Second step in writing a novel

Decide the objective: the type of novel (Genre)

As we have already discussed, you must adopt a professional attitude. Forget about romantic ideals and the image of the bohemian writer. Being a writer is a creative activity full of words and beautiful adjectives, but also it is a job and the sale of a novel to a publisher is a business proposal.

What does this mean to you? This means that you may increase your chances of success from the very beginning, if you acknowledge what it takes for your book to be part of the publishing market.

I am not suggesting you sell your artistic integrity, I am only advising you to wear the “business hat” for a moment. You must research the market a little and identify a niche so you’ll know where you’re heading. Writing a novel is risky if you don’t have a clear idea of your book’s intended position in the literary market. You may get away with a novel if it perfectly fits a category. But if your novel slips and slides between the intermediate gray zones of different genres, then publishers are more likely to turn your work down regardless of the high quality writing. Publishing and editing novels is a business, not a charity for creative people. If your books will not earn money for publishers (if not immediately, perhaps in the next two to three years), then they will not want to have anything to do with your work.

In practice, you can identify your niche by exploring the different types of novels out there. Then, you can decide on the type/genre (from a creative point of view) that will allow you to express yourself freely and smoothly, in order to create a story that is both original and interesting.

Even though there might be numerous types of fictional novels, broadly speaking you may classify them into three groups:

Novels of a particular genre

This is the most popular type of fiction. It could be divided into categories, such as: mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, noir fiction, spy fiction, etc… If you decide to write a novel in a particular genre, you must bear in mind the different sets of rules (or conventions) of each category that you, as the writer, must more or less follow.

Literature, or fictional narratives

Generally, these are novels with more depth. They are charged with symbolism and ideology, and consist of dense subplots and allegories. These seem to be less commercial than books of a particular genre, but with some exceptions. If your fictional narrative happens to win a prestigious award or receives a positive critique from word of mouth, then this could make you very rich.

General fiction that is intended for the masses

As you may have guessed, this is halfway between both types. These aren’t novels of a particular genre, they do not convey the depth of ideology, and they certainly don’t pretend to be as artistic as fictional narratives. General fiction refers to novels that easily become Best Sellers, and they don’t strictly follow the conventions of other genres (some are set in the future, but don’t intend to be a science fiction novel, others deal with vampires but in reality they are just love stories and nowhere near a horror story, etc…). Usually, general fiction deals with intimate stories.



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The Math of a novel

Before writing the argument, we must know some statistics that could help us with the basic structure of the argument.

Generally, novels are comprised of three sections (or three acts): the Beginning (exposition), that covers 25% of the overall book, the Middle (development) that represents 50%, and the Ending (resolution) which takes up the remaining 25%. If we bear in mind that a novel is on average comprised of 80000 words, the proportions are: Beginning 20000/Middle 40000/ End 20000 words.

The Beginning comprises the introduction to the story and that of the characters; it sets the status quo and creates a logical frame to introduce the first turning point in the plot, where you’ll present the conflict that our characters must solve. In a conventional novel, some 80 to 120 scenes or other important events take place. If we take the first number and calculate it to the initial percentages, around 20 scenes will take place during the beginning.

The Beginning reaches a turning point when the protagonist decides to act.

The Middle is where the story develops, the action itself, it will comprise 40 scenes, and around 40000 words. You will see the subplots (stories that involve secondary characters and complement or function as counterpoints to the main story).

The End is where the story defines itself and we see the consequences of the main character’s actions. This will have 20 scenes (20000 words).

Obviously, this is a very simple and shallow structure that might not adjust to the novel you plan to write, but it is truly useful in plotting the argument of the novel. Numbers will change, and it is likely that you’ll find yourself on the margins of these averages.

First draft

You’ve probably noticed that on this 15-step guide on how to write a novel, the first 10 are related to preparing and planning. This is deliberate.

According to agents and publishers, the majority of novels are rejected due to their poor execution and planning. And, guess what? You are more likely to write a well-planned novel if you take the time and bother to plan it all in detail.

If you decide to forget about planning and jump straight to writing, that’s alright. However, most probably your first project will end up being a structural disaster, and by consequence, you’ll have to apply all the planning techniques during the revision stage.

Even though some people will tell you that the only, truly creative part in a novel is writing, they’re wrong. In fact, starting from a blank sheet of paper and filling it with characters, places, and events, and using more than your imagination is the definition of creativity.

Some authors will tell you that writing a first draft of a novel is complete agony. And there is some truth to that. In fact, it is precisely at this moment that a writer’s block begins to lurk. But if you’ve got the scenes picked, planned, and also written down, then the key to your novel lies in the previous step and you won’t be blocked.

If you embark with a positive mind, there is no reason why filling a few hundred pages with words, will impede you from having an enjoyable experience.

New comers to writing make the biggest mistakes at this point: writing while properly phrasing and editing (that is to say, spitting out a sentence and immediately trying to improve it). Don’t do this. The first projects are simply to put the plot on black and white, regardless of how terrible the prose is.

There are two ways to write a novel, one is writing it all at once till you finish the first draft, and two is writing chapter by chapter revising each one before continuing. For the latter you’ll only need to repeat the revision steps for each chapter instead of the entire novel. It doesn’t matter which way you follow, the result shouldn’t change.

Place and situation of a novel

Once you’ve decided who and how the story will be told to the reader, you’ll need to know the where and when of the story. The setting of the scene requires more than just streets and buildings. It is practically everything that surrounds the characters. This includes things such as what the characters do, a job, the climate, the story of a city or of the place they are in, the folklore. It is very important to create an atmosphere for the novel.

Just like with characters, you must know the environment thoroughly before writing about it. In fact, if you think of the setting as another character, then you won’t be mistaken.

You must do some research, collect photograph and write short descriptions, (not only visual, but also sensations, smells, touch, etc…). Nowadays, Google Maps can take us any place and allow us to stroll any street in any location on the globe. If the novel takes place in the present, this might be an excellent tool.

Decide on a point of view

You have elaborated the list of characters and know all of the main characters intimately. Now that all of them are real to you, the next step comes naturally: Who is telling the story?

You must never confuse the author of the novel (you) with the narrator (your creation). In a fictional story, the author is never the narrator.

If the narrator tells the story away from the characters, you are opting for an external point of view. In this type of point of view, the narrator could be:

Omniscient narrator (ever present)

This is God. It has access to the internal and external world of the characters; it knows their past and future. It is ubiquitous, and may narrate simultaneous events that occur in distant places. It has complete understanding of the story and can deal with many characters at once. It can also form opinions regarding the facts it narrates, even though it might not always do so.

Camera lens narrator

This narrative technique creates the illusion that there aren’t intermediaries between the story being told and the reader. It is similar to when in film we can see the actions of the external world of the characters, but never know what they are thinking, what they feel, their past or their future. It is like witnessing the story as it happens.

Semi-omniscient narrator

It is an omniscient narrator, however it is limited to one of the characters. You will use the third person but you’ll tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist. You’ll only access scenes, which the character sees, what she/he thinks and feels, but not the rest.

If the narrator tells a story from the inside of characters (be it one or several), then you will be adopting an internal point of view. You’ll use the first person, and you’ll see the story through the eyes of that character, and we’ll be able to hear his/her thoughts.

There are numerous combinations that might bring into play different forms on how to tell the same story.

Selecting a theme for your novel

This is not as hard and confusing as it may appear to be. The theme is the essence of the story, the axis around which the narration turns. The theme is not something concrete, but rather an abstract concept, universal or something that everyone can understand: suffering, heroism, violence, cruelty, etc… As we can see, these are all words, aside from individually transmitting positive or negative values, that are not attached to a predetermined time or space. The theme of our story is what remains from it when we reduce it to a single word.

If you’d like to write a romantic story, it doesn’t matter if the lovers are Romeo and Juliet, two aliens made from burning lava, or a toaster and a microwave, the theme of the three stories will be “love”. To clarify this concept, let’s see what is the theme of these known stories:

Peter Pan, by JM Barrie: Childhood.

The count of Montecristo, by Alexandre Dumas: Revenge.

The picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde: Narcissism.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert: Adultery.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Guilt.

In conclusion, the definition of a theme is essential to the planning of a novel. Thus, this is what the novel is about and you’ll be working on this concept throughout the project.