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Write Right: Novel Writing for Beginners

If writing a book seems daunting to you—something you’ve dreamed about accomplishing one day—but you don’t know how to get started—then ask yourself three questions:

  1. Who is your protagonist?

  2. What trouble is she or he facing?

  3. Where does the story take place?

With your answers in mind, you’ll be eager to take your first baby steps. Then after following my step-by-step guide to novel writing, you’ll be prepared to let go of my hand.

Let’s begin by looking at your main character—

The Protagonist

Choose the main character’s sex and age after you’ve determined your target audience. In the romance genre, the protagonist should be female because the target audience is women. Readers aspire to be like the main character or identify with her. Fans of young adult books want to read about teens who are slightly older than they are. So, if your target audience is in the upper grades of elementary school, then write about teens in high school.

The name for this character should reflect her (his) culture as well as the time period in the book. Margaret, Dorothy, Shirley, Edward, Frank, and Harold were popular names for North American babies born in the 1930s. If you were writing a historical novel set in the 1950’s, you’d likely choose names for young adult characters from this category.

When you’re describing the protagonist, don’t give readers all the details. Just suggest how she looks. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks, especially if they imagine themselves as the character. Also, show don’t tell information. What aspiring author hasn’t heard this advice before? Nobody, I expect. Telling readers about a character’s appearance, actions, and emotions often pales in comparison to simply showing them. Yet a blend of showing and telling is often the most effective way of writing a story.

Sometimes readers need to be told how a character got from A to B but don’t need to be shown the specifics. In the first example, the information is shown:

The sun was shining through the curtains in her bedroom as Caitlyn opened her eyes, catching a glimpse of the clock on the nightstand. Jolting up in bed, she realized she’d overslept. The alarm hadn’t gone off! She threw on her clothes, brushed her teeth, washed her face, and flew out the door but arrived seconds after the bus had pulled away from the curb.

In the second example, the information is told: That morning, Caitlyn had overslept, missing the bus.

The consequence of Caitlyn’s lateness is more important than what led to it, so that’s what the author should show:

When she arrived at the office, Caitlyn’s boss was pacing across the floor, his hands on his hips, his jaw clenched as if wired shut. “Late again!” He glared at her. “The meeting is over; the clients—gone. I was counting on you, but now you won’t get another chance to present. The clients aren’t coming back. They’re not happy. I have no choice but to—”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, I . . .” The words stuck in Caitlyn’s throat like a bite of dry toast, for no excuse would be good enough for him.

It’s best to show details of a scene when you want to develop characterization or plot. The author has done both in the following passage:

When Allie Gordon was in high school, she was not the most popular girl in her class. She was nowhere even close. That honor belonged to Verona MacBean, with her cotton-candy puff of hair and her Cover Girl mascara and her pink mohair sweater molded like skin to what the boys referred to as the Hoosac Ridge.

And today, fifteen years out of nowhere, Verona MacBean herself stepped into Glory in the Flower and ordered three large centerpieces for a library luncheon to be given in her name.

“Verona!” Allie had immediately recalled the name. There was something disconcerting about seeing her classmate dressed in a severe beige suit, her hair scraped into a knot at the back of her head, her cheeks flat beneath a sheer layer of foundation. “What brings you to town?”

Verona had made a little clicking noise with the back of her teeth. “Allie,” she said, her voice just as thin and breathy as it had been in high school, “don’t tell me you’re still here!”

It was not meant as an insult, it never was, so Allie simply shrugged.

(Jodi Picoult, Mercy, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996,11)

If Picoult just told us the details of Verona MacBean’s appearance, the passage would fall flat, like this one does: Dressed in a severe beige suit, Verona MacBean wore Cover Girl mascara and a layer of foundation on her flat cheeks, with her hair held back in a knot at the back of her head.

Write Right Task 1

Showing the details, not telling, write a paragraph about each of the following:

A man is wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and a hard hat.

A woman’s fifteen-year-old son is arrested for drug possession.

An elderly neighbour has a heart attack while shovelling snow.

To make the protagonist seem real, give her a backstory. That doesn’t mean you should include every detail about the character’s past, or you’ll bury the readers with words. Keeping an eye on the book’s overarching themes, blend showing and telling in the backstory, as Harper Lee did at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his elbow broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out. (Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc., 1960, 3)

In the backstory, bring up the protagonist’s flaw. All good narratives have a protagonist that’s working against a flaw. Is she a gossip? Prejudice? Socially awkward? Afraid to take a risk? Is she naïve? If the character was raised by a bad-tempered father, imagine how this could affect her as she gets older. Every time she did something minor like spill milk or forget to take out the garbage, her father exploded, so she grew up to be quick to anger, which will probably affect her relationships with her boss, neighbours, friends, and boyfriends.

One of my many flaws is I have a poor sense of direction. Before GPS, Google Maps, and smart phones, I often got lost. Driving for me was a nightmare, especially at night when I couldn’t see landmarks clearly. I’d arrive at my destinations late, which aggravated my family and friends, or sometimes I found myself in a strange neighbourhood where it wasn’t safe to get out of the car. Can you imagine how giving this flaw to a character might lead to a storyline?

Write Right Task 2

Connect a flaw to the backstory of each character below:

A young woman has a facial scar she hides with her long hair.

A forty-year-old man flinches when he hears a car backfire.

Noticing a job opening at an addictions clinic, a fifty-year-old doctor leaves his family practice to apply.

Introduce the protagonist on the first page of your book so readers begin to bond with her immediately. As she struggles to reach her goal (a goal that's greater than herself), readers will be emotionally invested in her and will likely keep reading until she achieves her goal. Make her clever, generous, compassionate, or put her smack in the middle of danger to create sympathy for her, and by introducing an antagonist in the narrative, who continually gets in the protagonist’s way, you’ll also be developing sympathy for the protagonist.

To come up with the emotional clout for your story, draw from your own or others’ experiences in your immediate circle or beyond and from what you’ve seen and heard in the media. Although I seldom cry, I remember watching The Theory In Everything—which is a movie about how famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife handled his deteriorating health—with a box of Kleenex on my lap. Readers want to feel that kind of emotion when investing time in a book.

I get ideas from listening to conversations on the bus or in restaurants, stores, and other public buildings. In the washroom stall at the mall once, I overheard a teenager complaining to her friend about her so-called “friend” who had stolen her boyfriend. Tears, dissing, and gossip dominated the conversation. Later, I drew from this incident to write an emotional scene in a young adult novel.

You can also write about feelings effectively by walking in another’s shoes.

In Hello, my name is Emily, one of my young adult titles, a stranger stuffs Emily into the truck of his car. Before writing this scene, I asked my husband to shut me in the trunk of his Toyota Corolla. The dark, confined space took my breath away. As I banged on the insides to escape, my heart was in my throat, my shirt clammy with sweat. I’m not suggesting that you go to such lengths to draw from your emotions—the neighbours were about to call the police until my husband told them my rationale for being in the trunk—but walk in another person’s shoes, if only in your imagination.

* Next we’ll look at Conflict and Setting.

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