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Creative Exercises for Novel Writing

Creative Exercises for Novel Writing
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In a novel, striving to achieve an overall goal will take a character through a series of situations, each with its own sub-goals. In addition to the main character's goals, other characters may have additional goals of their own that they strive to achieve while helping the main character along with her goals, or attempting to thwart them. A novel is like a series of short stories, a series of problems to be solved, all tied together by a central goal that is not reached until the end of the novel.

The difference between writing a short story and a novel is akin to the difference between going out on a date and getting married. While a typical short story is less than 10,000 words, the typical novel has 90,000 words or more. Writing the first draft of a novel can take several months, and the process of revising it several more. While writing a novel can be a rewarding experience, it is best to practice the various elements of fiction writing on short stories before undertaking a novel.

Plot and Sub-Plot

A novel has more room than a short story. Room for more characters, more situations, more description, more than one plot. Though there should usually be a main character with a central plot, there is also room for the same character to have a secondary goal. It is not unusual, for instance, for a main character struggling with a central problem, to fall in love with another character, and to go through the struggle of beginning a romance, while striving to achieve the novel's main goal. This "story within the story" adds depth to a narrative and helps the reader feel that she is observing the life of a real person rather than a stock character with a single central problem to solve. Secondary characters can also have goals of their own. The more sub-plots (within reason) a novel has, the more depth the novel will have. As we discussed in the section on short stories, fiction is built around conflict. When there are multiple sources of conflict within a novel, there will be multiple sources of interest.

Exercise: Imagine a character you would like to write a novel around, and envision a central conflict the character will face. If you can't think of anything, give the character a mystery to solve. Ask yourself what other characters may be involved in the story. Imagine three or four other characters that your main character will work either with, or against. Now ask yourself, if these secondary characters were the main character, what would their story goals be? These secondary goals do not need to be as dramatic as your main character's goal, but they should matter to the characters. Perhaps your main character has a landlord whose dog is sick, or the waitress in the diner where he eats is being stalked by an ex-boyfriend. Your main character's attempts to help these other characters deal with their situations can add to a reader's sense of identification. As you write your novel, you may discover ways to tie sub-plots like these in with your main plot, giving your novel a cohesive feel that readers will find entertaining and fulfilling.

Genre vs. Literary Novels

What kind of novel will you write? "Genre" and "literary" are two large categories of novels with plenty of gray area in between. In general, genre novels are said to deal primarily with plot. More attention is given to creating a compelling story, than to delving deeply into the psyches of the characters. Mystery, Western, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Romance are several of the best-known genres.

In a literary novel, the plot may not be as action-packed, or the setting as exotic, but its effect on the character or characters is much more richly explored. The story, in essence, is more about the characters themselves, than about what goes on around them.

Which kind of novel should you write? Write the kind that you like to read. You will have an innate sense of how novels in a given category are structured. If you enjoy the process of reading a given type of novel, chances are you will enjoy the process of writing the same type. You are going to spend a lot of time on this project, so pick something you are going to enjoy. If you enjoy several kinds of novels, ask yourself which one really stirs you the most. If you were on a desert island with only one genre of novel, which would it be? When in doubt, just pick something and try it. If you're wrong, you'll find out, and you can write a different kind of novel the next time.

While the publishing world depends on fitting books into genres and categories, as a beginning writer you shouldn't force yourself to fit into a certain category. Some of the best stories push the boundaries of genre. A mystery writer whose works are more literary than most may stand out as a leader in her field. Allow yourself to explore your own writing, particularly as you are getting started. Saying to yourself, "I can't do this in a mystery novel" puts you in danger of curbing your own creativity. Though you may dream of publishing a novel, realize that your first and even your second novel may only be for practice. It takes time and effort to hone your writing skills to compete in the marketplace. The good news about this reality is that as a beginning writer you don't need to get too caught up in commercial considerations, like genre and category. Write the kind of story that sets you on fire, and worry about where it fits in the bookstore later. Who knows, you might invent your own unique category this way!


There are two schools of thought among novelists. One school holds that an outline of some kind is essential to properly planning and executing a book-length work of fiction. The other school argues that planning a story out in advance steals its spontaneity. This school advocates writing "blind" and discovering the story as the work goes along.

As a writer, you will probably fall more into one camp or the other. There is no single right way. As a beginning novelist, though, I urge you to try the outline method first. A novel is a staggeringly large undertaking, one that will keep your fingers moving and your eyes staring at a screen or notebook for months. It is easy to get lost in the day-to-day work and lose sight of the overall structure of your story. The novelists who are able to write without outlines, I would argue, have developed the ability to create and follow mental blueprints for their work. They have written enough fiction that the various elements of story are second nature to them. They have a feel for when to introduce characters, sub-plots, etc., because they have written novels before.

As a beginner, you will need all the help you can get to stay focused on your goal of finishing a novel. Some sort of outline to refer to when you get lost will be extremely helpful. If you agree with those who say that outlining ruins a work's spontaneity, then try outlining the first half or three quarters of the story, and let the ending come spontaneously. Also, remember that an outline is merely a suggestion of one way your story can unfold. If you come up with a different plot twist, or want to add a character that wasn't in your outline, fine. It's your novel. Go ahead and change anything you want.

Your outline doesn't need to be the sort of hierarchical, Roman numeral and capital letter format you learned in school. It can simply be a list of scenes or events. It can be as sketchy or as detailed as you like, but you're better off leaving it on the sketchy side. Save the detail for the actual novel, and you'll still feel that the writing process is filled with discovery.

Hanging in There

You might begin a novel flush with energy and excitement. You may write the night away for the first week or so, thrilled with the project you are undertaking and anxious to dive in. There will come a point though, perhaps two weeks or a month into the project, when this energy will dwindle. Your novel will become drudgery. You'll feel like the story, so fresh and exciting at the beginning, is really just a rehash of some other story you read. You'll think your characters are stock and your situation is tired. You'll want to chuck the whole project and sleep in for a change.

These feelings are normal, and the only way to overcome them is to tough them out, and stay with the work. You are writing a first draft. Not all of it is going to be usable. You are going to have the chance to change and edit out the parts that don't work as well. Over the course of writing your novel, you will have good days and bad days of writing. Hanging in there through the bad days is the only way to get to more of the good ones. Realize that even the professional novelists you admire go through low points in their processes as well. Creating art means delving into the unknown territories of your inner self. Sometimes a hidden gem of description, or a great plot twist will occur to you, and you will be thrilled. Other times you will feel that every word you write is wooden, and afflicted with dry rot at that. Both the good and the bad are normal elements of the process. Surviving the bad is the only path to the good. Hang in there.
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