This competition is now closed but you are still welcome to read through the published writing and blog posts.
“Good fiction,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.”
Kingsolver was referring to the experience of reading a novel, but her observation applies to writing one, too. A novel requires you, as the writer, to enter into another existence—to step into the lives you are creating. For some novelists, this type of immersion actually means shedding their own identity. Colm Toibin explains it this way: “The novel space is a pure space. I'm nobody once I go into that room. I'm not gay, I'm not bald, I'm not Irish. I'm not anybody.” Other novelists stress that looking out
requires looking in
. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.” Contained within each of our personal lived experiences are elements of the human condition that we must dredge up and give to our fictional characters. Writing, Iris Chang tells us in bold simplicity, “requires being honest with oneself.”
So this business of writing a novel is about losing ourselves in the lives of others. But it’s also about staring down real life and not shying away from the complexities of joy and sadness that we ourselves have experienced. And by braving this path—this fine line of the real and unreal—you open new doors onto the world, for yourself and for your readers. “Writing fiction,” Khaled Hosseini explains, “is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”
Your task this month, dear writers, is to write another life
, to explore the human experience through someone else’s eyes, and then to share a piece of that life with us. Our November competition invites you to join thousands of other writers in the honorable pursuit of novel writing (it’s National Novel Writing Month!) and submit an EXCERPT (we don't expect the whole thing!) to Write the World. This might be the beginning or the end, or perhaps your favorite segment from the middle. And if you’re interested in participating in NaNoWriMo
, check out their website— especially their tools for young writers under “Resources.”
Novels hinge on well-developed characters. All the rest of it—the plot, the setting, the language—mean little if the reader doesn’t experience the fictional world through a character that feels real. The Singaporean writer Suchen Christine Lim is known for the social and historical themes of her novels, and yet she maintains that the guiding force lies elsewhere. “Novelists do not write with issues in their mind," she explains... and then adds: "I write in terms of following a character.” The reader must detect that human connection to care about the rest of the story.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. So how, as writers, do we pull this off? How do we bring forth characters from our imagination that feel, to the reader, like “living people”?
- Three Dimensional: Give your characters multiple sides. Rather than thinking of your characters as either “good” or “bad,” or protagonists or antagonists, consider every character to have both flaws and gifts… just like real people… just like you and me.
- Idiosyncrasies: Does your character have a habit of pulling on his beard when he’s nervous? Does she absent-mindedly feed the cat morsels off her own plate? Particular details not only reveal personality, but they also make a character feel real.
- Internal and External Worlds: Sometimes, particularly if the events in the narrative are exciting, it’s easy to forget that what’s happening outside of the character is only half the story. The inner world can be just as rich and just as telling, if not more so. What is your character thinking? Imagining? Feeling? What are they worried about? Preoccupied by? What do they wish for?
Check out our “Character Study” resource for more! As Suchen Christine Lim reminds us: “It’s about the characters. I am very fortunate that they sprang up to surprise me. But I had to work very hard to get to know them.”
At its most basic level, the plot refers to the sequence of events that make up the story you’re telling in your novel. But the writer is not simply recording every experience a character had in chronological order. Instead, writes Janet Burroway, “a plot is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance.” In other words, it’s up to you to pick and choose what happens in the life you’re imagining, what pieces to include in your novel, and in what order
You’ve likely heard of the narrative arc: the progression of a story as it moves from introduction to inciting incident (the first hint of a problem) to rising action to climax to falling action to resolution. Well, this one-size-fits-all sequence makes it seem like all novels follow the same path. Not true! We much prefer NaNoWriMo’s metaphor for the arc: a rollercoaster. Like Burroway, this model emphasizes that while most novels have the same ingredients (climax, resolution, etc.), the order is up to you!
- “As you probably know, not all rollercoasters have the same track. They all have different hills and drops, twists and turns, and loops and tunnels. The same goes for novels. That is what makes them different and exciting. Sometimes they begin with the inciting incident or work backwards from the resolution to the beginning. Novels are filled with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and unexpected plot twists. And novels don’t have to have happy endings either. Just like life, sometimes things don’t work out exactly the way you planned them to. In November, experiment with the plot you create by thinking beyond the 'typical one-hill rollercoaster' formula. Rearrange events, add some twists, and flip that resolution on its head. You’ll be surprised at how much this can energize your story.”
For almost all fiction, a sense of setting helps the reader enter the narrative. With the first few words of the novel, the reader begins to form a mental picture—what the characters look like, how they sound, where they are
. The details of place allow the reader to imagine the characters in action.
How well a writer captures a place is also one of the ways that she builds credibility with the reader. Do your research: If your story takes place on the coast of Ecuador, know the names of the trees, which snakes worry the farmers, and when the wet season sweeps in. The intimate details of a place convince the reader of the story’s legitimacy.
Setting can also provide access to the emotional undercurrents of the narrative. This is because defining place is not simply writing down descriptions of mountains or seacoasts, trees, sky, horizons. The language
the writer chooses is important for mood, pace, and temperament. A description of place can be gloomy or flat or buoyant or jittery or melancholy. Each of these adjectives describes a mood which the reader internalizes as the story goes along. (This is called the objective correlative.)
With that, we bestow you with what Mitali Perkins describes as “even more storytelling power than the best Hollywood directors.” Unlike Steven Spielberg, Perkins goes on to explain, novelists work together with the reader’s imagination. “Together, an author and a reader cast the characters, create setting, and decide on pacing. Because written and oral stories require more audience participation from story consumers, I think they embed more deeply into the psyche.”
Dear Writers, we won’t pretend otherwise: writing a novel is hard work. It's a long, arduous road from beginning to end, which is why novel writers need all the camaraderie and inspiration they can get. And that means helping each other when the going gets tough—reaching through cyberspace and offering a kind word or helpful suggestion on an early draft. “Writing is better when it’s together,” we like to say. If you’re looking for a review, someone else is too… Pay it forward!
is a kids' lit author of fantasy adventure novels. She's also a working mom of two kids, a runner, and a compulsive reader. Her books include Dreamwood
(selected by the Bank Street Children's Book Committee for its list of best books of 2014) and the forthcoming The Shadow Clock,
both from Putnam. She can be found online at heathermackey.com
and on Twitter at @heathermackey
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday November 9th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.