How to Write a Novel: 9 StepsAug 22, 2021
The question of how to write a novel can feel overwhelming in itself. When you’re facing the blank page, it seems you have a gargantuan task ahead of you.
But that blank page needn’t feel like a brick wall! If you break down the process of climbing a mountain into simple steps, you’ll discover that the process of writing a novel isn’t so intimidating.
With compelling characters and a great story, or a real humdinger of a problem to solve, it can even feel like playing a game – at least some of the time! It’s important for writers to be playful, in order to give themselves the space and mindset to create the first draft of a novel.
How to write a novel? Just do it!
First of all, it’s really not that hard. If you’re going to write a novel you should attack it in a season.
Stephen King believes a first draft should take no more than ninety days. While a first draft does not a published novel make, a professional writer will jump straight into writing a novel and complete the first draft while they’re on fire, before doubt sets in!
We all love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but it’s not about how many words you can get onto the page, it’s more about establishing a real-life writing process.
A first draft is about entering your hero’s life to explore a writing roadmap for your novel’s plot. You won’t necessarily know where your writing sessions are taking you, but writing fiction sure beats everyday life. Don’t deny yourself the adventure.
So, ironically perhaps, the first step in learning how to write a novel is to tell yourself you don’t need to know everything there is to know about how to write a novel! You need to start writing! You need to create material.
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Enjoy the freedom of writing the first draft
No second draft happened without a first draft, no great novel entered the publishing process without a ‘shitty’ first draft as Hemingway put it.
You need to give yourself permission to jump straight in with an initial idea, develop character and make one hell of a mess. You’ll fill the plot holes later, when you get to the editing process.
But for now, take the pressure off yourself and start writing for pleasure. Most novels happen because the writer couldn’t wait to sit down and find out what happened next.
How to write a novel in nine steps
So here’s how to write a novel in nine simple steps. This is, of course, only a beginner’s checklist, but whether this is your first novel or your fifth, we hope these novel writing tips will provide you with some fast-acting refreshment.
Most published writers take creative writing courses for guidance and to develop their writing skills under the wing of trusted and experienced writers.
Quite naturally, at The Novelry we advise you to take the best creative writing course you can afford, and that you especially consider an online creative writing course. That way, you can access the lessons and guidance from home, to fit in around your working life more easily.
What’s more, our Classic Course will help you start writing by generating novel ideas that will inspire you by taking the most powerful experiences of your own life and combining them with the story structure of the all-time bestselling novels.
For now, here are our nine key steps.
1) Decide your genre
Genre can be one of your guiding lights as you set about planning the story you want to tell. It will set up expectations your readers (your target audience) want you to satisfy.
Having a firm grasp of the genre you’re writing in before you start will make things much simpler for you, and help turn the limitless possibilities of fiction into more tangible targets.
Genres can be individually defined by the particular nature of the key driving force behind your story. Make sure you’ve got the right one in the driving seat.
If you hope to get published, remember that genre is also the first thing that agents look for in your pitch letter – before they even consider reading your manuscript! The literary industry is divided into genres, from publishing houses’ departments to the shelves of book shops. The reason is simple: readers know what they like, and like what they know (mostly).
You can, of course, combine genres – knowingly. But you don’t want to do so unknowingly and, by writing for everyone and anyone, fail to please anybody! You need to know from the outset what you’re writing and why. It’s perfectly okay to say this is ‘crossover’, and name your mash-up (of ideally no more than two genres).
Genres can be individually defined by the particular nature of the key driving force behind your story. Make sure you’ve got the right one in the driving seat. Discover the driving force behind a fantasy novel or a work of science fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, young adult fiction, crime fiction, thrillers and more.
Each genre has its own secret agent of story, and that’s how genres can be defined.
2) Develop your pitch or hook
Once you know your genre, you can formulate a snappy premise that fits within its conventions. We have lots of advice on creating a great hook for your novel, but essentially you want a single sentence that sums up your premise and makes the reader (or agent, or publisher) want to find out more. Key ingredients for a killer hook are a brilliant story, an engaging protagonist and – as ever – stakes.
Your hook may change slightly as you write your novel, but it’s a good idea to keep it front of mind throughout the process. Some writers even pin it above their desks! It can help you avoid straying down the many intriguing but directionless paths that will likely present themselves to you (and your characters).
Key ingredients for a killer hook are a brilliant story, an engaging protagonist and – as ever – stakes.
3) If you want to know how to write a novel, you have to read
Almost all great authors share one thing in common: they’re avid readers. Before you start to write your novel in earnest, put the pen to one side and pick up your favourite books. At The Novelry, we’ll help you choose the Hero Book that can be the springboard for the story you need to tell.
As you read, you don’t need to take notes, and you certainly aren’t trying to memorise and regurgitate their style (more on that in step 6!). But you can find inspiration in the bigger picture: the reality and messiness of characters’ lives; their complex and flawed nature; their unpredictable and at times counterintuitive behaviour.
Pick out your most beloved books. Ask yourself what they have in common. Is it a particular genre? A historical period? The speculative treatment? The investigation of human psychology? Humour? Mischief? A flight of fancy? Consider the complete story and why it appeals to you. Does it have great moral power?
Once you’ve pinned that down, you can begin to sketch out your story idea. Writing what you like to read is one of the keys to how to write a novel.
Remember, you have two pedals as a writer: writing and reading. When one runs out of juice, use the other.
Look at how it’s written, too. Does it use third person or first person and why? What’s the inciting incident? What do we see in the way of character development?
Remember, a story is quite simple. It’s all about change. Have a read of this blog post on what makes a story. To write a novel, you need a story. For a story, you need change. You can take anyone from your everyday life and put them under pressure. Through growth and change, you’ve got a story!
Fiction believes people can change. Writing a novel is an article of faith: people can change. That’s what makes it so different to writing a poem, a short story or even a blog post. In novels, people change. Your main character, for a start.
Remember, you have two pedals as a writer: writing and reading. When one runs out of juice, use the other. On a slow novel writing day, you can cram on how to write a novel with the pleasurable activity of reading one of your favourite fiction writers. We faithfully promise you’ll be back to your novel writing with renewed swagger within hours.
Authors learn how to write a novel by reading
In fact, the novel writing process is so intrinsically linked to reading novels that we recommend it not only as one of our novel writing tips but as core to our teaching method via our Hero Books. (Yes, reading extensively and constantly from the great writers, you might run the risk of parroting the writing style of Chekhov or Stephen King in your own writing, but hey, writing like them is no bad thing!)
Reading is great. Writing with another writer is great, too! Plumbers take apprenticeships. So, why do writers imagine they can learn their craft without taking one? That’s effectively what we offer writers when you join The Novelry, a working, practical apprenticeship to your writing coach. You learn on the job.
Serious writers study the works of fiction writers, the way painters copy the old masters. Part of our method at The Novelry is to encourage working novelists to read and re-read a ‘hero book’ during the course of writing their first draft. First for the story, then for the technique.
They abide with this one book during the writing of a first draft as a training frame. The act of faith, abiding with it, is good discipline in itself for sticking with the novel. But when you read a masterful novel, it reveals itself to you in layers that you will only perceive after many readings.
4) Find a community of fellow writers
Great novels can serve as artistic inspiration, sure. But as you set about discovering how to write a novel, you’ll find that a like-minded support system provides the daily personal inspiration you need. Walking the walk and living a fully immersed writing life is indispensable to developing craft skills.
At the end of the day, writing a novel is an undertaking, and often a lonely one. It’s emotionally demanding. There’ll be sky-high peaks and spirit-dampening troughs. And for both, you’ll want to have people who understand what you’re going through.
You want to work alone on your book without disruption, but you need the support of others to remind you that just as one good day is followed by a bad day, the reverse is also true.
You’re not the first person to write a novel! Many have done it before, and many are doing it right now. There’s no need to lurk at your local library, hoping to see another poor soul scratching away in a notebook or tapping on a laptop! You can now find your writing tribe from anywhere, in an online writing group.
The right community can ease your nerves
At The Novelry, we have thousands of writers doing just what you’re doing. We offer a safe space to write a novel in good company where you can get honest feedback on your writing from other writers, and ask questions about how your writing is working for the reader.
You can develop a deeper understanding of how to write a novel by gauging readers’ live reactions, via our workshop, to simple but important changes like moving your narrative from third person to first person or vice versa.
What’s more, so many people are nervous about writing a novel! It’s the first thing a writer says to us when they take the plunge and commit to writing a novel. When you open the door and come into The Novelry, it’s all rather jolly, warm, unpretentious and friendly, and so very doable. The work you have to do is bite-sized in the daily lessons that unfold as you progress with your novel writing, getting some serious word count onto the blank page.
When you open the door and come into The Novelry, it’s all rather jolly, warm, unpretentious and friendly, and so very doable.
Finding an online writing community, and investing in one-to-one writing coaching, are two of the most important steps you can take as you set about writing a novel. Whether you’re self-publishing or aiming to become published traditionally, you’ll find others who have made the journey from a story idea to a completed novel.
So find your community as soon as you can. You’ll learn, you’ll commiserate, and you’ll share and receive feedback (when your work is ready – never at first draft!). It’ll be your saving grace.
The home of ‘Happy Writing’
We’d be glad to welcome you to The Novelry when you sign up for a writing course. Inside our online community, you will find people like you, parents, busy and professional people, published and aspiring writers, at play. This is our playground. We are the home of ‘Happy Writing’ and that’s not just marketing speak, it’s critical to the novel writing process.
The focus at first draft is on joy. God knows you need it to help manage the self-doubt.
Those who have gone before you will cheer and applaud your progress. You’ll discover lots of writers who are starting to write a novel, just like you.
Before you start to write, you’re held back from writing while we establish some principles of joy – finding the place and time for that precious one hour for you, ensuring you’ve got an idea with energy packed into it, and that you know how and where to get support when you need it.
The focus at first draft is on joy. God knows you need it to help manage the self-doubt.
We do a lot of initial work on the idea itself so you can proceed with confidence. You’ll easily hit doable writing targets and within a couple of weeks – with the joy still firmly in place – you’ll be on target to complete the first draft in ninety days.
You’ll be in daily contact with your fellow writers, working to the same plan
5) Cast your characters
One of the other things that will steer your writing and keep you coming back for more is an interesting cast and a cracking protagonist.
Of course, developing characters in itself can feel hugely intimidating. But again, we have lots of advice on creating three-dimensional characters, choosing character flaws, and even character development exercises you can try out.
To make your characters engaging for you and your readers, make sure you write against type. Make older characters youthful and younger ones curmudgeonly. Write manly women and feminine men. Surprise us – and yourself.
Creating a great protagonist
Spend extra time on complicating your protagonist. Many writers – especially first-time writers – have a tendency to make their protagonist a lot like them. It’s a natural instinct, especially when we’ve all been told to write what we know. But it’s one of the biggest pitfalls when thinking about how to write a novel – a novel that you’ll finish, at least.
If you make your main character yourself, your book will often peter out and possibly die at 30,000 words. We see this all too often with writers who come to The Novelry. Not only will you get bored with yourself, you’ll struggle to pity yourself, too. And without pity, you’ll treat your protagonist with far too much cruelty to write something anyone can enjoy reading.
To fix it, or avoid it, take aspects of your personality and give them to a character who’s distinctly unlike you. Try taking someone you are fond of or admire, and use them as the mould for your character. Or, try taking a part of yourself that you’ve spent your life hiding or avoiding and have someone else deal with it. Then ransack your friends, colleagues, neighbours for habits, traits, mannerisms and more. By assembling a character with this identikit process, you can simulate a real person. Now you’ve got someone interesting to spend time with!
Writing secondary characters
When it comes to secondary characters, remember the first principle of how to write a novel must be that everything in the novel serves the story. So it follows that every character must play a part in the hero’s life and their development.
Unlike your POV character, you won’t need to consider character arcs for all of your cast. The second person of interest in the story typically remains static. This is usually a person limited in growth, either because they are an out-of-focus hero (as is Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby or Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) or because they are the antagonist whose role is to drive change in the hero’s life. The villain is unrepentant.
6) Find your voice
Cast your mind back to all those wonderful books you read in step 3. You’ll probably notice that each of your favourite writers has their own distinctive voice. In fact, you could probably identify them with just a sentence or two – even if it’s a book you’ve never read.
Publishers and literary agents so often say, when talking about why they fell in love with a novel, that it was all about ‘the voice’.
So how can beginners find their own voice in fiction? How can you take inspiration without becoming derivative? How can you ensure your readers recognise your prose in an instant?
Take a couple of those authors you so admire and write a few sentences describing each of their styles. Which aspects of the traits you’ve written does your writing tend towards? Identify the parts you share with each of your favourites, and you’ll likely find your unique voice.
One trick that can help here is to think of a person you feel close to, with whom you can be yourself. Write as if you were speaking openly and candidly to them.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
—J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Aim for authenticity
Invest in establishing that tone of voice. Take your time over it. Don’t strive to be original, strive to be yourself (only more so, that’s drama!). Be authentic and confident.
If you’re going to be light-hearted, be throaty and coarse and go for it! If you’re going to be elevated, a bit of a bluestocking, then be callous, too. Mark it sharp and hard on those pages to get your story flowing.
And then of course there’s the medicine of voice. Feeling down? Go humour! Feel less clever than others? Go smart-arse! Feeling on top of your life game? Go humility! Feeling humble, go burn the jets of vainglory!
Say to yourself; this is the story only I can tell and I am telling it my way, the way only I can tell it and that’s good enough.
Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.
Remember, the voice needs to suit the story idea, as does the way you tell it. Think of who is telling this story and why. What do they want?
If your narrator is unreliable in the telling of his or her tale, past tense is right. If you’re writing about something that happened in the past, reflecting upon it, your voice may be more leisurely, more considered, more poetic even.
Think of the practicalities too. The voice of the narrator belongs to the last person standing!
The narrative point of view
First person, telling the story from your point of view, calls upon the sympathies of the reader to experience the plot points first-hand, to walk in your shoes. Think of the famous novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, or the more recent bestselling novel Sorrow & Bliss by Meg Mason.
Using third person allows you to be more like a movie director, and show scenes and images apparently ‘without voice’ or judgement. This can work very well for a novel idea that begins with a shocking inciting incident, when you wish to study secondary characters and their reactions.
Yes, you can use second person as Jay McInerney does in Bright Lights, Big City or as Caleb Azumah Nelson does beautifully in Open Water (winner of the Costa First Novel award), but you may find it a strain to keep it up. It’s a faux-version of first-person, really.
Using third person is great for writers who are nervous about voice. It’s a great place to start writing as it can help you develop characters with a sense of their own lives being made manifest through their actions, reactions, and interactions. You can develop your writing skills by making close notes on people you know and how they behave in real life. You can even take these characters and use them ‘whole’ in a short story to get started writing. Hemingway advised using whole people, at the risk of losing friends.
Other writers who use third person in a cinematic narrative style include the popular bestselling author Sally Rooney whose novel Normal People is one of our recommended Hero Books.
7) Turn your story to the light
At this stage, you’re very nearly ready to start writing. You’ll just want to flesh out – and perhaps alter – the details of your story a little.
Try putting it in a different place or time, and see if it becomes more intriguing. The founder of The Novelry, Booker-listed author of four novels Louise Dean, calls this stage ‘turning it to the light’. Keep changing, turning, moving, tweaking the elements of your story until it catches fire. In The Ninety Day Novel course, Louise gives the one-word answer to what it is that creates this fire. It’s very simple.
Keep changing, turning, moving, tweaking the elements of your story until it catches fire.
Just as you separated your protagonist from yourself, you might want to put some distance between you and your story/setting.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget to ramp those stakes up. How much trouble can you throw your protagonist into at the start of your story? How much trouble can your inciting incident stir up? What seismic shifts have happened, and how might their life be altered if they don’t take the actions your plot demands?
When you should think about story structure
Try not to sweat story structure, giving yourself the fear about the ‘three-act structure’ or writing an overly detailed outline using boilerplate plot paradigms.
If you plan too far, you lose the will to write and the magic that happens in the writing. The walls of fear start to go up, and get higher and higher until even doing the ironing looks good.
At The Novelry, we introduce structure later in the process of writing a novel. Fiction writing begins with a main character and an inciting incident. That should be your focus once you have decided on your preferred genre of fiction writing.
We offer a simple story structure to take your novel idea to a completed novel, which covers the five key moments found in most novels. We call this The Five F's and we teach it in all of our online fiction writing courses.
Writing novels is hard enough without getting bogged down in spreadsheets. We offer a simple formula and a one-page planning method which saves fiction writing from suffering under the black cloud of a detailed outline that feels burdensome and defeating.
What is plot?
The Plot is, simply put, the events and incidents which assist or hinder the course of change in a story. From the inciting incident onwards, taking into account problems, problems and more problems. A ticking clock. Other characters’ needs and desires.
These are often contrived to challenge the protagonist or hero at their weak spot, blind spot, flaw or failing as strong medicine for certain change.
Plot plays a role as the spine of the story.
8) Attach emotion
Writing a novel for yourself, whether you’re aiming to get published, self-publishing or making the leap from the short story form to the longer form, is all about sustained emotional engagement.
Your goal above all others is to get that first draft done. Don’t worry about how many words you get down, worry about the feeling behind them. Why are they important to you and your hero? What do you both care about?
If you’re a person limited in opportunities for intimacy with others, as many other writers so often are, then writing a novel is your opportunity to forge meaningful connections. As E.M. Forster put it, the writer’s job can be summed up in two words: ‘only connect’.
In our Ninety Day Novel course, you’ll discover that some of our novel writing tips ask you to put into your novel the things, objects, memories, smells, and recollections most meaningful to you.
I would write – I would write what was most urgent to me at that time, and that proved to be helpful because then I could transpose whatever was feeling most urgent to myself – into a character, and that it would be truthful. There would be something truthful there and it wouldn’t be just wooden writing.
While your stakes should be designed to heighten your characters’ and your readers’ emotions, it’s a good idea to create an emotional connection for yourself, too. It’ll help make your novel a joyous place for you to return to every day.
Finding yourself in your writing
And if you’re shy, writing a novel is a great way to be yourself, only more so, as we say at The Novelry. Digging into the things that trouble you or move you, and giving those concerns to your main character is one of the most therapeutic side-effects of writing a novel.
It’s when you dig very deep, and go very narrow, into the very personal, that you tumble down a tunnel into a universe we all share.
You should quite consciously fill your novel with the things you love. Soundbites, something a friend wears that intrigues you, the smell of your grandparents’ house, the shoes your aunt wore, the first joke you heard, something quaint. Your kind of things. Pebbles, shells, feathers – the things you have collected in your heart.
This is your tin of buttons. This is the place for everything that is dear to you. You should share those things around your characters and their houses and their mannerisms and their wardrobes. This is the magpie eye at work, but the magpie has a keener eye for things sweet to his beak.
Use names with meaning. Choose just the right one. Pick them carefully. Give the book a secret undercurrent with a leitmotif of significance to you. Place your jewels carefully in their settings and the book will become more and more dear to you.
You should quite consciously fill your novel with the things you love.
This way, you are actively feathering the nest you have built so that you long to get back to your novel. This will save your writing life. This will see you through to the end of your novel. You’re not going to quit a place like this, full of all that is dear to you.
So, list a few of your favourite things. Use these to set the stage for your novel – to give its backdrop some life. It could be things people do or say. Or it could be inanimate objects, sounds, music, colours or patterns. Make it beautiful and meaningful to you and you won’t tire of being there.
Have confidence in your prose
What’s more, by bringing beauty to your writing process you’ll subtly gain confidence and raise your writing standards. Here is another of our novel writing tips for your line-by-line style. Check every descriptive, declarative statement you write against these:
Is it necessary?
Is it accurate and true?
Is it scintillating?
Has it never been said this way before?
By raising your standards, day in and day out, you’ll find not only are you learning how to write a novel, but you’re also living a better life. Become really good at what you do in your own time, whilst holding down the job that pays the bills, and over time, give up more and more of what you don’t like in favour of the things you love.
9) Create a routine for how you’ll write your novel
While all of these steps will make the writing process smoother and more enjoyable, the most important step is to commit to the process.
That means creating a routine, making writing time part of your daily life.
Here’s the good news. You already have the time you need to write your novel. Spend time away from your phone or the internet. Even if it’s your commute, switch off.
Find again the old friend of your mind and imagination. Give up the things that rob your time, blunt your perception and damage your morale. Honour the gifts you have been given in your lifetime, the things you have seen, the story only you can tell.
Here’s the good news. You already have the time you need to write your novel.
Coax and cosset your wellbeing with comfort and innocence – bedtime routine, books candles and cushions. Make space for nothing to happen. Encourage the possibility of boredom; surprise yourself.
Go find a window, look at the sky, and treat yourself to the greatest luxury, time for free, a shot of it. Then write, if you can, then or tomorrow early when no one is about. After sitting with yourself, maybe doodling, maybe drinking coffee, but quietly treating yourself. Silence the laptop to remove pinging alerts, or simply go with your white page into a snow of silence. You, the white page, and the pen in your hand crawling after your thoughts.
Find your golden hour
We suggest finding one hour a day for your writing, and many writers find that first thing in the morning is their golden hour.
Get cracking! Up with a coffee at early light, creating your world, at play before real life kicks in! You’re creating something that will last, and speak for you and your lifetime in one hour a day. Whatever stage you’re at – whether you’ve got no idea for your novel or you’ve got a first draft sitting in a drawer – you’ll have a manuscript in your hands in ninety days’ time. You can read more about our One Hour a Day Writing Process in this blog post.
Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.
Take it slow and steady. Don’t sweat the word count! We put writers on a ‘word diet’ in the beginning, capping their daily word count – with the caveat that they must write every day. It takes the pressure off, and allows them to focus on the essentials of character development as they get to know their cast and the setting.
If you have a main character with a terrible problem, or someone who wants something very badly, you’ve got a story idea that works. It’s likely your word count will take care of itself as you explore the development of their character and their character arc through the trial and tribulations you pose your character in their fictional world.
That, in a nutshell, is called plot. That things get worse for your POV character is called character development. The rocks you throw at them, as Nabokov put it, are your plot points. The bigger the rock, the more dramatic the key moments of your novel. Make things harder before they get better.
The challenges of writing a novel
There is no such thing as writer’s block for someone writing a novel with a writing routine, a writing group and a POV character in a hell of a pickle. You may sometimes feel low as we mentioned previously.
Get support from strangers who share the same dream. Learn communally, it’s faster that way. You need a writing community to know you’re not alone and it’s normal.
The act of considering your work critically and having qualms about it means you are not a complete dunce. You’ll get used to this feeling. It feels like sea-sickness at first, then you accept it and deal with it.
You’re learning not only how to write a novel but how to write a novel to a professional standard. Your critical abilities will be of great use to you as taste and judgement when it comes to editing your novel in later drafts.
Commit to yourself
Start writing today. Start again every day if needs be.
Do not say you’ll start tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes. Write down now on one clean page what it is you are going to do. Date it, sign it. Stay quiet until it’s done. Your audience, until it’s done, is the better part of you.
Don’t run from the better part of you, turn around today, face yourself, and shake hands with a firm grasp. Look yourself in the eye and say, it’s time. Let’s do this.
Once you’ve penned the first line, you’re pretty much all set. You’re in motion!
I start with the first line. Usually that first line comes to me, and everything else is usually subject to change, except that first line usually remains the same. And I don’t know where the first lines come from. Sometimes they’re generated by an image, something in my head, or just by a line that seems to be floating around in my head. And that goes down on the page.
With a solid routine, you can get your first draft done in ninety days, or even finish your whole book in a year. Our ideal calendar is three months spent thinking, reading and planning. Another three months will be writing your first draft. For the next three months, you’ll edit your writing and create your second draft. Your final three months are your time to work on the third draft – hopefully with professional book editors, agents and publishers!
The Novelry offers online creative writing courses with bestselling authors and publishing professionals to lend you support to stay on track to write and complete your novel. And when you’re done? The Novelry is the online writing school with the path to getting published, linked with the world’s leading literary agencies who can’t wait to find new talent – like you!