So much goes into a well-written book. We’ve settled on 49 tips here, but it could go into the thousands. As I often say when speaking at Literary conferences: “Writing well really is Rocket Science.”
And as with anything, learning to write fabulous fiction begins at the beginning, and continues one step at a time.
So, let’s break this up into sections, and dive in!
Style encompasses so many things. And all intertwine. But we can piece a lot of it out.
- Voice. Finding yours may take a bit. Honing it will take a long time. You find your voice by writing. And writing a lot.
First book? Maybe. Second? You’re getting closer. It takes an average of 3 books to truly hone your voice. Which is why so many successful authors thank their lucky stars their first books weren’t published . . .
Voice is about syntax and flow and the way your string your words together to paint beautiful images on the page. But most importantly, it’s that whole package that causes a reader to love your work. And, recognize it.
The Litmus Test: Can a stranger hear your voice as uniquely yours?
- Tighten. Wow, we can write an entire book on this! And yep, so much goes into truly tightening your prose to make it sing, to uncover the jewels from under the mounds of mud.
The Litmus Test: Every word counts. Every single one.
- Create, create, create rather than tell. Everyone’s sick of hearing this these days, but the old Show Don’t Tell rule is paramount. This isn’t a film—you’re not spoon feeding your readers. So you have to create those images on the page in order for your reader to have the experience of the novel.
The Litmus Test: Can your reader see, hear, feel, etc., the scene?
- Tell don’t show. Yep, you read that right. The thing is, if you created every single image, your book would be 1,000,000 words. So you need to find the balance between where you create, and where you tell in order to bridge a gap that doesn’t need to be shown.
The Litmus Test: Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement.
- Do not both show and tell. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But what I see most is the author telling what he’s fixing to show, and then showing it.
The Litmus Test: Have you done both? Nix the telling and let the showing stand on its own.
6. Give your reader some credit. This applies to the above, but goes further. Are you beating your reader over the head so she’ll “get it,” whatever it is? I mean, if she’s reading your book, she has a brain to begin with, no?
The Litmus Test: Are you treating your reader like an idiot?
- Never underestimate points left between the lines. This is similar to the above, but not exactly the same thing. If you have created, showed, evoked, then your reader is getting what you intended. But take that a step further—allow space for your reader to draw her own conclusions. Let her have a space to think, to visualize, and most importantly, to feel.
The Litmus Test: Did you leave enough dots—and no more—for the reader to connect?
- Passive voice. Yes, you can use it. But the point is, we want to use passive voice to slow down the narrative, or for effect. Not as a constant fixture in your prose.
The Litmus Test: Are you using passive voice when you intend to?
- Use short, snappy sentences in action scenes. Carrying on from passive voice, are you using the way you string together words to enhance the storyline? Using staccato-like sentences will cause the reader’s eye to move more quickly down the page, raising the heart rate, and evoking that sense of urgency, panic, fear, etc.
The Litmus Test: Do you vary your prose for the content of the scene?
- Discern your favorite words and phrases. All writers have them. Those pesky ones that keep popping up, sometimes numerous times on one page. Find yours (do a search). And then eliminate them.
The Litmus Test: Are you using the same words over and over?
- Does your prose fit your genre? This one surprises many writers. But different genres call for different styles of writing.
For example, Thrillers (except when they’re ebbing!) use a more staccato style. On the other extreme, Literary works are often told in long, flowing sentences.
This has to do most with pacing—revving it up or slowing it down.
The Litmus Test: Do you know which style fits the genre you’re writing in?
12. Establish viewpoint.
POV is whether the story is told in first, second, or third person.
Viewpoint, on the other hand, is which character is narrating this book.
Again, another book-length topic! And a huge one of misunderstanding.
Study the differences before you write your book. Viewpoint is truly the hub around which the entire book revolves.
The Litmus Test: Do you understand POV? Viewpoint? The nuances?
- Do not give a laundry list of character traits up front—those are author’s notes, for you, in order to flesh out the characters on the page.
Weave these in through action and as the course of the story goes along—just as you would meet someone in real life.
The Litmus Test: Do your characters come on-stage and read like a list?
- Can your reader see your characters?
Don’t tell your reader what your character looks like. Instead, show the character through actions and mannerisms.
The Litmus Test: Does your character come across clearly, without your reader being told?
- Avoid these tags:
He saw x. He heard y. He smelled z.
Doing so points out, again, that we’re in his head. Which paradoxically keeps him at arm’s length from the reader. Instead, write what he saw, heard, smelled, felt. Evoke the senses.
The Litmus Test: Did you create what your narrator is experiencing?
- Is your dialogue real?
Or is it stilted? Does the 5-year-old speak like an English Professor? Or the English Professor talk like a hooker?
Get quiet and listen to your characters. Hear their speech patterns. Write what you hear, including slang and favorite words.
But do be careful not to overdo.
The Litmus Test: Can you tell who’s speaking without the identifying tags?
- Don’t describe your dialogue.
I.e., when you write, “she said anxiously,” then the dialogue itself is lacking. Your reader should “get” her anxiety by the words she speaks, by her inflections and mannerisms and expression while doing so.
The Litmus Test: Have you told your dialogue?
- No real characters are all good or all bad.
The most memorable heroes have flaws. His Achilles’ heel is part of the story question—whether he can achieve his goal—and also what he must overcome in your story.
And the worst villains have redeeming qualities.
As Elisabeth Kubler Ross said: “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”
The Litmus Test: Are your hero and villain a mix of good and bad traits?
- Does your Protagonist have enough conflicts to face?
Most novels need conflict on every page. It’s through conflict that the Protagonist moves through the course of the story. Overcomes his foibles. Uses those in mastery to save the day.
The Litmus Test: Do you have constant conflict to keep your character growing?
- Does your Hero grow and change?
He must. It’s through those conflicts, through the mastery of them, that the story has teeth and becomes satisfying to your reader.
But leopards don’t entirely change their spots. We’re not talking wholescale change, but movement in a positive direction.
The Litmus Test: Does he change, and in a believable way?
- Does your Hero save the day?
It’s amazing how often she doesn’t. How someone else in the novel does. And, well, that just can’t be.
One way or another, your Protagonist has to be the one who finds the Grail, whatever that Grail is in your novel. That’s why she’s the Hero, no?
The Litmus Test: Who actually IS the hero of your novel?
- Does your hero achieve the Story-Question goal?
He doesn’t have to achieve all of it—especially in a series. But he must attain at least the central one—answering the Story Question, in the end.
He can achieve it and then die—this is a Tragic Story. But in all others, he must successfully answer that Question.
The Litmus Test: Is the beginning Story Question ultimately answered?
23. What is the central theme of your novel?
This is different from plot or storyline. It’s the essence of your book, and one to which you need sharp focus. This comprises your essential Story Question. And every single scene has to have a piece of it.
The Litmus Test: Can you say in 1-2 sentences what the theme of your book is?
- Did your novel begin with that main Story Question?
It’s the one that propels your Protagonist on to begin with. The same one that keeps him going. And the one he finally answers—at the climax of your book.
The Litmus Test: Is the Story Question clear and consistent?
- Is the timeline clear through the course of your story?
Sometimes this is vaguer than you think. After all, the when of things happening is crystal clear in your head, right?
But not always so in the reader’s.
Did you give your readers signposts as to the passage of time? And not dates stamped to begin chapters, but woven in unobtrusively through the story?
The Litmus Test: Do you readers always know where they are in the book?
- Have you gotten a grasp on Ebb and Flow?
You don’t want your readers gasping for air with too much constant, staccato action. Conversely, if they start yawning, they’ll quit you.
Even Thrillers have to have down times, when both the characters and the readers get to catch their breaths. And even literary works have to have stressful conflicts, which propel the plot forward.
The Litmus Test: Does the storyline include both, at the proper times?
- Do your Scenes contain the 5 elements that must go into them?
Scene setting, creation of conflict, climax of conflict, denouement, resolution.
Every scene must contain these elements. They are what make a scene. And a satisfying novel.
The Litmus Test: Are your scenes full and complete or are they missing aspects?
- Are all of your scenes vital to the book?
Or do you have scenes, which you might just love, but have no real part of the Story Question?
Every single scene must propel the plot, characters, or best both forward in order to remain. Otherwise, it sadly goes onto the cutting-room floor.
The Litmus Test: Can you explain why every scene must remain?
- Does your scene take off right from the get-go?
Or do you come into the room early, setting up every segment, and are paragraphs or even pages into it when something happens?
You want something to be happening with the first word of a scene. Plunge us into the action.
The Litmus Test: Enter the scene late, leave it early.
- Do you ramble on at the end of a scene?
Easy to do! In real life, the gist of something is over and we keep talking about it.
But on the page, you want to leave the scene or chapter with the punchline—the part that matters. This keeps your reader turning the page.
The Litmus Test: Do you leave it with the important part?
- Never underestimate the use of symbols and imagery to enrich your story.
Remember the glasses on the billboard in Gatsby? Pretty much everyone who read it gets a chill when those are mentioned.
You can evoke so much emotion through an image, a symbol, in so few words.
The Litmus Test: Does your symbology fit your story?
- Have you evoked enough tension in your tale?
Time constraints, applying pressure, dilemmas, complicating matters, and many more tools up the tension and drama. And a book with no drama is a real yawner.
The Litmus Test: Does tension keep your Protagonist moving through the storyline?
- Do your subplots flow into the main stream?
Sub-plots are great! They enrich the plot, give it texture and layers, and help your characters learn and grow.
But a huge problem is that these often become tangents. And those are book killers.
Be careful of sending your readers down roads that go nowhere—they’re liable to take those roads and not come back. I.e., lay the book down, never to pick it up again.
The Litmus Test: Does every single sub-plot feed into the main Story Question?
- Does your story have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end?
This basically translates to Set Up, Confrontation, and Resolution. You get here by outlining your story structure—whether before or after you’ve written the book.
Roughly, you’re looking for the Beginning (Act 1) to go from midnight to 3 o’clock. The Middle (Act 2) to go from 4-8’o’clock. And the End (Act 3) from 9-midnight.
The Litmus Test: Are you long in one and short in another?
- Are you a victim of the dreaded sagging middles?
This is a trap so, so many writers fall into. They set the book up perfectly, even end it well. But the vast middle section is a wasteland where not a lot happens, and we all get bogged down in never-ending quicksand.
The middle is actually where most of the ins and outs, plot points, allies, enemies, the mastering of tasks and even the very root exposure of the Protagonist’s nemesis occur.
The Litmus Test: Did you get caught in the bog? If you did, then your readers have already fled.
- Does your story have twists? And are they believable?
The point for a novelist is to create a story and people that surprise the reader in the end.
If your reader knows what’s going to happen, then you haven’t created your plot skillfully enough. Worse, however, is to toss in a huge twist at the end that doesn’t fit the story or the folks in it.
The Litmus Test: Did you surprise your reader, but he say in the end, “Ah! I didn’t see it coming but I should have!”
- Are you writing what you know?
If you’re a secretary, is your main character a renowned neurosurgeon? Or vice-versa? To write rich, believable characters, they have to arise organically. I.e., that’s the essence of the idea that all the characters in a novel are parts of the author.
When your Protagonist is far afield from your real life, it shows.
Every profession draws into it certain people. And people are changed, at least somewhat, by the professions they go into, and the rigorous (or not) requirements of getting and staying there.
Yes, you can research into different fields. But save that for ancillary characters.
The Litmus Test: Do you know of whom you write?
- Have you taken the time to learn your craft, before you send out your first manuscript?
I.e., have you joined a writer’s workshop, taken classes, worked with a professional editor, written some more, revised some more, studied some more, before thinking this manuscript is actually ready to go to publishers or print?
Writing well takes a long time to learn. And we don’t want you looking back years down the road and being embarrassed by what you published in the beginning. Remember: Even Hemingway was grateful (albeit years later) that his first 3 manuscripts were lost on the train . . .
The Litmus Test: Are you trying to publish your first, or even second, or even third manuscript without having truly learned the craft?
39. Read. Just read. Nothing serves an aspiring writer more than reading widely.
And while reading in your genre is a must, in order to know intrinsically the specs, reading widely is a huge plus. So, start with your genre, then what’s selling in others, to the more obscure Literary, and even the classics. All will serve you well.
And read critically.
The Litmus Test: Are you starting to see what works in other authors’ stories and what doesn’t?
40. Schedule your writing time. Not anybody else’s.
You’ll get lots of advice on the best way to be productive, but it honestly doesn’t matter if you write every day at 4 AM or 10 PM, you only write on weekends, etc. What matters is that the schedule works for you.
The Litmus Test: Have you found a writing time when you’re at your best?
41. Commit to it. Oh, how easy it is for anything and everything to get in the way.
And while sometimes real life just does, if you commit to your schedule and only let the kid’s hair being on fire get in the way, you’ll write your way to success.
The Litmus Test: Are you consistently productive?
- Settle in for the long haul. Writing well takes a long time. Take all pressure off yourself as per when you’ll perfect it.
The Litmus Test: Are you stressed about not being famous yet?
- Are you writing for the market, or what you love to write?
There is no wrong answer here. But a chasm as big as the Grand Canyon spans the answers.
If your point is to be published, to have a career in writing, to make your living doing so, it’s possible that this will happen if you’re writing what your heart longs to write. But that route is longer, more circuitous, and may or may not make you a household name.
On the other hand, many genres are crying out for new authors. So if you want to become rich and famous in the most timely manner, write for the market.
The Litmus Test: Have you consciously made this decision?
- Outline your book.
Many, many successful authors do this. It helps to give you a framework, keep you on track, make sure the story structure is right.
If you’re of a more analytic mind, this works great.
The Litmus Test: Does your outline fit with novel structure?
- Don’t outline your book.
Many, many others write from discovery, letting the characters take them through the story at will.
Which is great if you aren’t daunted by revision.
And don’t mind tossing away half the book and rewriting it.
The Litmus Test: Do you have the fortitude to look brutally at what you have and chop off limbs if need be?
- Know your Genre.
Genre rules are specific—for a reason. They’ve been honed by publishers over decades, and they’re what readers in that genre expect.
While it may be tempting to write cross-genre, and seem logical that this may bring you a wider readership, the opposite is actually true. Readers expecting a book in the genre they are comfortable reading will be turned off. And you’ve just lost both sets of readers.
The Litmus Test: Does your book conform to the genre?
- Have you set your first draft aside for a few months?
One of the oddities of the writing life is we can’t see what’s on the page in front of us, after having gone over it many times.
So once that first draft is finished, set it aside. And yes—for 6-8 weeks. Give it time to settle not only on your desk, but also away from your mind.
THEN when you go back over it, the cream will have risen to the top, and you can clearly see it.
The Litmus Test: Have you kept yourself entirely away from it?
- As you go into revisions, are you rewriting or are you polishing?
So often, especially new writers, think of revision as polish. And it is surely that—at the very last stage of the game.
But revision is rewriting. Sometimes entirely—from word one. Sometimes it’s writing new scenes, once you realize you’ve left holes. Sometimes it’s trashing entire segments, and writing bridges between chapters.
The point being, revision means rewriting.
Once that’s done—and it sits again—then you go into the polish stage.
The Litmus Test: Have you actually rewritten your first draft, or just polished it?
- And finally, do you love to do this?
Writing well is difficult. It’s an exacting endeavor, and takes a very long while to learn how to do well. That blood, sweat, and tears idea? It’s quite real.
This will also humble you to your knees. As I often say, we’re not selling bread dough here, but parts of our very souls.
There is no shame in walking away if you find that your heart’s just not in it. Or can’t take the pain.
The last thing we want is for you to be John Kennedy Toole, and off yourself from the excruciating nature of publishing. Especially since his book went on to publication and a Pulitzer after his death.
The very best Litmus Test I know:
“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet