20 Ways to Write a Better Novel

How do you write a novel that grips readers from Chapter One to The End? Writing fiction isn’t as easy as it looks (though I heard that authors sweat blood, which doesn’t make it look easy to write a novel!). These fiction writing tips from authors and editors range from “put the characters of your novel in therapy” to “pretend that your stories are snakes.” 

If you’re Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (to quote Lawrence Block) you might as well write the best novel you can – and have a great time! I rounded up the best tips for writing fiction from a range of successful writers, journalism professors, novelists, and scriptwriters.

“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live,” writes Anais Nin in The Diary of Anais Nin. When you’re writing fiction, are you creating a world that makes you feel more alive and vibrant? Nicholas Sparks said he’ll abandon a book as soon as he gets bored with writing it. He has to be fascinated with his characters’ world, or he won’t write the novel.

These aren’t the most popular quotes and tips for writing fiction from authors such as Stephen King and Anne Lamott (I already shared those in The Best Writing Quotes From Capote, King, Lamott, Orwell and More). But one thing I forgot to mention in that post was that both King and Lamott encourage writers to read, read, and READ more fiction. The more novels you read, the better you’ll get at identifying what does and doesn’t work.

When you’re reading with the intention of learning how to write a novel – and what makes the book good – do a little work. Ask yourself questions about what you feel, why, when, and where. How does the author use words to create emotions? Why do you like or dislike certain characters? Is the writing gripping even thought the plot or theme is distasteful? Do you hope the book never ends because you want to live in the characters’ world longer?

Pay attention to how the author makes you feel. Analyze the literary technique, style, or craft. You’d be surprised at how much you know about writing! Feel free to share your own tips for writing a better story in the comments below.

20 Fiction Writing Tips From Authors and Editors

1. Pull up a couch. “My best advice for writing a novel: act like your character’s therapist.  When you put your characters in therapy, you discover their hidden fears and secrets, and all the motivation you need for their behavior.” – Kelly Simmons, novelist and former journalist.

2. Know the character’s motivation. “In real estate it’s location, location, location. When you’re writing a novel it’s motivation, motivation, motivation. The art of creating believable characters is knowing their motivation. Why are your characters doing what they are doing? What do they hope to gain? What about their past makes achieving this goal so important? Why did they chose this course over another? Things don’t just happen. There are no coincidences. Everything is, or should be, driven.” – Laurel Bradley, writer.

3. Let your freak flag fly! “We have to accept ourselves in order to write. Now none of us does that fully: few of us do it even halfway. Don’t wait for one hundred percent acceptance of yourself before you write, or even eight percent acceptance. Just write. The process of writing is an activity that teaches us about acceptance.” Natalie Goldberg in Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.

4. See stories as snakes. “Children’s writer Bruce Hale told me: ‘A story is like a snake with its tail in its mouth. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Some stories even end up in the same place they started.’ He likes to tell the children who are staring at a blank piece of paper to write the word “NOW” on the paper. Now, the paper is no longer empty and you can begin writing!” – Kristen Kuhns.

5. Write fiction that make sense. “A novel has to make sense. Do your homework! If you’re writing about a place you’ve never been, make sure that what you say about the place and the real people who live there is true. Lately I’ve seen writers put a huge Western-style ranch in an Eastern state, describe a modern Indian reservation in 1880s terms, and refer to nonexistent airplane routes. Most readers can overlook small mistakes, but big mistakes can be jarring enough to wreck your story, especially when a quick online search is all that’s needed to locate the facts.” – Trudy W. Schuett, writer and librarian.

6. Be clear. What is your intention for every sentence, paragraph, chapter or series? If you’re confused and uncertain about what you’re trying to write in your novel, then your reader won’t get it either. I’ve tried tricking editors and readers by glossing over concepts and facts I didn’t understand; it never works. It just adds to my workload, irritates my editors, and alienates my readers. How do you clarify what you’re trying to say? By understanding it better, perhaps by creating an outline or mind map. Learn more about your topic, theme, or characters.

7. Get creative. “My best writing advice is to start with the truth and then twist it with your imagination.” – Zola Lawrence, writer and teacher.

8. Set and meet your writing deadlines. “Having a deadline draws you forward, past the demons and doubts and into the land of completion.  As Rob Hartzler, a wise artist friend of mine, told me, “It doesn’t exist unless it’s finished.” – Claire Bardos, screenplay writer.

9. Outline your novel. Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K. M. Weiland will help you brainstorm plot ideas, discover your characters, structure your scenes, format your finished outline, and use your outline to write the book you’ve always wanted to write.

Tips for Writing Fiction
Outlining Your Novel

10. Procrastinate. “When I was a freelance writer, I used to set aside about 20 minutes for procrastination activities every morning before I started to write. I took care of a lot of administrative and housekeeping tasks that way. Once I paid tribute to the procrastination judge, I was free to sit down and let it flow! That would be my best tip for writing a great novel or nonfiction book.” – Claire Bardos, screenplay writer.

11. Write freely – by hand. “I write my best fiction freehand. I wrote my entire novel freehand and then went back and typed it. Although this was time consuming, my ideas and thoughts flowed easily with pen and paper versus when I tried to write using the keyboard/computer. In addition to writing freehand, I was told to write on a huge tablet and to use a pen that wrote smoothly. My tablet was 14×17 so whenever I wrote in public people would stare in wonder about what in the world I was doing.” – Kelly Damron, writer and blogger.

12. Know your audience (one of the most common fiction writing tips). “My best advice for writing novels or chapter books for children is to understand everything you can about the age of the child you are writing for. Observe kids in a specific age group by observing a class for a week in a public school. Watch teens at a movie theater, bowling alley, video arcade, or fast food restaurant. Observe which novels they select to read at a library, book store or school book sale. Take notes and observe what they do and say as it relates to their physical, spiritual, emotional and mental abilities.” – Cindy Kenney, freelance writer and editor.

13. Set writing goals. “I’m the author of six books. The best novel writing tip I’ve ever received was given to me by a fellow author who said, ‘Write ten pages per day.’ Whenever I’m looking to tackle a book project or a screenplay, I use this advice and the project just sails by.” – Yasmin Shiraz, author.

14. Don’t ignore the best writing tips. “Show, don’t tell. Readers need details to visualize your words. They need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. Don’t just say it was a beautiful sunset; describe it in vivid detail.” – Mark Grabowski, journalism professor.

20 Fiction Writing Tips From Authors and Editors
Write a Better Novel

Want to write a more interesting novel? Read 10 Easy Ways Make Your Writing Edgy and Quirky.

15. Stop wishing you were a novelist. “Writers write. Wannabees talk about it.'” – Shelley Lieber, author.

16. Admit your weakness. My biggest writing mistake is, as I mentioned earlier, is going too fast. I proofread, but I don’t read out loud. I edit my blog posts, but quickly and only once (though I am editing and revising blog posts I wrote 10 years ago; revision is the best way to learn how to write a better novel). I also tend to overuse compound sentences and exclamation points. What are your biggest writing weaknesses? Identifying those will help you become a better writer.

17. Fire up your sense of discovery. Do you get bored when revising your stories, scenes or settings? Do you lose interest after writing the first chapter, or first half of the book proposal? Then you won’t go far in improving your writing skills, because the best writers keep writing through boredom, despair, fatigue, and uncertainty. This writing lesson is from Betsy Warland’s book Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing: “The guiding indicator, whether in inscription or composition, is sense of discovery. Discovery is what drives all writing.”

18. Connect with your reader. It can be difficult to connect with readers you’ve never met and probably never will. It’s especially difficult if your intention isn’t to interact or connect with readers. Maybe you just want to write, and not know your readers at all. Maybe you don’t want to get personal in your writing. Even so, you’ll improve your writing if you insert a little emotion into your work. Be connectable somehow – even if you’re writing a college essay or a business report. A great way to connect with your reader and improve your writing skills is to keep practicing your writer’s voice.

19. Slow down. Writing a great story takes effort – and it’s worth it! One of the most important tips for writing a better novel, magazine article or blog post is to slow down, take my time, think, and reflect. I have a busy writing and blogging schedule. I tend to focus on writing faster, producing more, getting more done! But that’s not helping me become a better writer. Slowing down is a great way to improve your writing. Take time to edit. Have the patience and courage to rewrite.

Habits of Highly Effective Writers

20. Put your heart where your head is. “Write straight into the emotional center of things,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent.”

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15 thoughts on “20 Ways to Write a Better Novel”

  1. Charlotte Rains Dixon

    This is a helpful list. I share your writing weakness, going too fast and not taking enough care. Another quirk of mine is the overuse of parentheses, which no doubt is related to the first. If I took time to go back more than once, I could probably edit those parentheses out and get the information into the flow of the work.

  2. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for sharing your writing weaknesses and lessons! When I write an article for a magazine or other freelance project, I edit four times. When I write a blog post, I just edit once, after it’s live.

    The beauty of writing long sentences is that they’re easily divided into multiple short ones! 🙂

  3. I have to agree. Understanding your own weaknesses is crucial if you’re to continually improve. For my sins, I tend to construct very long sentences with too many commas. I than have to edit them back to smaller more concise ones. Sometimes I leave them though – depends who I’m trying to annoy.

  4. Dear Linnea,

    Thank you for being here, and for taking the time to comment! Now I get to share this post in my Quips and Tips for Successful Writers Newsletter 🙂

    In peace and passion,
    Laurie

  5. Very good info. Lucky me I came across your writers blog by chance (stumbleupon). I have saved these tips for writing fiction to read for later!

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for your comment! Yes, you can cite these fiction writing tips on your blog…please credit me as author, and link back to Quips & Tips for Successful Writers.

    I’d prefer if you didn’t re-post the whole post as it is…instead, it’s better if you pluck the fiction writing tips that you like best, and share why you like those or why they’re helpful on your blog. Share your opinion on them! Play with your writing 🙂

    All good things,
    Laurie
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..Stop Harassment at Work – 9 Tips for Dealing With More-Than-Difficult Coworkers =-.

  7. Hey, thanks so much for these tips. I would love to site them on my blog and this blog on there as well…making sure this blog gets the credit as to where I got the tips.

    I’m working on my own manuscript right now and these tips will help me so much. Thanks

  8. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Hi June,

    Thanks for your comment! I agree, that outlining is a useful writing tool. I rarely do it…but I keep telling myself that I HAVE to try it for my next article or book proposal! One of these days, I will…
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..6 Tips for Freelance Writers and Authors Who Can’t Pay Their Income Taxes =-.

  9. Outlining is a useful tool. It helps to look at the whole concept and book
    and decide if something needs to be added. It doesn’t prohibit changes if something better occurs to you.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jamie…your enthusiasm is contagious!
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..10 Tips for Interviewing Sources for Articles =-.

  11. THANKS TONS! I’m 14 and I LOVE writing fiction, which has been my #1 hobby ever since I was 10, its importance to me surpassing most normal teen girl activities….(hahaha*nervous laughter*)

    Some of these tips I already knew, but most of them have shed new light for me. There’s always something to improve on, and I’m sure this collection of tips will help me nicely. Again, thanks a lot. LUFF YOOS!! 🙂

  12. Great advice, Laurie — I’ll share your article with other writers.

    Kelly Simmons
    author of STANDING STILL
    byKellySimmons.com