Are you writing fiction? Lately I’ve received many more questions about fiction. Most of them can be answered in four words: do it your way.
Writing fiction without rules
- I don’t know how to…
- But what if…
- I can’t write (something or other)…
- Someone said that…
To repeat: do it your way.
Every novel and short story you write is different. The only real “rule” is that you keep writing, any way you can.
Let’s look at some ways in which you can do it YOUR way.
1. Plot or not? Decide what your main character WANTS
I’m fond of saying that a plot is what your characters DO. That said, while they’re doing stuff, they need to have a reason for doing it: they need a goal. Once your main character has achieved his goal (or failed to achieve it) your book is DONE.
So, before you get too much into the planning and writing of your novel, decide what your main character wants.
The “want” needs to be a serious desire to which the character is utterly committed, because it drives the action. We’ve talked about suspense and building narrative drive:
Whatever genre you’re writing, be it a cozy mystery, or science fiction, or even a literary novel, you need suspense to keep readers reading. “Suspense” is narrative drive: readers are driven to zoom through your novel because they’re frantic to discover what happens next.
For narrative drive, the simpler the “want” the better. For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley. The narrative drive of Gone With The Wind, an enormous novel, is based purely on Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley Wilkes.
If she didn’t pursue him with such determination, the novel wouldn’t have a spine; it’s doubtful it would have been published, let alone become a classic and bestseller.
Once you know what your main character wants, you can plot and write with confidence.
You don’t need to write from go to whoa.
2. Why write chronologically? Write the scene which grabs your attention
Your subconscious mind, “the boys in the basement” in Stephen King’s words, refuse to work to order, sadly.
Occasionally you’ll write a novel which flows from the first word. You keep writing from the first scene to the end, because the words keep flowing.
When they stop flowing, the boys are still sending you material to write, but you may ignore it, because the scene they’re offering, or the conflict which fills your mind, doesn’t fit in with that day’s writing.
“I can’t write that yet!” you mutter with annoyance. “That comes later… I need the scene where she’s arguing with her daughter.”
When you refuse the boys’ offerings, they get sulky. Imagine them, downing their tools, folding their arms, and snarling: “since you know so much—write it yourself, you ungrateful (expletive deleted.)”
Keep the boys sweet. Write what you’re inspired to write, that day. You don’t need to write chronologically, you can write anything you choose.
Relax if what you’re writing doesn’t seem to make sense: it will, sooner or later. Think of your novel as a jigsaw puzzle. Create the pieces. Putting them together will be much easier than refusing to write what you’re inspired to write.
Scrivener is handy for this. When you want to write something that “doesn’t fit” right now, just start a new document. Sooner or later it will fit into your novel; you’ll just need to do some minor revisions to slot it into place.
3. Genre? Describe your novel
In all my fiction classes, I ask students to start by describing their novel. They can do it immediately, before they start writing. Alternatively, they can describe their novel after they’ve written 2,000 words.
Yes, I’m talking about writing a blurb.
The blurb you write when you begin your novel isn’t the blurb you write as your book description when you’re publishing it. Your initial blurb is just a compass: a map, if you like.
Here’s why it’s important. Until you know what kind of novel you’re writing, you won’t know what kinds of emotions you want to trigger in your readers.
Do you want to:
- Frighten them out of their wits?
- Take them on a thrilling adventure?
- Generate feel-good emotions: love, desire, community, warmth…?
When you know the kind of novel you’re writing, you know the readers you’re targeting, and you’ll understand what they want.
Is genre a mystery to you? If you’re a new fiction author, it may be.
Here’s how to get to grips with genre so you can choose the best genre for your novel:
- Grab the last five novels you’ve read — preferably novels similar to the type of novel you’d like to write;
- Look up your novels on Amazon. On each novel’s product page, scroll down to the page to the Product Details. You’ll see “Amazon Best Sellers Rank.”
Here’s the Product Details for a recent novel, The Flatshare.
The Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
367 in Contemporary Romance Fiction
346 in Family Life Fiction (Kindle Store)
198 in Women’s Literary Fiction
As you can see, Amazon has slotted the novel into three genres: Contemporary Romance Fiction, etc.
After you’ve looked up the genres to which Amazon assigned your five recent reads, you’ll have a better grasp of genre and of the type of novel you’re writing.
Writing fiction: keep writing
To write fiction your way:
- Create a main character who wants something desperately;
- Pay attention to the boys in the basement;
- Discover your novel’s genre.
Keep writing, do it your way and have fun. 🙂
Need help developing a self-publishing strategy for your fiction?
A short story of 5,000 words can make more money than a 60,000 word novel
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If you aren’t, there’s an answer. Savvy authors use short fiction (short stories and novellas) to generate sales and income quickly.
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Update: May 30, 2021
Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.