Writing Fiction: An “Essentials” Checklist For Your Novel

Are you wondering about writing fiction? If you’re a professional writer, fiction makes a wonderful side hustle. Who knows? You may write a bestseller.

On the other hand… Recently I chatted with a couple of writing colleagues who’d tried fiction and gave it up as a pain in the you-know-what.

One said: “I’d rather binge-watch Netflix than write another novel. It was a waste of time.”

My other friend told me that he’d sold one copy of his novel… ONE, in two years.

My friends are pro writers. Their attitude, honed over years of writing everything from technical manuals to text advertising, is: “I write. I get paid.”

Writing fiction: five figures a month, or…

Unfortunately, that attitude doesn’t work when you’re writing fiction. Telling lies for fun and profit is a business; you need to invest time, energy and money in your self-publishing business.

You may strike the jackpot with a book which makes five figures a month. Or your book may be a damp firecracker: you publish and nothing happens.

Should YOU write fiction?

Yes, if you choose to:

  • Write the very best book you can, at this stage of your experience;
  • Promote that book by marketing it, as well as writing another novel and another after that. Bestselling novelists on Amazon tend to have 40+ novels in their publishing catalogue. Each book sells the others.

Let’s focus on the “writing the best book you can” aspect of writing fiction for a moment.

Here’s a checklist of essentials for your novel.

1. Thrills and spills: make bad stuff happen to your characters

You’ll grow to love your characters. However, if they have a wonderful time, your readers won’t. Put your characters into a tough situation at the start of your novel.

Then make the situation worse… and even worse.

2. The bad stuff must make sense

You can’t just dump a load of misery onto your characters. Put them into a bad situation and ensure that the “worse” happens because of your characters’ actions.

Avoid coincidences and random events. Everything must happen for a reason. The reasons are always something your characters did, to get out of their initial bad situation.

For example, let’s say your main character’s a wonderful guy. He gets fired, because he sees something he should not see. When he gets home, he has a fight with his wife. He heads to a hotel but forgets to take a change of clothes.

He returns home: his wife is dead. The cops arrive, and he’s arrested for the murder of his wife.

None of the events should be random. Your character gets fired for a reason (you can tell readers what the reason is in Chapter 2, or 22; avoid dumping backstory.) His marriage is on the rocks; he rushes out of the house, so he forgets his clothes; he can’t believe his wife is dead… He picks her up and is covered with blood; the police arrive for yet another reason which you explain at some point…

Life is filled with random events. Novels NEVER are.

3: Contrast your characters: each character must be different

Avoid interchangeable characters. Every character must be a unique individual who seems real.

The movie The Odd Couple is a perfect example of contrasting characters. Watch it, if you haven’t already.

4. Pay attention to setting: location, location, location…

Setting is at least as important as character in your novel. Keep your characters out of the kitchen!

They need to be somewhere, doing something. The more dramatic you can make your locations, the better.

Alfred Hitchcock was a genius at locations. His movies feature unique locations: North by Northwest, Psycho, Strangers on a Train

You don’t need exotic locations. You can set a novel in your home town, as long as you make your locations unique.

5: Alternate your storylines (you need at least two)

Forget plot and “sub-plot”. Think of your two plots as two distinct stories.

For example, in a mystery, the first story is the crime: what happened, why it happened, etc. The second story is the solving of the crime.

When you have two stories you can work with them so that something is always happening in your book: there’s lots of ACTION.

After your first draft, intercut your two stories so that each chapter ends on a cliffhanger. You want your readers to keep reading, no matter what. And that takes effort.

6. Add humor in a later draft, if you can

A touch of humor always helps. Shakespeare knew that. Once you’ve got your setting and your storylines set up, at around the third draft, add some humor.

7. Keep your backstory out of your story (keep secrets from your reader)

Never, ever dump a lot of information about your characters’ histories.

No one (least of all readers) wants to know. YOU need to know your characters’ histories, but your reader doesn’t, until something from a character’s background is essential for him to know.

Curiosity keeps readers reading.

Writing fiction: use the above checklist

Create your own checklist of essentials you want your novel to contain, or use the one above.

Big tip: you can always improve your novel, by boosting an element of the novel.

If you’re wondering about my writer friends, both decided to revisit fiction. Why waste their experience in writing fiction?

That’s the fun of writing fiction—you learn something from every novel you write. What you learn will improve your next novel.

Fiction writing checklist for novels


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