Five Essentials of Novel-Writing for Self-Published Authors

Coffee Cup

I scribed this for A Writer’s Path, where it will appear sometime in the next month. Editor Ryan Lanz graciously suggested I feel free to publish it here first.

It’s tough out there; everyone’s writing novels, and many of them are pretty damn good. You will have a hard time marketing your book, whether you are self-published or have managed to get into a trade publishing house somewhere. Most books, even many deserving ones, vanish, leaving their authors to hope for van-Gogh-like posthumous success. But you can tilt the odds slightly in your favor by writing a book that is actually worth reading. Here are five essentials for the emerging novelist.

1) Reveal, don’t explain. Avoid exposition: your character’s interactions with each other and their environment should expose, bit by bit, what’s going on. Instead of telling readers what someone’s like, let them judge for themselves from the things characters do and say. It’s not show-and-tell; it’s show and respect your readers enough to let them figure it out. If you do your own job well, your readers will do theirs unconsciously. Don’t try to control their every thought. Let them absorb the story and make it their own.

2) Unless you’re writing a Beckett play for the page, scene-setting is important–in fact Raymond Chandler said that a good plot was one that made for good scenes. But let readers see the setting with their own eyes–don’t over-describe. Give enough punchy imagistic depiction that readers can fill in details out of their own experiences. it doesn’t matter if the reader’s mental pictures don’t match what’s in your head, as long as the feelings they evoke forward the story.

3) Start in the middle of something–avoid prologues and introductions. Don’t provide your own spoiler. Show two people having an argument or discussing a problem, or someone wondering where to run, even though you don’t expose why they need to run…yet. Most stories have an element of the mystery novel to them, if not in the big outline, at least in the smaller incidents that move the story on.

4) Use a real editor, not a friend or relative. Not even if they are professional editors. Pay for the work if you must. It is vital to use someone who can be brutal with you if necessary, for the sake of the book. You’re a writer; your duty is to literature and to the reader, not to your own ego.

5) After publication, don’t spam your Amazon page with five-star reviews by your friends. No real novel receives all five-star ratings. War and Peace doesn’t. For Whom the Bell Tolls doesn’t. Moby Dick doesn’t. (Look them up.) If your unknown self-published first novel receives nothing but extravagant praise–well, readers aren’t that dumb. They’ll figure out that you’re using shills. And no, your novel isn’t so good that Tolstoy, Hemingway, and Melville have much to worry about. Accept that not everyone will love your baby and think it’s the cutest book ever. People have been writing novels for nearly five hundred years now, and there are plenty of great ones out there. Your third novel will be when you hit your stride.

Always remember that the novelist is a storyteller. Yes, there have been brief epochs when novels were all atmosphere and philosophical musing, but…no one reads those books much any more. Character and conflict are the fundamentals. You will see this as much in Jane Austen as in Leo Tolstoy. And your readers better see it in your book, lest they be bored.

Rick Risemberg