How to Write a Novel Step by Step

By Harvey Chapman   Print Friendly and PDF

Stephen King: When asked, how do you write, I invariably answer, one word at a time.

The toughest part of learning how to write a novel is knowing where to start and how to keep on going to the end. This section of Novel Writing Help is all about demystifying the writing process.

Figuring out how to write a novel can be confusing, probably because there are so many steps to take...

  • You've got to create all the fictional characters and write a watertight plot.
  • You've got to write the subplots and weave them seamlessly into the main plot.
  • You've got to build an atmospheric setting and decide on a theme.

... and that's all before you can even start to write the novel!

It's little wonder that the question I am most often asked is...

Where do I even begin?!?

The answer is that you begin by studying a good map and familiarizing yourself with the route. The step-by-step process outlined below is your map.

Actually, it is two maps in one...

First, it gives you an overview of every step you need to take to get from where you are today to having a published novel to your name.

Second, it is a kind of user's guide to Novel Writing Help, in that it summarizes where everything is and what all the sections are about.

Take some time to study this map now, just to get an idea of where you are going. But don't forget to return to it along the way if you ever find yourself lost.

16 Steps to Write a Novel (and Get It Published)

At the most basic level, writing a novel involves just three steps...

1) Planning. This is where you work out what you want to say (in note form).

2) Writing. Here, you transform the plan into prose and dialogue.

3) Editing. Finally, you polish the words until they shine.

Easy, right? Well, yes... except it really doesn't tell you anything about how to actually write a darn novel!

What you need are lots of specific steps to take, not just three broad ones. You need each step to contain concrete instructions on what, precisely, to do. And you will find all of this in the steps below (together with the in-depth information that each step links to).

So...

Bookmark this page and return to it often. Yes, the road ahead is a long one. But if you keep putting one foot in front of the other (and remember to enjoy the journey), it will take you where you want to go.

Here are the steps at a glance:

(Keep scrolling down to read them all. Or click on a link to skip ahead.)

01. Get Motivated

I know I said above that "planning" is the very first step to take, but I lied. If you are serious about succeeding as a novel writer, you need to take your time and begin right at the grass roots. Writing a novel is not a race...

If you have your heart set on selling a completed novel to a publisher (or publishing it yourself) in just a few short weeks, good luck to you... but I'm afraid I can't help.

If you are willing to work as hard as it takes for as long as it takes - without forgetting to enjoy yourself along the way, of course - you could go far.

How do you prepare for the journey ahead?

First and foremost, you need to decide why you want to write fiction at all.

Making money from your writing is not a bad motivation, but there are much better ways to ensure you look forward to working on your novel every day.

So your first task is to check out the following pages...

By the time you're though, you should be more than pumped for everything that lies ahead.

02. Harness Your Natural Creativity

You've heard of writer's block, of course – that horrible feeling of staring at a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and not being able to write a single word.

Needless to say, you're going to have a tough time if you ever come down with a bad case of block.

The best thing to do, right here and right now, is to spend some time understanding exactly how your brain works, and how you can then use this knowledge to make writing novels both more productive and a lot more fun.

Start with this article...

How to Discover Your Muse

Knowing which part of your brain to use for which writing task is the key to making the most of your in-built creativity.

Also check out the article on beating writer's block for some more practical tips and techniques on never getting stuck when you sit down to write.

03. Get Organized

Don't worry, I'm not about to tell you to tidy your desk (though that never hurts!)

This is all about two things...

1) Managing your time effectively. Unless you have the luxury of all the time in the world, the hours you can devote to novel writing will be limited. And that means you'll need to learn how to make the most of every one.

2) Surrounding yourself with the tools you need (and avoiding those you don't).

Whether you're a fan of writing digitally (straight onto the computer) or you prefer more traditional methods (pen and paper), go ahead and spoil yourself...

  • If your computer has seen better days, invest in a new one. Or get one just for your writing.
  • If you prefer to write in longhand in Moleskine notebooks, treat yourself to a stack of them.

There's no right or wrong here. It's just that the act of investing a little cash in your chosen tools of the trade will give you a greater reverence for the undertaking.

One thing you may think you need (but probably don't) is novel writing software.

Software that claims to virtually write your novel for you is best avoided. Computers can't think like humans can, which means they can only produce very formulaic plots at best.

One type of software that could be useful, particularly if things like grammar and punctuation aren't your strong suit, is proofreading and editing software.

Check out this page for a complete guide to all types of software for writers.

04. Discover Your Market

Forget all your romantic ideals of what being a novelist means – selling a novel to a reader is business.

What does that mean for you? To stand the best chance of success, you need to know right from the outset where your book will eventually sit in the marketplace.

Now, I'm not asking you to bin your artistic integrity here. I'm simply advising you to slip on your business hat for a moment. And in practical terms, that means researching the market and identifying a niche to target...

  • On the one hand, you need to find a genre of fiction for which a large enough market already exists.
  • On the other hand, you then need to "position yourself" within that market so that you stand out as a unique voice.

It's Business 101, quite honestly – exactly the same advise you'd hear if you were launching a new brand of alcoholic drink or breakfast cereal.

It boils down to knowing your market. As a keen reader, you already have a fair idea of what the competition is up to and which products (books) sell better than others. You then simply have to find a gap.

This section covering the different types of novels is an excellent starting point for your research.

05. Discover Yourself

Okay, we're gradually edging closer to the point where the real work begins – the point where you can start to plan your novel.

First, though, you need to find an idea. I don't mean any old idea, but the best one you can possibly come up with. (After all, you'll be devoting a significant chunk of your life to this novel. The last thing you want to do, a few months or years down to road, is wish you had taken an extra week or two at the outset to come up with a better idea.)

Some people will tell you that good novel ideas are difficult to come by. I would respectfully disagree. (In fact, I believe that most writer's face the opposite problem: Not having the time to turn every idea they have into a novel. Unfortunately, I can't help you there!)

The section on Finding Ideas shows you how to brainstorm for more ideas than you could ever hope to use and how to "road-test" an idea before finally committing to it.

Along the way, we'll also cover how to "write what you know" (the standard advice in every novel writing class) without resorting to barely-disguised autobiography.

06. Prepare to Plan Your Novel

"The best time for planning a book is while you are doing the dishes."
- Agatha Christie

One person's idea of how to write a novel will be a little different from somebody else's. (Which is why you should feel free to adapt my novel writing process to your own unique requirements.)

Perhaps the biggest difference is this...

  • Some folks like to plan their fiction in huge detail before they turn to the business of drafting and revising it.
  • Other writers manage to get by on virtually no planning at all, or even zero planning. They come from the "seat of the pants" school of writing.

Which way is best? There is no absolute answer to that – if a particular way of writing fiction works for you, it works. End of story.

But if you're unsure and want me to make a recommendation, here it is: plan your novel in as much detail as you can stand before you write the first draft.

Why? Because the number one reason for abandoned novels is folks pouring everything they've got into the first couple of chapters in a great surge of enthusiasm, and then... hitting a mental roadblock and having no idea how to continue.

Planning your novel in detail at the start avoids this. As you gain experience as writer, you'll be able to get away with doing a lot less planning up front (instead, you'll do it in your head as you go).

But when you're just starting out? The more you work out in advance, the greater the odds are that you'll reach the end.

Read Planning vs. Writing a Novel for more on this.

That said...

It's not a bad idea to do a little writing every day, even during the planning stage. Set an easily-achievable target (like 50 words a day) and write anything you like...

  • Your leading character getting up and eating breakfast.
  • A description of your setting.
  • A conversation between two minor characters.

It really doesn't matter if this stuff ends up in your novel or not.

At the start of the process, when you don't know much (if anything) about the story you plan to tell, the writing will probably never be used (e.g., you might write a scene that never actually happens, featuring a character that doesn't make the cut).

But that's okay. Getting into the habit of writing daily is all about getting your creative writing "muscle" fit, and then keeping it in peak condition for when the time comes to write the first draft proper.

Some teachers get you to do this by setting writing exercises. I don't do that here...

For me, it's much better to write about people and places and events that mean something to you... rather than me telling you to "write a description of the sounds you hear in a railway station at rush hour" (or whatever).

What does planning a novel involve?

Because planning a long work of fiction in detail is such a large task – not to mention a potentially confusing one – the best way to tackle it is to break it down into smaller parts. In all there are five such parts...

  • Theme.
  • Character.
  • Setting.
  • Plot.
  • Point of View.

The next few steps are dedicated to these individual elements. By working on them one by one, the mammoth task of planning a novel is made a lot simpler.

Let's start with the "why" of your novel...

07. Sow the Seeds of Theme

This isn't nearly as tricky or as confusing as it sounds. Theme is simply what your story is "about" or, more precisely, what it "means." It is the deeper layer of meaning running beneath the surface of your novel.

"Sowing the seeds" is my term for figuring out this meaning in advance, so that it works its way into the fabric of the novel all by itself.

Confused? Don't be. It really is very simple (and it doesn't involve a whole lot of work, either). When the time comes, visit the section on Theme and all will be revealed.

08. Create the Characters

There are two broad tasks to complete here...

  • First, you need to draw up a cast list – everyone from the leading man or woman at the top down to the lowly walk-on character at the bottom. It's impossible during the planning stage to think of all the characters you will need (many won't occur to you until you start to write your novel). But you certainly need to figure out who the major players are.
  • Second, you need to "get to know" the characters by writing profiles, or mini-biographies for them. Fail to do that and they are unlikely to come across to the readers as convincing human beings.

The section on how to create characters gives you all the background and how-to information you need.

09. Build the Setting

As you will discover in the section dedicated to setting, it encompasses a whole lot more than just streets and buildings. It also includes things like...

  • What characters do for a job.
  • The weather (very important in an atmospheric novel).
  • The town's history and folklore.

How do you go about building a great location for your story?

Just like with the characters earlier, you need to "get to know" the setting before you start writing. That way, you'll be able "describe what you see" in your head as you mentally picture each and every scene.

If you are already intimate with your setting (you grew up there, say), you won't have a huge amount of work to do here. If your novel is set in a time and place unfamiliar to you, you'll have plenty to keep you busy.

10. Write the Plot

This is the big one, at least in terms of how long it will take you.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the job will be made a lot simpler by following my comprehensive, 10-step guide to plotting a novel.

Start with the introductory articles covering topics like what a plot is and what keeps readers turning the pages. Then follow along with the "how to" steps. They take you all the way from a strong beginning to a satisfying ending... and without creating a "sagging" middle section.

Also check out the section on subplots. Not every novel contains subplots, but most do. I show you precisely what they are and how to weave them seamlessly into the main plot.

11. Decide On the Point of View

The next step is to figure out...

  • which of your characters will be "viewpoint characters" (i.e., the ones whose eyes we look through and whose thoughts we can hear), and...
  • whether to use the "I" of first person or the "he/she" of third person (or if you're feeling brave, the "you" of second person).

It might seem quite late in the day to be making what would seem like a fundamental decision, but the truth is that you can take a plot and use just about any viewpoint you choose...

Point of view in novel writing is like the camera in a movie. The story remains the same but, depending on where you choose to position the camera, the perspective changes.

And that's why I've left it until relatively late in this step-by-step process.

When the time comes to make your decsion, head on over to the section on point of viewsection. Everything you need is there – not only a rundown of the different viewpoints to choose from but, crucially, help on how to handle your chosen viewpoint more professionally when you come to write your novel.

12. Add the Magic Ingredient of Time

This takes a bit of explanation...

A novel's plot is a sequence of events, from the very first thing that happens to the very last. What you need to do now is play around with "time" to make this sequence more interesting. You can...

  • Freeze time – while you give the reader important background information.
  • Look ahead – by planting "signposts" to exciting future events. (This creates suspense.)
  • Juggle time – by mixing up the chronology of events for increased drama.
  • Speed things up and slow them down – in order to create the perfect pace.

And so on. The section on structuring a novel tells you everything you need to know. It also covers a few other "structural" issues, such as how to divide your novel into chapters.

At last, we turn to the actual writing of your novel!

If it seems like we've come a long way before getting to the fun part – the writing itself – bear in mind the following...

  1. Planning a novel is just as creative as writing one. You may not be putting words to paper in the form of narration, description and dialogue, but you're still creating people and places and events out of thin air. And if that's not pure creativity at work, I don't know what is.
  2. Writing a novel (and writing the first draft in particular) can be tough. But it's a lot less tough if you have a solid plan to keep you on track. You'll know what I mean if you've ever faced a blank sheet of paper and had no idea how to begin filling it.
  3. You're still learning how to write fiction. Once everything above is familiar to you, you'll be able to get from the "idea" stage to the "writing" stage a lot quicker.

13. Write the First Draft

"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible."
- Vladimir Nabokov

Some writers will tell you that writing a first draft of a novel is agony. And there is some truth to this. In fact, it's precisely at this stage that writer's block is most likely to set in.

Tackled with a positive mindset, though, there is no reason that filling a few hundred sheets of paper with words should not be a joyous experience.

The biggest mistake most newcomers to novel writing make is trying to draft and edit at the same time (i.e. they get a sentence down on paper and them immediately start trying to improve it).

Don't do this. First drafts are simply about getting black on white, no matter how terrible the quality of the prose is. You shouldn't even think about making the prose pretty until you've had some time to gain some objective distance from it.

See this article for more help on writing a first draft.

14. Revise WHAT You Have Said

First up, the bad news: this step is like planning your novel all over again.

The good news? If you did plenty of planning before you wrote the first draft (like I advised) there will actually be very little to do here.

What if you pretty much skipped all the planning and wrote the novel by the seat of your pants (i.e. you made it up as you went)? Then you'll have a lot of work to do here. Unless you are a genius, the first draft will be a complete mess, and your job is now to go through all the planning steps above in order to make sense of everything.

Either way, you need to look at 6 areas when revising your novel for WHAT you said...

(i) Viewpoint

In most cases, this shouldn't be a problem. If you chose a simple viewpoint, like first person point of view, or third person point of view told from just one character's viewpoint, there is little that could have gone wrong during the first draft.

If you went for something more complicated, like writing a multiple viewpoint novel (with different chapters, or even different scenes within chapters, being seen through the eyes of different characters), you need to check the transitions.

So if Chapter One was told from John's point of view and Chapter Two from Mary's, ask yourself if you have made it crystal clear at the start of the second chapter that a shift has taken place.

(Readers don't want to get a paragraph or two into the new chapter before they realize that a shift of viewpoint has occurred.)

If you have opted for something really complicated, like using omniscient point of view, you will need to check your manuscript much more thoroughly for any viewpoint inconsistencies.

(ii) Plots

The thing about plots is that they have a habit of going off in their own direction during the drafting stage.

You might have planned for X, Y and Z to happen, but during the writing of Event X you might have altered the outcome in a small or large way... and this will obviously have a knock-on effect for Events Y and Z.

So when revising your plot, keep an eye open for any inconsistencies in the chain of events that will now need fixing.

For example, if you planned for Character A to shoot Character B but he actually stabbed Character B instead, you need to look out for any subsequent references to the murder and make sure that a knife is mentioned and not a gun.

It is easier than you might imagine to overlook these things during the heat of creativity - the process of revising a novel is the time to put them right.

(iii) Characters

Just as events have a habit of going off in different directions, so too do characters (it's what writers mean when they say their characters take on a life of their own).

A fictional character you planned as being meek and mild, for example, might have turned out to be far stronger than you first thought.

So check that character's appearances and ensure that they are strong throughout, not meek and mild in the first couple of chapters then suddenly strong for no apparent reason.

Yes, I know that characters change throughout the course of a novel, but the changes I am talking about here are to do with inconsistent characterization, not natural changes brought about by the effects of the novel's events on the characters.

Besides inconsistent characterization, another thing to check is how well the characters are portrayed to the readers. When you drafted your novel, you should have known your characters as well as you know yourself. The trouble with that is that it's sometimes easy to forget to help the readers to get to know them, too...

  • You might know that a character walks with a limp, but did you remember to describe this limp on the character's first appearance in the novel?
  • You might know that a character is scared of spiders, but did you remember to tell the readers about this fear?

The best thing to do is take your characters one at a time - all the major ones, anyway - and check how they come across on the printed page...

  • Did you paint a sufficiently vivid picture of them on their first appearance? (But not so vivid that you revealed too much about them all in one go.)
  • Did they become more rounded with each appearance, or did they conform to their initial stereotype?
  • Is there anything you can add or subtract or change to improve how they come across to the readers?

(iv) Setting

Just as you need to check each character's every appearance during revision, to see how they come across to the readers, so you must check how your setting comes across to the readers, too.

Pay particular attention to the first time that the setting is mentioned (not just the overall setting, but the individual locales within it)...

  • Did you describe it vividly enough, enabling the readers to see it as clearly as you could in your mind's eye?
  • Or do you need to do more work on it?
  • Perhaps you went overboard with the description and now need to tone it down.

Something else to watch out for is neglecting to describe the setting after its first appearance.

If you take a lot of time to describe the protagonist's house, for example, you won't need to describe it in such detail again. But you will still need to provide descriptive "reminders" of the house throughout the novel to keep the picture fresh in the readers' minds.

(v) Theme

Easy, this one. The best way to handle theme is to pretty much forget about it and let the magic happen all by itself.

What you should find, after you've written a first draft, is that your novel's "meaning" will have worked its way into the story and be present without being particularly visible. Occasionally, though, this undercurrent of meaning will work its way to the novel's surface.

Where this happens, you will want to check these lines of dialogue (or monologue) closely, ensuring that they aren't too heavy-handed and "preachy", and that they achieve the precise shade of meaning you were after.

But in general, the best advice is to leave theme well alone once the novel is drafted and let it "say" whatever it says.

(vi) The Novel Overall

At this stage of the novel writing process - after you have planned, drafted, and revised the novel for WHAT you said - it's almost time to start looking at the language and polishing the words.

But first it's worthwhile taking a final step back and looking at your novel from afar.

Most of the work in revising a novel is about focusing on the particulars - a particular character, a particular subplot, and so on. Taking a step back and looking at your novel as a whole can help you see things you might have missed...

  • Is the opening chapter too slow? Perhaps you could begin with the second chapter instead and make the original opener a retrospective flashback?
  • Does every scene earn its keep, or could any be cut without damaging the plot?
  • Could any chapters be rearranged? Could any parts within chapters be rearranged?
  • If you have a dull scene, would it be better to summarize it? Could you take a summarized passage and dramatize it as a scene instead?

The chances are that everything will be just as you want it by now, but it's still worthwhile taking this final look at the novel as a whole, because it is the last chance you will have. Everything from here on in is about taking your novel as it stands and simply getting the words right...

15. Edit HOW You Have Said It

This simply means polishing the language until it flows as effortlessly as good conversation. Or as Hemingway put it, "getting the words right."

To my mind, this is the best part of writing a novel. The hard work is behind you and the finishing line is right ahead. All you have to do now is tweak the words and sentences until they are "just so."

The best advice here is simply to trust your ear...

It was a love of language that drew you to novel writing in the first place, so this is the time to trust your instincts.

For help on how to write prose and dialogue to a professional standard, please visit the following sections on the website...

  • The Different Types of Writing. This gets you up to speed on the basic building blocks of fiction: narration, description, exposition, dialogue and monologue.
  • Finding Your Voice. Because you'll have a hard time standing out if there isn't something about your prose that is "unmistakably YOU."
  • Prose Writing 101. A whistle stop tour of the "rules" of good writing.
  • The Importance of Writing Simply. Or why prose that tries to sound "too literary" will just make you look like an amateur.
  • The Importance of Details. Why being very specific in your choice of language will make your fiction authentic.
  • The Art of Description. Unlike movies, novels are not a visual medium. Descriptive writing is the one tool you have to paint pictures with words.
  • How to Write Dialogue. The key here? "Realistic" dialogue should never sound like a conversation you'd hear in the real world.
  • Writing Interior Monologue. This section is all about handling a character's thoughts. The ability to get inside a character's head and hear what they are thinking is one of the big advantages that novels hold over movies, and you must make full use of this advantage.

Now for the best step of all...

16. Publish Your Novel

Yup, this is what it all comes down to. Do everything above right and you'll have a "publishable" novel on your hands. Do it wrong (or do it too fast) and you'll have a hard time getting publishers to say "yes."

That said...

Using all the resources available to you online to both publish and promote your novel makes managing your own career more do-able today than it has ever been.

You still need to write top-quality fiction, whichever publishing route you take. But at least your fate will be in your own hands rather than somebody else's.

Click here for your guide to both "traditional" and "online" publishing.

A Few Caveats...

That pretty much concludes this whistle stop tour of how to write a novel. But before you get down to work, a few pointers to guide you on your journey...

First, if you ask one hundred writers how they write novels, you'll get one hundred different answers. Everybody is unique, and everybody works in their own way.

I can tell you what works for me, and for many other writers I've spoken to. But if you need to tailor the steps above to your own personal needs, that is what you must do.

Second, although the steps above are fairly detailed (and a lot more detailed than you'll find elsewhere), you'll need to be flexible as you follow them.

Why? Because everything in a novel affects everything else. Make a slight alteration to the plot, for example, and you may need to go back and re-write a character's backstory to compensate. Or change the point of view and the plot may need tweaking.

In other words, you'll need to do plenty of forward-thinking and backtracking as you go.

But that's okay! What would be the point of storytelling at all if it really were as simple as writing by numbers?

Finally, take your time and enjoy every hour. And don't waste your hours, either...

If your unwritten novel feels like the Great Wall of China right now, remember how that wall was built: stone by stone by stone...

Feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead will get you nowhere. Concentrating on one stone at a time will get the job done nicely!

See this article for more on how long it takes to write a novel.