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Seven tips for writing a novel

It may sound strange, but for those asking advice on writing a novel, “don’t worry about plot too much” is one of the first lessons from a university professor of English and creative writing.

Michael Loyd Gray, who teaches at South University and has written seven novels in the past eight years, has created a primer of sorts for aspiring novelists.

1. Know something about the story you want to tell. Know who the main character is and where she or he lives, what she or he does for a living – and a conflict she or he has that can be explored. “I started writing my novel ‘Well Deserved’ once I knew the name of the first character, where he lived, how he lived, and what his circumstances were,” says Gray. “Soon, I knew how he would react to strangers, for example, and soon another character comes along to interact with him.”

2. Write characters arcs to get started. F. Scott Fitzgerald did this: map out in great detail who your characters are – where they went to school, who they loved, who they betrayed, their educations, etc. 

3. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A short story can take place in a very short time, but a novel can be about someone’s entire life or even span 1,000 years. Accept that you are telling a very long story that will evolve in ways you didn’t expect and settle into a routine. “Write every day,” says Gray. “Seriously, I write every day and that way I keep the narrative thread fresh and easy to pick up. I read the previous day’s work, make adjustments that are obvious, and then I push the story forward. But also be willing to be pulled forward when the story seems to be writing itself.”

4. Trust your subconscious to help you. Gray says, “Hemingway said the subconscious was like a spring inside us that gets replenished overnight. After writing do something else - exercise, listen to music, clean the bathtub.” Gray says to let what you wrote sink into the subconscious to ferment and be ready for what is served up the next morning.

5. Know when to delete what you wrote. Not everything that comes out will be sterling or even belong in your novel. “I cut the first 40 pages of my novel ‘Not Famous Anymore’ because novelist Monique Raphel High convinced me that while it was funny, it was not really how the book needed to open. What I replaced those pages with was a better, tighter opening that I could see was more connected to developing a sense of the main character. Challenge what you’ve written to belong on the page,” explains Gray.

6. Avoid having your characters make grand speeches. Have them speak the way they really would, using the words they really would use. “If the character is profane, profanity would lace their speech,” Gray says. “Readers come to know who a character is by what they say and what they do - and also by what they don’t say and what they don’t do.” Faced with a chance to help someone, for example, a character not taking action conveys betrayal.

Not getting discouraged is Gray’s seventh lesson.

“I wrote for a long time before I realized I’d gotten good,” says Gray, who had been writing short stories while he earned his master‘s degree in English. Eventually, he realized the novel was a better form for telling his stories. “Ask yourself if your idea is valid enough to be a novel. If so, start writing. Establish a beachhead and go from there.”

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