So, you finally have it – that spark of inspiration, that character you’re really excited to explore. This could be the one. The idea that makes you an author. You open up your laptop, create a fresh word document…and then what? Suddenly that blank page is really intimidating.
Luckily, Natasa Lekic, Founder of NY Book Editors, got to sit down with Nathan Bransford, a former literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., well-known blogger, and the author of the middle grade series, Jacob Wonderbar. While we’d be happy to talk to Nathan any day of the week, we’re especially interested in exploring his book, How to Write a Novel. Fitting, right?
Before conversation turned to what to do when putting pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keyboard), we covered Nathan’s first rule for writing a novel:
Self-Esteem: Get rid of the idea that you’re not a “creative person.”
“I spent a lot of time telling myself I was not a creative person,” says Nathan, thinking back to what he’d always envisioned a creative person to be like, and the kind of lifestyle that entails (hint: the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” comes to mind). He felt that if he didn’t fit that criteria, then he wasn’t creative.
In fact, Nathan said he prided himself on being the kind of literary agent who wasn’t secretly also working on a novel…that is, until he was.
Turns out, you probably are creative enough to write a novel. The hard part is making the time to do it. Nathan wrote his first manuscript while working full-time (we’re talking 12-hour workdays here), and when that book didn’t work out, he thought it was another sign that he wasn’t creative.
But then, the idea for Jacob Wonderbar struck him and he just ran with it. It’s all in an idea you love, and the time you’re willing to put into it.
How to Outline a Novel
Okay, so you’re all hyped up on self-esteem, you’ve got that great idea, and you’re ready to really work at it. What now?
Generally, novelists write in two categories: the planners who outline ahead of time, and the seat-of-pantsers who get an idea and just run with it. Nathan used to fall somewhere in the middle – a basic idea of what he wanted to write, but never the whole plot ahead of time.
Now? After seeing the outline J.K. Rowling (maybe you’ve heard of her?) used for Harry Potter, Nathan changed his mind. Rowling’s method for outlining – following each character through each chapter, being aware what everyone was doing at all times – really clicked with Nathan. Enough so that he created his own, which you can use for your own novel HERE.
Outlines, according to Nathan, work really well in that they let you look at your book from above, and to see if everything is coming together cohesively.
Of course, “the best outlines are only as good as they work on the page.” So, being flexible here is key. It’s okay if an outline fails on the page, because it’s still done its job. It’s given you a framework in which to write your story.
Here is where Nathan gets really adamant. If outlining doesn’t work for you, totally fine. But if your character doesn’t have any motivation? That’s a big red flag.
“I personally think that one of the major reasons we read novels is because we want to become invested in what the character wants, how they go and get it, and how they overcome obstacles,” says Nathan. “It’s so important to start with that thing that the character wants.”
Finding motivation can be more obvious for some than others. In genre novels like sci-fi, it’s likely to do with saving the galaxy, or the kingdom. In romance, it’s getting the guy or the girl. However difficult, all books need to center around what that character wants, quieter literary fiction, and big, loud, planet-saving genre fiction alike.
The best motivations are things that are wrapped up innately in your character’s identity. If your character wants to get rich, for example, that’s step one. The next step, the thing that really makes your reader care, is why.
Knowing that “why” can help readers connect with or understand a character on a deeper level. Do they want to get rich to help their friend out of a bind? (Empathetic and altruistic.) Or, do they want to get rich to lead a fancy lifestyle? (Greedy, self-important.)
Nathan’s three most important factors of character motivation:
- Why does your character have the goal that they have?
- What does their achievement of that goal look like? What about if they fail?
- Above all, be specific.
Nathan suggests that, “making a character choose between two or even three conflicting motivations is more revealing than having them go after one.”
For example, in the first Jacob Wonderbar book, Jacob, who has been flung into space with his friends, learns that perhaps his dad, who had recently “moved away,” might actually be living in space. When the time comes to head back to Earth, Jacob faces a choice: go with his friends toward home, or stay to look for his dad. The choice he makes says something about Jacob as a character. Neither choice would have been wrong, but each tells a different story.
Every book should have an element of mystery – not just mystery novels! And, the best mysteries are tied to that important character motivation: “Is the character going to get what they want?”
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, it’s important to note that “incorporating mystery” does notmean simply leaving information out. Nathan says he sees this in many manuscripts he edits. It’s both confusing and frustrating for the reader, who should know as much as the point-of-view character knows.
Think about Harry Potter (written in third person limited) where Professor Snape’s allegiance is a key mystery. Readers know everything Harry knows, never less, which keeps the pages turning.
This mystery is extremely compelling for the reader, too, because Snape’s loyalties are tied to Harry’s motivations as a character. His safety depends on it, memories of his parents rely on it, and defeating Voldemort (the ultimate motivation) very much hinges on where Snape stands.
The mystery, as with the motivation, is specific. It’s not “who is Snape?” but instead “who is he in relation to this one specific question?”
“What characters want are at odds with one another, and we should see those bumping up against each other,” says Nathan.
The pacing of a novel is internalized by the reader within the first 50 pages. A tempo is set (fast-paced like The Da Vinci Code, with short chapters and frequent conflict happening; or slower and quieter like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead), and readers come to depend upon it.
If there’s a swift change of pace out of nowhere, a reader is going to notice. If a gunfight breaks out after a hundred pages of quiet rumination, and suddenly your main character is on the run? That’s going to be very jarring for your reader, and likely confusing.
So, you must introduce conflict and raise the stakes for your character gradually. The higher the stakes, the more important and decisive the conflict.
The best stakes are, of course, related to who your character is deep down. Because again – that’s the most important part! Your reader needs to understand who your character is and why they want what they want in order to be at all invested in how they get there (or don’t).
If you are told to “raise the stakes,” the best way to do this is to make whatever it is even more important to your character. Give them bigger rewards and harsher downsides.
“Don’t just raise the stakes for your character in the external world,” says Nathan. “Give them internal stakes as well. Once the characters make their final choices, your reader will truly feel as if they know who these characters are.”
In order to plan this gradual raising of stakes, Nathan uses what he calls “tentpoles.” Basically, these are the heightened moments of intensity in your novel that act as a point of no return. This is a place where multiple plotlines might intersect and something really crucial happens. A way back might be cut off at the same time the character’s traveling group splits up, or two characters might argue at the same time as a decision has to be made.
TRY NOT TO CONSTRUCT SCENES AROUND DIALOGUE
We’ve internalized so many hours of TV and movies that it makes sense, on some level, that this kind of dialogue-focused storytelling would seep into novel-writing.
And, not all of this cinematic thinking is bad! TV and film have done an excellent job, says Nathan, of pushing plot-forward storytelling, keeping it tightly constructed, nuanced, and interesting. However, pay attention to how the story is being told. When dialogue is happening on screen, viewers are easily able to internalize the meaning behind the words due to actors’ facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and movement.
On the page, that contextualizing falls to the writer. Any line of dialogue can be read any which way if the reader is not given the broader scope. Authors will often forget, since they can see and hear the scene perfectly, that readers don’t have the same background knowledge that they do. It’s easy for an author to fill in blanks or to “hear” a line of dialogue they’ve written. A reader needs help there.
Whenever possible, make sure things aren’t just talked about. Favor action over dialogue It’s a lot more interesting to have characters stumble upon a new piece of information than to be told about it.
In Harry Potter, again for example, Dumbledore doesn’t just sit Harry down and tell him everything. There’s the pensieve which brings Harry right into scenes from the past, or he might sneak around in the invisibility cloak and happen upon revelations.
The book is done, now what?
First of all...celebrate! That’s a huge accomplishment.
Then, buckle in, because there’s a lot more work ahead – Nathan can hardly think about this part without cringing. The most painful part of your journey, he says, is looking critically at your own work.
Whether you plan on self-publishing or querying an agent, every writer has to do it. Nathan breaks the editing cycle down into these steps:
- Self-edit: Get as far as you can on your own. This is going to be difficult, looking for signs that your book isn’t good, but it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
- Get feedback: Whether you hire an editor or have a critique partner or friend read, this is essential. Get as many different readers as you can.
- Tweak: For a little while, at least. When you reach the point where you can’t think of anything else that you can do for your book, when all your doing is tiny edits that won’t make much of a difference in the long run, your book is ready.
What to do when you get an edit memo
Okay, so it’s not as simple as Steps 1, 2, and 3 make it seem. There’s a lot of work tied into each one.
Nathan likens receiving an edit memo to being given radioactive material. “You have to get acclimated over time because it’s so painful at first,” he says. So, you’ve got to read it over and over until the sting goes away and you can finally work with it objectively.
The first thing Nathan likes to do is prioritize the changes he’s going to make, from largest to smallest, and work from the top down, no matter where each change falls chronologically. He does this when he self-edits, as well as with notes he receives from outside editors.
The way he sees it (and this makes a lot of sense to us!), there’s no point in making small edits even if they come first chronologically if they’re going to be impacted by a larger change later on. That’s just a waste of time.
You’re never going to feel like you’re totally done with the manuscript, but when you find yourself fixating on a tiny word change instead of on larger plot points? You’re probably there.
You’re novel is ready to go.
Thanks to Nathan Bransford for sharing all of his tips with us!