* This competition is now closed but you are still welcome to read through the published writing and blog posts.*
Have you ever wanted to be someone else for a day? Live in Greenland? Reign over an ancient kingdom? Novel writing is about personally inhabiting the world of your characters. Colm Tóibín 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.” And yet a novel also requires looking inward—reflecting on and drawing upon your own experience and interior life. Contained within each of our personal lived experiences are elements of the human condition that we can offer our fictional characters.
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 then submit an excerpt
(from the beginning, middle, or end) for our competition. As you immerse yourself in the writing process, be sure to reference these guidelines and tips:
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 reader must detect that beating heart—feel 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”? Here are four tips:
- Make your characters 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.
- Give your characters 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 come to life.
- Reveal 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 the Singaporean novelist 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 of a rollercoaster: “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.... 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.”
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 convincingly 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. For instance, a description of place can be gloomy and flat or buoyant and loud. Each of these adjectives describes a mood which the reader internalizes as the story goes along. (This is called the objective correlative.)
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!
YA Author Fiona Wood
WHAT'S DIFFERENT ABOUT WTW 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 and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.