Aug 31, 2021
20 mins read
How to Write a Novel in 15 Steps
Much like learning to ride a bike, the best way to learn how to write a novel is by just doing it. Unlike saddling up on a Schwinn for the first time, however, writing a novel can’t be accomplished on one hot summer’s day. It requires good doses of commitment and perseverance. As Octavia Butler put it: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
This post will break up the 15 major steps of writing a novel into bite-sized pieces, organized into three categories — before, during, and after you write your manuscript. Those steps are as follows:
How to Write a Novel:
Nail down the story idea
Read books in your genre
Choose your novel’s point of view
Establish the setting
Develop your main characters
Establish conflict and stakes
Create an outline
Choose your story structure
Pick a writing software
Write to market
Establish a writing routine
Consider literary devices and techniques
Revise your story
Work with beta readers
Hire a professional editor
Are you ready for "writing a novel" to be the next plume in your cap? Let’s begin...
Before you start writing a novel...
Here’s a good cliche: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The more you can prepare yourself before you start writing a novel, the better your chances of seeing it through completion. The following steps will help you build your author's armour; they will help you ward off sudden attacks of writer's block and provide you with a solid story foundation. By the time you finish this first section, planning your novel, you should be able to write the following statement:
My story is a [genre] novel about [theme]. It’s told from [perspective] and is set in [place and time period]. It follows [protagonist], who wants [goal] because [motivation]. But [conflict] doesn’t make that easy, putting [stake] at risk.
Let’s get started!
1. Nail down the story idea
An obvious step, but not an easy one to cross off. In fact, you might find yourself making up other first tasks to avoid nailing this one: such as finding the perfect writing spot, buying the perfect stationery set, and doing other, shorter forms of creative writing. While all of these things might help you on your way to writing a novel, without spending time really solidifying what you want to write about, this novel-to-be simply won’t come to fruition.
If you’re struggling with coming up with even the seed of an idea, don’t fret. There is literally an endless supply of novel topics out there, and you can start perusing hundreds of them in our list of 300+ writing prompts our directory of 200+ short story ideas or even our plot generator.
If you’ve been chewing over a story idea but are having trouble giving legs to it, try writing down one or two lines about the theme of your book. If you’re wondering how to write a novel, it’s likely because there’s some message you want to put out in the world. The message behind your book is its theme, and it will underscore the whole story. For instance, Nineteen Eighty-Four follows a man yearning for love in a world where individuality and original thought is not only a sin but a crime. But what the book is really about is the human right to freedom of privacy.
2. Read books in your genre
“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone,” wrote American author John Cheever. If you want your novel to be attractive to prospective readers, you need to first understand how to think like a reader. And the way to do that is to — let’s all say it together — READ!
There are many reasons why time spent reading is worthwhile for an aspiring author:
You will have an understanding of what’s already been done to death and can focus on creating something new.
On the other hand, you will also understand what has proven popular in a given genre and will know what kind of expectations readers have.
It’s fun. If you don’t like reading books, why would you want to write them?
3. Choose your book’s point of view
Do you know how when gossip moves through the grapevine, it tends to stray further and further from the truth as it passes from person to person? This is because any time a person tells a story, they inevitably add their own unique biases, thoughts, and perspectives. For this reason, choosing the point of view your novel will be told from is an extremely important step in starting your novel and will have a huge impact on the actual story itself.
Here are the different POVs you might want to consider:
First Person: the story is told from the perspective of the writer or fictional narrator. The main pronoun used is “I.” Learn more here.
Second Person: the reader is addressed directly, and asks them to put themselves in the shoes of a character. The main pronoun used is “you.” Learn more here.
Third Person Limited: the narrator only has insight into the thoughts and feelings of a single character at a time. The pronouns associated with this POV are he, his, him, she, hers, her, they, theirs, and them. Learn more here.
Third Person Omniscient: the narrator is all-knowing and can reveal anything that is happening to any character at any point in the story. The pronouns used are the same as for third-person limited. Learn more here.
4. Establish the setting
Consider this line from Pride and Prejudice:
“What are men to rocks and mountains?”
This line glides smoothly from the page when Elizabeth Bennett takes a trip to the Peak District in Georgian Era England. If, on the other hand, the book took place in modern-day Texas and a 20-year old Elizabeth Bennett spoke those words, it would stick out like a sore thumb.
The key here is context — and the context or setting of a story will dictate everything about it, from character to plot to conflict, and beyond.
If you are planning to write about a setting outside of your own immediate knowledge, make sure you do adequate research. Consider working with sensitive readers if you are writing about a place or culture outside your own.
5. Develop your main characters
If you’ve ever eaten a multi-course dinner (or seen Pretty Woman), you will know to start with the knives and forks on the outside and work your way in.
This is not the case with developing your characters. While it is definitely important for an author to picture what their characters look like, starting from the inside and working your way out is a better approach. Here’s where you can begin:
The Goal: what does your character want? For example, Harry Potter’s goal is to defeat Lord Voldemort.
The Motivation: why does your character have this goal? Harry must defeat Lord Voldemort to ensure the wizarding world’s safety and to avenge his murdered parents. Learn more here.
Dynamic or static: will your character undergo fundamental changes throughout the course of the story, or will they remain largely the same? Learn more here.
Once you have these core elements established, you can start exploring other aspects of your characters using these resources:
Create a character profile that covers everything from appearance to family using this handy template.
Look into your character’s past using these character development exercises.
Give your character the perfect name using this character name generator.
6. Establish the conflict and stakes
Kurt Vonnegut once said that one of the most universal types of story is the “Man in Hole” story: someone gets in trouble and then tries to get out of it. A close second was the “Boy Loses Girl” story: someone has something, loses it, and then tries to get it back.
In both of these examples, there is a conflict driving the story — and indeed, a novel is really just a lengthy report if there is no conflict.
The conflict is what will make your character’s path to achieving (or not achieving) their goal interesting to readers — it’s the total of the obstacles the protagonist encounters along the way. In novels, there are two broad categories of conflict — and for a truly compelling read, it’s a good idea to include both:
Internal Conflict: what kinds of character flaws will hinder the protagonist while they strive for their goal? For example, Frodo’s internal conflict in The Lord of the Rings is to not let the ring corrupt him.
External Conflict: what kind of circumstances and obstacles outside of the protagonist’s control will prevent them from achieving their goal? Sauron has made the road to Mount Doom (and the destruction of the ring) near impossible.
Once you’ve got the main conflicts of your novel sorted, you need to nail down the stakes: what will happen if the conflict overwhelms the character and they don’t achieve their goals? For instance, it’s all well and good that Frodo wants to destroy the ring — but why should we care? Well, because the fate of Middle Earth hangs in the balance.
7. Create an outline
In the world of fiction writing, there’s often said to be two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters, as you might have guessed, plan where their novel will go before they start writing. Pantsers will usually have a general idea of how their story will unfold, but will just sit down to write without doing any initial outlining.
If your end goal is writing and publishing a novel, we’re suggesting you follow the ways of the plotter and create an outline. When you inevitably hit the writer’s block that almost all writers face, your outline will act as a “get out of jail free” card — you can use it to remember what needs to come next. In any case, it'll save you a great deal of time.
There are countless ways to outline a novel, but here are a few tried-and-true methods to consider:
Mind Map: Create a graph or some kind of visual representation of your plot points, characters, themes, conflicts, and chapters.
Synopsis: A more detailed outline that briefly covers all of the major story elements over two or three pages : plot, characters, conflicts, and themes.
The Beat Sheet: Document the beats of the story in shorthand. Each individual ‘beat’ should get a bullet or a number.
The Skeleton: Just make notes of the key plot points. Think of it as a roadmap with only big-name destinations marked — how you get there is up to you.
Characters First: Let your characters drive the outline by mapping out character development, character arcs, and character beats over planning of the plot. For advice on mapping out a character arc, refer to our post on the topic.
Scenes and Sequences: Just write the major scenes that need to occur and the order in which they unfold.
For more information on creating an outline — or for help determining which technique would best suit you — head to our author’s guide to outlining.
8. Choose your story structure
While it’s true that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, you can drastically change how readers perceive your novel by altering how you structure your story.
For instance, you might use...
The Fichtean Curve, which skips exposition and starts right in the rising action. Or...
In Media Res, which begins with what would be classified as the “middle of the story” in the traditional, three-act structure. Finally, there’s…
The Seven-Point Story Structure, which, much like the Hero’s Journey monomyth, presents the story as a series of highs and lows.
To see all of these structures in action, check out our post which maps out three bestselling novels using the above techniques.
While you’re writing your 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.)
9. Decide how to write your novel
No, not like if you’re going to be a plotter or more pants, 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 into ink was the only option, so do your research and pick the best one for you. Here’s a couple to get you 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 benefit 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.
10. 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.
If you’re struggling to identify who your book’s target market is, ask these questions of your ideal reader:
How old are they?
What genres do they read?
What are their hobbies?
Who are some of their favourite authors?
What are some of their favourite movies?
Do they live somewhere specific?
Keep going until you feel like you have a sense of the “proto-persona” for your book. Learn more about finding your target market here!
Pro tip: depending on your target audience and subject matter, your novel may even be eligible for any number of writing scholarships. If you're a student, check out our writing scholarship directory right here!
11. 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.
After you finish your first draft…
If you’ve just finished your first draft, your next step should absolutely involve party poppers and cake — or some kind of celebratory treat, because that’s a huge accomplishment. But of course, the work is far from over.
Writing the first iteration of your manuscript is all about just getting the words down on paper. Now it’s time to start turning those words into a memorable story.
12. Consider literary devices and techniques
Sometimes it’s hard to really pinpoint why a certain novel stays with you, there’s just something about it. You can add a certain je ne sais quoi to your own writing by employing literary devices such as Chekhov’s Gun, irony, and foreshadowing — which all serve to build tension throughout your story.
There are countless other literary devices that authors use to add creative depth to their writing. Find a list of some of our favorites here.
13. Revise your story
Editing your own story is not a one-time deal. Each time you read your story, you will likely end up rewriting parts, which will require another read-through, which might lead to more rewrites — so on and so forth. To ensure you don’t get caught in an endless cycle of editing, don’t edit everything at once. Go through your novel looking for a specific issue and only fix those. If you spot other things in the meantime, make a note of them to come back and fix later, but stay laser-focused on the task at hand. Here are a few things you might want to keep an eye out for:
Show, don’t tell. Sometimes, you just need to state something matter-of-factly in your novel, that’s fine. But, as much as you can, try to illustrate a point instead of just stating it. Keep in mind the words of Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass." Learn more here.
“Said” is your friend. When it comes to dialogue, there can be the temptation to spice things up a bit by using tags like “exclaimed,” “asserted,” or “remarked.” And while there might be a time and place for these, 90% of the time “said” is the best tag to use because anything else can feel distracting or forced. Learn more here.
Stay away from purple prose. Purple prose is overly embellished language that doesn’t add much to the story. It convolutes the intended message and can be a real turn-off for readers. Learn more here.
To become a bonafide self-editing expert, check out our repertoire of free online courses — all about editing, written by professional editors.
15. Hire a professional editor
One of the most important parts of getting a novel ready for publication is to: hire an editor. It might not be the cheapest investment, but when you think of the many hours you’ve spent getting your novel to this point, the cost of getting an expert to fine-tune and polish your story is likely worth it.
Here are a few types of editors you might want to consider working with:
Developmental Editor. If you’re planning to hire multiple editors once you finish your manuscript, it’s best to start with a developmental one. They will provide a holistic and in-depth review of your novel, giving you feedback on everything from problematic characterization to sentence structure.
Copyediting. A copyeditor has a more zero’d-in approach than developmental editor. They will make sure that the “copy” — the actual language used in your novel — is perfect, keeping an eye out for things like bad grammar, repetition of certain words, or spelling mistakes.
Proofreading. Typically the last stage of editing, proofing provides your manuscript with a final polish, making sure it puts its best foot forward when it hits the presses. A proofreader will ensure that every word in your novel is spelled correctly and that every sentence is grammatically correct, clearly marking any errors they find.
Learn more about what each type of editing consists of here.
Now, how about that price tag we mentioned? Well, the cost of professional editing will depend on a number of variables: the type of editing you need, the specific editor you hire, and your book's length, to start.
But to give you a general idea, here are the potential costs of editing a 60,000-word manuscript:
Developmental Editing: $1,440
Copy Editing: $1,020
Check out our post for more information on the costs of editing — and even try out our pricing calculator by entering the word count for your novel and genre.
And there you have it, 15 steps that will take you from “one day I’ll write a novel” to “today I finished writing my first novel.” During the process, the perfect title for your book may have come to you. If not, finding the perfect moniker for your story will likely be a last — and important! — step. But don’t worry, we’re not going to leave you hanging. Check out our book title generator and generate titles based on your genre until you find the one.