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9 Tips for Creating a Compelling Novel

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently writer friend, Julie Musil read my latest book Unending Devotion, and then she did a blog post listing the writing lessons she learned from the book. Since I absolutely LOVED her tips, I asked her for permission to reprint them here on my blog. For the original post please go here. And make sure you follow Julie. She's got more terrific advice!

Here are the nine lessons Julie learned from Unending Devotion along with a few of my additional thoughts to go along with each lesson:

1. Open with character-revealing action: Lily, the main character, is devoted to rescuing young girls from a life of prostitution. But we aren't told this. We're shown through the opening scene, where Lily orchestrates an escape.

~My thoughts: Right away we want to give our readers a sense of WHO are characters are and how they're uniquely them, their passions, their mission, or whatever sets them apart from everyone else.

2. Unanswered questions, stat: On page two we already have unanswered questions. Why is Lily's sister suffering? And where is she? Why are the sisters separated?

~My thoughts: We want to immediately stir the curiosity of our readers and one way to do that is to throw our characters into the middle of the conflict. Then over the course of the story, we can slowly reveal to the reader how our characters got to that point, letting them piece the story together until finally it all falls into place.

3. Introduce the love interest early: We meet Connell McCormick on page 15. Sparks fly right away, and we know we're in for a great love story.

~My thoughts: In a romance, readers want to be introduced to both the hero and heroine very early usually in some kind of fun, tense, clever, or interesting way.

4. Give the MC more than one enemy: Lily not only fights an evil bully in a small town, she also fights the woman who runs the brothel. Lily makes enemies of both characters, and they later work together to hurt her.

~My thoughts: Ideally our characters should be fighting an antagonist on a physical level (perhaps even more than one), but also be fighting their own inner issues as well. The more threats we create, the more tension we cause.

5. Explain why the MC can't run to the police to solve her story problem: Lily soon learns that the logging town of Harrison is lawless because the villain has paid off the sheriff. This explains why she doesn't arrive on the sheriff's doorstep and ask for help.

~My thoughts: In other words, make sure we sustain the conflict in a believable way. We don't want our readers growing frustrated because the solution is in plain sight, but our characters are too stupid to see it.

6. In a romance, tether the couple together to create a bond: Lily and Connell are caught in a snowstorm, and forced to survive the elements together. A great opportunity to fall in love, yes? Or kill each other, depending on the story.

~My thoughts: Our characters need the chance to get to know each other and become friends. Then the developing love relationship will have more of an impact. We need to look for ways get the couples stuck together in situations where we can facilitate this growing friendship.

7. Think of the worst thing that can happen to the MC, then make it happen: Connell loves Lily, and the town bully knows this. When he wants to exact revenge on Connell, he knows capturing Lily gets to the heart of the matter.

~My thoughts: I love dumping the heroine into what seems to be an impossible mess. The fun part is figuring out how to get her out of the terrible predicament in a believable, non-contrived way.

8. Give the MC a physical and moral battle: Lily's main objective, or her surface story problem, is to find her sister. But there's also a larger moral objective--to rescue young girls from lives of prostitution, and erase evil from a lawless town. These multiple goals kept the pacing tight.

~My thoughts: Our stories can have multiple levels that are intertwined. In fact, the more we can layer the conflict so that they're inter-related, the more complex the story becomes.

9. Use a symbol to reflect a character's journey: In this case, a quilt. Lily reflects on all the mis-shaped pieces, and the seemingly ugly patterns. But those pieces, just like the imperfect pieces of our lives, come together to make something beautiful.

~My thoughts: I personally love trying to weave in various levels of symbolism. I think it goes back to the principle of making good use of every aspect of what we include in the story, from the objects our characters have to the settings we describe. We should strive to be strategic in how we weave in details.

What do you think? Do any of these tips resonate with you and your WIP? If you have any related tips, we'd love to hear them! Please share!

52 comments:

  1. What excellent tips - anyone starting out should read that!

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  2. I read Julie's blog regularly and she always has terrific tips!! Thanks for re-posting this!!

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  3. Thanks for the great tips Jody:) I think I have most of these in my WIP...although I think I could give more attention to the 'unanswered questions' at the beginning of the book, to somehow create more curiousity. I'll need to go back and double check my chapters with your tips :-)

    Thanks,
    Lorna

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  4. Great tips! My favorite is #3. I can't tell you how many times I've been frustrated when reading what are suppose to be romance novels yet there is little to no "romance" until midway through or even close to the end of the book. In my opinion, the two MC should meet as close to the beginning of the book as possible creating that relationship dynamic right away. This is a big thing that I look for when I'm reading and a good sign that the book will hold my interest through until the end. Jody does a great job of this! I have yet to read Unending Devotion but in The Doctor's Lady I cannot say enough good things about how the two MC meet and the dynamics between them early on.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words this morning about The Doctor's Lady, Shelly! I wholeheartedly agree about the romance. I love to see it developing very early!

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  5. Good morning, everyone! Thanks again to Julie for coming up with this great list of tips! I'm trying to remember all of this too as I work on my newest WIP. It's easy to get complacent and so I think we always need to keep challenging ourselves to improve our writing!

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  6. Thanks for sharing Julie's wonderful tips and adding your own thoughts. These are great!

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  7. These are great tips! I also love weaving in symbolism through an object as well as the setting. Your book sounds very interesting!

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  8. Thank you Jody, you are at the right moment, now Nanowrimo is coming up again. I'll keep the nine lessons in mind, especially number one, two and three.

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    1. Ah, so true! Nanowrimo is just around the corner! Good time to plan and think through some of these issues! :-) Wishing you all the best next month!

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  9. Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing!

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  10. Loved reading these, especially since I loved Unending Devotion so much. It was seriously one of the best books I've read all year. Great tips!

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    1. Thank you, Lindsay! Your kind words about Unending Devotion warmed my heart this morning! :-)

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  11. Good tips, even some that will carry over into nonfiction writing.

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  12. How nice that Julie used your book, Jody, to demonstrate such important writing lessons. All things that we must remember weather newbie or seasoned. I especially like #8 and #9, which are not easy to accomplish in a novel without a lot of thought and rewriting; at least for me as an organic writer and not an outliner. Very nice post by both you and Julie.

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  13. Thank you for this suggestions. I am so glad with it. I translate them in Dutch and use them for my own book :-)

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  14. I caught myself reading these tips and then considering my own story, getting toward final revision stages. This is a great help.

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  15. Jody, I absolutely LOVED "Unending Devotion," and LOVE your comments on each of these writing tips. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us on a regular basis :)

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  16. I like this, especially the one about making sure that the solution is not in plain sight. I've read books where I kept thinking to myself, "Why don't they just...?" And it did make me feel frustrated with the characters, because it made me question their actions. It's better if I can relate to their actions, not question them.

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  17. Great tips! Bookmarking this article. Drives me crazy when they don't introduce the hero early enough in the book! And, I really prefer romances where the hero & heroine develop a nice bond, and a good friendship as well.

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  18. Excellent tips--as always! I enjoy your blog so much; thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words about my blog, Valerie! So glad you enjoy it! :-)

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  19. Thanks so much for the tips! I think I can incorporate all of them except introducing the hero early...he's on another continent in the first part! So I guess I'll have to classify my book as romantic suspense, rather than suspenseful romance ;-)

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  24. Question 2 resonated with me. An effective hook raises questions.

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  25. On Nov. 1, I begin my first NaNoWriMo with the third novel in my series. The notes I took from reading your blog post today will be of great help in getting me started on Chapter One: open w/revealing action; present unanswered questions/scenerio; worst case scenerio; physical & moral battle; metaphor for journey. All great ideas.

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  26. I have such a problem with this! Thanks for the tips.

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  28. To add to the importance of opening with a character-revealing action, it is what captures the readers’ attention, more than establishing the cast. Like in films, you have to get the viewers’ interest in the first 10 minutes of the show. So, by establishing right away the characters’ personas, the reader gets to create an opinion, whether or not the characters are very relatable.

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    1. Great insights, Julio! Thank you for sharing! :-)

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