It’s a new year, the perfect time for resolutions and big goals. And what better goal for 2021 than to write a novel? Even if you’re reading this later, there’s no other time than the present to accomplish a major goal.
In fact, a 2002 survey found that 81% of people in America want to write a book (imagine how many people in the world that is!), so why haven’t they? The simple answer is because writing a book is no simple task.
Breaking the process into small, bitesize chunks makes it a lot more manageable. So here is my beginner’s guide to writing a novel.
Why should you write a novel?
Writing a novel is a major achievement. Not only is it a great creative endeavor, it’s also a test of endurance- writing 60-100,000 words without giving up.
So many of us have ideas buzzing around our heads that we’d love to put to paper.
It’s no wonder that it’s on so many people’s bucket list! But the idea of writing a book is a lot different from the reality of consistent work and hard graft.
Preparing to Write
When you have a fresh idea, it’s easy to want to jump straight into writing. But having some kind of an outline is really important to avoid writers block and stay motivated.
Does everyone need to outline?
I go into this in more detail in How to Outline Your Novel, but the short answer is NO, outlining definitely doesn’t suit everyone.
Discovery writers thrive off ‘writing in the dark’ (with no planning beforehand), as this aids their creativity. They find it difficult to stick to an outline, and often end up straying off it anyway. If you know this is you, it will save you a lot of time to avoid creating an extensive outline.
But that doesn’t mean you should do no planning!
Even for discovery writers, having a general idea of where the story is going (even just a one-sentence outline of each scene) can save a lot of time when it comes to drafting, and help you to avoid the dreaded writer’s block!
Still not sure about outlining?
Writing out a storyline prior to starting will allow you to spot any major plot holes or snags, before you arrived at them. This will make your 1st draft much cleaner (although still nowhere near perfect), as you will be able to focus more on developing the characters, and less on whether the story makes sense.
So, how to get started?
This really depends on how much information you think you’re going to need before starting, but here are a few general steps.
This sounds fancy, but a story bible is basially just a way to organize all the notes you have on your story.
This can be physical (e.g. a ring-binder) or digital (e.g. on Scrivener/ Campfire). It’s is a great way to keep all information about your story in one place and avoid any plot holes, especially if you’re writing a series
The first thing to do is figure out your premise! Write down any line, character ideas, or even just general aesthetic you have. You could then flesh this out with a 5 minute ‘brain dump’. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complete mess right now, just make sure you get down every idea that could link to your novel.
If you’re still struggling to find an idea, think of the books you enjoy- which characters stand out to you? Which tropes do you particularly enjoy? Could you change around these things to create a new story?
REMEMBER: there’s no such thing as an original story. Every story has parts of another story and that’s ok! Just make sure not to carbon-copy any book!
Craft a storyline
Once you have the general idea, try writing out a few scene ideas. If you just have the concept and are stuck with where the story is actually going, find some scene prompts online at a site like this- 100 scene writing prompts.
And again, go back to your favourite stories! Think about which scenes made you want to keep reading and which had you feeling bored. Hopefully, you’ll be able to spot a pattern and get inspiration for your own book.
Once you have 30-50 scene ideas, try putting them into a general order of beginning, middle and end. Take any out that don’t seem to fit or change them up. Then, you can add any extra detail needed (conflict/ tension, subplots, character action and reaction) and either type them up or write them out.
There is a lot of advice for how to structure a story arc floating around. One of the most popular is the Save the Cat method. This was initially a structure for screenwriting, but has been adapted for novels. I find it really helpful for ensuring pacing is even and that important goalposts are in the proper places. You can find the basic structure and some help sheets with a quick search.
Where is your story set? What are the people like? Is it set in the past or future? Jot down some answers and think about how these might effect the storyline.
Once you have an initial view of the world, delve deeper into history, geography, technology, politics, magic system.
If it helps, draw a rough map of the setting, including the key points for the MC and any major landmarks.
If your novel is set in a real place, take the chance to do some deeper research, using google maps, online articles, you could even visit!
Check out How to Outline Your Novel for my complete section on worldbuilding.
Complex characters are the key to a well-rounded story.
I wrote a full post on How to Craft Complex Characters.
It begins with writing out a basic character profile for each of your characters- background, personality, physical description, likes/ dislikes, hobbies, abilities.
For main characters, take this one step further with some crucial questions:
What are their wants and needs? How do they change throughout the story?
What does their voice sound like? And not just how they sound when they speak- are they confident? Decisive? Do they mumble? How do they interact in a group and how do other characters perceive them?
What is their internal psychology like? I.e. how do they speak to themselves? What is the voice in their head like? How do they react to situations?
CREATE CONTRAST- well-developed characters are full of juxtapositions (just like people). Kind characters can have a selfish moment, strong characters can be extremely vulnerable, confident characters can still suffer with crippling self-doubt.
This might feel difficult to create organically, so take some time to get to know your characters through free-writing and experimenting! There are lots of free-writing prompts online you could try out, or even choose one from your storyline to get a feel for your characters.
And don’t just outline the story!
Make a writing plan too!
One of the main reasons people don’t finish their novel is losing motivation (especially around the middle section).
You won’t always feel inspired.
Instead, work on building a habit- maybe writing for 30 minutes as soon as you wake up, or taking 10 minutes to brainstorm whilst eating breakfast.
Before you even get into drafting, work out what works for you- what time of day do you write best? Where? With music or with silence? In short bursts or in a longer chunk?
When you have these things down, start making a habit by writing in the same situation (place, time, etc) each day (even if that’s just outlining or journaling!). this way, when you do start drafting, you have habit to fall back on when you can’t find any motivation.
If you’re still worried about staying on track, write a deadline. You know yourself better than anyone- choose a date that is sensible, but that wont allow you to procrastinate for months.
Drafting the novel
You have an outline, and your schedule is ready to go. Now what?
No 1st draft is perfect. In fact, most books go through several drafts before being released to the world. Let go of any expectations and worry about writing consistently; as long as the words are still coming, it doesn’t matter if they’re amazing (or even good) at this point.
Write in scenes
Writing a novel can feel extremely overwhelming. Instead, just focus on writing one page, or even one sentence.
The bigger picture will come in handy later; for now, take it one scene at a time.
You don’t have to write chronologically
A big part of getting stuck with a novel is not knowing what’s coming next (or not knowing how to execute it correctly).
If a particular scene is leaving you feeling stuck or bored, skip ahead (or back) and write a scene you actually enjoy.
Turn off the inner editor
As I said earlier, it is pretty much inevitable that you will hate your 1st draft. That’s normal. Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite every sentence, and instead, focus on pushing forward.
If this feels completely impossible, try dimming your screen or changing the writing colour to white so that you physically cannot see the words.
I like to think about my 1st drafts more of a draft 0: a chance to get the rough plot on the page, without any need for finesse or beautiful writing. Psychologically, it can be very helpful to think of your story as something that’s constantly evolving, even if you initially want to rewrite everything.
Refill your creative well
It’s inevitable that you’ll have to take a break at some point. Take it before you need it (write them into your schedule)- that way you’re not risking creative burnout.
Writing is a creative process and any creative process takes energy. Spend some time watching a movie, reading a book or spending time with friends/ family.
Share your process
Stay accountable by letting other people know you’re writing a book.
You could take part in a writing competition like NaNoWriMo (writing 50,000 words in the months of November), or find fellow writers on social media to share your progress with.
If you don’t want to make your writing quite so public, chat to friends or family about it (or even tell the cat your idea).
It really does take a village to write a book. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an author or professional writer, having a support group of friends, family, beta readers, fellow writers and possibly editors, makes it a lot easier to stay on track and stick it out.
Trust the process
You’re going to feel like quitting… a lot. That’s ok.
Remind yourself why you started, even write it out if that helps.
And remember- imperfection is good. Every 1st draft is imperfect. You can work with that. You cannot work with a blank page.
Let go of comparison
There are so many reasons to stop comparing your work to your favourite authors. 1. They have so much more experience– it’s unlikely that they’re known for their very first books (they probably weren’t even published). 2. Comparing your 1st draft to their 500th makes no sense– their manuscript has been through round after round of edits. 3. Every story is different (that’s what makes books so much fun!) would you want your work to be a carbon copy of theirs?
Comparison will not make you a better writer; it will only make you doubt yourself. If you know reading books in the genre you’re writing in will open you up to comparison, admit that to yourself and avoid them.
What comes next?
The next draft… and the next… and the next… and probably quite a few more.
But first, take a moment! You’ve completed the first draft of a novel! That’s a massive achievement! Give yourself a well-deserved break before ploughing into the next step:
The most-hated part of the writing process for many writers, editing is a long (and often complicated) process.
Start with developmental edits
The first step is always to reread your first draft, preferably a few times.
On the 3rd or 4th time, take out a highlighter or pen and make a note of any developmental issues- plot holes, major storyline issues, characters that don’t fit, scenes in the wrong order.
Don’t worry about the smaller problems at this point- you can fix them later.
Redraft, redraft, redraft
Once you have a full list of major edits, it’s time for the 2nd draft. And then more edits. And then the 3rd draft. And so on, until the story is looking largely how you want it; the storyline should make sense, any plot holes should be smoothed out, and characters should have the development they need.
And speaking of…
Rewrite early scenes if needed
It’s likely you’ll learn a lot more about your characters after you write more drafts, and the initial people you wrote at the start of your story will probably read a little differently to the characters you now know.
Take some time to rewrite any passages that don’t match the character voices/ psychology you have created. If needed, revisit the initial character wants and needs you jotted down- have these changed? Does the story need to be changed accordingly?
Once the story is mostly how you want it, focus on description that could be improved, any grammar errors and any dialogue that feels wooden. A great tip is to read out dialogue when rewriting to check if it flows in a genuine scenario.
For your manuscript to be as polished as it can be, you need to have a lot of different eyes go over it.
Reach out to fellow writers or possible beta readers and ask if they will read your work (in exchange, you could offer to beta read their manuscript when it’s ready).
It’s a good idea to have some questions ready to ask beta readers, such as: which points did you feel bored? Which scene did you enjoy the most? Who was your favourite character? Did any of the characters annoy you?
Depending on which route you want to take with your novel, the next step (after going through beta reader’s edits) is sending it to a professional editor, and then beginning the search for an agent.
But that’s for another post!
For now, did you enjoy this post? Are you hoping to write a book this year? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or you can connect with me directly on any of my social medias.