Many of us have these ideas floating around in our heads that would make a good story. They could be real or imagined events, about real or imaginary people. We feel compelled to put those ideas, thoughts, and opinions onto a blank page and make them come to life in a novel.
And if this is you, you could be staring at that blank page wondering what you’re about to get yourself into. So you turn your attention to Google and search for how to write a novel.
Let me tell you, there’s a lot of advice out there on the best way to write a novel. It’s as if there was some secret recipe that you can follow that’ll produce an award-winning bestseller every time.
Or there are articles out there telling you how tough, but rewarding the writing process can be. How hard it is to get noticed on the internet or published or whatever.
I’m going to tell you the industry secret right here, right now:
There’s no one size fits all solution or secret formula for writing a novel. It’s a unique journey for each writer, and you may need to try multiple novel-writing techniques to find one that works.
There’s no one size fits all solution or secret formula for writing a novel. It’s a unique journey for each writer.Tweet
Let’s look at the three popular ways to write a novel.
The 3 Popular Ways to Write a Novel
When you Google “how to write a novel,” several methods and step-by-step guides pop up. These articles go through the same steps, but offer varying timelines and outlining practices.
In turn, this has led to the development of the Plotter/Pantser, Snowflake, and One Month book writing strategies. Let’s take a look at each one in detail.
Plotter vs. Pantser
The plotter vs. pantser debate has been waging on for years, decades, millennia. It all boils down to whether writing an outline is better for getting your book off the ground or if just writing where the story takes you is the better option.
Honestly, the answer lies with the author and the type of story they are writing. The only way you’re going to find out is if you test both methods and see what works best for you and your tale.
You may find out that you need to use plotting and letting things flow to write your novel. You’re a planster: a person who outlines some aspects of their story and free-writes for the rest.
Regardless of which method you choose, both approaches have merit. Plotting out your novel, for example, gives you a road map forward for when you get stuck. Whereas, pantsing allows your story to flow together smoothly because you’re not trying to force anything.
Let’s look at these two approaches to writing in real life.
I like to outline my characters, and if I’m working on a series of connected short stories, I try to map out what I want to happen in each story. And by mapping out, I mean, I write a sentence saying what this story is going to be about.
After that, I let my characters take me where they want to take me.
I don’t force anything to fit a set outline. I’ve had stories where I wanted one thing to happen, and something entirely else did. The only way I did this was by not placing restrictions on myself when I was writing, which I find an outline does for me.
In this instance, I started with an idea in my head and loose direction I wanted to take the story in. In the end, I had a wonderful tale that surprised me with the depth of emotion displayed.
However, I know this doesn’t work for everyone. Many authors like to know what they are getting themselves into and plan their novel from start to finish, like K. M. Weiland and Janice Hardy. They map out their plot, subplots, themes, and characters before placing their hands on a keyboard.
And this is fine too. Having a roadmap that leads you to the final destination, in this case, the climax of your story can be a good thing. It frees your mind from having to worry about if everything makes sense or not, saving you time in the editing stage of the process.
The Snowflake Method
Randy Ingermanson is the creator of the snowflake novel-writing method. It’s based on a design principle known as Koch’s Snowflake, which is made up of equilateral triangles.
It looks something like this:
The take away from this is that you start small and build detail as you go. It’s about how to structure your novel in such a way that it creates a wonderfully simple yet complex story.
The snowflake method is all about getting organized before you write your novel, which falls into the outliner method I’ve described above. Ingermanson uses 10 steps to get his novel outline to the point where he can write.
The 10 Steps
Here are those 10 steps:
- Write a one-line sentence about your novel. The one-line summary of the novel becomes the main idea or backbone of your story.
- Expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. Ideally, this paragraph should be about five sentences long and sum up your book.
- Focus on fleshing your characters out. You’ll copy the first two steps for each major character in your book. Make sure you outline the character’s name, a summary of their storyline, motivation, goals, conflict, and epiphany.
- Now you need to keep growing your story. To do this you need to expand each sentence of your summary into its own paragraph, with that last paragraph ending in disaster.
- Take a day or two to write up a one-page description of each character and a half-page description for each minor character. Theses synopses should tell the story from the point of view of each character.
- Expand your one page plot synopsis into a four-page synopsis. So take each paragraph from step four and turn it into a full page. You may have to circle back to the earlier steps and change things, which is okay.
- Expand on your character descriptions into full fledged character charts. These charts should contain everything there’s to know about each character.
- Make a list of the scenes that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel. Ingermanson likes to make a spreadsheet that contains all of the scenes in one column, the POV character in another, and a final column that tells you what happens in that scene.
- Write a narrative description of your book (optional). Take each line from the spreadsheet and expand it into a multi-paragraph description. Sketch out the conflict of the scene and any cool dialogue you think of.
- Write your novel. Take all of your planning work and put it into action.
The One Month Method
The one-month method became widely popular when a nonprofit organization called NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, organized an event that challenges writers to complete a 50,000-word novel in one month.
The premise was that books don’t take that long to write as long as the author sets aside time to write every day.
Well, they proved that they were right. Now millions of writers from across the globe come together in November to write a 50,000-word novel in one month.
The organization also hosts two “camps” in April and July to keep the momentum going. The rules for these camps are not as strict as the November event and allows writers to choose the type of project they’d like to work on.
Chandler Bolt took this method to heart and formed a business around it, known as Self-Publishing School. They have developed a program called the SPS 90 Day Way, which has you plan, write, and self-publish your novel within 90 days. (You can learn more and apply the SPS 90 Day Way for free if you purchase the book Published. Bolt has outlined his method in enough detail that you can follow the program. However, you won’t get personalized support from the company.)
You need to practice self-discipline to make your book a reality, and that is the basis behind this method. If you’re not up for tackling a book in one month, this isn’t for you.
The Pros and Cons
If you like working under strict deadlines, this is a great place to start. Both options offer paid and unpaid support groups over the 30 to 90 days of writing your novel.
Self-Publishing School offers to help you out for a fee (it ranges from US$4,997 to US$6,997), which can be pricey for those starting on their writing journey. Thankfully, they have a wealth of resources online that outline all the different aspects of writing a book.
NaNoWriMo is a great alternative. It’s free to use, but the organization will only be around as long as people support the nonprofit. They do ask for participants to consider donating to the cause, and they ask participants to buy NaNoWriMo swag from the online store to keep the organization going.
Additionally, both organizations offer ongoing support tools to help you through the writing process. Self-Publishing School gives you a mentor and accountability buddy that helps you every step of the way.
NaNoWriMo’s forums let you talk to other writers from across the globe who are going through the same thing as you are. They also send daily and weekly newsletters throughout their month-long events to keep you motivated.
How to Write a Novel
Alright, I’ve gone through three of the most popular methods to write a novel. Now it’s time to put that into action.
Before we begin, I want you to know that writing a novel is not as difficult as everyone makes it out to be. If you know your story and where you want to take it, you’ll get to the end.
In my world, there are five steps that you need to do to plan a novel.
We’re going to look at these five steps in a bit more detail below.
Before You Start
Before you start writing down ideas, outlining your book, or even writing it, you want to set up a formal writing space. It doesn’t need to be fancy, my first writing space was in my childhood bedroom, and I used my dresser as a desk. My new space is a lot better than it used to be.
This what it currently looks like:
I want to note that you do not need to use this space every time you write.
I don’t! You can find me writing on the couch, in the bedroom, and at coffee shops (when it was safe to do so). I’ve also composed stories in between classes during university.
The point of having a writing space is to have a place where you know you’ll be productive. It gets you in the mindset to work, and it’s as distraction-free as you can make it.
And sometimes that distraction-free place changes.
(For example, my fiance is currently working from home due to COVID-19. He can be quite loud when talking to his coworkers on Zoom, so I usually end up moving somewhere else to keep focused.)
You can ask any writer what they need in their designated writing area to allow them to write and they’ll give you an answer. It can be anything from headphones, a motivational poster or quote, a hot cup of coffee or tea, a notebook, etc.
They stack their office with things that make the writing process easier for them. Some of it is trade tools, like a notebook, a laptop, pen, and story outlines. Others are creature comforts, like snuggly blankets, snacks, and drinks. And some are there for inspiration and fun.
Regardless of what you need, you should always have this set up in your space before you start writing. There’s nothing worse than being in the zone and then having to stop to get something that you didn’t have immediately on hand.
You also need to consider your mindset when you start writing. First, you need to acknowledge that your voice matters. It’ll help make your words flow.
Second, you need to consider why. Why are you writing this novel? Is it for money, prestige, or accolades? Or is this a fun side project that you now have time for? Or do you need to get something off your chest?
How you approach writing your book will have an impact on your stress and motivation levels. There is a lot of pressure on you to do well if it’s for money or accolades. It can cause creative paralysis or writer’s block, which makes the process more difficult.
The fun or need to get this off my chest stories, tend to be more fun to write and keep your motivation up. I find that the words flow for me when writing a story like this, and they tend to be more error-free.
I’m not saying that writing for money or accolades is not a worthy venture. It is. I find that they are harder to write and make you second guess your skills as a writer, which leads to an unfinished story.
The Novel Idea
We’ve got the right mindset and someplace to work. Now we have to sift through our fantastic story idea(s) or come up with one that we want to write.
We all have a story that we want to tell. It can just be one story, or it can be a dozen. The problem for those of you with many ideas is landing on one idea and then sticking to it.
I’ve got ideas, but don’t know if they’re “the one.”
Part of the idea-picking process goes back to your mindset. Why are you writing this novel? If you want to do something for critical acclaim, you’re going to want to latch onto something more philosophical or theme-based.
So take a stance on a social issue and then explore the ramifications of that stance. Authors, like Charles Dickens, did this with their novels. They wanted to educate the masses through their books.
Take Oliver Twist, for example. Yes, the story is about an orphaned child, but it also commented on the horrible working and living conditions of orphaned and lower-class children. It was a call for reforms to help limit child abuse in the textile factories and to implement social programs to give these children a better life.
If you have a bunch of story ideas floating in your head, you will want to pick a passion project. For me, these are the ideas that keep popping up in my head. They pester me until I put them onto a blank page. They get me excited to write and are big concept ideas.
Not sure that you’ve got a good idea? Run it by a trusted friend or family member! If they are blown away by the idea, write it out. If not, put it on the back burner for another time by writing it down in a journal or notebook, so you don’t forget it.
You want something that compels you to write it. Otherwise, you’ll lose interest halfway through and never finish.
What if I have no ideas?
Let’s say that you want to write a book but don’t know what you want to write about. That’s fine. You need to find some inspiration from a song, another story, an image, imagined conversations between two people standing in line outside of the grocery store, etc. Inspiration is always there; you just need to be open to receiving it.
As you’re going through all of these things, write down any ideas that pop up in a journal or notebook to keep track of them.
Don’t modify anything you write down. The point of this exercise is about getting things on the page. Adjusting and judging what you’ve written down will stop the creative flow and make “finding inspiration” harder.
After a week or so, you should have a good list of ideas.
From that list, pick one or two of the more promising ideas and create a mind map around them to generate more ideas. Or choose one and starting writing to see what comes out on the page. You could also run one of those ideas by a trusted friend or loved one to gauge their reaction.
At this point, you decide which concept interests you the most and has enough meat to it so you can write a story.
Develop an Outline
Circling back to earlier in this post, you may or may not want to write an outline for your novel. A book outline is a blueprint or roadmap for your story.
It can be as straightforward or as complicated as you want it to be. Outlines can be pages long with carefully crafted details about the story’s setting, characters, and various plot points. Or it can be a few words scribbled down in point form on a napkin. You can also choose to have no outline at all.
It’s entirely up to you.
Pro tip: For you pantsers out there, you need to have an outline at some point. Most agents and publishers want to see an outline before they even consider reading your book.
What Goes into an Outline?
All of this prep work helps you stay on track when you’re writing. Here are some things that you can include in your outline:
- Plot Points. At a minimum, it contains the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and denouement. On the other side of the spectrum, it can outline what’s going to happen in each chapter.
- Character profiles. Again, this can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. It can be as simple as their name, age, date of birth, and physical appearance. Or it can include every like or dislike that the character has. You can make up family trees as well.
- Worldbuilding elements. Having a worldbuilding checklist can be a lifesaver for fantasy and science fiction writers. It helps you keep all of the rules of your fictional world straight, which can stop you from creating any plot holes.
No matter what you put in your outline, you should always include the “big idea” of your story. At most, this is a paragraph that summarizes the who, what, when, and where the novel takes place.
Write Your Novel
All of the idea generating and writing prep work gets you here. Sitting in front of your computer staring at a blank screen. That blank screen is one of the most terrifying and wonderful thing that you will face as you progress through your journey as an author.
Place those fingers on the keyboard and let them fly!
Don’t worry about plot or character development if you’re a planner. You’ve already done the work. And if you’re a pantser, just do your thing. You have to edit the story after you’re done anyway, so why agonize over making everything perfect in the first draft?
You can always fiddle with character development, dialogue, theme, symbolism, etc. later. Your only task at this stage is to get the story down on the page.
As Jodi Picoult once said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
That being said, there are a few best practices to keep in mind when you’re writing.
Writing Best Practices
Here are some best practices for making sure you get through this writing stage unscathed:
- Set a daily or weekly word count goal. It gives you something to aim for, and when you couple that with a reward, it gives you the motivation to keep going. Make sure that your goals are attainable, though.
- Set aside time to write every day. Use your carefully crafted writing space because consistency helps creativity flow freely. If you need to take a day off, make up the lost time later on.
- Make the time to write. There are never enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done without sacrificing something else. If that means giving up an hour or two of Netflix to writing, you should do it. Your book won’t get written otherwise.
- Embrace procrastination. Listen, you’re going to procrastinate. So why try to curb it? Lean into it instead with the knowledge that you’re just going to have to do more work later.
- Put your phone away. Eliminate as many distractions as you can. It can be as simple as turning off your wifi or putting your phone on airplane mode.
Pro tip: If you have issues with distractions, there are apps out there that block your email, social media, browsers, game apps, etc. so you can focus on your writing. Some of these apps include Freedom, FocusWriter, StayFocusd, and WriteRoom. You may have to pay to use a few of them, but others are free.
- Set a sacred deadline. This is the ultimate word count that you want to reach on a specific day. And no matter what happens, this deadline must be made. If you think you might have issues with this, ask a friend or loved one to keep you accountable.
- Make sure you’ve done your research. Novels aren’t just about making stuff up. They contain a lot of factual information, and your readers can tell if you don’t know what you’re talking about. This article by Jerry Jenkins goes over the importance of research and how its conducted.
- Call yourself a writer. If you’re working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing, that makes you a writer. Don’t wait until you reach some artificial level of accomplishment before calling yourself a writer.
- Think reader-first. If you want to be published someday, then you need to stop writing for a publisher. We want other people to read our words, so intrigue them, move them, and keep them reading.
- Know the seven novel essentials.
- Don’t edit as you go. It delays you from finishing your book. Just get it all out at once and edit later.
If you’re working at writing, studying writing, practicing writing, that makes you a writer. Don’t wait until you reach some artificial level of accomplishment before calling yourself a writer.Tweet
Edit Your Novel
When you’ve dotted the last “i” and crossed the final “t,” you need to take a break and congratulate yourself for doing a job well done. Second, go out and celebrate! You’ve earned this.
What you don’t do is start sending it out to every agent and publisher you can find.
Your work isn’t done yet. You still need to edit your novel; make it into a sparkling gem. Please know that no one ever gets the story right on the first try, and if they did, they got lucky.
I won’t go into detail about this here because I’ve talked about it extensively before. You can read all about self-editing, beta readers, and working with a professional editor by clicking the links.
Before we move onto the publishing portion of this guide, I want to say that editing your novel is crucial to its success. There are always going to be someone who finds an error, but the more mistakes you catch before you publish, the happier you and your readers will be.
So take your time to get things right before you release your brainchild out into the world.
Publishing Your Novel
Once your novel is as perfect as it can get, you need to decide which publishing avenue you’d like to pursue. You can publish your book in three ways: traditionally, self-publish, or use a hybrid publisher.
Each avenue has its merits, but you’ll want to do what’s best for your budget and novel.
Traditional publishing is notoriously hard to get into but does happen. You may not want to query one of the big publishers as a new author, as they are very selective over who they accept and are less willing to take chances on unknown writers.
Luckily, you can turn to smaller press and literary journals for publishing your story. Numerous small publishers are looking for a story just like yours. You just have to find them. To help you out, I post publishing opportunities for authors on this site.
Self-publishing is another route that you can take. The benefit of this route is you get to control the creative process, which you have to make compromises for with a traditional publisher, and retain most of the profits made from your book.
The only drawback is that getting your book out there relies entirely on your shoulders, including any time and money commitments. You can hire people to help you out, like hybrid publishers, but you’re not always assured of the quality of those services.
Publishing Tips You Can’t Ignore
After you’ve made a publishing route decision, you’ll want to start working on the following:
- Learn about marketing. Traditional publishers leave your book’s marketing predominantly in your hands, so it makes sense to figure out some easy things to do to make sure you succeed. And marketing is a must-know for self-published authors.
- Set up an author’s website. Technically, you can do this before you have a book to sell, but do what you feel is best. Make sure it’s a self-hosted site, like WordPress. Why? Because social media platforms change all the time, and having a self-hosted website protects you from those changes.
- Establish a fan base. The reality of publishing is that you need a fan base or following to succeed. Traditional publishers are going to Google you to see if you have one, and if you don’t, they may not pick your book up. You can grow your following by offering good content outside of your book, like behind the scenes looks at your writing process or deleted scenes from your novel.
I hope this article has given you a glimpse into the novel-writing process, as well as a firm foundation on where to begin. If not, and you’re feeling a bit confused, don’t worry. It isn’t as hard as you think it is.
I know you can do it.
Just sit down in front of your computer and start typing away. The story will unfold before your eyes, and you’ll be welcomed into the unofficial novel-writing club.
If you need help at any time, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. We know what you’re going through, and many of us are willing to lend a hand when we can.
In the meantime, happy writing!
What do you want to write about? What is your best writing advice?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.