How To Write A Novel
Novelists have historically been framed as these glamorous, mysterious beings that survive on cigarettes, alcohol, and vibes. They are gifted beings with a dramatic flair that get invited to all the best intellectual parties. Then, while the rest of the world sleeps, the writer communes with their muse and creates art. Alas, the truth is novelists are only people who are too stubborn to give up.
As Anne Lamott said, writing a novel requires tackling it “bird by bird.” It is one word after another. But first:
- Get a novel-length idea
- Pants, plot, and plantser
- Hide it for at least six weeks
- Edit again
- Get feedback
- Edit a few or fifty times more
Writing is akin to climbing Mount Everest. Anyone who knows about climbing understands ascending Everest is less about technical mountaineering skills but tenacity and luck. It isn’t glamorous. Instead, it’s putting one foot after another, retreating, and doing it all over again, going a bit further each time. But at least writing a novel is a low-risk activity for frostbite.
1. Read To Write A Novel
Reading is a fundamental requirement for writing a novel. It is the university class for storytelling. If you don’t read, you will be oblivious to the art and craft of your endeavor.
Read To Know The Stories
“You’ve never read anything like it.” Every editor and publisher has received a submission like this, and it is typically a red flag that the manuscript will be an overused idea or trope. These submissions never include anything worth publishing. The writer believes their idea is original because they’ve rarely read a book.
There are no original stories left. But there are original ways to tell the tales. You’ll only understand what’s been done and overdone if you’ve submersed yourself in the genre.
Read To Understand Plot
Not all writers outline, but even those who don’t must have a general sense of how a story blooms. The more a writer reads, the more the art of telling a story, from laying clues to the art of tension, becomes intuitive.
It is essential to read some books in your chosen genre. However, do not limit yourself. Part of the ability to originally tell an old story is by learning tricks from artists in other genres.
When writers read, they are taught what works and what’s a train smash. Sometimes the best writers at an aspect of a story are not within your genre. For example, literature is notorious for writing bad sex scenes. Romance, however, has a plethora of writers who do this brilliantly, as this is their job. Are their bad ones? Sure, just like there is rubbish literature. Like anything, research.
Find out who is praised for their dialogue. Discover who is masterful at plot. Unearth the writer that can say much with little. Deep dive into the comic geniuses. Get yourself immersed with the expert of tension. Finally, explore the revered writers of description who do not stray into purple prose.
2. Get A Novel Idea
To write a novel, an idea must be big enough to fill around 80,000 words. However, some tales only take a few pages to fulfill their beginning, middle, and end. Reading will help teach a writer what ideas do well in long form and which could have been told in 2,500 words.
Inspiration While Reading
Ideas can flourish while doing the writer’s homework (reading). For example, that book that sounded so good, yet was a huge bag of what bears do in the woods? Reinvent, reimagine, and transform it until it is a whole new tale that is exactly what you had been hoping to read.
Inspiration While Scrolling
Social media is a treasure trove of ideas. Take the famous Satan Pony advert, originally posted on Facebook. That’s an entire middle-grade series right there: a girl is finally given a pony, and it is the most terrifyingly awful creature ever. Yet, they come to an understanding and get up to the most hilarious and nail-biting shenanigans, book after book.
Inspiration While Living
Writers are a multitude of stories. There is no need to fictionalize your life (unless you desire to do so). But some moments can springboard into an entire galaxy of words. So take that memory, reimagine it, and ask yourself, “What if?”
Inspiration While Eavesdropping
Some of the best stories are overheard while pretending to mind your own business. Of course, copying somebody’s tale is wrong, but “What on earth did I just hear?” is an excellent way to get the gears going.
Inspiration While Politicking
The news these days is stranger than fiction. But there is plenty of inspiration there. Maybe tone it down and make it more believable by setting it on Planet HG42, but each day is a book waiting to happen.
3. Novels Are Written By Pants Or Plot
Three kinds of writers write novels:
Writing A Novel By The Seat Of Your Pants
Pantsers sit at the keyboard with a story seed and then unleash at the keyboard. It’s like getting into a car in Boston and crying out, “I’m going West,” and driving off without a map or cell phone and hoping for the best.
It can also create a hot mess.
But many messes can be transformed into art (or penicillin in the case of science).
An example of a pantser is Stephen King (you may have heard of him). His thoughts on writers that use outlines essentially boil down to: if you know what will happen, so will the reader. (Actually, his thoughts on this subject are much more colorful. Ahem.) He has a brain flash, maybe does some research, then pounds it out, 2,000 words a day.
Writing A Novel By Plotting
Plotters, by definition, plot. They might use paper, mind maps, or fancy programs like Scrivener. These people get into the proverbial car for their journey with a cell phone, maps (in the event the cell phone is lost or breaks), a detailed itinerary, reservations already made at each pitstop, and a first aid kit.
More likely not to get lost and see the novel to the end.
Example of a plotter: Hugo Queen N.K. Jemisin. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, N.K. Jemisin’s genre practically demands an outline, or at least meticulous notes and record keeping. She’s building whole new worlds and must outline to keep all the details straight.
She confessed in an interview that she strayed from this methodology once with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It turned out to be the long road to reaching her goal.She wrote the novel twice, the first becoming the outline for the second.
Writing A Novel By Plotting
Plantser is (unscientifically, but probably) the most common writer. They get inspiration, write a bit, gain clarity, plot some bullet points, write, and make notes along the way. Part way through, they realize there is no way they can keep track of everything in their head and may even start an Excel sheet with character names and key world-building elements.
Plantsers may have done some groundwork before writing. Or perhaps they wrote the opening and final scenes, scattered some bullet points, and then realized they needed to learn a wee bit more about their subject matter before writing on.
It’s exciting yet less likely to get lost.
However, you may find there are places where you’ve written a brilliant scene (or ten) that serve no purpose or point to the full story. (Tip: as painful as it is to cut these, your book will be better for it, and you’ll also have material to create short stories.)
It’s like jumping into the car for a road trip with a cell phone and first aid kit, and maybe you’ve informed a few people that you’ll be stopping by in a week or three. There’s a plan, but it’s not nailed down, and you might (probably) accidentally drive in the wrong direction a few times and take some fascinating but unproductive detours.
4. Accept Your Novel’s First Draft Will Be A Turd
To misquote Hemmingway, “The first draft of anything is [a turd].” Accept this wisdom. Your first draft of your novel will be rubbish. But that’s okay because you’ll fix it in the endless rounds of editing.
If you don’t accept it, you’ll either:
- Stare at the screen in anguish until you find something else to do
- Rewrite your first paragraph for years
Both result in a novel never getting done.
The purpose of the first draft is to unearth the story. Sure, digging it up (writing it down) is a messy process, but if you stop and start criticizing your shoveling style, you’ll never get anything done. Of course, you can wash it off, polish it, and even rearrange all its bits and bobs later. But for now, your goal is simply to embrace that you are about to embark on a terrible journey: the ugly first draft.
5. Make Time To Write A Novel
Many writers (men) will say, “Write every day.” Excellent advice if you don’t have a day job, children, elderly parents, or a disability or chronic illness. Obviously, some men have all these things and still write every day, and that’s because they have staff (wives).
However, without time to write, the novel will not get written. So, you cut out what can be cut out, be it watching TV, deleting social media temporarily from your phone, or rearranging your schedule by forming carpools and making cheese sandwiches for dinner instead of roasting a chicken.
Then you block out that time and call it “meetings” or say it is an “appointment.” Whatever excuse you decide, it needs to scream, “I’m working right now.”
Do NOT tell people, “I have to write then.” Nobody respects writing time. Because they’ll say, “Oh, you can do that anytime.”
There is no “anytime” on a clock, anywhere. It does not exist. So, block out that time and claim it as if it is your job (it is). If you’re lucky, more time will appear, but at least you know that you’ll have X days at Y time to write each week.
6. Novels Are Built Word By Word
Stephen King advises writing 2,000 words a day. Excellent advice if you are a full-time writer with staff. For the masses, this may not be doable. Mentally, it can also be daunting and cause a writer to avoid the keyboard. They’ll think, “But I only have an hour today. There’s no way I can reach my word goal,” so they don’t.
Also, a fair chunk of humans battle with mental health, and, again, 2,000 words is a high hill to climb. Thus, already faced with a heavy life, they organize their paperclips instead.
For this reason, give yourself an achievable goal. For example, in Cat Hellisen’s too-hard-to-find book, The Writer’s Guide to Joyful Anarchy, it is suggested to write one hundred words each time you sit down at the keyboard.
Writing a hundred words is doable. It moves the story forward. Soon, like in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, you’ll be creating a book.
Mathematically, writing a novel in hundred-word increments is going to take years. Even if you write daily, it will take over two years to complete the first draft.
But that’s not how writing works. Often, the first fifty words of each writing session are the hardest. It is getting yourself going that makes it so difficult. Thus, by pushing yourself through the first fifty, you’ve done the hardest part. By the next fifty, you’ve gained momentum; next thing you know, you’ve created eight hundred to two thousand.
Except for the bad days, and these happen, at least you’ve got a hundred words. So don’t stress about it. You did what was required. Now go pull some weeds.
7. Pull Weeds To Discover Your Novel
Writer’s block is often code for procrastination. But, on the other hand, nobody ever got the job done by staring at a blank screen and panicking. Also, bad days happen, even if you are a master plotter, where the ideas are not flowing. In short, you get stuck.
The truth is, the best writing happens away from the keyboard. The story comes alive when the writer is busy doing something that doesn’t require a lot of brain power, such as pulling weeds. Other examples include:
- Swimming laps
- Doing dishes
- Going for a walk
You want to find a task away from the desk, slightly repetitive and doesn’t require much thought. Because your brain will be busy spinning your characters around, this way and that, as they chatter away. It is here, doing this mindless busy work, that the writer sees how to unstick where they are stuck and create the next scene.
Eventually, the voices get so loud and demanding that you’ll be forced to stop pulling weeds, sprint to the keyboard, and slam that section down.
8. Make Friends With Writers And Readers
Writers need story-loving friends. These people are not only a wealth of encouragement, camaraderie, and advice but somewhere in there is the BETA reader of your dreams.
Finding this all-important soul is like dating. Start small with a flash fiction piece, and hand it to anyone who says, “Hey, let me know if you need a reader.” You might even ask some people, “Would you mind looking at this?”
In the end, these readers will fall into the following camps:
- Ghost reader
- Frenemy reader
- Cheerleader reader
- Forest reader
- Tree reader
- Your new best friend
The ghost readers never read your work or do and then don’t reply. Maybe they are busy, maybe they hated it, who knows, and trying to determine which will do your head in.
Don’t hassle them to get back to you, don’t start a fight over it, just move on and never send them a piece of your work again. If you see them online or at the grocery store, smile, wave, and pretend you’ve forgotten all about it (you haven’t, but letting them know only makes it worse).
The frenemy reader is the toxic relationship your writing doesn’t need. They might not be blunting asserting that your work is worse than vulture vomit. But their feedback makes you feel so small and worthless that you are considering giving up writing and everything else. These people are awful.
Never send them any of your writing again. Also, consider cutting them from your whole life.
These people love your work. They will tell you, “Brilliant,” and “You’re so talented.” This is all they say.
Thank them, and never send them a draft again. You don’t get better by being told you’re awesome.
However, keep them on file whenever you need reviews in the run-up to publication. Also, these are great people to vent to when you are ready to burn everything you’ve ever written.
Forest readers are the big ideas critiques. They’ll tell you what they love about the overall story and what didn’t grab them. Then, they note where they got confused, highlighting sections that made them laugh and cry while demanding more here and less there.
Forest readers are excellent for testing early drafts when you are still making sure your story works. They can also be useful at the end to see if you’ve finally made them go, “Yes, fabulous, five stars.”
However, forest readers are not proofreaders. They might catch the occasional error, but if you wrote “hear” instead of “here,” they might not even notice.
Tree readers are copy editors that might work in other fields, such as engineering, accounting, or as that friend on FB who keeps sending you DMs about your grammar.
These readers are horrible to use in the early stages. They won’t tell you about your story; they’ll just point out every spelling and grammatical mistake, even if that entire scene is going to end up cut.
However, tree readers are gold when the story is almost ready to be submitted to agents, or you are gearing up to self-publish. They will find every little gremlin you, your other readers, and all the editing tools have missed. Be nice to these people.
Your New Best Friend
Your writing best friend is someone you can trust with the worst of the worst of your prose. They will encourage you but gently show you where you can improve. They’re all-rounders, able to see some of the forest and the trees. They might not be the best at either job, but they believe in you and will push you to improve.
These people are unicorns. Treasure them.
9. Hide Your First Draft For Six Weeks
When you finish the first draft, put it away. Yes, celebrate your success, do a little dance, tell anyone you trust, and maybe even drink a glass of champagne. But do not read it. Reading your work too soon leads you to look at it starry-eyed and believe you are a god.
You need to let your writing mature to see the mold. Zadie Smith famously declared the best time to edit your novel is two years after its publication. She’s not wrong, but the advice is hardly practical. Thus, there is Stephen King’s suggestion of locking it away for six weeks.
Some people send it to a forest or best friend reader during this time. Others wait it out and have a second go at the draft before sharing it with a trusted reader. Regardless of what works for you, do not look at your draft during this period.
10. Edit Your Novel, Then Edit It Some More
Alas, the easy part of writing a novel is the first, ugly draft. The second part is the hardest: making it perfect. Rewriting and editing can be the most fun, as the story is there, and now you get to play with it. Cardboard characters become alive, scenes sharpen, and new opportunities burst into the tale, raising the story from “meh” to extraordinary.
Editing is where the magic happens in stories, whether short or small. But it is a process that epitomizes Yogi Berra’s quip, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Suppose you’ve done five drafts; excellent start. But you’ve still got a long road ahead.
Editing an art form to itself. It is a subject that could fill books. But for now, here are a few quick tips:
- Read your work out loud. Your eyes are tired, the brain lies, but your ears are still fresh and will hear all the places you pause, trip over, and wrote “their” instead of “they’re.”
- Utilize the writing friends as mentioned above.
- Keep an eye out for overused phrases or words. When writing the first draft, the focus is on telling the story, not the prose, so it is natural to keep reaching for the easiest verbal tools. However, words such as “like,” “well,” and “just” can infest a manuscript like fleas.
- Don’t try to edit too much at once. Your brain will go on autopilot, and you’ll glaze over crucial content. Instead, take lots of short breaks.
- Ask yourself, “What is this doing for the story?”
- Ask yourself, “Is this moving the tale forward?”
- Keep an ear out for clunky dialogue.
- Those places you want to skim? That’s where you’ll lose the reader entirely. Cut, shorten, or bring alive.
- Watch out for places you spent too long setting the scene and neglected the plot.
- Don’t rely on programs like Grammarly to find all your mistakes. Grammarly is useful, but the suggestions are not always accurate or artful. It’s a tool, not your writing savior.
Writing a novel isn’t about talent but perseverance. It’s about putting one word after another until you reach the end. The magic and art happen at the rewriting and editing stage. But until you’ve got an ugly first draft to work with, beauty has no place to be born. So read wide, grab an idea, pull some weeds, and book yourself a plethora of meetings, for you have some work to begin. Write on.
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Writer’s Guide To Joyful Anarchy by Cat Hellisen
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Black Milk by Elif Shafak
25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Novel by Chuck Wendig
Not Quite Everything You Need To Know About Writing, But Close by Tiah Beautement
On Editing by Tiah Beautement