How to become a novelist overnight: start writing now

by Christine DeSmet, writing instructor, Continuing Studies

Most of us have said something like, “That’d make a great movie or novel.”

Ideas for novels stalk all of us.

Novel ideas crop up in the middle of a conversation with friends or coworkers, or when we’re watching the news or reading a blog. When the idea plagues you for many days, it means it probably would fill enough pages to make a novel.

For the average paperback literary or mainstream novel of the kind you still find on a bookstore shelf (or online in your e-book version), you need around 90,000 words or 300 manuscript pages double-spaced with 12-point Times New Roman type. Book lengths vary of course, so do a little research or email me about your type of novel and I’ll help you figure out what length might be good for your readers.

After you get an idea, how do you get your novel underway? How do you fill those 300 pages? Those are the questions brought to me and my colleagues in all our Continuing Studies writing workshops, such as the upcoming “Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Retreat” in Madison, June 18-22. I also teach online, one-on-one courses in both novel writing and screenwriting.

Novels are simply this: A character with a problem. Fiction is about the conflict that happens over solving that problem.

Novelists start planning their plots by articulating that problem in what’s called a “logline.” The logline is a one-sentence encapsulation of your plot. This sentence is what guides you so you don’t get lost in writing 300 pages. The logline is what we writers pitch to agents in New York or Hollywood. Example: “A Kansas girl swirled up in a tornado into a magical Land of Oz must face down a wicked witch before she can get help for finding home.”

Novelists sell three things to readers: character, plot, setting. Make a list of 20 things you know (or make up) about each one of those items, and as a result you’ve got 60 facts that will help you design scenes and fill your novel. See how easy it is to write a novel?

But there is an art to being a novelist, too, and that “art”—as well as the craft—is what we focus on in our workshops and online courses. The “art” of writing is about being an entertainer, about bringing your unique voice to the page.

There’s a saying we have in writing that it’s about the two “E’s”: entertainment and emotion. Art appeals to our emotions. And all that means is that being a fiction writer is about being you:

* Write what moves you
* Be brave and create characters out of your background
* Use the places where you’ve lived or visited
* Borrow from the way you talk in your family so that you bring that unique voice to the world

That’s how you become a first-time novelist in a nutshell.

Christine DeSmet is a writer of novels, short stories, screenplays, and plays. This spring she sold a three-book contract to New American Library/Penguin for a mystery series set in Door County, Wis. If you have questions, contact Christine DeSmet, faculty associate, cdesmet@dcs.wisc.edu, 608-262-3447.