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Novel Writing—
Techniques and Traps

Copyright 2000 by Patricia Anderson

 


Writing a novel is a challenge. For first-time novelists especially, to create a book-length work is a huge achievement all on its own. But in today's crowded fiction market an original idea and enough words (even if the grammar is flawless) are not sufficient to get you published or represented by an agent. To give yourself a fighting chance, you must avoid the traps into which beginners typically fall and diligently pursue the techniques of seasoned professional novelists.

Below are some of the most common traps for new novelists and techniques to help you avoid them.

Trap

Getting off to a slow start.

Technique

Don't bog down your story's opening pace in extraneous description, background information, and flashbacks. If they are truly crucial to the plot, mood, or reader understanding, then work them integrally and sparingly into the story as it unfolds.

Trap

Shifting point of view—jumping back and forth from inside one character's head to another and back again:

Mary felt an uncomfortable heat rising from her neck to her face.

John stared at her flushed cheeks. Darned if she isn't as embarrassed as I am, he thought.

Mary fought the urge to press her water glass to her face. That, she was sure, would only make her look like more of a fool.

Technique

Establish reader involvement by getting into one character's head and staying there for an entire scene. When you need to switch point of view, start a new scene.

Trap

Ineffectual dialogue.

Technique

Avoid having characters make speeches. Break up lengthy dialogue with "beats"—small pieces of action. Make sure that each character has a fitting and distinctive voice. For instance, would a high-strung character be likely to speak in slow, ponderous phrases? Would an English professor use a lot of slang? For help with writing dialogue see, among others, Jean Saunders, How to Write Realistic Dialogue.

Trap

Overwriting—using many words when one or a few would do.

Technique

Avoid excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Make every word count. If it isn't strictly necessary for plot, characterization, mood, setting, or reader understanding—get rid of it.

Trap

Telling, not showing.

Technique

Avoid telling the story with expository description. Instead, show the reader what is happening with dialogue, action, and imagery that appeals to the senses.

Trap

Failing to learn the craft of novel writing.

Technique

Take an introductory course in writing a novel or read a reliable book or two. There are many useful books on writing fiction. Two that I like are: Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them); and Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print.

Remember, in the end a great story is what sells a novel. Your job as novelist is to stay out of traps and to cultivate the techniques that will bring your own great story to life—and take you closer to getting it published.

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