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Books Distilled » How to Write a Novel, On Writing » How to Write a Novel: Part 1, Pick a Topic

How to Write a Novel: Part 1, Pick a Topic

Photo Credit: Tammy Strobel

Photo Credit: Tammy Strobel



As I revamp Books Distilled a bit, I’ll be sharing two basic types of posts: book reviews (at least one per month), and thoughts on writing practice.

Specifically, I”ll be sharing a series with you called How to Write a Novel.  I’ll be sharing all the lessons I’ve learned since I first came up with my novel idea six years ago, all the way to where I am now: halfway through my second draft of my fourth total rewrite.


My Own Novel Plan

I hope some of my insights can get you to this stage much faster than I did.  To answer those of you who might be thinking, Why should I listen to her if she’s taken this long to get close to finishing her book?, I’ll say this:  Because of the way my life has unfolded these past six years, I honestly believe this particular book needed me to take this long to write it.  I needed to grow into it.

That said, I’m fully aware that I need to finish this sucker. That’s why I’ve made a pact with a friend to hold me accountable, and will be asking two more to join her.  By Saturday, June 16, I will send to three people a completed, polished second draft.  I’ll ask them to spend a few weeks reading it and offering honest feedback.  Then I will have until October 1 to rewrite the third draft and send out my first agent query letter.

All that said…

Let’s start at the very beginning.

Pick a Topic

To start a novel, you need something to write about. That something needs to be meaty.  It needs to be something that captivates your interest, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time with it.  It needs to be something real–not real in the sense of realistic fiction versus science or fantasy fiction–but real in the sense that real people struggle with it, that real people feel deeply about it.

Six years ago I decided to write a novel about four adult siblings, who can barely stand to be in the same room, who find out that their mother has Alzheimer’s disease.  Almost everything else about the novel has changed since the first, terrified attempt I made at writing it–but the premise has remained the same, and so have the core characters.  (The setting, plot, timeline, and conflicts have all shifted significantly.)

I started out with a situation with amazing potential for conflict.  (The key has been to constantly increase the conflict, which we’ll talk about later.)  Lesson: Don’t try to write a novel based entirely on a character’s style of speaking. It’s boring.

If you’re having trouble thinking of a topic, let’s start with your experience.

Writing Exercise

(If you’re a writer, actually do these exercises!  Don’t just read them!)

What happened on the most painful day of your life?

Write without using any generalization or abstraction.  (No “I felt…”)  What did your body concretely feel like? What did you do that day?  Who did you see?  What did people say to you?  Write for ten minutes without stopping.

Julia Cameron says in The Artist’s Way that art is not about thinking something up; it’s about getting something down.  Robert Olen Butler says, get out of the habit of saying you have an idea for a story–start with a character’s yearning.

On that most painful day, what did you most yearn for–besides the cause of the pain being eliminated?  A cheeseburger?  Spring in midwinter?  For sun if it was rainy, or rain if it was sunny?  For your dog sleep in bed next to you?

A novel comes from the core of our being.  Get in touch with the core of your being, and it will tell you what it wants you to write about.


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One Response to "How to Write a Novel: Part 1, Pick a Topic"

  1. Erin says:

    I am so looking forward to this series!

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