Wondering how to write a novel?
Writing 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.
Writing a book is hard work, and it takes more than a dream to make it happen. You must be willing to work hard every day to turn that dream into a forged reality.
How do I begin writing a novel, you ask? In this post, I’m going to dive into that. Every novel begins with an idea, and this idea eventually becomes a novel enjoyed by thousands of your most trusted fans.
Here’s how to write a novel:
- Understand what a novel is
- Determine the type of novelist you are
- Start with a novel idea
- Read novels in your genre
- Set up a writing space
- Research your story’s idea
- Create a writing schedule
- Write the novel’s premise
- Create your characters
- Plot the key milestones in your novel
- Write your rough draft
- Edit your novel
- Revise, rewrite, and finalize
- [Checklist] How to write a novel
#1 – What is a novel?
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 master characters and minor characters interacting through dialogue and action to drive the plot forward with relentless speed.
The amount of words in a novel depends on the genre and type of book. Most books on average range from 60,000 to 90,000 words for most genres.
Some books are considered novellas and contain less than 30,000 words. 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 – Know what type of novelist 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.
A plotter is someone who spends a great deal of time before writing the book, creating a detailed book outline for their novel complete with master scenes, pivot points, and character bio 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.
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).
#3 – Start with a novel idea
Of course, every novel starts with an idea, or many ideas. Maybe you have a thousand different story ideas in your head or written down somewhere, but to move forward and write a novel, you need to commit to one idea.
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, like: 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.
When it comes to story ideas, there are just a few rules to follow.
- It must interest you. You’re writing 60k+ words of this novel so if you lose interest, you’re stuck and then you’ll stop writing.
- You have knowledge of this kind of book. 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
- 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.”
Agree with Stephen King or not, writers must read as much as they write.
For one, it helps improve your book structure. By reading and paying attention to the structure of the books you like, when it comes time to write your own, this will come very naturally. This is true regardless if you are writing 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 Allen Poe. Thinking of writing sci-fi? Pick up the books by Arthur C. Clarke (2010) or Frank Herbert (Dune).
Stephen King also says, “You can learn from bad writing as well: “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
What are the top five books you should be reading to help support you in writing this book?
If you want to practice writing technique, a practice strategy is to copy 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 novel writing space
Before you start to write, 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.
Here are some ideas to set up a novel writing space:
- 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 have 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.
- 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 – Research your novel idea
You started with a novel idea, and now it’s time to drill into it a bit more with research.
For instance, I’m writing a story where the main characters 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 or an underwater action-adventure.
The details must be right.
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.
Bottom line: You can learn so much from the books in your local library (Yes, people still go there to read), the worldwide Web, and interviews can be one of the best resources of all.
Here are some ways to research your novel:
- Visit your local library
- Conduct interviews with real people
- Gather data and info from “reliable resources” on the Internet
- YouTube videos
- Reading 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 to read use research to drive the story.
#7 – Establish a writing schedule
Before I set myself up with a schedule and writing goals for each day and every week, I would usually write 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 the weather condition or your shoulder aches.
The single biggest reason people don’t get a book written is lack of commitment to the writing process, and not the book itself.
How do you establish a writing routine? 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.
Different authors have different writing routines:
- Haruki Murakami wakes up at four a.m. and works for five to six hours
- W.H. Auden would rise at six a.m. and would work hard from seven to eleven-thirty when his mind was sharpest.
- Stephen King sits down to write every morning from eight to eight-thirty.
- Henry Miller once created a writing schedule that included the steps to his daily routine. The first step is: Work on one thing at a time until finished.
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 write each day? How many words will you target each writing session?
#8 – Write the premise of your novel
Setting up everything to write is great. You made it this far! But we need a story to write, and at the heart of every story is an overall premise.
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:
- 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…
- 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.
- 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 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 characters, 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?
#1 – Create a Protagonist/Main Character
Every story needs a hero or heroine. But your main character doesn’t always start out as a hero. He or she may be an ordinary citizen one day 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 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.
#2 – Create an antagonist
Your antagonist is the villain, the bad guy, the character who is out to stop your hero/protagonist. 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.
Related article: Character Development
#3 – 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.
Make 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 5-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 “5 Key Milestones Approach.” There could be dozens of scenes in your book, but the critical scenes are the events that turn everything around.
Here is the 5-Key Milestones Approach:
- 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.
#1 – Opening Scene/Setup
The opening scene is telling readers the kind of story to expect. You must connect your reader to your character. Connecting a reader to a character is done in several ways. 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:
- Create a compelling first paragraph
- Introduce your main character
- Foreshadow the conflict
- Elicit emotion
- Leave the chapter on a cliffhanger (to keep them reading)
#2 – The Inciting Incident, or Point-of-no-Return
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.
#3 – 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 bleeker. Readers need to squirm during this scene. Make your readers uncomfortable, and you will be distilling the storytelling down to perfect science.
#4 – Pivotal Complication: The Second Slap
If the first slap wasn’t enough, the second slap has to be worst. Just when your readers thing 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…
#5 – The Climactic Scene: “All Hell Breaks Loose”
No scene in your novel is as important a piece 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 your novel, it’s time to actually start writing.
I wish I could give you a magic formula for this step in the process on how to write a novel. There isn’t much direction here – you simply need to put pen to paper and start writing the story that lives inside you.
All the prepping you’ve done now 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 tell that story! This is where your writing schedule and the established writing space you’ve set up will come in handy. So go forth, and get to writing!
#12 – Edit your novel
Once your rough draft is written, it’s time for the editing process. First, you will self-edit your book, then send your novel to the editor for professional editing.
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.
Here’s how to self-edit your book:
- 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 spellcheck and grammar check.
- Don’t over edit.
- Make sure there is a logical flow and order.
- Eliminate any fluff or unnecessary words.
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 whip your book into shape!
The editing process can be one of the longest [and difficult] parts of writing. But it is here that you really grasp what writing is about.
During the editing stage, you can work through your fears and doubts. You can overcome the resistance to hold on to your work and ship it out to the world where it has influence.
#13 – Rewrite and 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.
Catching errors or story inconsistencies now is better than having readers catch them after they paid for your book. Trust me, I’ve been there, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s better to make it great now instead of later.
So, 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.
When you are done, you’ll have a novel with a riveting storyline that is polished for your readers.
How to Write a Novel: Checklist
Now, if you have done your job as a good storyteller and author, you will have created compelling characters, intoxicating action scenes, and pivotal points in the story that keeps readers flipping pages.
You now have everything to start writing your novel, and while these steps are pretty clear-cut, they can still be difficult to complete.
If you're feeling overwhelmed with learning how to write a novel, use the checklist below as a condensed version of the steps to reference.
Novel Writing Checklist:
- I have created a comfortable and inspiring environment to write my book
- My writing space has very little clutter
- I have selected at least five books in my genre to use as models for my writing
- I researched the heavy details of my book. The rest I can do as I write.
- I understand the basics of writing a novel
- I have determined that, when it comes to novel planning and writing, I am a plotter/pantser/50-50
- I have determined my writing schedule
- I am clear on the genre of my book based on my story IDEA.
- I have sketched out my protagonist and antagonist profiles
- I have a list of minor characters to include
- I have crafted at least three master scenes for my novel
- I am clear on the earth-shattering climax
- The book is ready for an editor