protagonist moves from one book to the next, solving a new crime each time. Often the protagonist has a long story arc that is completed by the last book in the series. The conventions of the mystery novel include:
- The sleuth/protagonist narrates most of the story.
- There is at least one violent crime.
- There are multiple suspects.
- There is a central puzzle (main plot) for the reader and fictional sleuth to solve.
- The author plays fair with the reader; they know what the sleuth knows.
- The ending satisfies the reader that justice is served.
Pitfalls are a weak sleuth and an ending that relies on coincidence. In the best mystery novels, the solution delivers surprise but in looking back it is inevitable.
- Thrillers: the main component is suspense. The reader is compelled to turn the page – both anxious and afraid to turn the page and uncover what happens next. There are multiple narrators, plenty of action and violence. The stories move swiftly but have quiet moments that give the reader time to absorb the scale of the situation. The plot often revolves around threats such as political upheaval, nuclear war or bioterrorism.
Some conventions of thrillers are:
- The pace is fast.
- There is tension from page one.
- There are many exciting plot twists.
- A ‘ticking clock’ counting down to disaster adds to the tension.
- The stakes are high.
- The story occurs in an exotic location.
- The hero often follows his own morals.
- The story revolves around a ‘high concept’.
- In the final chapters, the protagonist wins against almost impossible odds.
Pitfalls are a plot that does not slow down and allow the reader to catch the magnitude of the impending disaster. Another pitfall is weak characters that do not come across as real, especially main characters that have no flaws (good or bad).
- Romance: the main component is a romantic relationship between two people and the obstacles they must overcome to be together. The two general types of romance novels are – category romance and single-titles. Single-title novels have fewer constraints and are usually longer. Category romance is shorter and follows specific publisher guidelines about aspects of the novel, like time period and the level of sensuality expressed.
What to expect in a romance novel:
- A love story
- A central obstacle that keeps the lovers apart and must be overcome.
- Scenes involving passionate sex and erotic behaviour.
- Over the course of the novel, main characters who change and grow.
- A positive ending that is emotionally satisfying.
It is demanding to write a romance novel and come across as authentic. Inadequate research with disappoint the reader. Clichés can also be a shortcoming: evil (step) mothers for example. The main challenge for the writer is to come up with new challenges/twists on old clichés.
- Science fiction and fantasy: these two genres are at times put together and called ‘speculative fiction’. A sci-fi novel usually revolves around a believable scientific future time, the alternative past or timeline. The heroes are usually seen as ‘nerdy’. An imaginary, fantasy land is the key elements of a fantasy novel. Characters do not need to be human and can have extraordinary ‘gifts’ that help them in the journey.
Fantasy and science fiction work on the following conventions:
- The protagonist goes on a journey to reach the goal.
- The worlds in which they travel are consistent and believable.
- The evil villain is usually only stopped by the hero.
- A special force or companion helps the hero and explains the challenges they face.
- Most characters survive and have been transformed along the way.
The biggest pitfall is to build a believable world that is consistent throughout the novel or series. The characters need to adapt to the challenges they face on the journey as well as in the final climax of the novel.
Action step – choose what type of novel you are going to write.
How will it be published?
You need to decide what format your final product will be in.
- A combination of any of the above
If you are self-publishing the decision is entirely yours but a publisher may look at where the majority of the readers are. You also need to take into account your budget for creating the covers and obtaining ISBN’s (International Standard Book Number’s).
Action step – choose the format you will publish your finished work in.
How long will it be?
Most novels are between 50 000 and 100 000 words long though some can be as short as 20 000 words. The generally accepted number is around 80 000 words in length. A publisher has a count in mind for the final product but again it will depend on the genre and constraints of that genre. Authors that are self-publishing their work have fewer constraints.
Below is a guide of the word-count per day for 30 days. What is your final word count by the end of 30 days? The daily word count beside that figure will help you keep on track.
|Final word count||Daily word count|
|30 000||1 000|
|40 000||1 337*|
|50 000||1 667*|
|60 000||2 000|
|70 000||2 334*|
|75 000||2 500|
|80 000||2 667*|
|90 000||3 000|
|100 000||3 334*|
*Indicates numbers rounded off.
Action step – choose your final word count (from there you will have your daily word count).
How do I set my goals?
Writing a novel, of any length, is a serious undertaking and it takes dedication and persistence. Time, of course, is an obvious add-on. If you take your writing seriously, then the people closest to you must take it seriously as well. The foremost thing you will need to do is set aside a place and time to write. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Create a schedule of time to write each day, preferably 30 minutes or more.
- Try to write when you are at your sharpest! (Are you a night owl or early bird?)
- Create a space dedicated to writing. If you cannot have a separate room away from the movement in the home then block off part of a room.
- Disconnect from technology! It sounds so simple but it is easily forgotten. Mute notifications, switch off your cell phone, and avoid the urge to check your social media feeds.
- A final piece of advice – learning to write any fiction well takes time, selling takes longer so do not quit your day job just yet!
Once you have your writing space, ensure it is well-lit, you are sitting comfortably (nothing is worse than trying to write for two hours in an uncomfortable chair!), pen and paper to jot down ideas, computer connected to the internet and a reliable printer. While you are writing ideas may come to you and if you do not immediately follow the train of thought, write it down! It may spark a new novel or help you when you have no idea of what to write. You can write your first draft longhand or on a computer, the choice is yours. It is a good idea to back-up your work frequently as losing any part of your work can be very demotivating. The internet has largely replaced the need for research books but feel free to do interviews, visit places and collect your own data. If you do use any data from the internet please remember to note your sources/websites in case you need to go back later.
It is important for a writer to connect with other writers – whether online or in a local group. You may critique each other’s work or simply provide support as you go through the various stages to publication. A novelist must also read, especially in the genre they write in – to stay abreast of industry standards and expectations. But sometimes it is refreshing to read other genres and gain a different insight into writing.
Action step – set your goals!
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What are the five basic elements?
Novels are composed of five basic elements, some of which are more dominant than others in various genres. The elements are:
- Narrative voice
The elements are essential to any novel and work together to bring the novel to life. In a romance novel, the characters are more important than plot, whereas in a thriller the opposite is true.
The story unfolds through your characters. Your novel is made up of the main characters, supporting characters and walk-on characters. The protagonist and other main characters are vividly described and require more planning while supporting and walk-on characters need less. Your main characters need to leave an impression on the page from the moment the reader encounters them.
Main characters need a backstory that is either shared with the reader or used by the writer to keep up consistent behaviour in the character throughout the novel.
Action step – create a file or Pinterest board and save things that relate to your characters. E.g. descriptions, pictures, notes, anything to help you know your characters inside out!
A plot needs three key elements –
- A goal
- An obstacle/challenge to be overcome
- An outcome
Some genres have their own plot elements. The plot usually revolves around a main question, such as ‘Will the sleuth find the killer before they strike again?’
The plot can also be defined as what the characters do to adapt to the situation they are in. Real people adjust to their environments and so must your characters.
Your novel will have a main plot that drives the story but woven into it you will have sub-plots that add to the story. The main plot begins at the start of the story and is concluded at the end while subplots can begin almost anywhere in the novel but MUST connect in some way to the main plot. They may lead to an answer that helps solve the mystery or bring the lovers closer together.
Action step – define your plot.
Where your story takes place is important. You must have a detailed knowledge of the main physical locations, the time period, season, time frame (day, week, and month) and the industry in which your characters will be interacting, living and working. Choose settings that you are comfortable with and describe them in as much detail as possible. Again it must be consistent throughout your novel.
Action step – map out your setting(s); use a file on your computer or a Pinterest board to help you!
Any work of fiction requires a strong narrative voice. It is best to keep narration to the main characters. You can write from one character’s point of view throughout, or switch between multiple characters as you go along (this is more challenging). Decide what will work best for you and your novel.
Action step – decide what voice works best for you and your story.
The theme can be looked at as answering the question – ‘I get what happened, but so what?’ Some writers start out with their theme in mind, while others find their themes in the novels they write. Themes can range from good vs. evil, man vs. woman, the power of love and friendship etc.
Action step – choose your theme.
So, there you have it – the keys to setting your novel up for success every single time. Ready to move forward?