Have you ever wanted to step into someone else’s shoes? See the world through a child’s eyes? Live on a desert island? Run a Parisian cafe in the 1700’s? Novel writing, dear writers, is about shedding your identity and inhabiting the experiences of an imagined character. But a novel also requires looking inward. Contained within each of our interior lives are elements of the human condition that we must conjure up for our fictional characters. Imagine examining your inner world while simultaneously studying the world around you—this, dear writers, is the essence of novel writing.
In celebration of National Novel Writing month, Grub Street
and Write the World have joined forces to offer a novel challenge: explore the human experience through realistic fiction and submit an excerpt for our joint competition. As you immerse yourself in the writing process, be sure to reference these guidelines and tips:
Novels hinge on well-developed characters. All the rest of it—the plot, the setting, the language—mean little if the reader doesn’t experience the fictional world through a character that feels real and relatable. The reader must detect a beating heart—feel that human connection—to care about the rest of the story. “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters”, Ernest Hemingway wrote. So how, as writers, do we pull this off? How do we bring forth characters from our imagination that feel, to the reader, like “living people”?
- Make your characters three dimensional. Rather than thinking of your characters as either “good” or “bad,” or protagonists or antagonists, consider every character to have both flaws and gifts… just like real people… just like you and me.
- Give your characters idiosyncrasies. Does your character have a habit of pulling on his beard when he’s nervous? Does she absent-mindedly feed the cat morsels off her plate? Particular details not only reveal personality, but they also make a character come to life.
- Reveal internal and external worlds. Sometimes, particularly if the events in the narrative are exciting, it’s easy to forget that what’s happening outside of the character is only half the story. The inner world can be just as rich and just as telling, if not more so. What is your character thinking? Imagining? Feeling? What are they worried about? Preoccupied by? What do they wish for?
You can find more excellent character tips in our Ask Michael
At its most basic level, the plot refers to the sequence of events that make up the story you’re telling in your novel. But the writer is not simply recording every experience a character had in chronological order. Instead, writes Janet Burroway, “a plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” In other words, it’s up to you to pick and choose what happens in the life you’re imagining, what pieces to include in your novel, and in what order
. You’ve likely heard of the narrative arc: the progression of a story as it moves from introduction to inciting incident (the first hint of a problem) to rising action to climax to falling action to resolution. Well, this one-size-fits-all sequence makes it seem like all novels follow the same path. Not true! We much prefer NaNoWriMo’s
metaphor of a rollercoaster: “As you probably know, not all rollercoasters have the same track. They all have different hills and drops, twists and turns, and loops and tunnels. The same goes for novels.... Sometimes they begin with the inciting incident or work backwards from the resolution to the beginning. Novels are filled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and unexpected plot twists.”
For almost all fiction, a sense of setting helps the reader enter the narrative. With the first few words of the novel, the reader begins to form a mental picture—who the characters are, how they sound, where they are. The details of place allow the reader to imagine the characters in action. How convincingly a writer captures a place is also one of the ways that she builds credibility with the reader. Do your research: If your story takes place on the coast of Ecuador, know the names of the trees, which snakes worry the farmers, and when the wet season sweeps in. The intimate details of a place convince the reader of the story’s legitimacy. Setting can also provide access to the emotional undercurrents of the narrative. This is because defining place is not simply writing down descriptions of mountains or seacoasts, trees, sky, horizons. The language the writer chooses is important for mood, pace, and temperament. For instance, a description of place can be gloomy and flat or buoyant and loud. Each of these adjectives describes a mood which the reader internalizes as the story goes along. (This is called the objective correlative.) And one more thought, dear writers: because we are a global community, your readership is global, too! This means your setting doesn’t need to be “exotic” to be interesting. In fact, describing the seemingly mundane could be quite otherworldly to one of your readers. Dogwood stems turning neon orange in winter! A river the color of chocolate milk! Sandstorms in August!
Dear writers, we won’t pretend otherwise: writing a novel is hard work. It's a long, arduous road from beginning to end, which is why novel writers need all the camaraderie and inspiration they can get. And that means helping each other when the going gets tough—reaching through cyberspace and offering a kind word or helpful suggestion on an early draft. “Writing is better when it’s together”, we like to say. If you’re looking for a review, someone else is too…pay it forward!
Who is Eligible?
Young writers ages 13-18
600 – 1,000 words
has been involved in the book industry for over twenty years. In the UK she worked as an editor for Penguin and Egmont, and later as a freelance manuscript consultant and writer. In Australia she has worked with literary agent Sheila Drummond, finding new children’s and YA authors; she has reviewed for Bookseller and Publisher, been a judge for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (YA Category) and spent several happy years at independent bookshop Readings as a children’s buyer, during which time she was instrumental in establishing the Readings Children’s Book Prize. Emily’s writing includes four novels for teenagers – Girl, Aloud
in 2009, Steal My Sunshine
in 2013, The Other Side of Summer
in 2016, and I Am Out With Lanterns
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
- Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
- Runner up: $50
- Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
- Best Entry: $100 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the winning piece, and an interview with the author will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Runner up: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the piece will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Best Peer Review: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the best peer review and an interview with the reviewer will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Prizes: The winning entrant(s) will receive $100, and the best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
- Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
- Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday November 11th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
November 4: Competition Opens
November 11: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
November 15: Reviews returned to Writers
November 19: Final Submissions Due
November 29: Winners Announced
Our My December Competition opens Monday, November 25.
Stay tuned for more details!