Four Things You Can Do TODAY to Take Your Novel to the Next Level

by Jason Sitzes


First, let's look at the process of getting a novel written.

Breaking it down: a mainstream novel is made up of about 80,000 to 100,000 words. If you write 250 to 400 words per page double spaced (depending on the size paper you're using) you're looking at 150 to 250 scenes total for your novel. Some write in very small scenes, others in larger scenes, but work with me here. There is a way to whittle a novel down into bites.

If you can write a scene a day, you can finish a novel in a year. Easily. So why does it take many of us years to complete our first book? And looking ahead: once we reach publication we are expected to publish a book a year. Preparation and execution of the first novel was a luxury. Your ensuing novels require a streamlined approach.

Novels would be easy to write if it were only a matter of arranging all those words into a cohesive narrative. But you know it's much more than that -- and it's much harder than you can imagine unless you've done it successfully. I propose there are four elements you can look for right now, today, that can help you through the writing of those 150 or more scenes. And these four things will help you write a better novel the first time or the twentieth time.

Check One

The first check is to make sure you've started your novel in the correct moment and in a compelling fashion. I direct and teach a workshop, Writers Retreat Workshop (WRW), founded by author Gary Provost. Gary used the word 'system' to describe the condition under which your characters live at the moment the story begins. The 'system' is the protagonist's reality -- that is, the status quo; what they expect everything will be when they wake up each morning. The moment that system is broken, when the status quo is shattered -- the moment everything changes -- is the inciting incident. That is the moment your novel begins, when the protagonist is changed, challenged, and confronted with a goal or need in her life.

Check to see when your story begins. Is it a day or so before the system is busted? The moment it's busted? Or shortly after the status quo is changed forever? If you can pinpoint that moment near the beginning of the novel then you've started in a solid place.

Check Two

The second element to examine is the human connection. Publishers want to know what it is about this novel that will matter to readers.

So what if a woman finds a map to a treasure that will set her and her children free from the abuse of her spouse, and along the way to that treasure she falls in love with a swashbuckler, befriends a wallaby named Boxer who teaches her patience and serenity, and her children join her in the outback where she finds the only treasure she ever really needed was freedom? So what? Why do I care? What about her life, her journey, her inner struggle speaks to me? What in her misery speaks to me?

I can't personally relate to abuse, but I can relate to making bad choices, of being unable to stand up for myself, or the inability to take action because of fear. Build your novel upon universal elements and you'll grab more interest from readers.

Check Three

A third check is to see how concise your idea is. Can you tell the concept of your story in 75 words or fewer? If not, you may not know your story. You might have a general idea of your story, "My protagonist wants to find himself." Most characters do want to "find themselves", or find love, find a murderer, stop a criminal. What's original about your approach? Try to whittle the external and internal conflicts for your protagonist into around75 words.

If, after you do that, it's not a story concept you'd pick up at a bookstore, or a movie premise you'd be first in line to see… what aspect of the story is weak? The entire premise? Or does your main character need to want more, and must her failure to satisfy that 'want' come at greater cost?

Does it matter if a character never truly finds herself? Is that really what your story is about? If you can't create a 75 word hook that shows the internal goal, the external goal, the cost of failure and the universal human element that will compel readers, grab a sheet of paper and brainstorm how you can make the premise more compelling.

Check Four

Finally, go through your manuscript and look for anything resembling backstory. Backstory is when you stop the story to tell us something that happened in the character's past. Almost always, backstory stops the narrative cold. We don't move forward. The reader has to stop and go back in time. The longer you keep us in the past, the longer we're away from the story.

It is every writer's belief that their backstory is the exception to the "rule" that backstory doesn't work. But often, it doesn't work. Why? Because readers want to move forward. They want the story to unfold; they want to get closer to the resolution.

Your readers want the novel to become more tense, not to read paragraphs of 'back in time' learning information that you, the author, think they must know when in reality they don't need this information. The rare occasion backstory works is at the moment when the revelation of the past reveals a goldmine of story that moves our understanding to a new level. Understanding moves us forward, information for the sake of informing stops us dead in our tracks. Your story should never stop. Readers should be in constant motion.

Look for areas of backstory in your novel, highlighting paragraphs or pages. Read those sections and make sure the story moves forward through the revelation of the past. If you're only informing us, cut it. You don't need it.

Agents and publishers get hundreds of story ideas thrown at them every week. They listen for something they've never heard before, or an original angle on a familiar story. Work to:

  • develop a deeper 'bigger' premise
  • discover settings and scenarios that are unexpected or unusual, and
  • develop actions characters take that catch us (and you, the author) by surprise.

The more concisely you can present these elements, the more notice you'll get when marketing to agents, and the more readers you'll attract.

© Jason Sitzes


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