Ten tips for writing a novel – Cecilia Galante

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By Jade Craddock

Cecilia Galante is the author of three middle-grade novels, three young-adult novels, an eight-book chapter book series, and two adult novels, and here she shares ten tips for writing a novel.

1. Write the story you’d most want to read. Don’t write a story just because you think it might be a bestseller or that it would make Great Aunt Edna proud. Think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, then don’t try to write a historical romance or a quiet literary novel. It might not be anything genre-specific that you love, but a certain voice, or type of story, or kinds of characters. Write what you love.

2. Begin with character. Make her flawed and believable. Let her live and breathe and give her the freedom to surprise you and take the story in unexpected directions. If she’s not surprising you, you can bet she’ll seem flat to your readers. One exercise I always do when I’m getting to know a character is ask her to tell me her secrets. Sit down with a pen and paper and start with, “I never told anybody…” and go from there, writing in the voice of your character.

3. Give that character something to want right away. Kurt Vonnegut advised that even making your character want something as simple as a glass of water will immediately present an issue, which will then start the action moving. In other words, your character has to have something that’s going to challenge, torment, and propel him/her forward. At the heart of every story is conflict – whether external or internal, make it a good one, and remember that this problem is going to shape your character, leaving her forever changed.

4. Forget the outline. Outlines are good, unless they are bad. The nice thing about an outline is that it gives you a direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities. For the first 5 pages at least, work without an outline. See where the story is beginning to take you.

5. Make things happen! You can have the greatest characters in the world, and write beautifully, but if nothing’s happening, the story falls on its face pretty quickly. In my books, I make sure something important to the plot is happening in each scene. And if there’s a scene in there that isn’t helping to move the story along in some vital way, I cut it, no matter how great it is. When I’m editing, I’ll go scene by scene and write a single-word sentence describing the action on an index card. Then I lay the cards out and I’ve got the bare bones of my story. I can see if things are moving forward, if I’m throwing in enough twists and turns, and if there are scenes that just aren’t pulling their weight.coverodds

6. Make it believable. Ah, you say, but you sometimes write stories with ghosts and fairies – how believable is that? It works if you make it believable in the universe of the book. In Be Not Afraid, I came up with rules for the demon that had possessed the girl – things it could and couldn’t do. I gave it a history and a compelling reason to return. Readers hate cheap tricks. Don’t pull the evil twin routine in the final hour. Don’t bring in a new character at the end to solve the protagonist’s problem for her. She’s got to resolve things herself, for better or worse.

7. Stick with it. You’ll be tempted to give up a thousand and one times. Don’t. Finish the story. Then work twice as hard to revise it. Do your best to get it out in the world. When it’s rejected by agents and publishers (which it will be) keep sending it out. In the meantime, write another. Then another. Trust me, you get better every time. You’re not in this writing business because it’s easy. It took me three books, two agents and eleven years to get my first novel published. It was a long tough road, but so, so worth it in the end!

8. Keep it to yourself. One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is showing their early efforts to anyone who will look. I know it’s tempting. You’re writing a novel. You want feedback! You want support! You want someone to tell you it’s awesome. But hold your horses. For one thing, if you let people see your novel too early, they’re going to have all sorts of ideas about where it should go and what it should be about, what you should include and what you should leave out. Worst case scenario is that no one likes it and you’re so discouraged you end up ditching it before you’ve had a chance to get very far. For a little while, at least, you need to protect your novel. Don’t show it to anyone, and don’t ask for advice. Give yourself some time to get your own vision onto the page before other visions interject. It’s your story; hide it in a drawer until it’s ready to see the light.

9. Remember that all good writing is rewriting. I don’t know of a single writer who publishes his or her work after a first draft. If you’re like me, your first draft will be some of the worst muck you’ll ever put on a page. But at least it’s there. And now now you can start the real work.

10. And lastly: Ignore the rules. (Including mine.) Everyone’s got advice and theories; people want to pigeonhole you, put you in a genre with its own rules and conventions. I think the work comes out better when we leave all that behind; when the only thing to be true to is the writing.

Cecilia Galante teaches eighth grade English at Wyoming Seminary’s Lower School, is a member of the faculty at Wilkes University’s Creative Writing Department, and has three children. Her first adult novel, The Invisibles, published by HarperCollins, was released last summer to rave reviews in USA Today and Forbes Magazine. Her second adult novel, The Odds of Me and You, also with HarperCollins, is available now.


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