So, you want to write a novel, but you’re not sure how to get started. Or you’ve gotten started, but you’re stuck part of the way through. Maybe you can’t get over your plot hole or your story took a strange turn, and you can’t seem to get it back.
Whatever your personal roadblocks, this 10-step guide will help. Let it lead you through the process of writing a novel, one step at a time, starting with that biggest of hurdles — the idea.
Step 1: Come Up with an Idea
This step can be the easiest and the hardest at the same time. Anyone can come up with the germ of a story — Hey, maybe two aliens from different planets fall for each other! — but it’s much harder to develop that flash of inspiration into a workable novel.
Concept vs Premise
A concept is not a story. Many writers confuse the two, and it’s often the reason why novelists get stuck a few pages in.
Your concept is your high-level idea. For example:
- Two teenagers fall in love even though their families hate each other.
- A jealous queen curses her beautiful stepdaughter.
- Two siblings, set in their ways, adopt a plucky orphan girl
These are great elevator pitches, but they’re not stories. To reach story level, you need a premise — a narrative arc that involves a unique person. For example:
- Two siblings want an orphan boy to work their farm, but they get a girl instead. The girl begs to stay and they learn to live with each other, slowly becoming a family.
It’s not a complete plot yet, but it’s a jumping-off point. (The jumping-off point for the classic children’s book Anne of Green Gables, in case you were wondering.)
From here, you can start a novel.
Is Your Idea Novel-Worthy?
Most adult novels are 80,000 to 100,000 words long. Young adult and middle grade fiction can be shorter — usually 55,000 to just under 80,000 words for young adult and 20,000 to 55,000 words for middle grade, depending on age.
To fill that many words, your premise needs to support a certain level of complexity. That usually means:
A multifaceted, deeply human main character
Several other fully developed characters
An objective that will be hard for the main character to reach
Room for several exciting incidents and potentially a few subplots
As for whether your novel idea is good… well, that’s entirely subjective. But if you feel compelled to write it and you’d want to pick the book up if you saw it on a shelf, that’s a solid leg to stand on.
Step 2: Choose Your Approach
Novel writers tend to sort themselves into two categories: plotters and pantsers. Plotters organize their stories in detail, writing outlines and drawing up synopses until they know exactly what’s going to happen and when.
Pantsers write… well, by the seat of their pants. They let the story reveal itself as it happens.
Writers like to talk about plotting and pantsing as if it’s a binary, but it’s really more of a spectrum. You need to decide where you fall on that spectrum — or at least, where you think you fall.
Don’t overthink it! If you feel more comfortable pantsing, go for it. You can always take a step back and do some planning if you get stuck.
One pro tip: Even pantsers do a little bit of planning. To avoid frustration down the road, come up with at least a paragraph synopsis of how you think the story will go.
Step 3: Develop Your Characters
Your characters are the legs your novel stands on. They’re your readers’ emotional connection to the story, and they drive the plot forward. They need to be richly fleshed out so they read as real people.
Start with your protagonist — the primary character whose story you’re telling. Work from the inside out, beginning with the inner qualities that make the plot happen. Those are:
- Their objective. What do they want? Cinderella, for example, wants to go to the ball.
- Their needs and values. Why do they have their objective? Cinderella wants to enjoy life and believes she doesn’t deserve to stay at home while her stepsisters dance.
- Their strengths and weaknesses. Strengths will help them achieve their goal; weaknesses will make things harder. Cinderella’s faith and patience got her to the dance, but if she were less of a shrinking violet, she might not have needed to wait for that fairy godmother.
Then, give the character a backstory. How did they become the way they are? Explore their childhood, culture, and social circle. Focus on their personality, but don’t forget to describe their appearance too.
Character sheets can keep you on track. Create one for each of your major characters and keep them close at hand when you write.
Step 4: Identify Your Conflict
Conflict makes a story worth reading. Something needs to get in the way of your main character achieving their goals or your novel will lack momentum.
Two basic types of conflict drive stories:
- Internal conflict, where some aspect of the character’s personality keeps them from getting what they want.
- External conflict, where an outside obstacle — extenuating circumstances or a human antagonist — stands in the main character’s way.
The best novels have both types of conflict at play. Perhaps your main character has a strict father who won’t let her abandon her business career to become a Broadway star, but she needs to find the courage to stand against him.
Step 5: Choose Your Perspective
The next question to ask is, through whose eyes do you want people to see this story play out? This is called your perspective or point of view (POV if you want to sound like an insider novelist).
Common POVs for novels include:
- First person: The main character tells the story as “I.” I opened the door, walked outside, and stopped in my tracks when I saw the UFO.
- Third person limited: An objective narrator tells the story, but can only communicate the thoughts and feelings of one person at a time. Jacob opened the door and his eyes grew wide. He hadn’t even heard the UFO land.
- Third person omniscient: The objective narrator can be in anyone’s head at any time. Jacob gaped at the UFO. He’d never seen anything like it before. Mary had much more experience with this kind of thing, but she wouldn’t dare mention it.
Omniscient narrators tend to be hardest for newbie novelists to write. If you choose to write omniscient, try to stick with one point of view per scene.
Switching perspectives too often can cause a phenomenon known as “head-hopping.”
Cinderella swallowed hard, afraid the shoe wouldn’t fit. The prince thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The stepsister sat by silently, fuming internally.
This kind of rapid perspective shift can be confusing. Avoid emotional whiplash — let your readers live in one character’s mind for a while before you ask them to switch. Keep that in mind as you plan out your novel’s plot.
Step 6: Expand the Plot
Most beginning authors need to spend at least some time thinking about their story structure, even if they identify as pantsers. An outline ensures you’ve fleshed out the plot enough to make it a novel, and it will keep you on track if you get lost or stuck.
How to Write a Novel Outline
First of all, don’t panic — no one’s asking you to write the kind of indented, Roman-numeraled outline you created in middle school English. (But if that works for you, go for it.)
For novelists, outlines are resources. They’re like GPS directions for your story, providing structure and showing you where you’re headed, so you know what turn to take next.
As long as your outline helps you structure your story, it can take any form you want. It might be:
- A series of Post-It notes that you can move around if you change the order of events
- A flow chart or “mind map” that lays out the plot with diagrams, idea branches, arrows… whatever helps it make sense to you
- A linear outline that lays out the plot in order, in as much detail as you need
Your outline is just there to keep you on track as you write. Nor is it set in stone. Plenty of writers change their outlines as a plot reveals itself.
Many newbie authors get lost and frustrated when they first start plotting and learning how to write their novel. The culprit is usually a lack of direction. They’re not sure what should happen next, and what should happen after that, and before they know it, they’re back on the couch watching someone else’s stories on Netflix.
Relatable? Don’t worry. Here’s a basic narrative structure that can form the skeleton of almost any novel.
- Status quo: The main character is living their life
- Catalyst: Something happens to set the main character in pursuit of their goal
- Rising action: The main character encounters obstacles in pursuit of their goal
- Climax or crisis: The make-or-break point when the main character comes extremely close to failing permanently
- Resolution: The main character either achieves their objective or doesn’t
- Falling action: The main character has to decide what comes next.
If you’re curious about how many different directions this basic plot flow can go, Google “narrative structure.” The results will keep you busy for hours.
Step 7: Raise the Stakes
Once you have your conflict and plot, figure out the stakes. Ask yourself why it matters if the main character achieves their goal or not. What will happen if they fail and more importantly, why should the reader care?
Then, turn the temperature up a bit. Make the goal more important or up the intensity of the various obstacles. Or better yet, both. The higher the stakes for the main character, the more engaged your reader will be.
Maybe your detective protagonist needs to solve the murder so he gets a promotion. People will probably still root for him. But if he needs to catch the killer before the detective’s own wife and family become the next victims… well, there’s your page-turner.
Step 8: Do Your Research
Readers suspend their disbelief when they pick up a novel. If an author lets an incorrect fact slip out, it can break the connection and even offend the reader. Always fact-check everything you’re not 1,000% sure about. For example:
- What footwear would your upper-class Victorian heroine wear to go visiting?
- What does a gun really sound like when it’s fired?
- What are the side effects of chemotherapy?
- How does PTSD present in an aging Vietnam veteran?
The internet can be a useful resource, but make sure your sources are authoritative. Opt for .gov or .edu websites when possible.
Real human experts will always be your best bet. It doesn’t hurt to send a quick email to a local oncologist or trauma psychologist, and many will be happy to help.
Step 9: Sit Down and Write
This is another point where many aspiring authors get lost, usually because they’re waiting for inspiration to strike.
In real life, writing is discipline. It means sitting down with a laptop or whatever else you write on and hashing out that first draft, even if you don’t feel inspired. Follow these tips to stay disciplined, even when your muse decides to take a vacation:
- Commit to a set writing time. Block it out in your schedule, just like you’d do for any other commitment, and stick to it.
- Set measurable goals. A chapter a week, three scenes by Thursday, whatever… as long as you can point to that achievement and give yourself credit. Buy yourself ice cream if you want.
- Don’t strive for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of the first draft. You can’t pitch, market, or even edit a book that doesn’t exist, so get words on paper. You can figure out the details later.
Step 10: Breathe, Then Edit Your Story
Once you’ve written the last paragraph, close your browser, notebook, or vintage Smith Corona typewriter and go celebrate. Millions of people start novels, but far fewer finish one. You’ve accomplished something huge!
Rest, relax, and let your novel sit for a while. Then go back to it with fresh eyes and read it over. Ask yourself whether:
- The plot makes sense
- The characters are believable
- The prose flows well
- The language isn’t too flowery or confusing
Once you’re satisfied, ask someone whose opinion you trust to read it over. This person is what authors call a beta reader and their job is to give you high-level feedback about whether your novel works:
- Is it compelling?
- Is it unique and original?
- Do they connect to the characters?
- Are there any glaring grammatical, usage, or style errors?
Your beta reader’s thoughts will be the impetus for your second draft. You can then take that second draft and bring it to a critique group or hire a professional editor to help you polish it up.
At this point, you’re well on your way to publication.
You’ve Got This
Now you have a map that will take you from your first flashes of an idea to a fully fleshed-out novel. Yes, it’s a lot of work and a big-time commitment — but you can handle it!
Print out this guide and tape it to your wall. Let it be your guide on how to write a novel and enjoy your great novel-writing journey.
Then, take it one step at a time. Plan out your first chapter. Write your first scene, then write another. Keep putting words on paper and before you know it, you’ll have a draft of your completed novel sitting proudly on your desk.
Musings and updates from the content management team at Clippings.me.