Fw: Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent

Posted: August 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

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Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent

Link to Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent

How to Write a Novel

Posted: 17 Aug 2010 02:54 PM PDT

We should probably first agree that this is a rather large topic. One might even call it rotund, ginormous, massive, weighty, of-gargantuan-proportions, etc. But lately I have heard from several would-be writers with a very common sentiment.

I want to write a novel, I think I can write a novel, but for the love of Tim Gunn, how in the world do you write a novel?

And that brings us to the most important advice I can offer in this How to Write a Novel overview. If you try and hold the entire novel in your head all at once and attempt to imagine it in its entirety and all of its various ins and outs, your brain will suddenly become so heavy that you will topple over backwards and pass out.

Don’t be intimidated by the bigness of the task. As the great Donald Trump would say: It is a ‘UGE task. ‘uge. The best thing you can do is to break a novel up into some comprehensible components that you can think about in a coherent fashion and try as hard as you can not to be intimated.

Contrary to the myth of the writer sitting down blindly and letting their inspiration spill onto the page, whether you’re a thorough outliner or an adherent to the school of write-as-you-go-I’ll-edit-later, I highly recommend having at least a rough sketch of the below elements in place before you sit down and type “Chapter 1: It was a dark and stormy night.”

The Main Plot Arc

This right here is the spine of the book. It’s what happens, it’s what you build around,  it’s the main event. When people ask you what your book is about, this is what you tell them.

I like to think of every novel, whether it’s literary fiction or genre fiction, as a quest: Every quest has:

1) a starting place
2) a first step
3) a journey (the biggest chunk of the novel)
4) an ending

Take a look at all of your favorite novels – they have a starting place, then something sets the main character’s world ajar, then the character embarks on a literal or figurative journey with significant obstacles, and then an ending, where the character either ends up somewhere new or ends up back where they started but irrevocably changed.

There are millions of variations on this quest, whether it’s a journey through the mind, battling personal demons, or flying through outer space, but every single novel is about a character or characters who start in one place and end up somewhere else. That journey, physical or emotional or hopefully both, is the heart of the novel.

(For further reading):
Do you have a plot?
Archetype vs. Cliche

Along the quest, the characters face…

Obstacles of increasing intensity, with ups and downs

If the most challenging obstacle your main character faces happens in the first half of the book: the reader will be bored in the second half. If your character gets everything they want and always has “up” moments: the reader will be bored with the predictability. If your character only has “down” moments and things get steadily worse and worse with no hope whatsoever: your reader will either be horrifically depressed or start to think everything is unintentionally funny.

Whether the main obstacle is an arch-villain, their own personal demons, or a powerful army of rhetorical questions–the biggest battle is in the end, and there are gains, setbacks, and smaller obstacles along the way. Better still if the obstacles and the intensity of the emotions steadily increase and swing back and forth as the novel goes along.

(For further reading):
On Conflict
John Green and Dynamic Character Relationships

The Protagonist

At the center of a novel’s quest is a protagonist, or possibly a small group of protagonists, but for the purposes of this section let’s just stick with the protagonist as a singular. Said protagonist can be a man, a woman, a child, an alien, a Chihuahua, a mold spore, or anything else you can think of trust me it’s been done before.

But every single protagonist, no matter what species, has one thing in common: they want something. The novel is about trying to get that thing they want.

Now, the best protagonists are complex individuals who may want multiple things. They may think they want one thing but in reality want another, or they may want two things that are at odds with each other. But once you know what a character wants, their personality (funny? brave? weak?) becomes an expression of how they go about getting it.

Every additional character also has something they want, and that may perchance be at odds with what your protagonist wants. The villain, if you have one, either wants the same thing as your protagonist (competition) or the exact opposite of what your character wants (adversarial), and is nearly, but not quite, as powerful as your protagonist.

(For further reading):
Character and Plot are Inseparable
Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic CharactersWhat Do Your characters Want?


The setting is more than just where your novel takes place. A great setting is woven into the very fabric of the novel. The best settings have:

Change underway – Something is happening in the world that is changing, whether war is coming, new moral values are ascendant, or something else that is roiling the calm. Whether the novel is a massive multi-country canvass or a very personal coming of age story, something is changing.
A personality – The setting is different than the real world not just in where it’s set, but also in its value system and character. Maybe it’s a funny world, maybe it’s ruthless world, maybe it’s all totally punk rock YEAH MAN, but it has its own personality.
Unfamiliarity – A great setting shows us something we haven’t seen and makes us look at our own world in a new way.

(For further reading):
What Makes a Great Setting

Style and Voice

Much like love, style don’t come easy. Our first attempts at crafting a signature style inevitably feel like imitation. But if you write enough and keep trying and keep pushing yourself, eventually you will arrive at your own personal style that is nothing like anyone else’s and voila, your novel will have a voice.

(For further reading):
How to Craft a Great Voice
Is Your Dialogue Stilted?
Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies?

The Climax

And at the end of the novel (it is near the end, yes?), your characters will face their biggest obstacles, and all of the simmering conflicts and plots and subplots all come to a head. It helps if the climax is your best, most dramatic scene, when the moments have the biggest weight and the characters are experiencing their highest highs and their lowest lows. A great climax will have your reader cheering or crying or laughing or all of the above. Hopefully in a good way.

If you have a sense of these six components before you sit down to write you will already have the most difficult elements in place. You will have a sense of who your character(s) is/are, you will have a sense of where they are and where they’re going, and a rough idea of how they get from Point A to Point B.

To be sure, the characters will surprise you along the way, certain things won’t make sense when they’re on the page and you’ll have to adjust on the fly, but as long as these key elements are in place there is no reason why the idea of your novel should make your brain shut down.

Then all you have to accomplish is the mere trifle of spending hundreds of hours writing it.

Oh. And don’t forget to revise like crazy.



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