For the fiction writer, no project is as daunting as writing your first novel. The novel writing process takes months, if not years, and takes even more creativity and persistence than most fiction projects.
Whether you find yourself nervous to start writing a novel for the first time, or whether you’re intrigued by the novel form but don’t know where to begin, this article will help ground you in how to write a novel. In truth, there’s no single, one-size-fits-all novel writing roadmap, but use these ideas as a diving board and you’ll soon start swimming through the writing process.
Why Try Writing a Novel?
Before diving into how to write a novel, let’s first demystify the novel itself. A novel is any work of fiction containing at least 50,000 words. For a breakdown of fiction forms by approximate word count, see our interview with Writers.com instructor Jack Smith.
However, some interpret the novel more philosophically; György Lukács, for example, says that the novel “encompasses the totality of life.”
The novel encompasses the totality of life. – György Lukács
The novel is very clearly distinct from other forms of fiction, such as the short story or the novella. A novel must explore its plot in-depth and find meaning in the story’s conflicts and characters. Compared to other works of fiction, writing a novel can be more nuanced, more impactful, and more “total” in scope.
There is no standard, universally accepted description of the novel. However, the novel form allows for infinite space and word count, so if you have a story idea that is both complex and needs to be written, a novel-length project is right for you.
Our Upcoming Novel Writing Courses
Writing Autobiographical Fiction
with Jack Smith
October 27th, 2021
Learn to depart from "what really happened," and write compelling fiction from your own life experiences.
The “I’ve Always Wanted To Write Fiction” Workshop
with Shelley Singer
October 27th, 2021
Learn the basics of fiction writing and submit weekly writing for feedback from Shelley Singer, author of 13 novels. It's time to start.
(Live Workshop) Revising the Novel: Take Your First Draft to the Next Level
with Donna Levin
October 30th, 2021
Ready to start revising your novel? Get rolling in this in-depth webinar.
(Live Workshop) Dread and Desire: Gothic Fiction Techniques to Lure and Horrify Your Readers
with Briana McGuckin
October 31st, 2021
This Halloween, learn how to write eerie, haunting moods in this 2 hour workshop on Gothic writing techniques.
The Ongoing Fiction Workshop
with Shelley Singer
November 10th, 2021
Many students have attended this 10-week online fiction workshop with Shelley Singer multiple times, completed novels, and come back to finish more books.
How to Write a Novel in 5 Steps
So far, we’ve explored the six elements of fiction, the techniques that novelists use, and the importance of style in writing a novel. Now, how do you actually write the darn thing?
One way to think about writing a novel is through a 5 phase approach. The following steps aren’t the only way to write a novel, but many novelists include these 5 things in their process:
- Research and Planning
- Writing a Novel Outline
- Establishing a Writing Schedule
- The First Draft
- Edit, Rinse, Repeat
Step 1: Research and Planning
All novels require research. Whether you’re writing historical fiction or autobiographical fiction, you will end up researching relevant details to make your novel more convincing. Having a plan for finding and organizing this research will make writing a novel that much easier!
Research can help jumpstart ideas that you will work into your story outline; more on that below. It will also make the act of writing go by much quicker, as your notes and knowledge base will be much easier to reference. Keep your research organized in a word processing software, like Bear or Microsoft OneNote.
Starting with research will help jumpstart the creative process and make the writing experience much smoother.
Your preliminary novel research won’t be comprehensive, and you will likely have to do more research once you start the actual writing process. However, getting it out of the way now will help jumpstart the creative process and make the writing experience much smoother.
Novel Writing Tips: Generating an Idea
The first step to writing a novel is having an idea. Novel ideas can come out of anywhere: you might decide to expand upon a short story you had previously written, or you might decide to build an entirely new fictional world and use the novel to explore it. Your novel idea might try to dissect the psyche of an individual character, or it can try to comment on society as a whole. The novel is infinite, and so are the ideas that jumpstart one.
The novel is infinite, and so are the ideas that jumpstart one.
Generating an idea for your novel is much the same as generating a story idea. A story idea generally answers the following three questions:
- Who is your main character?
What does your main character want?
What prevents the main character from getting what they want?
Novel Writing Tips: From Idea to Novel
Novel-length projects are complex. To push your writing past 50,000 words, your novel will likely confront complicated situations and ideas. Let’s compare two stories written by Agatha Christie, both of which share the same premise but are written at vastly different lengths.
“The Plymouth Express” (short story): A young naval officer discovers the body of the Honourable – and nearly-divorced – Mrs. Rupert Carrington.
The Mystery of the Blue Train (novel): Detective Hercule Poirot investigates the case of a woman murdered in her train compartment, whose death may have been motivated by death, jealousy, greed, or revenge.
The first premise works perfectly for a short story. We are given the basic event of the story, the central character in question, and enough detail to make the story vaguely interesting.
The second idea, by contrast, shifts the focus of the story onto the motive of the murderer. This allows the story to develop into a novel, as it can muse on the concepts of love and greed, while also giving a narrative framework from the lens of the detective.
To write a great novel, start with an idea that offers the basic components of a story, but also offers room to explore.
So, to write a great novel, start with an idea that offers the basic components of a story, but also offers room to explore the world and its characters. In much the same way as Agatha Christie writes the dark side of the human psyche, your novel can write about people, history, or the world at large.
Novel Writing Tips: Know Your Purpose
Once you have an idea, the novel writing process will feel much less daunting if you can identify three things: the genre for your novel, an audience that might enjoy your novel, and your intent for writing the novel.
Define Your Genre
Knowing the genre of your work will help you structure the story you want to write. You might know your novel will be fantasy, mystery, or literary fiction, but go one step further: is it urban fantasy or magical realism? Is it noir mystery, a medical thriller, or both?
Delving into the genre of your novel requires some time, and it can bring up questions to motivate the plot and details of your fiction. This list of fiction genres is a great place to start unpacking your novel’s genre, though you might end up writing something even more niche.
Genres are just conventions for writing a novel, and while those rules can help guide your work, rules are made to be broken.
Now, “genre” is not a roadmap. Genres are just conventions for writing a novel, and while those rules can help guide your work, rules are made to be broken. Combine genres, avoid genres, or create a new one entirely; either way, know the conventions for your story, and plan accordingly.
Define Your Audience
Knowing your audience will help you plan out your story and develop a writing style for the novel. Of course, write your novel for yourself, not for your audience. But, if you know that a certain readership will gravitate towards your work, there’s no harm in considering what that readership will like.
For example, you might realize that a young adult audience will love your fantasy novel, so you decide to draw inspiration from The Hunger Games or from the Percy Jackson series. Or, you might write a mystery novel that appeals to women readers, so you consider making your main character a female detective. These considerations won’t define your work, but they will certainly guide it.
Define Your Intent
Answer this question: why do you want to write this novel?
Examining your own intent is one of the best tips for writing a novel. Because there is no set procedure on how to write a novel, many of the answers will come from inside yourself. You found yourself attracted to your novel idea for a certain reason, so whether you want to explore the human psyche, examine society, or build a lush and beautiful fantasy world, defining your intent will help you figure out where to start—and where to keep returning.
Step 2: Writing A Novel Outline
The story outline scaffolds your idea into a working plot. Outlining your novel is a long process, and some writers will take months to outline their idea before they put the first word down. There are many different ways to write a story outline, but your outline should match your intent for writing the story.
For example, if you want to write a character-focused novel, then writing a novel outline that’s focused on themes might work best. Or, if your novel relies on heavy world-building and setting, then a scene-based outline will do the trick. Let your novel’s purpose guide the outline, then let the outline guide the novel itself.
Let your novel’s purpose guide the outline, then let the outline guide the novel itself.
For help getting started with this phase of writing your novel, see our practical guide to writing a story outline.
Step 3: Establishing a Writing Schedule
Wouldn’t it be great if we could dream up a novel one day, write it the next, and publish it the day after? Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to get to the finish line you’ll need patience, diligence, discipline.
Stephen King put it best when he 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.”
Of course, King has the resources to devote his entire life to writing, which is why he can churn out a first draft in three months. On the other hand, you might be writing your first novel while also working, caring for family, and living day-to-day life.
What matters is consistency: setting and keeping a defined schedule to work on your novel.
So, the next step for your novel is to build a working schedule. You might decide you have room to write 500 words a day, or time to write for 30-60 minutes a day. What matters is consistency: setting and keeping a defined schedule for you to sit down and focus your mind on your novel.
Give yourself a working timeline with weekly or monthly goals, and try to write every day. A consistent writing practice will carry you to the finish line in no time.
Step 4: The First Draft
Armed with an outline, a schedule, and a passion for your idea, it’s time to start writing. Your writing doesn’t have to come out quickly, and it doesn’t even need to be good writing. The first draft simply needs to exist: if it’s written, then it’s already successful.
The first draft simply needs to exist: if it’s written, then it’s already successful.
The previous steps are intended to give you the structure to write your novel. When it comes to the writing process itself, everyone’s novel writing experience is different. However, remember to stay diligent, join a writing community, and remember that a first draft is allowed to be bad—that’s why we edit!
Step 5: Edit, Rinse, Repeat
The editing process is often what takes the longest for a novel. You could write a novel in three months and edit it for three years or longer. Like the writing process, there’s no strict timeline for editing your novel, but don’t expect the editing to be quick and easy.
When you finish your first draft and get to the editing stages, give yourself a small brain break and reward yourself—because woohoo, you wrote it! Then when you get back to the drawing board, examine your writing with a critical eye, figure out what the novel needs, and set up an editing schedule like you set up a writing schedule.
A story is never finished, only abandoned. —Paul Valery
Follow this process for as many novel drafts until you’re satisfied—and remember, no novel will ever feel perfect. Paul Valery once said “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s the same with the novel.
Learn How to Write a Novel at Writers.com
Do my characters seem real? Can you picture this setting? What parts of my novel need editing?
Writing a novel is an ongoing process, and the more you work on it, the more questions you’ll ask. Find an answer faster at Writers.com. With different novel writing courses to choose from, additional novel writing tips at our blog, and a supportive and caring Facebook group, we’re here to get your novel from idea to bestseller.
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