8 Tips on Writing the Novel You Want to Read

It’s the last day of 35th Manila International Book Fair today, and if you’re a reader who hasn’t been there yet, I’d suggest dropping by. I went yesterday and attended two seminars, one of which was "Readers Who Write" discussion presented by Filipino ReaderCon and the National Book Development Board (NBDB) and facilitated by Gabriela Lee with panelists Mina V. Esguerra (romance-writing and indie-publishing guru and the author of the Interim Goddess of Love series, among others), Kate Evangelista (author of Taste and Til Death as well as a few more novels), and Alyssa Urbano AKA AerithSage (author of several Wattpad novels as well as The Billion-Dollar Marriage Contract, which is soon to be published by Summit Books, under their new Sizzle imprint). I found the talk fun, productive (from a networking standpoint, for one), informative, and inspiring. And I thought I’d share some of the tips and reminders I came away from this event with.

From left to right: Mina V. Esguerra, Kate Evangelista, and Alyssa Urbano

1. Everyone has at least one novel inside them.

This was something Kate stressed particularly. There are characters, places, and other ideas that hide in your imagination (or ones who don’t hide and pester you until you wonder if you’re schizophrenic), and each one of them clamors to have their story told. Maybe it’s something you devote your time to, maybe not. The difference between an author and a non-author is that an author is willing to go down the rabbit hole and see those stories through ‘til the end.

2. If you want to be a writer, read. Vociferously.
All three panelists found themselves hard-put to stress this strongly enough. They talked about how they were readers since childhood, how they grew to explore the genres the eventually wrote in, and how each story they read made them hungrier to craft their own. Alyssa even mentioned that she read a lot of fan fiction back in the day.

3. Read something of everything, but especially the kind of stories you want to write.
Here was a point I got from Mina, who writes contemporary romance novels. She pointed out that you never know what could spark the idea for a novel, so there’s no reason to dismiss any book as being of no use to you. But she also pointed out that it’s important to read the kind of novel you want to write. And she has a point, especially when it comes to genre fiction. It’s essential that you know the tropes and rhythms commonly found in your chosen genre. Alyssa mentioned a Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” It’s a great quote and a reminder that you need to read a lot—otherwise, how do you know if that book has been written or not?

4. Identify the books that influence you and what you take away from them.
Each of the panelists named several books that have had an impact on what they write, how they write, and the way they think about books in general. And this ran the gamut from a much-loved Sweet Dreams romance to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. This underscored the point that isn’t so much a question of which books influence which writers as how these books influence them and whether they are aware of those influences. 

5. There is no one true way to write your story.
Kate is a spontaneous writer who enjoys finding out what happens in her novels as she’s writing the scenes. Mina and Alyssa are both rabid plotters. They know where their stories are going even before they start writing them. Yet even with this commonality, we saw differences in their styles. Mina’s approach seems more regimented, possibly because, as a mom, her time is not her own. Meanwhile, Alyssa stresses how important taking time out to daydream is for her. Kate was quick to point out that no two writers will have exactly the same habits or processes, and that what budding novelists need to do is find a method that works for them.

6. Grab your writing time where you can and protect it fiercely.
Alyssa tries to get all her errands done in the morning, leaving her afternoons and evenings clear for writing (and daydreaming, of course!). Once she’s writing, she turns off the internet on her computer—any research must be done on her mobile, which she says limits the temptation to open tab after tab after tab. Kate also does tasks like e-mailing and checking social media in the morning in order to leave things clear for writing later in the day, although she confesses to being addicted to Twitter. Mina, on the other hand, shared that she really only gets two hours of writing a week, but she makes those count as she finds it difficult to write when among other people. There’s a reason why we writers are a solitary bunch when immersed in our craft—distractions (and that includes people) keep us from pounding those words out, and as a breed, we’re terribly susceptible to procrastination.

7. Get the novel out; worry about polishing it later.
I actually got up to ask the writers for tips I hoped I could share with folks in my region come November, which is National Novel Writing Month (I’m one of two municipal liaisons for NaNoWriMo’s Asia :: Philippines region). I asked them for tips on accomplishing their word count goals and for suggestions on how to keep from sacrificing quality in your writing for quantity. Kate pointed out that her novels go through a four-pass editing process. You spend one month writing the novel, she pointed out, but you spend the rest of the year editing it. The important thing is to get the story out, just that first draft. Because you can do it—and you need to prove that to yourself. And the editing and polish, while it may take longer, is easier because you already have something to work with. All three writers recommend just getting past the point where you’re staring at a blank page.

8. Write. Every. Single. Day. 
This was a point that Kate made, and it makes sense. Writing is a craft, which means that you need practice. So whether you’re writing or plotting or editing (all of which are parts of the writing process), you need to be working at it every day. If you drop the ball on your story, it won’t get told—or you’ll find that there’s more for you to revise later on. It’s easier to get into the rhythm of writing when you’ve established it as a habit, so if you’re going to pound out your novel (and especially if you hope to write many novels, as the writers all suggested), do your time. It will pay off.

Bonus:Alyssa suggested checking out Chuck Palahniuk’s tips on “unpacking” thought verbs, which you can find here. A word of warning, though—he prefaces his advice with “In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.” After reading the piece, I’ll admit to the first half of that. But I’m going to give it a try and hope that the second half holds true as well.

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