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, and the 12-step process outlined below is your map.
Actually, it is two maps in one...
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.
At the most basic level, writing a novel involves just three steps...
Easy, right? Well, yes...except it really doesn't tell you anything about how to write novels.
What you need are lots of specific steps to take, not just three broad ones. What you need is for each step to contain concrete instructions on what, precisely, to do. And you will find all of this in the twelve steps below.
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 in just a few short months, good luck but I'm afraid I can't help you.
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 writing is not a bad motivation, but there are much better ways to ensure you look forward to working on your novel every day.
Other tasks here include getting organized (both in terms of paperwork and time), and learning how to harness your inner-creativity.
When the time comes to carry out this step of the novel writing process, simply head to the Becoming a Writer section of the website.
An important aspect of learning how to write a novel is adopting a professional attitude. Forget all your romantic ideals of what being a writer is like - selling a novel to a publisher is a business proposition.
What does that mean for you? It means that, 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.
How do you do that? You will find the help you need in the section exploring the different Types of Novels.
If you are reading this section for the first time, just to get a feel for what writing a novel entails, there is no need to follow all the links now.
The time to do that is when you actually perform each step in the novel writing process.
Okay, we're gradually edging closer to the point where the real work begins (i.e. the point where you start to plan your novel).
Before you can plan, 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 will be devoting a significant chunk of your life to this novel. The last thing you want to do is set off on the wrong foot.)
Some people will tell you that good ideas are difficult to come by. I would respectfully disagree. (In fact, I believe that most writer's face the opposite problem: Not having years to turn every idea they have into a novel. Unfortunately, I can't help you there!)
The section dedicated to Finding Ideas not only shows you precisely how to brainstorm for more ideas than you could ever hope to use, it also explains how to "road-test" the best idea before finally committing to it.
"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...
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 are unsure and want me to make a recommendation, I would suggest you plan your novel in as much detail as you can stand before you write the first draft. (For more on this, please read Planning vs. Writing a Novel.)
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...
The next 5 steps are dedicated to these individual elements. By working on them one by one (in Steps 5-9), the mammoth task of planning a novel is made a lot simpler.
One final caveat before tackling each element in turn: Performing each of the next steps is not quite as simple as carrying out the necessary action steps then moving on.
Why not? Because they all affect each other. Changing your main character, for example, will have a knock-on effect on the plot. All this simply means is that you will have to do some looking back and thinking ahead as you go.
(For more on this, please read Why Writing a Novel Isn't Like Baking a Cake.)
This isn't nearly as tricky or as confusing as it sounds. Theme is simply what your story is "about" or what it "means." Symbolism is a little different, though it's close enough in nature to group the two together.
Anyway...in basic terms, theme and symbolism both refer to 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 doesn't involve a whole lot of work, either). When the time comes, visit the section on Theme and Symbolism and all will be revealed.
Now for the next of the five elements you need to work on individually...
There are two broad tasks to complete here...
Getting to know your characters before you write a single word of the novel is important. Fail to do this and they are unlikely to come across to the readers as convincing human beings - and that's not going to do much for your reputation as a novelist.
What should go into these "mini biographies" that you need to write for each of the main characters? The section on How to Create Characters provides the answers,.
Okay, so you've drawn up a cast list and got to know the most important characters on the list. They now feel "real" to you. The next step is to figure out...
Before making your decision, though, it is important that you understand the theory of viewpoint first. This will not only allow you to make a better decision, it will also allow you to handle your chosen viewpoint more professionally when you come to write your novel.
When you are ready to carry out this step in the Novel Writing Process, simply head on over to the Point of View section.
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...
How do you go about building a great location for your story?
Just like with the characters earlier, you simply need to "get to know" the setting before you start writing about it. (As a matter of fact, if you view setting in a novel as another character, you won't go far wrong.)
Remember that we have been looking at the different elements of a novel in isolation. This makes the planning process so much simpler. So far we have dealt with the first four...
Theme and Symbolism - or the "why" of a novel
Character - or the "who"
Viewpoint - also the "who"
Setting - the "where" and "when"
Now for the final element, plot - or the "what" of a novel...
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 my 10-step guide to how to plot a novel found in the Plotting section.
(Learning how to write a novel sometimes seems an impossible task to beginners. By breaking everything down into steps and, if necessary, sub-steps, I hope I can make your job a lot more manageable and a lot more enjoyable.)
Back to plotting a novel...
Like I said, writing the 10 steps of the novel's main plot is the big one. Once you have done that, it is easy to make it more professional (and more publishable) by adding a few bells and whistles to it...
First, you need to weave one or more Subplots seamlessly into the main plot.
Second, you need to visit the section on Structuring a Novel, where you will learn a few nifty tricks like...
And that is it...
These last five steps, remember, have been about working on each of the five main elements of a novel individually. If it seems like these steps represent a lot of work, you aren't wrong. They're kind of fun, though (what's not to love about creating people and places and events out of thin air?) And once you have completed them, you will be ready to start writing your novel.
"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
You will have noticed that, in this 12-step guide to how to write a novel, the first 9 deal with preparation and planning. That is quite deliberate.
According to agents, most novels are rejected because of weak craftsmanship. My job, therefore, is to teach you the craft of how to write a novel (and a little of the art, too) in as much detail as I can, and then how to apply that craft effectively.
And guess what? You are far, far more likely to write a well-crafted novel if you take the time and trouble to plan it in some detail first.
If you choose to skip all the planning material above and jump straight into the writing, that is okay. Chances are, though, the first draft will end up being a structural disaster zone - and you will then have to apply all my planning techniques to it during the twelfth step: revision.
That's why I'm a fan of planning beforehand - particularly if you are writing your first novel.
And remember this: Although some people will tell you that the only truly creative part of writing a novel is doing the actual writing, they are wrong. In fact, starting out with a blank sheet of paper and filling it with characters and places and events, using nothing but your imagination, is the very definition of creativity.
Anyway, enough talk. Time to get drafting...
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 the next step.
First up, the bad news: this step is like planning a novel all over again.
The good news? If you did plenty of planning before you wrote the novel's 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 will 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.)
If you DID do plenty of planning beforehand, you aren't out of the woods entirely here...
Characters have a habit of taking on a life of their own during the writing, and that often means that what the characters do (i.e. the plot) can also go off track in places, too.
This is actually a good thing. Changing your mind about certain aspects of the story should result in a better story. But it does mean that you now need to carefully check the manuscript for any errors or inconsistencies that might have crept in.
(How do you do this? This article has the answers.)
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, the finishing line is right up ahead, and all you have to do is tweak the words and sentences until they are just right.
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. But for more specific advice, check out this article on how to edit fiction for style.
And for help on how to write prose and dialogue to a professional standard, please visit the following sections on the website...
And that pretty much concludes this whistle stop tour of how to write a novel.
Caveat: Ask one hundred writers how to write a novel and you will get one hundred different answers. Everybody is unique, and everybody works in their own unique way.
I can tell you what works for me - and for many other writers I have spoken to - but if you need to tailor the steps above to your own personal needs, that is what you must do.
"You must be prepared to work always without applause...no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again, until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it."
- Ernest Hemingway
To finish with, here are a few articles which, although not a part of the novel writing process, should nevertheless help you to gain a deeper understanding of it...
And that, as they say, is that.
I know this article isn't exactly on the brief side but, like I said at the top, knowing where to start and how to keep on going right to the end is something that many beginners would dearly love to know. And now, with my step by step guide to how to write a novel, they do!
Bookmark this page and return to it often - it's like the map that will stop you getting lost.