Writing a novel is flipping difficult. It often takes years to complete your first novel (and even more years after that to write a good one). You heard that right — writers’ first books are usually a hot mess. That is because, as untested authors, we don’t yet know how to write a book.
On average, most writers pursuing traditional publication write four novels prior to getting a literary agent. In other words, it takes most writers writing a few books to get the hang of things.
If you are reading this, you are likely curious about how you can shorten your learning curve and write a better book more quickly. Let’s talk about the eleven ways you can improve your novel-writing skills today.
1. Acknowledge That You Don’t Know Everything and Your Writing Isn’t Perfect
One surefire sign of a newbie writer is thinking your writing is perfection. Nothing anyone can say is applicable because if they have a critique, it means they don’t understand your story. (And not that your story needs improving — certainly not that!)
I was there, friends. Once upon a time, I thought my books were the next NY Times bestsellers and ready for publication — often after completing the first draft.
As I’ve said many times before on my YouTube channel, iWriterly: first drafts are not final drafts. According to Terry Pratchet: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
Therefore, be open-minded to the fact that while you might have a lot of great elements within your story, you have many drafts ahead of you to polish your story and get it ready for the eyes of readers.
2. Research How to Write a Good Book
As newbie writers, we can’t hope to figure out how to write a book on our own. Or, at least, most of us can’t. Therefore, you will want to do some research to learn about how to write a good book. (HINT: It’s about more than just grammar!) For example, some topics you might want to research include:
- Plot structure
- Character arcs
- How to give a character a unique voice
Here are a few resources you could check out:
- Nonfiction books about how to write a novel
- Free articles and blogs
- YouTube: iWriterly, for example, is in a niche called AuthorTube where aspiring and published authors talk about how to write books
- Online courses (Writers Helping Writers has a list of recommendations in the Online Learning Centers section of their Resources for Writers page)
- Formal education at a college or university
- Fiction books by the greats in your genre
Keep in mind that many of these options are free. You don’t have to immediately pull out your wallet. However, if you are going to pay for a product or service, always research whether or not the person teaching the course has applicable experience and is an expert in their field.
3. Consider Outlining Your Book before You Write It
(One Stop for Writers Story Maps)
If you haven’t yet heard of plotters and pantsers (or architects and gardeners), allow me to enlighten you. A plotter (also called an “architect”) is a writer who plans out their story prior to writing it. A pantser (someone who “flies by the seat of their pants” — also called a “gardener”) is someone who doesn’t plan prior to writing. They write and see where their muse takes them.
There is no right or wrong way to go about writing. However, a pantser has a lot more work to do in the editing phase because they didn’t plan out anything in advance, such as big plot beats. Therefore, consider checking out things like beat sheets or different types of plot structure prior to writing your book. (Save the Cat! Writes a Novel and Jami Gold’s blog have a lot of beat sheets writers use.) You don’t need to plan out your novel in advance, but it might be worth jotting down the big plot points you want to reach at certain places in your story.
4. Work with Critique Partners and Beta Readers
Critique partners and beta readers provide feedback on unpublished manuscripts. However, their roles are slightly different.
- Critique partners are writers who provide feedback on your work, usually by request (to exchange chapters or full manuscripts).
- Beta readers are people who read your manuscript as a reader first (rather than a writer). Most of the time, beta readers are not writers.
Without outside feedback, we can’t improve the stories. This is due to a writer’s blindness to our own story’s flaws from being too close to it. We can see it so perfectly in our heads, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well onto the page. It’s the job of a good critique partner and/or beta reader to read a story and provide feedback and suggestions for areas of improvement — thereby helping us make the best story possible.
For more information on finding critique partners or beta readers, check out Critique Circle or look for local groups via the blogs for different genres, such as SCBWI or RWA.
5. Be Open to Critiques/Feedback on Your Work
It’s not just about getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers. If you are not open to making changes to your story, then getting feedback is a pointless exercise. Do your best to look at your story objectively and listen to what critique partners and beta readers are saying.
6. Look Closely at Your Weakest Points
Did your critique partners and beta readers seem to have a consensus about what aspects of your writing could be improved? Those are most likely your “weak spots” as a writer.
For me, I’ve always struggled with info-dumps. Most recently, I’ve struggled with too much internalization (vs. dramatization). Simply knowing where you aren’t strong as a writer is helpful so you can teach yourself to spot the issues — perhaps even before you make them.
Listen to what the consensus is for feedback. There is always the outlier — one critique partner or beta reader who has a completely different take on your story — but if there is a consensus, pay close attention to it. It more than likely is an issue you will want to address.
7. Edit the Book on Your Own MANY Times
As I mentioned earlier, the first draft isn’t the final draft. Most authors edit their books dozens of times before it gets to the version you see on the bookshelf. Personally, I edit my manuscript two to five times (front to back) by myself before sharing it with critique partners. After that, I work with critique partners and beta readers through many drafts (and self-edit in between).
Consider working with more critique partners and beta readers after you have edited your book and implemented the previous round of feedback. Ideally, you will want to work with them on several drafts of the book. The exact number of times beta readers and critique partners read the manuscript is going to be up to you and them.
8. Brush up On Grammar
While good grammar doesn’t make a good story, bad grammar can pull readers out of one. As such, you will want to be able to write with proper punctuation, sentence structure, spelling, and so on.
9. Read Books by the Greats within Your Genre
Dissect the books you love. Try to determine what it is you enjoyed about them and what that author excels at. In addition, think about ways you can emulate (or perhaps imitate) some of those skills in your own writing (without plagiarizing!!).
10. Write Often to Sharpen Your Skills
According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years) of practice to become an expert. While you don’t necessarily need to be writing books for 10 years before you are deemed “ready,” you do need to put in the time to practice your writing skills in order to become a better writer.
11. Write the Next Book
Going along with our previous point, the best way to be a better author is to write many books. That is because the more books you write, the better you will get at it.
From my experience, writing a book isn’t something you can teach. Sure, you can learn the principles of writing a good book or learn how other authors write theirs. But you must learn how you as an author operate through the process. How you do it is going to be different from other people’s process. Therefore, the only way to glean that knowledge is through experience.
Happy writing, friends!
Resident Writing Coach
Meg LaTorre is a writer, YouTuber (iWriterly), creator of the free query critique platform, Query Hack, co-host of the Publishable show, blogger, and she formerly worked at a literary agency. She also has a background in magazine publishing, medical/technical writing, and journalism. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter and Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter, and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.
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M.R. Jones says
I agree with this list. I will be discussing some of these things on my vlog writers corner on youtube
Jan Sikes says
This is perfect! Every author, no matter if they are seasoned or new, needs to read this! Great reminders!
Meg LaTorre says
Thanks for reading! I’m glad this blog was helpful for you.
Dawn Ross says
Great information! I did exactly what you said: I wrote the first draft and thought I had a masterpiece. It was torn apart and it crushed me. As such, I have spent five years rewriting my first sci-fi book. It has gone through at least seven rewrites! I have done most of your suggestions, though it is hard to find good beta readers. I have finally reached a point where I believe my first book is ready for publishing.
Meg LaTorre says
Rejections can be a kicker. I’m sorry to hear about yours. But good for you for continuing to improve your craft and edit your book. That’s how we get better as writers–by writing!
Jayne Boyer says
Great blog and wonderful information …..a great list Meg thank you.
Meg LaTorre says
Thanks for reading!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
A great list, and good reminders for us all. 🙂
Meg LaTorre says
Thank you, Angela!
M. Lee Scott says
So much useful info here not only for the newbie but for the writer trying to finish their novel (read:me). I’ve done everything from 1-11, and, yes, it’s been years and I’m still on my first novel. I try not to think of the second book in my series so that I can finish the first, but it’s hard. Awesome post!
Meg LaTorre says
Thanks for reading! Personally, I’ve been writing for ten years at the time I’m writing this blog (several different books at this point). Just keep at it! The longer you write, the better you get at it. 🙂 I will say–be careful you don’t spend too much time on your first novel. Sometimes, you need time away from a story to gain perspective. Sometimes, our first novels (although they were a beautiful inspiration that led us to write) have a lot of issues in them and simply aren’t ready for publication. It’s with writing new stories after our first novels that we often learn about story craft (seeing what we did wrong in previous books and where we can improve). Best of luck to you!
Amazing Gaming Productions says
Your story reminds me so much of mine.
I created a character in a video game in 2004. This guy who could see the future, who used that to learn how to fight with a Katana is a game called City of Heroes. It was a little guilty pleasure after going class while I was taking journalism.
In 2006, they changed the game, and my character didn’t feel like the character I envisioned in my mind anymore. So I took him to StarWars Galaxies and for a couple of months, he felt like a great character there. Then the changed that game.
If I was a looney tunes character, steam would have been coming out of my ears. So. . . In 2008, I was going to tell his story no matter what – my way – nobody is going to tell me what to do!
Now, 12 years later and after 2 attempts at drafting a novel and deciding – I shouldn’t make this a computer game, it needs to be a novel – I’m starting to make progress – learning as I go along.
So, I know that pain.
BECCA PUGLISI says
So much good information here, Meg!
Meg LaTorre says
Thank you, Becca! 🙂
Mark Marderosian says
I sooo needed to read this article today. “Most authors edit their books dozens of times.”
Thank you. One of my three manuscripts in progress came back from ten beta readers. I incorporated suggestions that had a majority mentioned, polished and re-polished and just sent out again for another round to new beta readers. This was after editing 134K words down to 98K.
I’m so glad to read #7 because I was beating myself up as to why I didn’t just know what the book needed from the start. Why so many drafts getting rid of passive voice, and why couldn’t I have noticed the squishy middle?
Thank you for reminding me this is a creative process of shaping and molding a story out of mental clay.
PS: Stumbled across your videos two weeks ago. Glad to see you here too!
Meg LaTorre says
I’m so glad point # 7 was helpful for you! It’s so important to edit your manuscript on your own many times and then get outside feedback. Way to go on editing your manuscript and cutting back on word count. As an over-writer, I know that’s no small feat!
(So glad you found me on the iWriterly YouTube as well! Thanks for watching!)