Monday, May 26, 2014

Ellen's 12 Rules for Novelists

By Ellen Meister

1.  Start your story as close to the inciting incident as possible.
Avoid the temptation to provide your reader with backstory first. Best to hit the ground running, and weave in the backstory as you go. 

2.  Never try to hide exposition in your dialogue. That goes in the narrative.
The second you have one character tell another something they already know, your dialogue starts to rot. Don't do this. Let your characters speak naturally.

3.  The best way to create sympathy for a character is to make them desire something they can't/don't have.
In fact, your main character's want/desire/goal should drive the narrative of your whole story.

4.  "Show don't tell" refers ONLY to your characters' emotions; don't over apply it. 
"Show don't tell" is the most misapplied  piece of writing advice out there, because many take it to mean they can't have any exposition. (This often results in all the narrative getting crammed into the dialogue, a deadly writing sin. See #2.) Simply put, don't tell us Fred is furious with Luanne, show us through what he says or does.

5.  Do not seek out synonyms for "said."  
Please oh please, do not let  your characters retort, reply, remark, aver, avow, etc. etc. If you find yourself with too many "saids," remember that you don't need to tag every line of dialogue. For clarity, you can always insert a bit of action to show who's speaking.

6.  Be true to your characters. Don't force them to do or say something that feels inauthentic.
If you're a plotter like me, you may sometimes find yourself writing a scene in which your character does not want to do or say what you had originally intended. Never force this. Rethink your story instead.

7.  Do not indulge in dialectic spelling. If your character has an accent, convey it with vocabulary. 
This one makes me unpopular with my writing students, but it's my firm preference, because I believe dialectic spelling does exactly the opposite of what you intend. You think it's going to make your story read more naturally, but in fact it pulls the reader out of the narrative and reminds them of the writer's presence as they struggle to decode the unconventional spelling.  

8.  Never start a book with someone waking up and looking at the clock.
If you ever want to impress an editor or an agent or a sophisticated reader, find a more creative way into your story.

9.   If you have a scene that consists of a character sitting and thinking, delete it.
I'm not saying every paragraph must be action packed, but if you have a character staring out the window and ruminating for pages, trust me, your reader is checking their phone for messages.

10. Never name the little boy Timmy, Tommy, Billy or Bobby.
You put too much work into your book to be lazy with something like this, right? Your little boy should be named Jordan or Grover or Anthony or Drew or Caleb or Ethan or Miguel or Fergus. You get the idea.

11. Don't show off, just tell the story.
If the paragraph isn't working because you're desperately trying to write around a sentence you've fallen in love with, it's time to kill that darling..

12. Read.  
Once your mind is actively focused on craft, you'll find answers to your questions in the books you pick up. As a writer, reading is part of your job description.

Ellen Meister is the author of four novels, including Farewell, Dorothy Parker (Putnam 2013) and The Other Life (Putnam 2011), as well as numerous short stories. Her essays  have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Publishers Weekly and Long Island Woman magazine. She teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Education, and does public speaking about her books and other writing-related issues. Ellen also runs a popular Dorothy Parker Facebook page. For more information, visit her website at


  1. This is great, Ellen! I'll be sharing it with my class.

  2. Great advice, Ellen! I've shared it!

  3. Great list. I'm putting it on my bulletin board! Especially love #11.

  4. Great advice, Ellen. And I love what you say in #4: YES!!!

    1. So glad you like it, Brenda ... and that you have a favorite!

  5. Boy! You sure pack a punch with this post. Great advice

  6. Ellen, these are such great tips! Appreciate the review lesson, as I'm sure I'm guilty on all counts at some point. Case closed!

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