What I Wish I'd Known Before Writing A Novel

by Kristan Higgins
Adult smiling brunette business woman in stylish shirt working on laptop in cafe
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So you’re writing a book. This is great news! YAY for you! Doesn’t it sound fun? And it is! Well, it is when it’s not sucking the life out of your soul. That's why I'm here with some writing tips and tricks — or life lessons I learned about writing during my career that I (sometimes) apply to my own work.

I’m working on my 18th novel right now — my first, Fools Rush In , came out in 2006, and my latest, On Second Thought , comes out in January 2017. In some respects, it’s gotten easier; in others, it’s gotten much harder. But each time I type “The End,” I cheer, dance around the office with my dogs, then open to another document and jot down some notes. That document is called “Before You Start Another Book” and contains notes to myself about how I screwed up and wasted time in my last manuscript, and how I’ll never ever do it again (or I will, but not for lack of knowledge). I'm sharing these tips with you, so hopefully you don't repeat the same mistakes.

Below are my top five, and jeesh, it would save so much time if I listened to myself.

1. Characters have to have reasons for doing things.

Oh, sure, it’s fun to get your heroine stuck in a window or hiding in a closet while her parents have sexy time, but scenes have to happen for more reasons than “That would sure be fun/scary/exciting!” If you have this image of your character scaling a mountain in a snowstorm at night, make sure that’s the only option, the only action that makes sense for that character in that moment. If the serial killer is chasing your hero, maybe now is not the time for him to go for a calming walk in the woods by himself, even though the idea of him running frantically through the pines is so much fun to picture. Or, if your character is doing something kind of…stupid…make sure he or she acknowledges that. I know I shouldn’t be at the shower for my ex-husband’s new wife’s baby, but…(and here comes the reason that the readers will buy and, indeed, relate to).

2. The plot has to grow and change.

What the character wants in Chapter One can’t be exactly the same as what she wants in Chapter Twenty. It has to be even more important as the book progresses because more people are involved, and your character has invested so much into accomplishing this goal—danger, time, heart, operating out of her comfort zone. Your reader will get bored if the goal is the same chapter after chapter. Sure, you need to destroy the Death Star…but why is it even more important now? Is it because Darth Vader has killed millions of people? (Yes.) Is it because Darth Vader also killed your mentor and friend? (Yes.) Is it because you’ve made friends with the roguishly handsome bad-boy and a princess who might be your twin? (Yes.) And also maybe because the Force is strong within you and your destiny is bigger than you knew? (Hell, yes!)

3. Secondary characters can’t be cardboard cutouts.

Right, right, they’re people, too! And while everyone is a type, no one should be a cliché. We all love (and have) a sassy best friend, but what else is he or she? How do we show it? And by the way, secondary characters give your protagonist a chance to have the plot grow and change because they’re involved in the goal, too (or they could be if you play it right).

4. Every aspect of your protagonist’s life should be in motion.

Contentment is great in real life. I say this from my recliner with a dog snuggled next to me. But contentment in books (except at the very end) will bore your reader. Relationships, friendships, family, work, personal goals, events, you name it. While it’s hard to keep your eye on all the moving parts (especially if you’re churning out a book for Nano or on a hot deadline), it will be worth it in the end.

5. Believe in yourself.

Every successful writer on earth has one thing in common—once upon a time, they were all unpublished. Writing a book takes guts. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a story to tell, so tell it. Do whatever it takes to write your book, finish it, perfect it. You can do this. You can.

Kristan Higgins is a New York Times, USA TODAY, Publishers Weekly, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of fifteen books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide. Her next novel, ON SECOND THOUGHT, will be out on January 31, 2017. Visit her website at

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