Yay! It’s less than one month away: the HarperCollins release of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness. I sold my novel and I believe that if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. What follows are some tips on how to write a novel that sells.
1. Keep dialogue flowing. Dialogue in good books is never, “How are you?” “Fine thank you. How are you?” “What’s new?” Blah-blah-blah. Literary dialogue is never literal. People do not talk that way. There are often stops and starts and interruptions, like in real life. Natural dialogue: “It really depends on—” “—Forget Bill. He’s as useless as a flat Ping Pong ball.”
EXERCISE: Go to a coffee shop/restaurant/laundromat. Any public place. First, listen to a conversation happening behind you. Take notes: write down the dialogue and how it stops and starts. Then write down what you think the people talking look like. Turn around and see if you’re right.
2. Make up an original title. My professor, Edgar Rosenberg, at Cornell University always said that giving a story or a novel a title with a name can border on lazy. Unless, of course, it’s an original name. Of course, this rule is broken constantly: Romeo & Juliet, Eleanor & Park, Harry Potter, Olive Kitredge, etc. But unless you have characters’ names that say something, try to find another title.
EXERCISE: Pull out from your manuscript an idea or a phrase and see if you can make a title. I talk about how the title of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, evolved from The Dead Can Never Thank You here.
3. Break up sentences. Yes. We learned in school that you need a noun + a verb to make a sentence. But, ahh, when you write, you can have super-long sentences as well as one or two word sentences. The first ungrammatical sentence in my novel occurs on the first page: “The odd, raw stillness.” And I have long run-on sentences as well to convey a different idea; it’s a way to get time to speed up and cram in a lot of information and leave the reader breathless and not able to take a pause—sort of like that.
EXERCISE: Write a 250-word flash fiction story mixing up lengths of sentences. Start in the middle of a conversation, and go on.
4. Start your novel at turning point. You need to try to squeeze in enough action by page 50 to keep the reader turning the pages. Also, if you’re looking for a literary agent, many ask to read the first 50 pages. Remember, we can live and write our best chapter!
EXERCISE: Write a story or chapter that begins with one character giving another a bombshell. Here’s an easy example: “I know I told you I’d marry you, but…”
When people tell me, “And to make a long story short…” I’m already thinking, “Yes, please make it short…” Nobody wants to hear or read a long story. Make it shorter.
EXERCISE: Take your story and then use the Stephen King rule: First Draft – Ten Percent= Second Draft. Cut, cut, cut. It isn’t a circumcision so you don’t have to be that careful. (More Stephen King tips here.)
5. Stick to conventions. A table has four legs. That’s standard. My suggestion is follow standard formats for novels and stories until you get the hang of telling a story.
EXERCISE: Write down a story you like to tell people from your childhood. Just write it as you’d say it.
6. Describe someone using two descriptions that are not usual. “He has blue eyes and curly, blond hair.” Ehhh. We can do better than that. “He has narrow eyes and soft, pudgy hands. Doesn’t that sound more interesting? To me, it does.
7. Finally, don’t keep your eyes on the prize. The prize is the actual writing. If we’re dreaming of writing because we think it will be fun to sign books, be on a talk show, or get invited to the Academy Awards, that’s not why we write. We write to tell a story. It’s hard work. It means sitting and doing the work. And then doing it again. And again.
8. Don’t give up! Treat yourself as a professional. Treat your work with firm kindness. Listen to the voice that wants to write. Do not listen to the people who say you cannot do it. Listen to me. I say that you can do it if you keep writing.
Now for the good news…A REMARKABLE KINDNESS will be one of the featured books at Hudson News Book Stores, those fabulous stores at airports around the USA and Canada this fall.