Month: February 2015

20 Tips for Completing your Novel


“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

This quote from author W. Somerset Maugham captures the frustration of trying to describe the process of writing to beginning as well as veteran writers. If you ask 100 successful authors for their advice, you can be assured that you’ll get 100 different answers. Of course this doesn’t stop us from asking anyway. The following 20 tips were gathered from an array of authors and will hopefully coax your muse into action as you face the daily adventure of dragging order from the clutches of chaos.

Tip 1: Don’t forget to write the book you want to read -Mark Frauenfelder; Author of The Mad Professor

Tip2: Write Drunk, edit sober -Ernest Hemingway

Tip 3: Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. -Mark Twain

Tip 4: Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful -Carl Zimmer; Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank

Tip 5: Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce. -David Shenk; Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

Tip 6: Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book. -David Shenk; Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

Tip 7: Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day. Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it. -Cory Doctorow; Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers

Tip 8: Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing. -Cory Doctorow; Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers

Tip 9: Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing. -Cory Doctorow; Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers

Tip 10: Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement. -Cory Doctorow; Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers

Tip 11: This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagine ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections. -Bill Wasik; Author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture

Tip 12: Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together. -Geoff Manaugh; Author of The BLDGBLOG Book

Tip 13: Try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. This turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. But again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. -Deborah Blum; Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters

Tip 14: I let my first draft suck. Kind of the Anne Lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” To me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. If I get stuck, I just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) -Deborah Blum; Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters

Tip 15: I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening. -Sylvia Boorstein; Author of Happiness is An Inside Job and It’s Easier Than You Think

Tip 16: Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly. -Josh Shenk; Author of Lincoln’s Melancholy

Tip 17: My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing. -Jonah Lehrer; Author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Tip 18: Assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N. -Seth Mnookin; Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster

Tip 19: You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future. -Maryn McKenna; Author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil

Tip 20: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it. -Maryn McKenna; Author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil