Novel Writing for Dummies


Starting your first novel?  Great!   Here are a number of do’s and don’ts for your very first opus.  I began this list as a handout for the writing class I teach at the Writers Center in Bethesda, MD.  I was inspired by the horrific and annoying errors that infest so many newbie manuscripts.  If people could just avoid a few of them, what a savation in time and stomach lining could be achieved!

What’s that?  You say that every single one of these points has been magnificently violated, time and again, by writers who are now literary immortals?  Indeed this is true – but I assure you they didn’t do it in their first novel.  If this is your first time swimming, you do not have to begin against Michael Phelps with the 100-meter breast stroke at the Olympics.  It is okay to begin at your local pool.  Here it is, the shallow end.  I will hold your hand.  Hop in.



 -Do not tell us what is going to happen. The ONLY time you are allowed to have the characters lay out the upcoming schedule of events is so that the plans can progressively go pear-shaped. (“Our agenda: Gandalf takes us to Mount Doom and then Aragorn throws the Ring into the caldera. A couple days should do it.”)

-Do know the characters’ basic goal, and convey this to the reader.  It should be possible no later than page fifteen to say, “Ring into volcano” or “Joker to Gotham jail” or “If the Bennett girls don’t marry they will starve.”  The sooner you convey this data the better; the first sentence is not too soon. 

-Simplify!  Clarify!  Vivify!  You can never go too far with this.  I promise that nobody will ever say to you, “It’s just too clear and vivid – can’t you make it duller and confuse me more?”

– No “as you know Bob” monologues.  There are other ways of conveying large gobs of data.  For instance, instead of telling each other the history of recent events, the characters could argue about it.  (“Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans because of the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers!”  “No, that wasn’t the cause, you clown — it was because the town was full of homosexuals, so God had to smite the sinners!”  “Idiot! Everyone knows that global warming was to blame!”)


– Casts of characters MUST be varied. They cannot all be adults who agree on everything and are masters of magic, except for the white males who are without exception incompetent dick-wavers.  They cannot all be trendy teens in belly shirts, or vampires, or baby-Goth elves.  While you’re at it, vary the way they talk.

– No unpronounceable names.  Make a cast list and have a friend who has never seen it before read it aloud three times; if he or she is still stumbling at round three, simplify them.  While you’re looking at the cast list, run each made-up name through Google.  If your heroine’s name is actually the Finnish slang term for an illegal act performed on under-aged partners, you would like to know this before publication.


-No cute stuff with names.  If a character has two or three or five names, epithets, titles or cognomens, get them all in the first time he appears. (“Clark Kent, secret identity of Superman, the Man of Steel.”)  Pointlessly hiding a character’s name until later in the text is annoying and gains you nothing but confusion

.-The only time you are allowed to use a name with an apostrophe is if it can be found in the Boston telephone book: O’Donnell, O’Hara, etc.  Otherwise, apostrophes in proper names are verboten.

– No random head-hopping; only one point of view per chapter allowed.  Remember that every viewpoint you add multiplies the difficulty of making the novel coherent and unified.  Yes, Isaac Asimov wrote a novel with twelve viewpoint characters.  It was not his first novel.

-Make the characters work against a deadline.

-Give the characters reasons to be in conflict with each other.

-No insane, megalomanic or obsessional villains.  Nor are characters are allowed to suddenly lapse into stupidity and do dumb things that are helpful to the author.  Remember that every character (and every nation, every business, indeed every entity in your book) has his, her or its own agenda.  They do not do things simply to further your plot.  Every action a character takes is for their own benefit or to further their own ends.  They can clearly rationalize them, and so should you.  When Osama bin Laden looks into the mirror, he sees a reasonable and intelligent hero, not a nutbar.

As You Write:

-Do not write in present tense.  Do not write in second person.  Do I have to tell you not to begin with double half-gainers off the high diving board?

-Do not begin the novel with a quotation, especially from the Encyclopaedia Galactica.  Do not begin with a dream sequence.  Do not begin with a data dump.  Do not begin with a flashback.   Do not begin with the protagonist driving to a destination – at the very minimum, begin it when she arrives.  I know, I know — I begin Revise the World with a long historical quotation; this rule really is broken all the time.  Just remember, next time you are standing in Barnes & Noble, opening a novel to the first page to see whether you want to buy it.  Does that long quotation from the Encyclopaedia Galactica attract you, or do you shut the book and stick it back up on the shelf?

-Facts are good.  But be careful when and where you throw them in.  The tyrannosaurus rex charges the helpless explorer, smashing trees with his mighty tail as it lunges forward, jaws agape!  Is this the moment to break in and inform us that the dinosaur is 17 feet three inches tall?  Are we to believe the hero took out a measuring tape before fleeing for his life?

-Burn your thesaurus.  NO using words unless you are absolutely sure of their meaning.  Better yet, no using words unless you are confident your 12-year-old sister knows their meaning.  Ask her to be sure.  You are certain you are ordained by Heaven to be the heir to Gene Wolfe or James Joyce?  Great – save the neologisms and wordplay for novel #2.

– NO homogenous chapters.  Chapters cannot be composed solely of conversation, of action, or of sex.  You must have variety. 

– NO repetition of incidents. If the quest party was ambushed in chapters 1 and 2, do not regale me with a third ambush in chapter 3 and top it with another in chapter 4.

-Do not bring up a problem in a chapter and resolve it in the same chapter.  String your reader along; suspense is your friend.  Ideally your reader should pick up the book in Barnes & Noble, and be unable to set it down as he is waiting in the checkout line.

– No prologues.  No afterwords.  The novel should be able to stand on its own two feet, without outside props.

This is just the beginning, of course.  There are many other things that a first novelist ought to know!  Anybody have contributions to the list?




About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Novel Writing for Dummies — 8 Comments

  1. You think? The only example that comes readily to mind is in Dante’s PURGATORIO, when Vergil vanishes away before Beatrice appears. Although I had a student ms once, in which the character we assumed was the hero vanished for over a thousand pages, by which time we had all lost interest in him.

  2. Brenda — regarding the tip about multiple POVs in a chapter — do you mean doing so “all mixed together” without a break?

    I’ve seen multiple POVs done very well in a chapter, but each one is separated by a “line of asterisks” or some other scene break.


  3. Piggybacking on Alice’s comment, there are some interesting POV related pronoun tricks in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimeus books. In Bartimeus’ chapters, Stroud shifted between 1st and 3rd person, although the entire chapter is from Bartimeus’ perspective. It produces an odd effect, but one that is strangely engaging, IMHO. Certainly not something for students to try though, as I recall these were not Stroud’s first novels. 🙂

    I think multiple POV can work, even without asterisks, but it takes some practice and playing around with techniques. One of my own novellas does this, but I was purposely playing with the idea and techniques such as fading (after 15+ years of fiction writing).

  4. I have to admit that writing present tense is a rule I’ve broken successfully twice and with two of my favorite characters.

    In one case it was in the voice of a bright manic depressive who was one of four narrative voices in MAGIC TIME: ANGELFIRE (Eos). I used that tense because he was a character who lived very much in the moment. It was one of the things I did to make his voice uniquely his. In the other case (the novella Taco Del & the Fabled Tree of Destiny published in AMAZING STORIES) I wanted the storyteller’s voice to be young, immediate and conversational.

    In both cases, of course, the stories were first person, where present tense sounds the most natural. People tells stories verbally in present tense all the time. (“So, I look across the alley and I see this red-headed Chinese girl and she’s looking back at me…”)

    It’s a tricky tense though, and I know editors who dislike it. I just happen to have a fondness for it.

    I think some rules can be broken (or at least bent), but I also think the writer who breaks them has to understand them well enough to know what she’s doing. That is, break them with a will and to create a particular effect.

  5. Just realized I also have broken the megalomaniac villain rule, in part because I found megalomania an interesting mood disorder with the sort of symptoms that fit well in context with mystory. Men who do big, grand, scary and horrible things are insane by definition, and if that’s the type of villain you’re writing, then you’re flirting with some sort of pathology. I think the problem arises when a writer adopts the “He’s evil because he’s crazy” attitude which SEEMS to relieve the writer of having to explain why the villain does what he does. In reality, mood disorders are complex and nuanced and each possesses its own internal logic. As a writer, researching and working with that nuance can be very rewarding and yield an antagonist (or a protagonist) that is multidimensional.

    Still, your advice is well-taken. This is definitely not something I’d advise a beginning writer to tackle, unless they also happened to have studied psychology. In the end, maybe it reinforces another rule: write what you know.

  6. Thank-you soooo much!!! I have just started writing my first book and have been looking for a website like this for days!!!