So You Want to Write a Novel

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, primed to offer some unsolicited but hopefully useful advice.

How often have you said, or heard someone else say, “if only I had the time, I’d write a novel”? Sometimes the adjective “bestselling” is included in that sentence. Well, here we are, practicing self isolation and social distancing. For perhaps the first time, a good many people actually have the leisure to pursue that dream. If you’re one of them but really have no idea how to begin, I’m here to offer a few suggestions.

First, just sit down and do it! On a pc or electronic tablet or by hand, you’ll soon know if you truly have the inclination and the dedication required to write fiction. If you do, then there are few guidelines that will help you as you go along, things it’s easier to incorporate sooner rather than later, especially if what you have in mind is eventually offering your creation to a publisher.

If you want to be a novelist, then you are almost certainly a reader of fiction. As such, you already have favorite genres. If you try to write, say, romance, thinking it will be “easy” and easy to sell, but you haven’t read widely in that genre or enjoyed what you have read, then you’re just asking for trouble. Write what you love to read.

Ask yourself what the authors of your favorite books do with regard to telling their stories. They’ve chosen a particular point of view, or maybe several. Which character or characters do you want to tell your story and how do you want them to do it? It’s best to use only one character’s point of view per scene. Head hopping is confusing. Pick one and give your reader his reactions—what’s going on in his thoughts as well as how he reacts physically.

You can do this in either first person (the character telling the story in his own words—”I knew I was in trouble the moment federal agents broke into my house.”) or third person (a narrator describing what’s going on from the outside, but still only revealing what he or she can be aware of—”Marcy Grabowski knew she was in trouble the moment federal agents broke into her house.”)

Most novels are written in past tense, as are the examples above. Present tense (“I walk down the street and see a man with a gun.” or “She walks down the street and sees a man with a gun.”) is also a choice but a lot of readers, myself included, absolutely loathe it. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent!! Avoid switching back and forth between past and present tense and, unless you have a very good reason for that choice, between first person and third person narrators.

Now here’s a biggie: show, don’t tell. What does that mean? “He woke up from the nightmare to a brilliant sunrise.” tells the reader what happened. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you use descriptive details to paint a picture of his leftover shakes from the nightmare, and maybe have the character’s bare feet hitting cold floorboards, and feeling warmth and light of the rising sun as it floods into the room, you not only reveal something about the setting, but also about the character. What makes him realize he’s been dreaming? You might have him describe some of his surroundings as a way to orient himself, not just as an information dump. If this is an opening scene and you want to describe the character’s appearance for the reader, you might compare the way he looked to himself in the nightmare to the way he really looks. And yes, you could even use the old cliché of having him see himself in a mirror. Or you could have him refuse to look at himself in the mirror because he knows what he’ll see. That’s showing as opposed to telling.

I won’t drone on and on. I once wrote an entire how to book on this subject (How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries), so if you really want all the details of my take on writing novels, you can download a copy.

I do, however, want to mention a couple of nit-picky points. First, using “said” is a better choice than moaning, growling, etc. at least 99% of the time. And rather than having characters speak in a soft voice or a loud voice or a sarcastic tone, try indicating that with their word choices and their physical behavior—a character’s stance or whether or not he meets another character’s eyes. Describing facial expressions or body language helps characterize how someone is speaking. Second, for those who are old enough to have learned to type before personal computers became readily available and those who, until now, have only written e-mails and posts on social media: leave only one space after a period.

I’ll finish this post with one last, very important piece of advice: If you’re serious about trying to write a novel, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.

With the June 30,2020 publication of A Fatal Fiction, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett will have had sixty-two books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes but there is a new, standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things, in the pipeline for October. She maintains three websites, at and and another, comprised of over 2000 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century English women, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women

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3 Responses to So You Want to Write a Novel

  1. Lbaker says:

    I don’t loathe present tense. In fact one of my favorite series is written that way. I do find it jarring though.

    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I think a talented, experienced writer can make it work, but it’s rare someone writing a first novel can. That said, I can think of an exception. All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt. There are always exceptions.😀

  2. Too soon, I suppose, to counsel against head-jumping, which is the thing that drives me most crazy. And I mostly hate present tense, but I had the “So you get up and you look out the window and you see the sun rise and you know that it was only your dream and you’re still alive” even more.


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