How to Write a Novel - Notes from a Successful Women’s Fiction Author

In this authonomy writing tips article Barbara Taylor Bradford, best-selling author of A Woman of Substance, gives her advice on how to write a novel. For more writing tips and advice on how to get published check out our writing tips section.

I’m just starting on my manuscript. What should I concentrate on first, character or the plot?

For me it all starts with a memorable character. Graham Greene, the legendary English novelist once said in a famous interview that "Character is plot." This is the best advice I ever got as a novelist. When I sit down to write a book, I try to tell a compelling story about one single character. What this person is inside, and how they view the world is your story. That’s how it began for me with Emma Harte in A Woman Of Substance. You begin with a character that your readers can relate to and build the story around them.

How important is my opening chapter?

An opening chapter is crucial in every respect – especially for a first-time author with no established reputation. Literary agents and publishers are overwhelmed with piles of manuscripts to go through. If these gatekeepers are not captured by your first few pages, they will put it down immediately. You need to hook them at the outset with something instantly memorable. A great scene for your character. A wild flashback. Snappy dialogue demonstrating character. The same advice applies where potential readers are concerned. Your book may have an eye-catching cover design. But if the reader browses your opening chapter and isn’t hooked, they aren’t going to shell out money for this work, no matter how outstanding the middle and end may be.

Does a great epic story work best over a long period of time, or is it possible to set a full length novel all in one day or one week?

Generally, my own readers have come to expect me to write epic sagas that span long time periods; often the lifetime of a character. However, this is not always the format I follow. My book, Three Weeks in Paris was quite popular, and that story took place during a three-week reunion of students at Parisian art school. My advice here is: if you have a good story to tell, it really doesn’t matter if it spans decades, or simply a 24-hour period. Just tell it well!

I’m a man writing for women. Any secrets I should know about writing character for an audience of the opposite sex?

One thing I would tell male writers attempting women’s fiction is to go out and read the books of others who do this successfully. Read books by Nicholas Sparks. Read novels by Sidney Sheldon. Get a feel for how they manage to connect with female readers. Also, be very careful with your dialogue. Occasionally, male authors have a tendency to stereotype female characters and the way they speak. You need to have the dialogue flow naturally and not feel forced. Getting the voice down of the female characters is often the greatest challenge.

I’d love to write a character set in historic times but I hardly know anything about the period beyond what I’ve seen on TV. How should I start?

Research! These days, the Internet happens to be an invaluable tool for checking dates and facts, which my own researchers use. Everyone has a computer today. Everyone has instant access to the internet and the boundless volumes of knowledge available. You need to pinpoint the era you are going to write about and then pull extensive research on this period.

You should get to know the precise dates when milestone events happened in this era. But don’t stop there. Verify names, correct spellings, history, geography and culture. My recent Ravenscar trilogy was based upon an era in English history when the Wars of the Roses took place. To capture the feel of this period, I read through more than two dozen books (mostly biographies) of the historic figures from this era. When I’m not writing my own books, and even sometimes while I am. I tend to find myself reading, particularly about English history. Beyond my own reading, I do quite a bit of research in preparation for my novels and I do have researchers also. I always start my research several months in advance of writing a new novel.

You must do your homework and get the facts right. Otherwise, you will undoubtedly have someone point out your mistakes later on.

I find this whole ‘genre’ thing so restrictive. Do I need to stick to a style, or just relax and write what I think is interesting?

In order for a literary agent to sell your novel to a publisher, they need to categorize it in a marketable genre. Perhaps you write mainstream contemporary fiction. Maybe you write romance. Some write paranormal, comedy, and horror. Dozens of genres are viable for the sale of fiction today. However, you, the writer, must select one for your work and stick within the framework of your selected genre. Without a defining genre for your work, you will be unlikely to get the attention of an agent, or publisher.

How much direct dialogue is too much dialogue in my chapters?

Generally, a chapter should be a measured balance of narrative and dialogue. If you have too much of one, or the other, your reader will be put off. There is no precise formula for this balance. However, if your scene is dialogue-heavy, you need to make sure that your reader is still able to follow the actions of the characters during the scene. Let the reader know the movements, facial expressions and physical gestures during the sequence. This way, the reader can still visualize the characters during their long discussions. Similarly, too much narrative can feel overwhelming to your reader. If you go too long with description and scene-setting, your readers will have a tendency to skip ahead to the next scene where the dialogue and action resumes. So be mindful and always try and provide equal measures of both narrative and dialogue.

Can you recommend an agent for me?

I wish I could find a literary agent for everyone who has approached me over the past twenty five years. So many people have come to me seeking advice on how to get their work published. I am just not in a position to make a recommendation to an agent, and I am not allowed to read unpublished manuscripts. Publishers advise against this because of the possibility that an established novelist might come up with a similar idea to one used in a book by a novice. The latter could claim plagiarism if their work had been read by an established author.

I suppose my best advice would be to go to any library or bookstore and pick up a copy of the latest reference books on editors and literary agents. There are many good ones that will provide you with all the guidelines and submission requirements.

I am inspired by your books and wish to become a bestselling author myself one day. How do you recommend that I proceed?

First and foremost, you need to be serious about your desire to become a published author. It takes an extraordinary amount of time, effort and dedication to hone your skills and produce a work worthy of publication. But like anything else, if you possess the talent and the determination, you will likely succeed.

There are two excellent monthly publications [in the US] geared toward helping aspiring writers. One is called The Writer; the other is called Writers’ Digest. Both magazines contain a wide array of articles for writers of all levels.