Bestselling Author Bob Mayer’s Writing Tips for Novelists

Best-selling author Bob Mayer, who wrote The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, spoke at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in British Columbia. Here are several of his writing tips for novelists, ranging from outlining a book to narrative structure.

First, a great quip from Mayer:

“Everything drives toward the climactic scene,” says Mayer. “Everything in a story is done for a purpose. Don’t put a gun in act one unless you’re going to shoot it in act three.”

To learn more about his books, click the book cover of The Novel Writer’s Toolkit. To read his writing tips for novelists, forge ahead, fellow scribes….

Mayer is super-organized in outlining and dissecting his novels. He approaches his novel writing like it’s a business, with Excel spreadsheets, index cards, whiteboards, butcher paper….and he stresses that writers use the method that works best for them.

Bob Mayer’s Tips on Writing a Novel

  • “A story is a character trying to resolve a problem,” say Bob Mayer. “The character must plausibly solve the problem.”
  • Study the masters, especially by reading first novels. Read books that are similar to the ones you want to write.
  • Do a plot dissection. I don’t have Mayer’s “how to do a plot dissection” here, but look for it in The Novel Writer’s Toolkit.
  • “We rewrote the beginning of Don’t Look Down I don’t know how many times,” he said, referring to his book with Jennifer Crusie.
  • Details drive the story. No matter how good your outline is, details are really, really important.
  • Conflict is crucial in all your scenes.
  • “How you organize your daily life is how you’ll outline your book,” says Mayer.
  • There’s a difference between a flashback and a memory. A flashback is what actually happened; a memory is what someone thinks happened.
  • Be careful of “info dumping” in your story. If your reader doesn’t need it, then cut it. Mayer says, “I had to cut 5,000 words from my last novel.”

The Narrative Structure of a Novel

1. Initiating Event. Open with either introducing the protagonist or introducing the problem (or both). “I’ve rewritten books so many times, I don’t even know what version was published,” says Mayer. Read the opening of Day of the Jackal for an example of a great hook. Tell what the story is up front. “Your opening scene often mirrors the climactic scene, just at a lower level,” says Mayer. To illustrate this, he used the movie Elizabeth (in the beginning, hair is being cut of people being burned at the stake, and in the climactic scene, Elizabeth’s hair is cut).

2. Escalating Conflict. The events of your novel need to foreshadow to the crisis. Remember to keep asking “why now.” Why are your characters acting this way? There has to be a reason. You need internal logic, not coincidence – though Mayer says that Bryce Courtenay is big on coincidental occurrences.

3. Crisis. “This is the darkest moment, when it looks as if all is lost,” says Mayer. Fight or flee are the two options. Will your protagonist stay and fight the antagonist, or run far far away? Make it suspenseful – not an obvious choice. Keep the readers in the dark about what the protagonist is going to do.

4. Climax. Protagonist versus antagonist, and one of them wins. It’s the solution to the problem you introduced at the beginning. Reread your opening chapter after you’re done reading (or writing) a book: you’ll see the seeds of the climactic scene.

5. Resolution. One last scene, which is the emotional pay-off to the reader. Show the physical or emotional change in the protagonist. The resolution is a return to stability or a new reality.

Fellow scribes, this is the basic structure of the novel. It seems simple…but it’s one of those things that are easier said than done, especially if you’re wrestling with 90,000 words!

If you’ve attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in BC, please comment below. I’d love to hear what you thought of it…

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