How to Write a Novel in 10 Steps

writer working at his desk

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

If you want to write a novel but are daunted by the process, you are not alone. After all, a lot of elements go into writing a novel: a great idea, compelling characters, plots, subplots, themes, worldbuilding, snappy dialog, and a powerful finish. It can seem overwhelming.

But here’s the thing: if you approach writing your novel with a solid game plan, and if you take it one step at a time, you can achieve your goal. I know this because I once thought I’d never write a novel, and now I’ve written — and published — several. If I can do it, you can too. Let’s take your story idea and put your writing skills to the test.

1. Find an idea for your story

Most novels begin with an idea. You probably already know this, and perhaps this has even been a stumbling block for you. I get it. It’s not easy coming up with a brilliant idea that no one has ever thought of before. If you can, great. Proceed to step two. But if you’re struggling, here are some thoughts to help take the pressure off.

Small ideas are great

Many novels aren’t based on one single grand idea; instead, they are built on several smaller ideas, and that unique combination makes them stand out. So, every time you get a story idea — no matter how small — write it down. When you’re ready to start writing a novel, see if you can piece those smaller ideas into a cohesive story.

Tweak existing ideas

Many of the most beloved novels and movies are based on existing stories, only they’ve been tweaked slightly. The movie Clueless, for example, one of the most successful and iconic comedies ever, is famously based on Jane Austen’s novel, Emma. But instead of being based in Regency-Era high-society England, it takes place in a Beverly Hills high school in 1995. My novel, The Dragon Squisher, began with the simple premise of writing a fantasy version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you say, “Hey Scott, there are plenty of books like that already,” that brings me to my next point…

Everything’s been done before — your job is to do it differently

There were plenty of books about wizarding schools before Harry Potter came along: Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, and Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, among others. But each of those authors brought new ideas, characters, voices, and themes to these stories that are, on the surface, quite similar to each other.

“Similar” is a feature, not a bug

If you are considering pitching your novel to an agent or publisher, they’re going to ask you for three-to-five comps (successful books that have been published in the last five years that are similar to yours). Why? Because they want to know there is a big audience for your kind of book. It also helps them market your book, as in, “If you liked Book A, you’ll also enjoy Book B.”

So, don’t sweat the “big idea,” just focus on coming up with something that excites you.

2. Find your novel’s theme

Before you start writing, ask yourself: What is this novel about? I don’t mean what is the plot or what is the big idea, I mean, what is the essential theme? Even if you’re writing an action-packed adventure story, your book should be about something.

Again, you don’t have to come up with a new theme that’s never been covered before. Stick to the classics: love, revenge, redemption, coming-of-age, good vs. evil, people vs. nature, etc. These themes appear repeatedly in our stories for a reason: they’re universal and easily understood.

Knowing your theme will help you make all your major decisions: plot points, character arcs, etc. If you’re struggling to come up with your theme, that’s OK. You can come back to it once you’ve found your protagonist. But it’s a good thing to have rattling around in the back of your mind in the early writing stages.

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3. Create your characters

Now that you have your idea and your theme, you need to focus on creating compelling characters. Your characters are the most important ingredient of your story, both major and minor characters. Their wants and needs will drive the plot forward. Your characters are also what your readers will latch onto. While your main idea might be interesting enough to get a reader to open your book, it’s your characters who will get them to read on.

First up, you need to start with your main character, aka your protagonist. This is who your readers will identify with and through whom you will project your ideas as well as your voice. Great characters will fascinate your readers. They will recognize your protagonist’s flaws and cheer them on as they take on the various challenges you throw at them.

There are two main things you need to determine when creating your protagonist: their inner journey and their outer journey.

Their outer journey will determine the plot of your novel. Ask yourself this one important question: What does your character want? Are they trying to stop a villain? Save a loved one? Win the big game? Fall in love?

Their inner journey is also known as a character arc. The best protagonists are flawed. Maybe they’re selfish or arrogant or they can’t get over the loss of a loved one. In the course of their outer journey, they will have to grapple with their inner journey as well. Often, when they succeed in their inner journey, that helps them achieve their outer goal as well. Here’s one way to think about it: While it’s true that your protagonist’s outer journey will drive the story, your story will also change your protagonist.

There is more to creating a great character than their outer/inner journeys, of course. In fact, it’s a such a huge subject that we can’t cover everything in this one post. So, here is a selection of articles with writing tips to help you think about how to approach character-building:

4. Find your conflict

Free guide offer for Promote Then PublishYour central conflict is what will drive your story. It’s safe to say that without conflict, you have no story. Imagine a romance novel in which two people meet, fall in love, and get married. Boring! No, there has to be something that keeps them apart, whether it’s a third person, a clash of personalities, a war, a tragedy, etc. Conflict is what will keep readers turning the pages.

Conflicts come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve already alluded to inner conflict vs. external, but there are other types, too, including:

  • Hero and villain (Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarity, McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched)
  • Person and nature (The Old Man and the Sea)
  • Humans vs. technology (Frankenstein, The Terminator)
  • Hero vs. society (The Handmaid’s Tale)

5. Set — and raise — the stakes

The next key ingredient you need to start writing your story is to determine what’s at stake. In other words, what happens if your protagonist fails in their quest? If the answer is, “Not much,” then you won’t have a compelling story. The higher the stakes, the bigger the story.

6. Consider physical and social constructs of your world

Although this is usually more important for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror novels, it’s a good idea to think through your fictional world; after all, you and your readers are going to be spending some time there. Consider geography, history, culture, and politics. It may be important to think about social dynamics — understanding the relationships between different groups or classes, prejudices, and societal norms in your setting. Think through your magical systems, levels of technology, supernatural rules, etc.

Remember: You don’t have to tell your readers all these details — that could lead to a very exposition-heavy and boring book. But you need to know them.

7. Are you a pantser or plotter?

Now that you have your basic ingredients, you can start writing your novel. There are three general ways to go about your writing journey: you can write a book outline (aka plotting a novel), you can jump in and see where your muse takes you (aka pantsing a novel), or you can try some combination of the two. There are pros and cons to each approach, though you will probably naturally gravitate towards one for your novel writing process.

8. Set daily writing goals

Writing regularly can keep you motivated and help maintain the flow of your story. Aim for a daily or weekly word count or block out time and dedicate a set number of hours per day or week and stick to it. If you need to, designate specific writing hours to ensure minimal distractions.

9. Overcoming writer’s block

What if you get stuck? There are several techniques to combat writer’s block. Try taking a walk. You’ll find that sometimes, simply stepping away from your computer and getting the blood pumping can clear your head.

Another thing I like to do is to take my characters out of the story and write a silly adventure for them. Maybe I’ll take them bowling or to the grocery store. It’s amazing how being silly can take the edge off. Often these adventures will pay off with useful dialogue. You never know — it’s worth trying.

10. Edit and polish your manuscript

Writing is rewriting. No one should ever publish their first draft. With this in mind, once you are finished writing your book, set it aside for a month. When you come back to it, you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes to tackle your second draft.

Consider hiring beta readers to give you feedback. Search on freelance sites like Fiverr and Upwork where you can find quality readers who specialize in your genre and who will offer you unbiased opinions. Once you’ve incorporated their feedback, it’s time to hire a professional editor.

Prepare for publishing!

Once your manuscript is ready, you’ll need to consider whether you want to self-publish or try for a traditional deal. Both options have their pros and cons. We like self-publishing because it’s available to everyone, it offers the highest royalty rate, it’s incredibly fast (a few weeks as opposed to a year or longer), and you have complete control.

If you decide to self-publish and partner with BookBaby, you can use our professional author services to help you tackle everything from book cover design and interior formatting to distribution and metadata optimization. Just give us a call at 877-961-6878 or head to our website and peruse all our self-publishing offers and services.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great article. This is more than useful. Thank you, Scott. I am looking forward reading more and more your pieces.

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