Tips for Novelists


I know, I know…you’ve heard it all before, at least you think you have. Tips like: “Write the book of your heart!” And, most aggravating of all, the advice you’ve been given seems remarkably like PCS (Plain Common Sense). But given that I’m still hanging in there and selling novels, despite recent turmoil in the publishing world, here are a few ideas I’ve personally found effective. I offer them to you, to use as you wish…

My Top Ten Tips for Breaking into Publishing (or Staying in Print):

  1. Use what you know. Readers love to learn about anything beyond their own experience: places, jobs, life experiences, technical details and little-known facts. Weave your life into the story and you’ll not only make it seem more real, you’ll satisfy the fiction reader’s curiosity. What’s ordinary to you is exotic to someone else.
  2. Feed your own curiosity. Don’t be afraid to include characters, settings, or events that you haven’t experienced. If you are interested in a topic, enjoy following your nose and do the research, including talking to people who are experts. Fresh ideas enrich stories.
  3. Brush up on the basics. We all get rusty and forget some grammar skills, or we may need to learn new skills to operate in the publishing world. Take a class, online or locally. I teach in the Washington, DC area but have had students travel from out of state to attend up to 8 weeks of classes. Dedicate yourself to your craft.
  4. Get support. It’s a bit of a secret but…even the pros don’t do it all by themselves. They hire a pre-publication editor, collect Beta Readers, attend conferences, critique groups, and meetings with other published authors, and search for a savvy agent. Successful writers go to these wise people when they need advice. You can do the same.
  5. Look for gaps. Rather than trying to follow trends or just aiming blind at a book idea, look for obvious gaps in publishing patterns. If vampires are selling like hotcakes, don’t try to dive in at the end of the craze. Instead find another twist on paranormal. Rather than writing a Downton Abbey clone, pick a nearby era like the Victorian.
  6. Read…read…read…everything you can get your hands on that’s similar to your story. Be aware of and avoid tired clichés. Make use of other writers’ strong and appealing techniques. Find favorite, recent novels and use them as textbooks as you learn.
  7. Try different genres and styles. An editor once told me that the best thing a new writer can do is to experiment with a wide range of fiction and send out as many different projects as possible. Try a traditional mystery, then a thriller, or a romance…whatever you enjoy reading. Increase your chances of breaking in by giving editors choices.
  8. Details count. Boy, do they ever. Editors see straight through the writer who doesn’t take the time to fact check. And readers become bored by the author who uses generic settings or characters. Dig deep and make your stories so visual they jump off the page.
  9. Know the business. Follow what’s happening in publishing by tracking sales and articles on a site like Publisher’s Marketplace. Join writing organizations and read their newsletters. Sign up for an author’s chat group on Yahoo. “Like” authors’ and agents’ pages on Facebook and follow their Twitter postings. It’s all part of being a professional.
  10. Write every day…or nearly so. This is the most important of all. If you intend to ever finish that novel you’ve started, you need to dedicate substantial and consistent time to your writing. My students at The Writer’s Center sign a contract with me to spend a minimum of 90 minutes, 6 days a week, for the 8 weeks of their course. This is intended to get them into the habit of writing to completion of a rough draft. Once you establish the writing habit, you will want to write for longer periods of time. And if you miss a day or two you will feel impatient to get back into your book. You don’t skip brushing your teeth. You don’t miss meals for days at a time. You’re a writer. You write for as long as you’re breathing. Now go and write!

And remember: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a stick.” Jack London
Good luck!  MHP

Need more help from those in the know? Here are a few titles I recommend:
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, also by Donald Maass