This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is the author of Pastors’ Wives, a new novel from Penguin/Plume, and The Ordained, a 2013 CBS drama pilot. Previously, she was a staff writer for Time magazine.
1. Tell the story you’re burning to tell. Don’t settle for the story you think is marketable, or the one your mother thinks is so dear, or the one kinda sorta like the bestseller you just read, only different. Write the story that keeps you up at night. Writing a novel is labor—and yes, I mean like giving birth. It won’t make you rich. It likely won’t even pay your bills. It’s not worth the pain and poverty unless it means the world to you.
2. Think it through. Think through characters, even minor ones, asking yourself: what do they want from your protagonist, or vice versa? Think through your setting: what’s its history? What does the place look, smell and feel like? Think through the plot: what happens when? Why? How?
3. Research like a crazy person. Collect clippings. Roam your library. Interview people with expertise. You’ll be surprised at who’ll talk to you just because you say you’re working on a book.
4. Get feedback. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT particularly for new writers, but really for anyone. I’m a big proponent of workshops. If you don’t know of any, just Google “writing workshops” and I guarantee you’ll turn up a slew in your area. I personally prefer online workshops because I can attend while sitting on my butt and sipping a glass of wine. I recommend Mediabistro.com, which you can attend from anywhere in the world.
Feedback is crucial because while you may write in a vacuum, at some point your work has to be released into the world. You need to know: does your plot work? Which characters seem fakey? Would it be better to end on this scene or that one?
Choose your readers wisely. My first readers for “Pastors’ Wives” included Helen, a PR pro I met in an online Mediabistro workshop; Joe, a screenwriter and author with whom I share a literary agent; and Rebekah, an Army wife and blogger. Helen, an avid fiction reader, told me when characters didn’t ring true; Joe pointed out plot issues; Rebekah kept me straight on setting. Here’s an important point: though I consider all of them my dear friends, I had never met them in person. In other words, they were NOT my sister or bff or someone with whom I had history and baggage. No: they were fellow writers who have a cool, observant, and objective eye.
5. Murder your darlings. That’s an old writer’s adage. It means you have to be prepared to edit out the bits you love best. In “Pastors’ Wives,” I had a scene where my formidable First Lady—that’s what the wife of a megachurch’s senior pastor is called—has a showdown with a pornographer. I loved that scene. But my agent insisted it wasn’t working. It smacked of fakeyness. So I took the scene, gave it a good shake, changed the setting, rewrote all the dialogue. Voila—it worked. Murder your darlings, darlings!