Can you teach yourself to write a novel through a reading program? I did. Here’s how.
Back in 2006, I earned a master’s in Writing Popular Fiction, producing Death Perception as my thesis novel. But the greater part of my literary training came from self-education, through which I learned many things I didn’t in school.
For over thirty years, I’ve read and studied hundreds of writing craft books, many pertaining to aspects of novel-writing. Some books were better than others, but most offered something to improve my writing. (I maintain a growing list of what I consider the best books at Lee’s Favorite Writing Texts.)
The self-education process
If you’ve never written a novel before or want to improve your current process, here’s a self-education plan to get you started:
- Understanding the hero’s journey as a prerequisite for further study
- Developing an idea
- Structuring the external plot
- Mapping the protagonist’s inner story of change (character arc)
- Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
- Writing effective scenes
- Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
- Writing well
- Revising your work
- Editing to polish your prose
1. Understanding the hero’s journey
Many fiction craft books refer to the “hero’s journey,” popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. As a prerequisite to your journey of self-education, I recommend boning up on mythic story structure.
I’ll admit I’ve never read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Instead, I heartily recommend the latest edition of Christopher Vogler’s 🌟 The Writer’s Journey – 25th Anniversary Edition: Mythic Structure for Writers. Highly accessible, it will teach you what you need to know about the hero’s journey—and provide a basis for understanding the next books included in this self-education program.
(By the way, I followed Vogler’s blueprint for Death Perception, which was well received.)
2. Developing a novel idea
Fashioning an idea into a full-blown plot has been one of my biggest challenges the past three decades. There are precious few books out there that lead you through the process of getting, brainstorming, and developing an initial idea into the basics of a workable plot.
William Bernhardt’s Powerful Premise: Writing the Irresistible covers premise and touches on concept and theme.
Larry Brooks provides some helpful information in “Part Two: Concept” of Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, which I also recommend for story structure.
However, one of the best books I’ve found that covers this early part of the writing process is Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald’s classic, 🌟 Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript. I turned the first three chapters into a worksheet that I’ve completed for every novel I’ve written:
- “How to Develop an Idea into a Novel and Test It”
- “How to Develop the Basic Conflict”
- “How to Develop a Plot or Story Line”
Answering the questions in these chapters will supply basic plot points needed for the next step.
3. Structuring the external plot
Most popular novels have a plot that follows three-act structure. The best books I’ve read (and reread) about story structure include:
- Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks – “Part Five: Story Structure”
- Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction, William Bernhardt
- Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, James Scott Bell
4. Mapping the protagonist’s character arc
Along with external plot events, great novels include the main character’s inner story of change, or character arc. Character arc maps the lead’s development from a person with an inner need who, through challenges and conflict, learns to become a stronger, better person (or fails to).
The hands-down best book for this is K.M. Weiland’s 🌟 Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development.
Another book indispensable in tying inner and outer conflict to character development is Debra Dixon’s 🌟 Goal, Motivation & Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. I use her process for each major character in every novel I write.
5. Weaving plot and character arc into a properly structured narrative
The previously mentioned books will see you well on your way to a properly structured narrative. To finish putting all the pieces together, check out K.M. Weiland’s 🌟 Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story.
Now that you’ve arrived at this point, a book that weaves the hero’s journey, plot structure, and character arc into one how-to is Susan May Warren’s The Story Equation: How to Plot and Write a Brilliant Story from One Powerful Question. It’s a bit convoluted in its presentation and won’t make sense if you read it earlier in this process, but it nicely wraps everything together and will help cement the previous concepts into a workable story.
6. Writing effective scenes
Scenes are the building blocks of novels. To structure and write effective scenes, study Mike Klaassen’s Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction and especially 🌟 How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson.
7. Incorporating theme to enrich your narrative
The most powerful novels incorporate a strong theme—what the story’s “really about.” Two good books to help you include theme in your writing are Stanley D. Williams’ excellent 🌟 The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success and K.M. Weiland’s Writing Your Story’s Theme: The Writer’s Guide to Plotting Stories That Matter.
8. Writing well
I could mention scads of books here, but I’ll stick to a few favorites about proven writing techniques in a number of areas:
- 🌟 Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain – an essential classic
- Creating Characters: How to Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain
- Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Janice Hardy
- Point of View in Fiction and Deep Point of View by Marcy Kennedy
- Description, Marcy Kennedy
- Dialogue, Marcy Kennedy
- Writing Vivid Settings, Rayne Hall
9. Revising your work
In this phase, you do the heavy lifting of restructuring and rewriting your early drafts before you polish your prose. A terrific resource is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King.
10. Editing to polish your prose
Besides having a developmental editor and beta readers give you feedback, fiction writers today must learn to edit their own work. My recommended texts for this purpose are:
- Track Down the Weasel Words, Angela Hunt
- The Word-Loss Diet, Rayne Hall
- 🌟 Editing Fiction at Sentence Level, Louise Harnby – a must-have for any fiction writer
As always, if you need an editor to teach you how to self-edit your own work, consider hiring me for developmental and/or line editing.
If you want to learn how to write a novel—one that has a better chance at being published—spend a season reading and studying the books above.
If you have a favorite craft book, drop me a comment below and let me know what it is and why you like it. I’m always seeking to learn more about fiction writing.