How to Write a Novel in 7 Simple Steps

Writing a novel can be tough (if it weren’t, everyone would do it). Follow these simple guidelines to turn your idea into a full-length novel.

Writing a novel is one of the most difficult things to do. Sure, trapeze artists think they have it rough, but have they ever had to rush to get words on the page while trying to make sure all the verb tenses are correct just before their deadline hits while simultaneously being COMPLETELY out of coffee? I don’t think so.

But writing a novel is also an amazing accomplishment (and one that will make you even more awesome than you already are). To help, we’ve developed a system on how to write a novel in seven simple steps. By uncomplicating things and having a direct focus on what you need to accomplish (and in what order), you’ll be able to knock out a manuscript in no time.

It’s time you accomplished your dream. Let’s go.

1. Brainstorm a Plot — What if …

Brian A. Klems
Brian A. Klems is writer, freelance editor, former senior online editor at Writer’s Digest, and author of Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters. Follow him on Twitter @BrianKlems.

Establishing a plot is a critical first phase when writing a novel. You’re trying to answer the question: who is your main character and what’s the main purpose of his or her journey? Ideas for plots can come from anywhere—a conversation you overheard at Starbucks, something that happened to you in your youth, an article you read, etc. The ideas can come from anywhere. The key is to constantly look at the world with wonder and ask, “What if … ” to any and all situations that arise. Bob Gale, screenwriter for Back to the Future, came up with the idea when he asked himself, What if he and his dad attended high school together? Would they have been friends? So no matter what you are doing, constantly look at any situation and think to yourself, “What if … .”

2. Pick Names for Your Characters

This can be a very fun process—it can also be a very stressful process. You don’t just want to choose names, you want to choose the right names for your characters. Maybe you won’t know your characters’ names until you get to know their personalities. Or maybe you already have names picked out based off your childhood friends. A few things to keep in mind as you consider what names best suit your fictional friends:

  • Try to give at least one character an unusual name. This will help readers identify your book compared to others (Think Ponyboy Curtis – I don’t even have to tell you what book he’s from).
  • Avoid hard-to-pronounce names. Remember, the reader is going to look at it over and over again. If it is a bit of a tongue twister, make sure to make the pronunciation clear right away.
  • Remember that you aren’t married to a name until it’s published, so if you’re having trouble deciding there’s no shame in using a placeholder while writing. It’s better to do that than delay your manuscript’s progress.  

3. Decide if You’re a Plotter or Pantser

The age-old debate of which method is better, plotting versus pantsing, rages on in the writing community. Plotting is the art of sitting down and outlining your novel ahead of time, mapping out where your plot begins, ends, and many of the twists in between. Pantsing is when you have an idea and just start writing with little to no pre-planning (in other words, you are writing by the seat of your pants). Perhaps you already know what you are (and if you don’t, check out this Plotter vs. Pantser article for the pros and cons of each). Once you decide, you now will develop a clear path on how to move forward. As a plotter, set yourself a timeline to map out your story. If you’re a pantser, set either a daily or weekly word-count goal to get yourself off and running.

4. Set Specific Word-Count Goals

If you want to lose weight, you won’t accomplish it unless you set specific goals—like committing to walking 20,000 steps a day or exercising for 45 minutes a day or taking in fewer than 1500 calories a day or doing 150 burpees throughout the day (NOTE: I’d rather let my youngest daughter swing a softball bat while blindfolders and standing dangerously close to me than do even one burpee). Without making declarations like this and sticking to it, you’ll have a difficult time losing weight.

The same goes for writing.  Unless you set a specific goal for each day (or week), you won’t have anything holding you accountable. I recommend committing to 1,000 words per day. If you go over, great! But the key is to make sure you type word number 1,000—or whatever your goal is—before you go to bed.

If you don’t, make yourself do 150 burpees. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.

(I’m not really joking, by the way. Set up a punishment if you don’t hit your word count—something you really despise. I’ve found this to be a big motivated when it comes to reaching goals.)

5. Write, Write, Write

Whenever you have free time (HA!) write. What I mean is, you have to make free time to write. It’ll take sacrifices. I don’t care if you have to get up an hour earlier than usual, skip lunch (no matter how delicious that Chipotle looks), or stay up pushing yourself at 11:59 PM to type out those final sentences to hit word 1,000. You can’t finish a manuscript if you don’t write. (It’s the only provable fact in the publishing industry.)

Remember, they don’t necessarily have to be your best words—in fact, some days, you’ll write entire scenes that you will likely cut from the final product. Don’t focus on the colorfulness of your writing right now; focus on telling your story. You can edit and make it sound better later.

6. Edit, Edit, Edit

It’s later. Now that your story has been told, it’s time to polish it up. Add in the descriptions that you left out the first time around. Tighten scenes that meandered on much longer than necessary. Fix all the typos and grammatical errors, especially all the times you wrote “the the” in your manuscript—seriously, how the hell do we write “the the” so frequently? I swear, I think my wife sneaks onto my computer at night and adds them to my writing while I’m doing the dishes (and by “doing the dishes” I mean “eating a fourth bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch”—that shit is delicious).

Either way, this is the time to make your story great.

7. Celebrate!

You did it! Go out to dinner. Have some wine. Enthusiastically high-five everyone you see for the first week after completion. When baseball players hit walk-off home runs, everyone tackles them at the plate. Ask your family to tackle you at your desk. Ask your friends. Take photos. Enjoy this moment. You’ve earned it.

Of course, the journey isn’t over. You still have some work ahead of you—writing your query letter, writing your synopsis, researching and pitching literary agents (or researching self-publishing companies), etc. But save that for another day. By following these seven simple steps on how to write a novel, you’ll have accomplished something 99% of people who say “I should write a novel” never do. And that totally makes you super awesome.

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