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How To Start (and Finish) a Novel When You Are Over Forty

So You Want to Write a Novel

Interested in learning how to write a novel? For many mid-lifers writing a novel or memoir is an aspiration on their bucket list. After all, we have years of experience to impart upon the unsuspecting world. Or perhaps, we long to create a literary legacy that extends beyond our life time. Or maybe, we just want to say, “I did it!”

Whatever the reason, we envision that writing a book will be a noble endeavor. In reality, it can be an overwhelming, frustrating, chaotic adventure, much like raising children. Yes, there are moments of confidence and beauty that make the process rewarding. But, most the time your brow is furrowed in that WTF expression so often inspired by our offspring.

I have always enjoyed creative writing, but generally felt more comfortable writing poetry or short stories. Preferring brief bursts of creativity instead of long artistic commitment, I found the length of novels daunting.

I wondered how I would structure something that big. How I would transition between scenes? How I would keep the story engaging and the plot points relevant? As an English composition instructor, I knew every genre had a format, so that’s where I began.

Take a Writing Course

how to write a novelAs I have matured, I have learned to appreciate the well-conceived plan. If I wanted to write a novel, I needed to learn a bit more about novel writing. I took an online writing course that helped me define my genre of interest and my potential audience.

I love reading across the literary spectrum. But, there is a simplicity, directness, and a tender imagination in the realm of young adult paranormal that intrigues me. My life suddenly had a new goal.

Once I knew what I wanted to write, I registered for a more genre-specific course. I found the course through the adult education program at my local college. This course had an online format as well, something that was vital for a single mom who was working full-time.

Participating in classes, seminars, or workshops have advantages that go beyond the instructional content. You will have the opportunity to meet other aspiring writers, build a network, share information, and compare experiences. However, this is only helpful if you are in a reputable class with serious writers.

In addition to the continuing education courses at local universities, I have also found courses offered by Writer’s Digest to be helpful.

Get Organized

Ok, so I committed to a 70,000-word novel. Now what?

Well, I always teach my students that the first step in the writing process is brainstorming and outlining. So, that’s what I did.

I took the nifty 3-act scene-by-scene formula my instructor had taught me and created an Excel spreadsheet. This isn’t something that has to be set in stone. It can evolve as your story does. However,  an outline will give you  a basic idea of how all the plot points will be connected. It also makes it easier to foreshadow events and to create continuity.

Use Helpful Tools

After outlining, I opened a Word document and just started typing. This was okay at first, but I soon found that it had become a bulky document with limited search functions. I knew I needed a better system, but I didn’t really have the money to invest in expensive software. That’s when I discovered yWriter, a freeware software available online.

This software specifically for writers allowed me to organize my writing by chapter and scene. I could also include searchable notes regarding details like location, characters, or point-of-view.

When you’re ready to start proofreading your manuscript, it converts the individual scenes and chapters into an integrated word document for you.

Find a Good Developmental Editor

Writing is a process. A successful writing process includes constructive feedback. Although writers can sometimes workshop each other’s writing effectively, it can sometimes feel more like the mutual appreciation club.

Even if a peer is willing to give you some honest feedback, do they have the qualifications that you need? It’s best to find a developmental editor who is familiar with your genre.  Look for someone who has some publishing or editing credentials of their own. A developmental editor who has been through the publishing process can help you create a publishable product.

Developmental editors are different than copy editors. Where a copy editor helps you polish a completed manuscript, a developmental editor can help you develop your concept, structure your content, and revise your manuscript. Developmental editors are like story doulas, there to help you give birth to your precious creation.

Attend Writing Conferences

I find the most difficult part of an extensive project like novel writing is staying motivated. If you write consistently for extended periods of time, it does start to feel like work. Keeping the end goal in mind helps.

Unless you plan to sticking your manuscript in a trunk, your end game is publication. Whether you plan on traditional publishing or self-publishing, conferences are a great place to rekindle the passion for your book.

Through presentations, panels, and workshops, you can learn a lot about the publishing industry. Topics include everything from sending query letters to book tour marketing. The first writing conference I ever went to was sponsored by the Writer’s Digest. I met a lot of great people, discovered new resources, and left feeling more inspired than ever.  

Join a Writers’ Association

Eventually, the high of attending a national writing conference will wane. Alas, you will be left dutifully plugging away at your manuscript. In order to nurture inspiration and support closer to home, join your local writers’ association.

These associations usually charge a fee to cover association administration costs. However fee-based membership does have the benefit attracting serious writers. Whether they are published or aspiring to publish, they are generally committed to improving their craft.

Stay Resilient

Even with the best support. Writing a novel can sometimes feel more like a silly passion project than a serious undertaking. I generally spend 40 hours a week embedded in the world of higher education. Although it is a profession I love, but it’s not a world that promotes the value of genre fiction.

As I have become consumed with teaching methodologies, lesson plans, and research projects, my poor little manuscript has been gathering dust, stuck at 20,000 words. That’s why I agreed to write this article.

I wanted to remind myself that I do know how to do this, and it is worth doing. Today, I will dust off that manuscript, give it a read through, and start moving forward again.

Tricia M Foster

Tricia M Foster has published articles, poetry, and short stories, in various newspapers and literary journals since 2000. She has a Master’s degree in English Literature and currently teaches writing and literary analysis at Miami Dade College. Tricia was born in Portland, Maine and her gypsy blood has led her up and down the East Coast of the United States. She has also traveled and studied abroad in Mexico, England, Scotland, Spain, France, Italy, the Bahamas, Grand Caymans, and the Virgin Islands. “There’s only one thing I love more than reading, and that’s traveling. Give me a good book in a French café, or a night in a Scottish castle and I am in heaven!” Tricia currently lives in Miami, Florida.

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