How to Write a Novel

1 Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

how to write a novel

How to Write a Novel

Writing a novel is like building a house: no matter how much planning and work you put into it, there is always more work you can do. No novel is perfect, and the effort required to build believable worlds, complex characters, and an entertaining plot that explores nuanced themes is certainly overwhelming. If you’re here, you’re probably wondering how you can fit all of these requirements into 300-odd pages. It’s a question many writers ask at one point: how to write a novel?

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 will soon swim through the writing process.

What is a Novel?

Before diving into how to write a novel, let’s first demystify the novel itself. A novel is a book-length work of fiction that tells a complete story (or multiple stories) through the elements of fiction. By immersing the reader in a world with complex characters, settings, plot points, and themes, novels emulate real life and impart wisdom about the human experience.

What is a novel: A book-length work of fiction that tells a complete story (or multiple stories) through the elements of fiction. By immersing the reader in a world with complex characters, settings, plot points, and themes, novels emulate real life and impart wisdom about the human experience.

Some people might balk at the idea that a novel always emulates real life. After all, there are many genres of fiction that ignore what everyday life looks like. How could a novel set on Mars, or a novel about secret agents, or a novel from the point-of-view of cats, reflect the human experience?

No novel can capture the totality of life, although it should try to. Novels like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Les Misérable by Victor Hugo each total over 1,000 pages, and each novel examines the complexities and philosophies of simply being human, but none of them can convey the entirety of what it means to be alive.

Rather, novels capture a slice of the human experience. So, even a novel about cats will have its characters make tough decisions like human beings make. Even a novel set in a galaxy far, far away might address philosophies of life, love, and conflict.

In fact, these elements—character, setting, plot, etc.—often act as metaphors for human experiences, representing our shared struggles in fictional realms. Such is the magic, the mystery, and the goal of novel writing.

While you’re writing your novel…

how to write a novel

If you can accomplish the above eight steps, you are well on your way to a completed novel. With all of that foundation laid for your story, all that’s left is to actually start writing! And the following four tips will help you do just that. (Though if you want more, you can always check out our list of 20 essential writing tips for first-time authors.)

Decide how to write your novel

No, not like if you’re going to be a plotter or pantser, or how to work up the motivation to keep going. But literally: how are you going to write your novel? With pen and paper? On Word? With the help of a novel-writing software or formatting tool? Gone are the days where dipping quill in to ink was the only option, so do your research and pick the best one for you. Here’s a couple to get your started:

  • FocusWriter. Don’t look for bells and whistles here (though there are some cool functions like themes and timers). The goal of this app is to provide you with a blank page and a good dose of concentration.
  • WriteMonkey. A spartan interface, save for a word counter and clock. If your writing depends on a zero-distraction environment, check WriteMonkey out.
  • Calmly Writer. Have a bad habit of jumping back and forth between scenes so much that you never quite manage to actually finish one? You’ll likely benefits from this app’s “focus mode” which only shows you the current paragraph you’re writing.
  • 750 Words. If you need a little boost of motivation and accountability, the program might be your friend. It encourages you to write 3 pages (or 750 words) every day, and offers features to help you do so, including a statistics board that reveals your average writing speed.
  • Reedsy Book Editor.Fake it ‘til you make it, right? The Reedsy Book Editor formats your book as you write, so even your rough drafts will look like a professionally formatted manuscript.

Write to market

Who is going to want to read your book? Nope, not everyone. If you look at your own bookshelf, you might find a variety of literature, but there’s probably a type of book that’s there more than others. Think about the kind of person that will buy your book, and write with them in mind.

Establish a writing routine

We won’t go on about the importance of this step — we all know that to make progress on any kind of goal, working on it must become a part of our regular routine. Since we’re all on the same page here, we’ll jump straight to our tips for making that happen:

  • Set up Non-Negotiable Writing Time. Or, as Kevin Johns calls it, NNWT. The keywords here are “non-negotiable.” This is a period of time, whether it’s once a day or once a week, that you commit to writing, and only writing. Unless there is an emergency, you do not schedule anything else during your NNWT.
  • Quantify Your Progress. Set realistic goals (maybe a word count or number of pages to hit) that you can achieve and then celebrate those “little wins.” Breaking up the task of writing a novel into bite-sized steps, and then acknowledging when you take those steps, will not only make the process more manageable, but also just more fun. Of course, if you’re under some time pressure, you might be more concerned about writing quickly — in which case, check out this article for tips.
  • Brag. If you received a promotion at work, you would celebrate it, or at the very least share the good news with others. As you make progress on your novel, talk about it with others. This will help keep you accountable — if you share with others, they’re more likely to ask for updates.

Free course: Creating an unbreakable writing routine

Common Questions About Writing a Novel

—How do you plan a novel?

  1. Coming up with your plot involves knowing which genre you want to write or even utilizing a list of writing prompts to get your thoughts moving. is one of the most vital parts of your novel. Take the time to know your characters and protagonist well before you start writing in order to better plot your novel to fit how they act.
  2. Your audience will dictate the type of content in your plot. You can always plot first and then decide if you’ll be writing young adult, new adult, adult, or even middle grade. Just make sure you categorize your novel correctly in order to reach the right audience.
  3. Once you know the above, you’re readyto outline your novel. First, however, you have to figure out if you’re a pantser , plotter, or somewhere in between before you can outline your book.

—What should I write a novel about?

Many writers take inspiration for their novel from their own lives. Is there an event you’ve lived through that makes for a compelling story? How about a memorable person you’ve known that you could fictionalize?

—How Many Words should be in a Novel?

Type of Writing Word Count Pages in a Typical Book Example
Short story 100 – 15,000 1 – 24 pages “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
Novella 30,000 – 60,000 100 – 200 pages “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess
Novel 60,000 – 100,000 200 – 350 pages “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”: by JK Rowling
Epic Novel 120,00 – 220,000+ 400 – 750+ pages “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin

Keep in mind that these are a baseline. You want to make sure your novel is in the ballpark word count for your genre and target audience but just remember that you can easily go over or under depending on how well the story is crafted…

—How do I get started writing a novel?

If you don’t have an idea, you could aim to come up with as many as possible using some of the techniques you’ve read here. Coming up with a large number of novel ideas gives you a good chance of finding something you love and want to pursue further.

—How do I choose a point of view when writing a novel?

—Should I edit my novel as I write?

—Are there books on how to write a novel?

Ten rules for writing fiction

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

1 Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

3 You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

6 Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7 You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.


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