Anyone can write a novel, but if you truly want to write a novel that will gain the attention of agents and publishers and also satisfy your readers, you need to ensure that it has the right qualities. There are many elements and techniques involved in writing a successful novel, such as dialogue and conflict, but following on from my last article, on what to do before you start writing, I’d like to share with you the key guidelines that have helped to get me off the starting block and to elevate my writing.
Hook the reader in some way
Every part of a novel should have a purpose and must keep the reader interested, but the beginning has a greater pressure placed on it. This is the first thing a reader will see, and if they don’t like it they are unlikely to invest time in reading on. It is important to get your beginning right, by hooking your readers in and you can do this through several different ways. One effective method is in raising a question in the readers mind at the start through the situation presented, for example will the woman discover who her real father? Will the man find love? Can the boy escape from his kidnapper? A question will raise intrigue and encourage the reader to read on in order to discover the answer.
You could also use an intriguing voice, such as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, where the fifteen-year-old protagonist Christopher Boone has an interesting voice and view of the world. You might also want to open with an action scene that grabs the reader’s attention, but whichever method you use to hook the reader in, make sure you follow through on it and keep up the momentum.
A book I love is A Prayer for Own Meany by John Irving, and it successfully demonstrates a brilliant opening. ‘’I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
Straightaway, there are lots of questions raised – what was wrong with Owen Meaney’s voice? Why did he kill the narrator’s mother? and how has he helped the narrator believe in God? Irving keeps us waiting to find out all these answers, which makes it a great hook.
In my novel, I bring the reader right into the setting, as it was important that they understand it is set in India, and that the story is from the point of view of a young girl. I’ve also used this technique of raising a question about my protagonist, Muthu.
‘She is cursed,’ grandmother said. ‘It is all her fault.’ From the beginning my fate was written.
Hopefully this line serves to intrigue the reader to want to find out why/if Muthu is cursed. Finding out what the key question of your story is, can also prove useful in terms of helping you understand the driving force, so do give this some consideration as it can really benefit your work.
Create sticky situations
I love stories where my characters suffer; I don’t necessarily mean in the physical sense, but I want to see my characters challenged by obstacles and difficulties, and I want to see how they respond to such challenges. I want a reason to take their side, and to root for them to succeed.
Nobody wants to read about a character that has a great life and sets out to achieve their dreams, and in doing so faces no obstacles or challenges. This type of story has no conflict or tension and therefore runs the risk of sending your reader to sleep! A character needs to be placed in sticky situations in order to create suspense. We need to see our characters tested, their ambitions and goals placed at risk, to have them find themselves in a dark place, and then we need to see how they respond, how they find a way through these challenges in order to keep moving forwards. These sticky situations drive the story forwards, they help us to develop empathy for the character and they help engage the reader in the story.
In Elastic Girl my main character, Muthu faces many obstacles from being trafficked into a circus, and she is definitely challenged on a physical and psychological level. We want her to overcome her situation, and to find the inner strength to deal with what has happened her. It is an emotive story that places a young girl in situations we immediately want to see her escape.
It is worth remembering that conflict is not always about showing some spectacular event. It can be opposing desires, pressures, incompatible goals, and underlying tension, but the key is that it must raise suspense, make life difficult and force the character into action.
‘The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.’ – Oscar Wilde
Show Don’t Tell
This is another term we come across a lot in writing, but one that I firmly believe in, and it really irks me now if I read a story and I’m being told about something in a reported manner, rather than the writer bringing me into the scene and showing it to me through actions and dialogue. Too much telling can make a story feel passive and flat, and is something that can be a big turnoff for publishers.
Most often writers like to tell us how characters feel – they are sad, happy, angry or jealous. Make this more interesting by showing how these emotions manifest themselves. For example, in Elastic Girl, rather than telling the reader that Amma is angry with Dadi, I show this through actions and dialogue.
When Amma saw him, she reached in under the pile of belongings, pulled out a pitcher, and hurled it at his head.
He fell to his knees, clutching at his ear, and then he began to moan.
‘You knew, you knew!’ she wailed, but Dadi continued to lie there, staring into the rubble.
This may seem like more work than simply saying ‘Amma was angry’, but over the duration of your novel it will help to bring your story to life and keep the readers engaged.
Readers do not want to be told about how Johnny was left on a doorstep when he was a baby and rescued by a nurse. Readers want to see these important events unfold for themselves, they want to be there in the moment when the nurse comes across the baby in the doorstep of a house on her way to work, we want to see her making the decision not to report it, but to take the baby in as her own, we want to see her bringing the baby home and struggling to take care of it, wondering whether she has done the wrong thing. Do not deprive your readers of experiencing all the emotions of those moments, as the closer they can get to the events, the more immersed in the story they will become. Present the situations, rather than reporting them and do not tell us that Johnny is sad or angry about what happened to him, but show it.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
In deciding to embark on writing a novel you must know above all else, that it requires huge reserves of perseverance and self-motivation. A lot of the skills involved in being a writer can be acquired over time and with the right amount of training, but being a writer also involves things that come from deep within your own psyche. I write because I feel compelled to, because I have an idea or a question about the world that I need to explore through the art of writing, and in doing so I find a great sense of personal fulfilment. Ask yourself why you want to write, dig down deep to find the determination you will need to keep going, and then apply my top tips to getting your novel off to a good start.
(c) Olivia Rana
See here for further advice from Olivia on what to do before you start writing.
About Elastic Girl:
‘Elastic Girl highlights the cruelties, indignities and injustice of child trafficking. An enlightening and gripping read.’ Joanna Lumley
Before Muthu Tikaram is born, her grandfather murders the family’s landlord, an act of violence that shapes Muthu’s life from the very beginning.
Too young to understand the repercussions of this act of brutality, Muthu knows only that her two older sisters are given special treatment while she is forced to sell rotis on the dusty roadside, dreaming of escape.
When the family find themselves destitute and living by the side of the railway station, Muthu is sold to The Great Raman Circus of Chennai. Her father convinces her that this is the only way to help free her family from poverty, and in her innocence Muthu imagines that with her extraordinary contortionist abilities she will become a star, just like all her Bollywood idols.
Muthu’s hopes for glamour and excitement are short lived, as she is transported into a world of misery and abuse. After several years of enslavement, she plans her escape with her friend Gloria, convinced that they can make it on their own in Mumbai, the City of Dreams. Will Muthu succeed in making her name as the Elastic Girl or will her dreams turn into a nightmare?
This poignant tale draws attention to the plight of child performers in India, and on the horrors of child trafficking, but as Muthu tries to make sense of her existence, readers will discover the true strength of the “Elastic Girl.”
Order your copy online here.
15% of profits from each book will go towards the work of Child Rescue Nepal.