How to Write a Novel: 15 Steps from Brainstorm to Bestseller

Scott Allan
April 08, 2024 | 17 mins

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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. 

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.

In this post, we'll teach you how to write a novel from first idea to finished product in 15 simple steps.

Get Our 6″ x 9″ Pre-Formatted Book Template for Word or Mac

We will send you a Book Template for US Trade (standard paperback size).

How to Write a Novel in 15 Simple Steps

Here are the steps all new authors should take when learning how to write a novel:

1. Start with a novel idea 

Of course, every novel starts with a book idea. You can't learn how to write a novel if you don't have an idea for the book in the first place.

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. 

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?

2. 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.

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. 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.

3. Mindmap your novel

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 protagonists 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 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.

To mindmap a book, I like to use the “bubble method. I start with a central topic or theme in the book and surround it with smaller bubbles of secondary topics or ideas. These ideas, as they get fleshed out, will become the basis of my book chapters.

Write down every thought you have about the book and information you get from researching and keep branching off from whichever bubbles the thoughts relate to. You will eventually end up with an extensive mindmap that will help you to outline your book.

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

4. Create your characters

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

When learning how to write a novel, you need to create a character profile for each character. Knowing how to build life-like characters is a huge step in knowing how to write a novel successfully.

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 make 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 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 protagonist's 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.

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.

5. Outline your novel

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 use novel writing software to get all your ideas organized into a book outline.

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

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.

6. Establish a writing schedule

Once you have your outline laid out, the next step of learning how to write a novel is to actually write! But in order to do that, you need to have an established writing schedule. Otherwise, it's too easy to put off writing, and you will never end up with a finished book!

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.

7. 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.

YouTube video

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 have sketched out my protagonist and antagonist profiles.
  • I am clear on the Earth-shattering climax.
  • I am committed to writing now and editing later!

8. 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 when learning how to write a novel. 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.

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!

9. Find a professional editor

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.

If you aren't sure how to find a book editor, you can find one on Upwork, Fiverr, Facebook groups, or even through the selfpublishing.com team.

10. 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 as 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.

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.

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!

YouTube video

11. Decide on your book title

You may have thought the book title would come first, but in my experience with learning how to write a novel, it's actually best to name your book after all is said and done.

At this point, your novel has been written and revised and you know exactly what it is about. Now you can craft a title that will launch your book to bestseller status.

12. Craft the perfect book cover design

After you put the finishing touches on your book, the next step in learning how to write a novel is to create a book cover. While you can try to do this yourself, chances are, you aren't a graphic designer.

If you want a book cover that is truly eye-catching and speaks to your target audience, I recommend hiring a book cover designer to ensure your novel is successful. Your designer will work back and forth with you to understand what you are hoping for, but also provide insight on what will be best from a marketing standpoint.

13. Ensure your book is properly formatted

Book formatting is a step that is often overlooked when learning how to write a novel – but it shouldn't be ignored! The formatting of a book and greatly impact the reader experience, and you wouldn't want to choose a font that hurts your readers' eyes or have words in two different sizes on your page.

There is plenty of book formatting software you can use to get your novel in proper form, but you can also hire a professional formatter to ensure your book is ready for publishing.

14. Start book marketing

Marketing shouldn't happen right before your book launch. It takes months of careful planning to successfully launch your book, and marketing ahead of time is a big part of that.

Once your book is ready for publishing, it's time to start marketing. When learning how to write a novel, there are so many book marketing ideas you can try, from promoting it on social media, to utilizing your email list, to creating a book trailer for your author website.

I highly recommend putting together a launch team of around 100 people who will receive advanced reader copies (ARCs) of your book for free in return for honest reviews. This can help you rack up a bunch of reviews as soon as you launch your book on Amazon KDP.

15. Launch your book!

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:

  • Learning how to get an ISBN number
  • Creating a book launch website
  • Hosting a book launch party
  • Email/social media marketing
  • Determining the correct Amazon KDP tags
  • And more!

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

If you've read this guide on how to write 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! We can walk you through every step of how to write a novel from mindmap to book launch.

Get Our 6″ x 9″ Pre-Formatted Book Template for Word or Mac

We will send you a Book Template for US Trade (standard paperback size).

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