THE BLOG
08/12/2013 03:29 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

Notes on a First Novel

This blog is for those who have not gone to college to learn how to become writers.

(Such persons don't need this blog -- and may even disagree with much of what I say here.)

Many people have told me they would love to write a novel. Why then have so many of them not done so?

Most people have a novel in their heads or else somewhere, partially, on paper. While that's where it starts, the key is to not let that be where it ends. Crucial to publishing fiction is persistence.

Shadow Campus, my debut novel, was no overnight project. It could be found in various forms at various times in my desk until summer vacations at last provided a chance to revisit it. Nine nonfiction books had gone from my hands to publication before this first novel, but none of them had taken nearly so long. Fiction can be intimidating on the first go-round.

In my case, several friends read early drafts. Their feedback helped me identify where ideas hadn't been fully developed or where a suspicious car had appeared, only to never be seen again. Too many pre-publication readers, though, can cause you to lose your voice and the pace of the novel as you try to address all the issues the readers have raised. In hindsight, I suggest sharing drafts judiciously, choosing people who regularly read the type of novel you're writing -- and who will be constructive critics--not cruel. Then, keep your fledgling manuscript away from everyone else. No matter what they say, don't let them tear it from your hands. It's a baby and you're no Hemingway or Fitzgerald - not yet.

Some authors need a detailed outline. Others outline loosely, allowing characters and stories to develop like relationships. I prefer this method; it's more exciting, but it's risky. Lee Child of the Jack Reacher series of action/suspense thrillers calls himself a linear writer: his story development "has to be done organically." Then again, he's Lee Child. But I like that approach too.

Writers often keep the basic storyline in mind, but allow characters to grow and plots to change. This makes the writing process more interesting and enjoyable. It's not unusual to wake up in the middle of the night realizing there is something one of your characters must say or do. That can rekindle your enthusiasm for writing and vanquish writer's block! Besides, that's how relationships develop. Meaning evolves; it's coordinated, not dictated. Relationships are like chess - each person's move influences their subsequent ones and those of others. Why not in fiction?

The Need to Breathe

Readers can sense when characters are stereotypical, are too fixed in their ways, and seem inflexible on paper. You have to let your characters breathe, live, love, respond -- and not just be who they are in isolation from the people around them.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I try to remember that my ideas and characters aren't only for me. Sometimes that's not easy. But when people ask to see a character appear again in your next novel - that's a great feeling! I have my own favorites among my characters, too. Ones that are well drawn are particularly special because you know them so well. You feel like you've met them. And so it's tempting to invite them to the next novel in order to let them continue to evolve in your mind. In my case - and I'm sure in that of many writers -- they may have personalities and idiosyncracies similar to people I've actually known. An authenticity often emerges when a character is not totally born of imagination.

"Where did you get that idea?" writers are often asked, especially first-time novelists. My answer: It was one idea of many. I find people fascinating; there are stories everywhere -- often right before our eyes. Lisa Renee Jones describes how her idea for the thriller Wrong Girl came to her: a woman called her television studio to offer a story. Jones actually gets a lot of those calls. "Who knows," she said, "when it may be the story of the century? It could happen." So, she listened to the story, which was about an adoption agency that sends a young woman to meet the wrong birthmother. "I still remember the goose bumps I got when she said that," Jones recalled. "Whoa. And in that instant I had the story."

The 'real' story before you may only be loosely related to what you eventually create as fiction. I write down idea kernels; they're everywhere. Somehow one really grabs you, though, as it did for Jones. When first writing down the plot for Shadow Campus, I found myself waking up before daybreak for a solid week. The story that refuses to be ignored: that's the one to write about!

The Trial of Finding a Publisher

Finding a publisher can be a bear without an agent -- and even with one representing you. Often, you're so busy writing and doing other things that the work required to find a publisher suitable to your needs becomes daunting. There is no silver bullet for this one, though there are lots of blogs with plenty of advice. I found my publisher through the recommendation of a fellow author who really liked working with them. Having published nonfiction books with several of the major houses, I can say that the honeymoon ends quickly with big publishers if you're not a known mega-seller. Editors move around a lot. Sometimes they leave the company on the eve of a book release - moving on to greener pastures at the exact time when authors need them to push hard on the publicity. After a couple of those experiences, I was eager to work with a smaller publisher.

Writing a mystery-thriller (which I enjoy) is a challenge: you want the story to move quickly and keep the reader wondering what happens next. That can mean cutting out descriptions that would make your work more elaborate and stylistically creative - i.e., show off your writing ability. It's a difficult trade-off but creativity can indeed be found in brevity.

As people, we're all works in progress. Writing is a continuous learning experience. My next novel will be different, yet I suspect the process will be much the same. Actually, I hope so. Few things are as exhilarating as creating characters that will live on in your mind and, you believe, in the minds of your readers. When that happens, you don't want to end your book unless you suspect there will be a sequel. When you create a character you truly like, it's a relationship: you kind of 'owe' him or her. So, I had better get back to writing. You too!

Kathleen's debut novel Shadow Campus was published in July by Blue Mustang Press in Boston.