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Is Writing a Novel Daunting for You?

If writing a book seems daunting to you—something you’ve dreamed about but 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 the answers in mind, take your first baby steps. You can do it!

The Protagonist

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

The name of the character should reflect her or his culture and the time 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 1950s, you would choose names for your young adult characters from the thirties era.

When describing the protagonist, don’t give out all the details. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks, especially if they imagine themselves as the character. Also, show don’t tell. What aspiring author hasn’t heard that advice before? Telling readers about a character’s appearance, actions, and emotions often pales compared to simply showing them. Yet the most effective way of writing a story is to combine showing with telling.

In the first example, I’m telling readers the information:

That morning, Caitlyn had overslept, missing the bus.

In the second, I’m showing them what happened:

The sun was shining through the curtains in her bedroom as Caitlyn opened her eyes, glimpsing the clock on the nightstand. Realizing she was late, she jolted up in bed. 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.

If the details of Caitlyn missing the bus aren’t as significant as what comes next in the story, I’d tell the readers she missed the bus because she overslept and then show them what follows:

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. And you won’t get another chance to present. The clients are furious! They’re not coming back. I have no choice but to—”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, I . . .” The words stuck in Caitlyn’s throat like dry toast, for her boss couldn’t care less about excuses.

By showing rather than just telling details in a scene, an author can develop characterization and plot, which is what best-selling author Jodi Picoult did 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. (Picoult, Mercy, 11.)

If Picoult just told us the details of Verona MacBean’s appearance, the passage would fall flat, like this one:

Dressed in a beige suit, Verona MacBean wore mascara and foundation on her face, with her hair in a knot at the back of her head.

Give the main character a backstory to make him seem real. That doesn’t mean you should include all details about his past, or you’ll bury readers with words. Monitoring the book’s overarching themes, blend showing and telling in the backstory; consider the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird, for example:

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.

(Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 3.)

Include the character’s flaw in the backstory. In every strong narrative, you’ll find a protagonist working against her flaw. Is she a gossip? A bigot? Socially awkward? Afraid to take a risk? Naïve? If a bad-tempered father raised the character, imagine how that affects her actions later. Every time she did something minor like spill milk, her father exploded. As a result, she is quick to anger as an adult, affecting her relationship with her boss, neighbours, friends, and boyfriends.

One of my flaws (of many) 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 well. I’d arrive at my destinations late, annoying friends and family, or sometimes find myself in a strange neighbourhood where it wasn’t safe to get out of the car. Imagine how giving your character a flaw like mine could shape your narrative.

Introduce the protagonist on the first page of your book so readers bond with her straight away. As she struggles to reach her goal, they’ll stay engaged throughout the book. If you make her clever, generous, compassionate, or place her in the middle of danger, you’ll generate sympathy for the character. You’ll also create sympathy by having an antagonist in the story who gets in the protagonist’s way.

To come up with the emotional clout for readers, draw from your own or others’ experiences in your circle and what’s in the media. I remember watching The Theory in Everything—a movie about how famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife managed 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 the conversations on the bus or in restaurants, stores, and other public buildings. In a washroom stall at the mall, I overheard a teen complaining to a friend about a classmate who had stolen her boyfriend. Tears, dissing, and gossip dominated the conversation. I drew from that incident to write an emotional scene in a young adult novel.

Walk in another person’s shoes to help describe his or her feelings.

In my young adult title Hello, my name is Emily, a stranger stuffed Emily into the truck of his car. Before writing this scene, I persuaded my husband to shut me in the trunk of his Toyota Corolla. The dark, confined space sucked the breath out of me. As I banged on the lid, trying to escape, my heart was pounding in my ears, while my shirt was clammy with sweat. I’m not suggesting you go to those lengths to draw from your emotions (our neighbours were about to call the police before we told them why I was in the trunk!) but try walking in another person’s shoes if only in your imagination.

That's it for now. Next week, I'll explore the second question, about conflict.


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