How to Write a Novel: 14 Steps to Become a Bestseller

POSTED ON Jan 9, 2024

Scott Allan

Written by Scott Allan

Home > Blog > Writing, Fiction > How to Write a Novel: 14 Steps to Become a Bestseller

Wondering how to write a novel?  Learning how to write a novel is a dream for many people. But only a handful of could-be-published-authors succeed in writing, publishing, and selling a book.

The compulsion to write is powerful, and for most serious authors, they must get those stories out and into the hands of readers who need them.

This is where you come in. The world needs your novel. 

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Learning how to write a book is hard work, and it takes more than a dream to make it happen. You must be willing to put in work every day to turn that dream into a reality.

How do I begin writing a novel, you ask? In this post, I’m going to dive into just that. You will learn how to write a novel from first idea to finished product.

1. Understand what a novel is

If you want to learn how to write a novel, the first step is understanding what a novel is. A novel is a work of fiction told through narrative prose focusing on characters, action (or drama), and a plot with a certain degree of realism.

A novel is structured with a set of master scenes, at least two pivotal complications (also known as inciting incidents), and the ultimate climax that blows everything off its hinges. You will have several types of characters, major and minor characters, interacting through dialogue and action to drive the plot forward with relentless speed.

The main difference between a novel vs. novella is the length. The amount of words in a novel depends on the particular book genre you write, but most books on range from 60,000 to 90,000 words on average. 

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Novellas are between 10,000 to 40,000 words in length. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella The Old Man and the Sea is just 27,000 words, whereas Stephen King’s longest novel, The Stand, weighs in at just under 473,000 words (after he trimmed 500 pages!). 

For a break down of how many words in a novel by genre, check out How Many Words in a Novel? Exact Word Counts Per Genre.

Now that you know what a novel is, it’s time to determine the type of novelist you might be.

2. Decide what type of novelist you are

On top of knowing how to write a novel, you need to understand how to become an author, and what type of writer you are! Knowing if you are a plotter or a pantser will influence your entire writing style, so we want to nail this from the start. If you still aren't feeling confident in your writing style after reading this post, you can check out some writing websites for inspiration.

The Plotter

A plotter is someone who spends a great deal of time before writing the book. They know how to write a book outline for their novel complete with master scenes, pivot points, and character profiles.

A plotter writes out every detail down to the smallest scene with a clear direction of how the book will begin…and how it must end. A detailed plotter generally won’t start writing until all of these details are worked out.

J.K. Rowling, worldwide bestselling author of the Harry Potter books, is a known plotter. Other known plotters are John Grisham (The Firm, The Pelican Brief) and James Patterson.

So, what is a pantser? A pantser is…the opposite of a plotter.

The Pantser

In short, the term pantser means “writing by the seat of your pants.”

You start with a seed of an idea and a few notes. You have a loose outline and some scenes but other than that, you begin writing your story.

Well-known pantsers are Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and David Morrell (First Blood).

So, depending on the type of writer you are, this would influence how much time and energy you spend on drafting out an outline, storyboarding or scene creation, and character development.

Plotter and Pantser in Combination

You might not be a detailed plotter or a seat-of-the-pants pantser, but maybe you fall somewhere in between. Most writers do. 

My style is to come up with the overall story, the main characters, several master scenes, and the beginning or opening scene. I have a brief outline and a tentative title. I start writing to get momentum moving forward. The story could take a number of directions, and the only way I can find out is by writing the story.

Momentum is key when it comes to writing. If you can see just beyond the outline, your imagination will fire up when you put fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper).

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3. Start with a novel idea 

Of course, every novel starts with a book idea. Maybe you have a thousand different story ideas in your head or written down somewhere, but to move forward with writing novels, you need to commit to one. 

So, what’s the big picture of your novel? Try to write your novel idea in one sentence. 

It can be something broad, like: Tragic teen love affair that ends in suicide. 

Or, it can be something a bit more specific, almost like a writing prompt: Two teens, from rival families, fall in love and in a shocking twist of events, choose to die together rather than live apart. 

Whatever your novel idea is, write it down and keep it at the forefront of your mind – even if all the details or concepts aren’t known yet. 

Tips for picking your best book idea:

  • It must interest you. You’re writing 60k+ words of this novel so if you lose interest, you’ll stop writing. 
  • You have knowledge of this kind of book and the subject matter in it. If you write sci-fi, you must have read sci-fi a lot. Romance? You’re reading love stories every waking moment. Your passion for the book idea comes out of your passion for learning about telling this kind of story.
  • Test your idea. Talk about it and tell people 
  • Define the conflict. Can you identify the main conflict?

4. Read books in your genre

Stephen King said: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” 

Writers must read as much as they write. 

For one, it helps improve the story structure of your book. By reading and paying attention to the structure of the books you like, when it comes time to writing novels of your own, this will come very naturally. This is true regardless if you are learning how to write nonfiction, fiction, or a memoir. Reading good writing helps you to become a better writer.

You need to read the authors writing in your genre to show you how it is done. If horror is a genre you want to master, you’d better start with Clive Barker or Edgar Allan Poe. Thinking of writing sci-fi? Pick up the books by Arthur C. Clarke (2010) or Frank Herbert (Dune).

If you want to practice writing technique, try copyinv passages out of your favorite books. Just read and type. This gets you into the habit of writing (even if it isn’t your material) and is training for the writing to come in your own book.

This technique works when you’re stuck in writing, too. Or you have a fear of writing (what we refer to as writer’s block). So whenever you are struggling to move forward, grab a book from your shelf, open to your favorite scene, and start typing it out. Just don’t publish it!

5. Set up a productive writing space

When learning how to write a novel, you should ask yourself if your environment is the best place for writing.

Is it clean or cluttered? Can you focus or is your room filled with distractions? Are you alone or do you have friends, roommates and family members surrounding you? Is your space creative or chaotic?

In my experience, if you live in chaos (ex: noise, distractions, beeps, a loud TV) you’re setting yourself up for failure. You won’t get far with writing before you’re doing something else.

Over the years, I have learned to recognize what works and what doesn’t when it comes to preparing myself for pounding out words.

Here are a few ideas to boost author productivity and make your writer’s space something you can actually get writing done in.

  • Display your favorite author photos. Find at least twenty photos of authors you want to emulate. Print these out if you can and place them around your room.  An alternative idea is to use the photos as screensavers or a desktop screen. You can change the photo every day if you like. There is nothing like writing and having your favorite author looking back at you as if to say, “Come on, you’ve got this!”
  • Hang up a yearly calendar. Your book will get written faster if you writing goals for each day and week. The best way to manage this is by scheduling your time on a calendar. Schedule every hour that you commit to your author’s business. What gets scheduled, gets done.
  • Get a writing surface and chair. There are two types of desks and you should consider setting up your writing area with access to both. The first is the standing desk, which helps you avoid the unhealthy practice of sitting down for long periods. For sitting, you want a chair that is comfortable but not too comfortable. You can balance your online time between sitting and standing. For example, when I have a three-hour writing session, I do 50/50.
  • Create a clutter-free environment. If there is any factor that will slow you down or kill your motivation, it is a room full of clutter. If your room looks like this, it can have a serious impact on your emotional state. I believe that what you see around you occupies a space in your mind. Unfinished business is unconsciously recorded in your mind and this leads to clutter both physical and mental. Go for a simple workplace that makes you feel relaxed. A great book I recommend for this is the 10-Minute Declutter: The Stress-Free Habit for Simplifying Your Home by S.J. Scott and Barrie Davenport. 

6. Mindmap your novel and research different ideas

You have the idea for your book, but the next step in learning how to write a novel is researching. 

For instance, I’m writing a story where the protagonist become involved in an international scandal that takes them from the U.S. to Europe, from London to Paris to Athens. They are pursued by a hit-squad of assassins with a lot of sophisticated weapons. At the end of the book, the protagonists escape via a submarine from Russia, only to be pursued by another submarine that ends in a big battle 3,000 meters underneath the ocean.

But wait a minute…

I’ve never been to Europe. And I’ve never handled “sophisticated weapons” that shoot real bullets. Submarines? I’ve read about them in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. How do I write a book that requires so much know-how?

Research is a necessary part of your book when you learn how to write a novel. It must be believable. This is true regardless if it is a reverse harem story, sci-fi space epic, or underwater action-adventure.

The details must be right.

First, start by writing down all the ideas you have. Set a timer and start writing – don't worry about fact or accuracy. This is your time to mindmap.

Then, circle the ideas you like best and decide what the next steps are to create a believable and entertaining story.

You might need to talk to people with first-hand experiences taking place in your book. There could be technical details involving planes, subs, trains, guns, missiles, or robots. Geographical details might include street names, shops on those streets, or knowing what a particular street corner looks like even if you’ve never been there.

Fortunately, we have the internet. Most of these things mentioned can be found within minutes. The challenge is in not getting bogged down in endless information and too many details. 

An interesting fact: When Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was published, one former Soviet-watching intelligence officer made an accusation that “Clancy must have had inside information from U.S. intelligence personnel who intercept Soviet communications.”

How else could someone know so much? 

“That’s a lot of crap,” Clancy replied. In fact, his basic sources were hundreds of books like The World’s Missile Systems, Guide to the Soviet Navy and Combat Fleets of the World. Clancy also learned a lot from a war game called “Harpoon,” which the Navy used as an instruction manual for ROTC cadets.

Additional tips for your novel research process 

  • Visit your local library
  • Conduct interviews with real people
  • Gather data and info from “reliable resources” on the Internet
  • Watch YouTube videos
  • Read books in your genre (mentioned previously)
  • Refer to Atlases and World Almanacs to confirm geography and cultural facts

Keep it simple and to the point. Give readers what they need to know and no more. The best books use research to drive the story.

7. Establish a writing schedule

Before setting myself up with a schedule, I usually wrote when I felt inspired…and that wasn’t very often.

As prolific author William Faulkner has said: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

So there you have it. There isn’t any magic or secret formula. You learn how to write a novel by writing every day no matter what the day throws at you.

The single biggest reason people don’t get a book written is lack of commitment to the writing process, and not the book itself. A book writing coach can inspire accountability during this process and help you stick to a routine.

But how do you establish a writing routine, you ask? Well, some writers would say:

  • Show up at your desk like any other job. 
  • Take five minutes to review your story notes.
  • Be clear on what you’re writing.
  • Type the first word.
  • Type the second word.
  • Continue typing for 30-45 minutes.

When I get asked the best way to write, whether you're learning how to write a novel or a nonfiction book, these are the steps I teach writers.

Of course, different authors have different writing routines:

  • Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4 a.m. and works for five to six hours
  • W.H. Auden would rise at 6 a.m. and work hard from 7:00 to 11:30 when his mind was sharpest.
  • Stephen King sits down to write every morning from 8:00 to 8:30.

Whatever routine you decide to follow, remember that the focus is on preparing to write. The routine you implement will be your method for building a successful career as an author.

Create a writing routine that works for you. What time will you be writing novels each day? How many words will you target each writing session?

8. Get clear on the premise or theme of your novel

Setting up everything to write is great. You made it this far! But to learn how to write a novel, you need an actual story to write. And, at the heart of every story, is an overall premise or theme.

A premise is your novel’s “big idea” or “big picture view.” So the question is, “What is your story’s premise?

Write out the idea for your book in 40-50 words. I gave you a couple of samples here. This is your pitch and it has to be good. This nugget has to fire you up so you show up to write every day. 

Here are a few examples of story premises: 

Example One: A group of Navy Seals are sent on a black-ops mission to investigate the discovery of a United States submarine that vanished over 30 years ago. After discovery, the SEAL team is infected one-by-one with a deadly virus that has found its way into the abandoned ship 2000 meters beneath the surface…

Example Two: A couple of paleontologists and mathematician are among a select group chosen to tour an island theme park populated by dinosaurs created from prehistoric DNA. While the park's mastermind assures everyone that the facility is safe, they find out otherwise when the predators break free and go on the hunt.

Example Three: A young farm girl and her dog are whisked away to a magical land by a tornado, only to come face to face with a wicked witch that has vowed revenge for the death of her sister. The girl meets several friends along the way and together they journey to the land of Oz to find the wizard that can send her back home…

Did you recognize any of those story premises? 

9. Create and map out your characters

Your characters help tell your story, and play a huge role in guiding readers through your storyline. 

It’s time to create your character profile, and since each story has main characters and minor characters, we’ll walk you through this process. 

Knowing how to build life-like characters is a huge step in knowing how to write a novel successfully.

No matter which type of character you are creating for your novel, it’s important to make them believable. Think of the type of person your character is, and make them as realistic as possible. 

Initial questions to consider when you create a character are:

  • What motivates them?
  • What is their character name?
  • What are their flaws?
  • What is their purpose?
  • What do they look like?
  • What’s their personality type?

Create a protagonist/main character

Every story needs a hero or heroine. But your main character doesn’t always start out as a hero. One day, he or she may be an ordinary citizen and suddenly forced into a situation where they must take action or suffer the consequences.

Your protagonist must be…

  • Challenged throughout the novel. There will be a series of scenes described as incidents or pivot scenes when everything is changed when the hero will be challenged to act in a way that pushes them out of their comfort zone.
  • Realistic and believable. They have a weakness and character flaws that makes them vulnerable.
  • In pursuit of a goal. By the end of the novel, this goal must be achieved.
  • Changed for the better. By the end, your main character will become a better person after winning against impossible odds.

Create a character portfolio for your main character. This includes personality type, physical features, recognizable habits, profession, and background. You don’t have to go into an extensive background check for the sketch. Save this for the actual writing of the story.

The conflict arises when your main hero’s goals and motivation conflict with everyone else, especially the antagonist villain. Your story will be crafted around this conflict, leading to the inevitable defeat of the villain, sometimes at the great sacrifice made by the hero.

You can use this to map out your character’s adversary, too.

Create an antagonist

Writing the villain, the bad guy, the character who is out to stop your hero/protagonist is a tough job. Both characters have similar goals—to overcome the other in hopes of winning the big game, whatever that may be.

The antagonist is motivated by something they absolutely must have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it. This goal is revealed right away in the novel and becomes the driving force behind the novel’s pacing.

As with the protagonist, your villain’s motivation has to be so strong, they are willing to do anything, go to any distance, to achieve it.

This results in a massive, edge-of-your-seat climax. 

The essence of your novel can best be described as your protagonists’ world clashing with the antagonist. Both characters try to bring balance to this world by overthrowing the other. If you learn how to write a novel with this goal in mind, you will be on track to write a gripping novel with scene-after-scene built on conflict.

Sketch out your minor characters

These are the characters that drop in and out of a novel, or they appear for a brief moment to deliver a message, play a part in the protagonist’s journey, but their appearance is brief.

If you are a pantser, you might just drop these characters in as you write as I do, based on a moment of imagination. For a plotter, your minor character might have a few lines buried inside your outline.

Learning how to write a novel requires making a list of your minor characters that will appear throughout the book. You don’t have to go into any lengthy descriptions. Keep details brief and remember: If your character isn’t engaged in the story, they shouldn’t be there.

10. Draft Your Five Key Milestones

You have your characters mapped out. But now you need scenes for them to carry out the story. The next step in how to write a novel is to carve out the scenes and plot the events in your story.

In fiction, most novels follow the “Five Key Milestones Approach.” There could be dozens of scenes in your book, but the critical scenes are the events that turn everything around.

The Five Key Milestones are: 

  • The Opening Scene/Setup
  • The Inciting Incident
  • The Pivotal Complication
  • The 2nd Pivotal Complication
  • The Climax

The majority of novels, TV shows and movies (depending on genre) follow this formula. Your readers are trained to expect this kind of pattern. So, we must deliver to satisfy their expectations. Let's explain each milestone a bit further:

Opening Scene/Setup

The opening scene is telling readers the kind of story to expect. You must connect your reader to your character. You can show off a strength, reveal a weakness, or share an in-character insight. Each of these gives the reader a hook into the character, helping them to understand why they should follow along.

Here are the steps to create an opening scene:

  • Step One: Create a compelling first paragraph
  • Step Two: Introduce your main character
  • Step Three: Foreshadow the conflict
  • Step Four: Elicit emotion
  • Step Five: Leave the chapter on a cliffhanger (to keep them reading)

You also need to acclimate the reader to the setting. What is the setting of a story? Simply put, it is the climate and environment in which your characters are living.

In Fantasy and Sci-fi, you're building entire worlds and new social constructs. In historical fiction, you're taking the reader back into the moments of World War II, the Roman Empire, or whatever time period.

Ideally, you do this on the cover, with the book description, and the categories and keywords you choose. But, you'll also need to make sure that the first couple of chapters give the reader a clear picture of where this story takes place. Remember to show and not tell.

The Inciting Incident

A decision is made or action is taken that changes everything. There is no going back after this happens. This is the event that sets the chase up or pushes the main character onto a path they have no choice but to take. This is known as the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the moment in your story when your hero’s life changes forever. It is the ‘no-going back’ moment, where nothing that happens afterward will return your hero’s world back to normal.

When this happens, it is full speed ahead and stays that way until the climax. The inciting incident is the doorway they walk through and can never return until things return to normal. That doesn’t happen until the end of the novel after the climax. But by then, your hero has changed and might decide she never wants to return back to the way things were.

Pivotal Complication: The First Slap

The first slap is the moment in our story when everything that our hero has gained is lost in one swift action. Your hero is brought down to nothing. All gains are lost, and your hero’s situation has never been bleaker. Readers need to squirm during this scene. Make your readers uncomfortable, and you will be distilling the storytelling down to perfect science.

Pivotal Complication: The Second Slap

If the first slap wasn’t enough, the second slap has to be worse. Just when your readers think your hero has a chance, you take most of that hope away, save for a sliver.

In the second slap, we are setting up for the climax, which means that the hero needs to have an escape route. There should be some hope remaining. It is the “last chance”, the “only chance” for survival. If it fails, all is lost…

The Climactic Scene: “All Hell Breaks Loose”

No scene in your novel is as important as your climax. Everything that has happened up to now has been building towards this climactic chaos. The reader must be so engaged with the climax that by the time they put down the book (or turn off the eReader) they are sweating bullets…and already searching for your next book on Amazon.

11. Write your rough draft

Now that you have all the groundwork prepared for learning how to write a novel, it’s time to actually start writing your rough draft.

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All the prepping you’ve done until this point means you are set up for success! You know what your novel is about, you’ve researched the idea, and you have your characters, plot, and overall storyline mapped out. 

It’s time to start writing the story that lives inside you! You can ask yourself the questions below to make sure you have everything prepped up to this point and you can also use a book template to speed up the process. But this is ultimately about you taking time each day to write.

  • I have determined my writing schedule.
  • My writing space is optimized and free of clutter or distractions.
  • I have selected a few books in my genre to use as inspiration for my writing.
  • I know what genre and subgenre I'm writing for and what type of fiction author I am.
  • I researched the heavy details of my book.
  • I understand the basics of writing a novel and have outlined my story.
  • I have crafted at least three master scenes for my novel.
  • I have sketched out my protagonist and antagonist profiles.
  • I have a list of minor characters to include.
  • I am clear on the Earth-shattering climax.
  • I am committed to writing now and editing later!

One thing the selfpublishing.com coaches always tell our authors is to just focus on writing. The editing will come later. As you'll see in the next step…

12. Self-edit your novel 

Once your rough draft or manuscript is written, it’s time for the editing process. There are multiple different types of editing we recommend each fiction novel undergo.

But you will start with a solid self-edit of your book before sending it to a professional editor. 

Self-editing will take your book to the next level. It will also challenge you as a writer. The material you have spent the past three months [or three years?] working on is ready to be brutally shredded. But we know this is okay. What is coming out through the other side will be a much cleaner, enjoyable read.

The first draft is the foundation of the book. The editing involves working with the real structure. 

Steps for self-editing any novel

  • Verbally read through to find any glaring errors. 
  • Find areas where depth can be added to the story. 
  • Identify any missing details or inconsistencies.
  • Catch any repetition.
  • Watch for showing vs. telling. 
  • Avoid passive voice.
  • Do a spell check and grammar check. 
  • Don’t over edit.
  • Make sure there is a logical flow and order. 
  • Eliminate any fluff or unnecessary words. 

For some of these steps, you can use AI to help you edit your book. It's an excellent tool to catch typos and syntax errors that you may overlook!

Once you’ve done a thorough self-edit, it’s time to hand your book off to a professional editor to really trim away the fat and get your novel publish-ready!

During the editing stage, you may realize you still need to work through your fears and doubts as an author. You may second-guess some scenes or worry about omitting too much. This is why it's important to work with a very skilled editor and book coach during this phase. These people will be your support system and will keep your readers' – and your book's – best interests in mind.

13. Revise your novel

Real writing is about rewriting. The rewrite (or revision) is the stage when your book really starts to take shape. Learning how to write a novel is just as much revising than it is actually writing.

Now that your rough draft is written and has undergone a series of edits, it is time to rewrite your book using the feedback you’ve received.

When it comes to rewriting, we don’t want this to take forever. In the old days, writers would spend a year or more rewriting their books. But that was before they had any tools, computers, or the internet.

Your editor is probably the first person that will see your manuscript. They will (and should) give you the no-holds-barred truth about what needs to be fixed. This can be hard to take if you are sensitive to criticism, and many people are. 

So what do you do if you get your manuscript back and it has more red marks on it than white space?

Simple. You take it as constructive feedback and get to work. Maybe that isn’t the answer you wanted to hear, but there are two choices. You can question the corrections your editor has made, and in some cases, challenge them. Or, you can work through your manuscript line by line, accepting the corrections as you move through the book, making additions here and there.

Remember: Your editor isn't out to get you. They are there to help you learn how to write a novel better. Catching errors or story inconsistencies now is better than having readers catch them after they have paid for your book.

When it comes time to work through your editing, stick with your editor’s suggestions. Run through the book page-by-page, paragraph-by-paragraph, and line-by-line. Read it as if you are reading it for the first time.

Then, make the corrections and rewrite any sections based on their advice.

You may also want to get alpha and beta readers to read your novel at this point in the journey. These people will read through your current manuscript through the lense of your ideal reader. And their initial feedback could be invaluable when making touch editing decisions!

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14. Plan your novel launch

Last on my list of how to write a novel is preparing your book for publishing. If you are self-publishing your first novel, this stage can be a bit overwhelming, and you will likely want to reach out to experts for help.

Because learning how to write a novel is pointless if you can't actually get your book out into the world!

A successful book launch can require a lot of components you might not think of, such as:

Luckily for you, helping authors self-publish their books is what we do around here.

If you've read this guide on writing a novel and think you'd rather embark on this journey with some support, our team is here to help. Just reach out to one of our talented book writing specialists to talk about your novel idea today!

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