So, You Want to Write a Novel...



Before you put a single word on paper, there are several things you have to get sorted out in your mind. For starters, what is the story you want to tell? In other words, what is the idea? To answer that question, you need to know where ideas come from, in the first place. Sometimes they just appear in your head, but sometimes they are inspired by things you see, hear, or read. And sometimes they need to be fleshed out a bit more in order to move from half-baked idea to full-baked idea. 

Most writers have the idea, first, then decide they want to develop it into a story. But what if you want to write, even though you don’t yet have that idea? The question then becomes where to find good ideas in the first place or, to follow up on what I said above, how to bake the idea from half to full. 

Here are some sources of ideas: 

• Newspaper and magazine articles: Even the most mundane article can sometimes offer a little snippet of something that will spark a story idea. It may be an event or a situation, or simply a character that intrigues you, but there are ideas there to be had.

• “What if?” questions: This is where you just let your imagination run rampant. We all know that insurance companies have their own captive law firms. Well, what if the Mafia had a captive law firm? Run with that and you might end up with John Grisham’s The Firm.

• Take existing stories and update them or put your own little twist on them. For example, if you wrote a story about a white lawyer in a southern town who defended a black man accused of raping a white girl, you’d have To Kill a Mockingbird. But that’s already been done. So, what if you wrote a story about a white lawyer in a southern town who defended a black man accused of killing the two rednecks who raped his daughter? Now you’ve got Grisham’s A Time to Kill. See how this works? 

• Take the world of history and update it or stand it on its ear. Historical fiction offers a myriad of opportunities. Consider Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, a beautifully written story set during the Great Depression, a New York Times bestseller from earlier this year.

• As long as you’re updating or standing things on their ears, do the same with the classics. How many modern stories are really nothing more than thinly-disguised Shakespeare? Remember: works published prior to 1925 are in the public domain, which means they are fair game for you to use.

• Take your fears, or the common fears of others, and magnify them. Afraid of heights? Magnify it and create Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Afraid of spiders? Turn it into the movie Arachnophobia. Or snakes? How about Snakes on a Plane?

• Take a central conflict and create a story around it. The conflict can be Democrats and Republicans, lawyers and judges, inner city youths and suburbanites, cops and robbers, Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets (Romeo and Juliet, anybody?), rich kids and poor kids (Pretty in Pink), thriller/mystery writers and literary fiction writers—the possibilities are endless. Obviously, this is not an exclusive listing of where to find ideas, but you get the . . . well, idea.

Choosing Your Genre 

Once you have your central idea, another basic decision you’ve got to make at the start is to choose the genre in which you’ll be writing. Genre simply means the type, or category, of book you’ve written. It’s important because knowing the genre sets the tone for the reader. For example, mentally, a reader approaches a thriller differently than a romance. 

From a publisher’s or marketer’s standpoint, genre has an even bigger impact: It determines on which shelf the book will go at the bookstore or which section on the e-retailer (like Amazon) website. It lets them know what the competition is. It can even drive a publisher’s decision whether to acquire a new novel in the first place, and it certainly is important in helping you target which publishers to submit to. 

Genres generally break down this way (and this is not an exclusive list, particularly in this age of hybrids): 

• Commercial fiction: Basically, a broad catch-all for fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into other genres, but books for which there is a wide readership potential.

• Crime fiction: Stories that revolve around the crime—caper stories, for example—and are often noirish or written from the viewpoint of the criminal. Think Elmore Leonard.

• Detective fiction: Once considered a sub-genre of mystery, this features private or police detective procedurals. Think Ed McBain, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series.

• Fantasy: Usually involving the same types of elements as found in old legends and folk tales, often with past or future other-worldly settings. Think Lord of the Rings.

• Horror: A combination of fantasy and terror, usually fast-paced and often invoking the use of the supernatural. Think Stephen King, Dean Koontz. 

• Literary fiction: Can fit in any or all genres, but features the written word as art. Some might even say that, in literary fiction, the writing is more important than the story—but that gets you into that conflict I mentioned above. Literary fiction can, and does, tell great stories. Think Joyce Carol Oates, Ayn Rand, even Kristin Hannah.

• Mainstream: This is another catch-all, novels that don’t fit other genres but which don’t have the same wide commercial appeal as those that would fall into the commercial category. Think Alice Sebold, Wally Lamb.

• Mystery: Mystery doesn’t really have a hard and fast definition. It’s the term that used to be applied to detective stories, but now seems to have a broader definition. At its most basic, it involves the solving of a crime by uncovering clues, ultimately leading to an unknown criminal. They range from cozies, which usually involve an amateur sleuth and are somewhat milder in tone, language, and action, and across the spectrum to hard-boiled, which usually involve a private eye or police detective and which tend to be more graphic in terms of violence, sex, and language. Think Sue Grafton, Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark.

• Romance: Love stories, often formulaic, that can take on a number of sub-genres: historical romance, time travel romance, romantic suspense, Victorian romance, etc. Think Nora Roberts, Johanna Lindsey.

• Science fiction: This involves fiction arising out of the use of science or technology, often set in the future. Think Michael Crichton or Arthur C. Clarke.

• Suspense: This crosses a broad range of genres, but always involves creating and maintaining suspense. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

• Thriller: Sometimes viewed as a sub-category of mystery or a hybrid of suspense, thrillers often involve a hunt or chase, usually with the protagonist or someone close to the protagonist put in jeopardy. They can involve espionage, international intrigue, the medical or legal fields—or just about any other world. The idea is that, where the mystery creates uncertainly and suspense, the thriller creates...well, thrills. Think Thomas Harris, James Patterson, John Grisham, Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller (the Lincoln Lawyer) series.

• Historical Fiction: Fiction that is set in pretty much any era except the modern era. Think Diana Gabaldon, Ken Follett, Jean Auel, Philippa Gregory.

• Western: Tales of the old west, usually post-Civil War, and extending even into the early 1900s. Think Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, Elmer Kelton.

• Women’s Fiction: A broad catch-all for books that largely appeal to women readers, but don’t fit into the romance category. They often feature strong female characters and are often told from a female point of view. Think Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks.

Choosing Your Point of View
Another early decision will be how to tell your story. By that, I mean from whose point of view will it be told? Your options aren’t all that many and, as a general rule, once you’ve made the choice you must stick with it all the way through. Of course, rules are made to be broken—but unless you’re a smash success, better to follow the rules until you reach that point.

Third Person Omniscient: This is a fairly common choice, and it’s one that offers the writer the most freedom. You write every scene of every chapter in the third person, and you have the benefit of knowing, and telling, thoughts and facts that may not be known to others in the scene. One caveat: If you’re going to write in third person omniscient, stick to only one character’s point of view in a scene. In other words, if you have two characters interacting in a given scene, choose one as your POV character for that scene. Now you can take the reader inside that character’s head to see his thoughts and reactions to what is transpiring, but don’t hop back and forth between the two characters’ POVs. If you think you just have to give both characters’ POV, use a technique of putting a space break on the page (just hit the return bar an extra time), then write the same scene, or continuation of the same scene, from the second character’s POV. Every time you change POVs in a scene, use a space break first. This alerts the reader that the POV character has changed. 

Third Person Limited: This is a bit more common than third person omniscient. Here, you choose one character—generally your protagonist—and write every scene in which he/she is present from his/her POV. When writing scenes in which the protagonist is not present, you can write from the POV of other characters, but you should still follow the rule of sticking with one POV per scene or using space breaks. When the protagonist is present, though, write from his/her POV. 

A variation on this technique is to write the entire novel from the protagonist’s POV. This is somewhat limiting because it means the reader is wholly dependent upon the protagonist for information. In other words, if events happen away from the protagonist, the reader can’t know about them until the protagonist learns of them, which usually happens when he talks to someone who relates those events to him or he reads about them in the paper, or some other device such as that. 

First Person: This one speaks for itself and is as limiting as third person limited. Everything is written from the protagonist’s POV—or narrator’s POV, who isn’t necessarily the protagonist—and the reader only learns information as the protagonist/narrator does. Some writers use little tricks to “cheat” when writing in first person. James Lee Burke, for example, often will write a chapter that begins like this. “I [Dave Robicheaux] talked with Clete about what had transpired and this is what I learned: ...” At that point, he switches to writing in third person, detailing something that happened outside his protagonist’s presence, but that was related to the protagonist. 

Other writers simply resort to writing in third person for certain scenes without the pretense, when necessary. Either way is okay, just make sure the reader knows when you’ve made the switch from first person to third so they know who’s POV it is. You can do this by using a space break within a chapter or by starting a new chapter. If you’re writing in first person, though, use this device sparingly. Otherwise, you should have simply chosen to write in third person to start with. 

Choosing Your Setting 

Setting actually has several dimensions, all of which you must consider. 

• First, what is the time period during which your story takes place: Is it modern day, old west, or prehistoric?

• Second, what is the physical location: United States, Europe, Dallas, New York, or a long ago galaxy far, far away?

• Third, over what period of time does the story take place: the entire Civil War, the roaring ‘20s, a five-day murder trial, or the last twelve hours of the life of Christ?

• Fourth, what is the context of the world in which your story takes place: a law firm, a football team, a high school, a suburb, or a big city hospital?

Setting will have a lot to do with other decisions you’ll have to make in writing your book, such as what technology is available, how your characters will speak and dress, even who the good guys and bad guys are. As an example of the latter, whether a Russian military officer would be a good guy or bad guy might depend on whether it is a classic Cold War era setting or a joint Allied offensive during World War II. 

Now that you’ve figured out how to get started, in future articles I’ll go into what I consider the Nine Keys to Dynamic Storytelling. 

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Mike Farris, a retired entertainment attorney and litigator, was lead attorney in the lawsuit in Fort Worth that involved royalties to the Fifty Shades of Grey book trilogy, which resulted in a $13.25 million judgment in favor of his client.  He collaborated with his client to write a book about the case, the award-winning Fifty Shades of Black & White: Anatomy of the Lawsuit behind a Publishing Phenomenon. He is the author of four other non-fiction books, including the Hawaiian true crime books A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow and Poor Innocent Lad: The Tragic Death of Gill Jamieson and the Execution of Myles Fukunaga.  In the world of fiction, Mike is the author of ten published novels, including thrillers such as The Bequest and Manifest Intent, and the Hawaiian historical fiction Isle of Broken Dreams.