NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH :: Tips & Advice for First-Time Fiction Writers

Every November, thousands of aspiring writers from across the world try their hand at writing a novel in a month as part of the National Novel Writing Month.

Not an easy feat as you can imagine.

Of course, what counts as a novel (according to the NaNoWriMo guidelines) is 50,000 words, or roughly 175 pages. A novella really. But what’s wonderful about the idea is that it gets many potential writers past the first-word threshold and onto the first page, embarking on that noble quest to write the Great American Novel, perhaps one they’d been intending to write for years.

As a fiction writer already deep into my second novel, this much I can say about novel writing: beware the savage waters… the literary sea is a fickle mistress. Writing a novel is an epic voyage fraught with danger and excitement, the ecstasy of fair winds sailing the waves of your imagination and terrible storms that will shred your sails and knock you overboard to swim with the sharks.

But don’t give up and don’t despair. For all of you who’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo this year, here are a few quick tips & advice on writing fiction from my own personal experience.

1) Don’t try to write the last word first
Yes, your first paragraph is important. But don’t bust your head against a brick wall trying to come up with the perfect sentence to lead off the story. You’ll be wasting precious time anyway. Just start somewhere, anywhere, and focus on getting words on the page. Because frankly it doesn’t matter how much outlining you’ve done… you don’t know what your story will be (or rather what it will become with many twists and turns) until you write it. The story always changes and takes on a life of its own once you begin. And when you feel ready, then you can go back and craft your perfect beginning paragraph.

2) Let the Characters write the Plot for you There are endless fool’s books on how to write a best-selling novel, how to come up with the best plots, how to weave in meaningless motifs to make your fiction seem more “literary”. In the end, they are mostly bullshit. Want to write a great story? Then write great characters. Start off writing a character and bringing him or her to life. Spend your time there instead of the plot (chances are the groundwork of a plot is already sketched out in your head, right?). As an exercise, write a page in the character’s point of view, such as a day in their life, and really get to know them. What do they eat for breakfast, what’s their occupation, where did they grow up, what was their childhood like, what are their hobbies, what movies would they watch in a dark movie theater all alone. Then put that aside and write another one. Once you have flushed out two characters, put them in a scene/situation and let the characters write the story for you. And remember this simple equation: characters + scene/situation + conflict = story.

3) Dialogue is easier than you think
Hate writing dialogue? Well, really it’s much easier than you think. As a general rule, write dialogue as you would speak it, or as your character would speak it. If it doesn’t sound like something that someone would naturally say in the situation, then seriously question if it works. As an exercise, start studying the way people normally speak by imagining words and sentences when someone is talking to you during your daily life. Also avoid using complicated dialogue verbs like “exclaimed,” “denounced,” “pontificated,” etc. Just use simple dialogue verbs like “said” or “asked” or “argued” or “told”. The verb “said” isn’t really read by readers, it’s glossed over like a period, all the better for a smooth read. Oh, and one more thing, remember you don’t need to write all the dialogue in a scene. You can always summarize what is discussed in a normal paragraph. So chose your dialogue lines carefully and spend time crafting the most natural lines.

4) Cut to the Chase and Skip the Bus
Pacing is really important in fiction. Remember that you don’t need to write out all the transitions and every moment in between your protagonist leaving and arriving someplace. Nobody wants to read about a 30-minute bus ride or slug through a page of your character brushing his teeth unless it’s important to the story (or unless you are Proust). Treat every paragraph as a scene; you can time travel as much as you like with simple segues.

5) Narrative Distance is like a Camera Lens
What is Narrative Distance? Well, simply put it’s the distance between the interior mind of a character and the external world of the novel. Whether you are writing in the first-person or the third-person perspective, you are still using narrative distance all the time. Treat narrative distance like a lens. Zoom out to show the whole scene from afar (i.e. the God perspective), zoom in to exist in the character’s head (see through his/her eyes, what they are thinking, experiencing) or chose any distance in between. Have fun with this and experiment.

6) Too Much Information Kills Mystery
Every sentence is the beginning of a mystery… i.e. what will happen next. A man walks into a bar… ok, who is this man? Why is he in this bar? Has he come to drink a beer in solitude or murder the bartender for ratting him out to the cops on a botched bank heist twenty years ago? Choose your words, craft your sentences, and keep the audience guessing. Give them clues about what will happen next and lure them along. Also, as a side note, you don’t need to write every detail of a room, every bit of wainscoting, window, or color of every wall, or every outfit the character is wearing, their hairstyle, etc. Write only the details that matter, the details that serve your scene. You are choosing what the audience reads/sees. Make it count.

Those are just a few pointers. And remember: this is just my own advice, approaches to writing that I’ve found useful, not dogma (in fact, when it comes to fiction-writing advice, take everything with a grain of salt… and perhaps a glass of whiskey). The folks at NaNoWriMo have great suggestions too for first-time fiction writers, as well as writer forums for chatting and getting encouragement from fellow NaNoWriMo participants. To sign up, just log onto http://www.nanowrimo.org, register your email and fill out the profile. It’s free and easy. You can find my profile on there (yes, i’m cheating since I’m already past 175 pages and instead using the NaNoWriMo push to write the final hundred pages or so). I will be writing and posting throughout the month with progress reports on my own quest to wrap up this next novel.

Good luck and bon voyage!

D. A. Wright