Novel Writing: Soup to Nuts

by Lauren Shapiro

Perhaps because Stacey Barney was formerly an English teacher, her presentation seemed to flow from a lesson plan on successful novel writing at the Tuesday night SCBWI Metro NY Professional Series.

Ms. Barney says there are only seven stories she’s been told – Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy and Rebirth – and the writer’s challenge is to make these stories feel fresh. Her advice on how to do that is, “Voice is always the first place to start. If the voice isn’t working, nothing else is. Establish the voice right away. Voice is paramount and character is a close second. Character and voice go hand in hand.” There are many things she can help with as an editor, but “I can’t give an author a voice.”

She emphasized that, “You really have to understand who your character is. Saying ‘he’s a boy in fifth grade’ is not enough. Why should someone care about your character? Why should a reader want to go on a journey with this character?” To engage readers, writers must create “complex characters with two sides to them. How you get that duality on the page is how you deepen your characters and make them interesting.”   Writers must also have a clear sense of “Who are the secondary characters – the friends, the parents?” and that the “Dialogue has to read as if it could really be spoken aloud by these people. Dialogue is to enhance the character, not to move the plot along and not to give an info dump. Dialogue advances characterization not plot.”

As to plot, Ms. Barney holds that there should be one overarching plot and two or three subplots. All of these plots require an identifiable arc, meaning a beginning, middle and end. Authors should ask themselves, “How much of each plot thread do I touch on in each chapter?” and be mindful that “Subplots have to receive even, consistent attention and feed into the larger plot, and not take over the overarching plot.”

There should be conflict. “There should be trouble in paradise and I should know that right away. I need to know why I’m reading this book: how the conflict begins, how the characters participate in the conflict, how they resolve the conflict. There’s the large story conflict and the smaller conflicts between characters, between characters and their environment.

She reminded authors that setting is an integral part of your story. “Build a fully realized world whether your book is genre or contemporary.”

As with any good English lesson, one left Ms. Barney’s talk with a good idea of what their homework was.


Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.

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