What if you could learn how to write a novel without fail? What if you had a process so foolproof, you knew you would finish no matter what writer’s block throws at you? The zombie apocalypse could finally strike and you’d still face the blank page to finish your novel.
Every day I talk to writers who don’t know how to write a novel. They worry they don’t have what it takes, and honestly, they’re right to worry.
Writing a novel, especially for the first time, is hard work, and the desk drawers and hard drives of many a great writer are filled with the skeletons of failed books.
The good news is you don’t have to be one of those failed writers.
You can be a writer that writes to the end.
You can be the kind of writer who masters how to write a novel.
My Journey to Learn How to Write a Novel
My name is Joe Bunting.
I used to worry I would never write a novel. Growing up, I dreamed about becoming a great novelist, writing books like the ones I loved to read. I had even tried writing novels, but I failed again and again.
So I decided to study creative writing in college. I wrote poems and short stories. I read books on writing. I earned an expensive degree.
But still, I didn’t know how to write a novel.
After college I started blogging, which led to a few gigs at a local newspaper and then a national magazine. I got a chance to ghostwrite a nonfiction book (and get paid for it!). I became a full-time, professional writer.
But even after writing a few books, I worried I didn’t have what it takes to write a novel. Novels just seemed different, harder somehow.
Maybe it was because they were so precious to me, but while writing a nonfiction book no longer intimidated me—writing a novel terrified me.
Write a novel? I didn’t know how to do it.
Until, one year later, I decided it was time. I needed to stop stalling and finally take on the process.
I crafted a plan to finish a novel using everything I’d ever learned about the book writing process. Every trick, hack, and technique I knew.
And the process worked.
I finished my novel in 100 days.
Today, I’m a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of thirteen books, and I’m passionate about teaching writers how to write and finish their books. (FINISH being the key word here.)
I’ve taught this process to hundreds of other writers who have used it to draft and complete their novels.
And today, I’m going to teach my “how to write a novel” process to you, too. In twenty manageable steps!
As I do this, I’ll share the single best novel writing tips from thirty-seven other fiction writers that you can use in your novel writing journey—
All of which is now compiled and constructed into The Write Planner: our tangible planning guide for writers that gives you this entire process in a clear, actionable, and manageable way.
If you’ve ever felt discouraged about not finishing your novel, like I did, or afraid that you don’t have what it takes to build a writing career, I’m here to tell you that you can.
There’s a way to make your writing easier.
You just need to have the “write” process.
How to Write a Novel: The Foolproof, 20-Step Plan
Below, I’m going to share a foolproof process that anyone can use to write a novel, the same process I used to write my novels and books, and that hundreds of other writers have used to finish their novels too.
1. Get a Great Idea
Maybe you have a novel idea already. Maybe you have twenty ideas.
If you do, that’s awesome. Now, do this for me: Pat yourself on the back, and then forget any feeling of joy or accomplishment you have.
Here’s the thing: an idea alone, even a great idea, is just the first baby step in writing your book. There are nineteen more steps, and almost all of them are more difficult than coming up with your initial idea.
I love what George R.R. Martin said:
“Ideas are useless. Execution is everything.”
You have an idea. Now learn how to execute, starting with step two.
(And if you don’t have a novel idea yet, here’s a list of 100 story ideas that will help, or you can view our genre specific lists here: sci-fi ideas, thriller ideas, mystery ideas, romance ideas, and fantasy ideas. Check those out, then choose an idea or make up one of your own, When you’re ready, come back for step two.)
2. Write Your Idea As a Premise
Now that you have a novel idea, write it out as a single-sentence premise.
What is a premise, and why do you need one?
A premise distills your novel idea down to a single sentence. This sentence will guide your entire writing and publishing process from beginning to end. It hooks the reader and captures the high stakes (and other major details) that advance and challenge the protagonist and plot.
It can also be a bit like an elevator pitch for your book. If someone asks you what your novel is about, you can share your premise to explain your story.
Also, a premise is the most important part of a query letter or book proposal, so a good premise can actually help you get published.
What’s an example of a novel premise?
Here’s an example from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum:
A young girl is swept away to a magical land by a tornado and must embark on a quest to see the wizard who can help her return home.
Do you see the hooks? Young girl, magical land, embark on a quest (to see the wizard)—and don’t forget her goal to return home.
This premise example very clearly contains the three elements every premise needs in order to stand out:
- A protagonist described in two words, e.g. a young girl or a world-weary witch.
- A goal. What the protagonist wants or needs.
- A situation or crisis the protagonist must face.
Ready to write your premise? We have a free worksheet that will guide you through writing a publishable premise: Download the worksheet here.
3. Set a Deadline
Before you do anything else, you need to set a deadline for when you’re going to finish the first draft of your novel.
Stephen King said a first draft should be written in no more than a season, so ninety days. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, exists to encourage people to write a book in just thirty days.
In our 100 Day Book Program, we give people a little longer than that, 100 days, which seems like a good length of time for most people (me included!).
I recommend setting your deadline no longer than four months. If it’s longer than that, you’ll procrastinate. A good length of time to write a book is something that makes you a little nervous, but not outright terrified.
Mark the deadline date in your calendar, kneel on the floor, close your eyes, and make a vow to yourself and your book idea that you will write the first draft novel by then, no matter what.
4. Set Smaller Deadlines Building to the Final Deadline
A novel can’t be written in a day. There’s no way to “cram” for a novel. The key to writing (and finishing) a novel is to make a little progress every day.
If you write a thousand words a day, something most people are capable of doing in an hour or two, for 100 days, by the end you’ll have a 100,000 word novel—which is a pretty long novel!
So set smaller, weekly deadlines that break up your book into pieces. I recommend trying to write 5,000 to 6,000 words per week by each Friday or Sunday, whichever works best for you.
If you can hit all of your weekly deadlines, you know you’ll make your final deadline at the end.
As long as you hold yourself accountable to your smaller, feasible, and prioritized writing benchmarks.
5. Create a Consequence
You might think, “Setting a deadline is fine, but how do I actually hit my deadline?” Here’s a secret I learned from my friend Tim Grahl:
You need to create a consequence.
Try by taking these steps:
- Set your deadline.
- Write a check to an organization or nonprofit you hate (I did this during the 2016 U.S. presidential election by writing a check to the campaign of the candidate I liked least, whom shall remain nameless).
- Think of two other, minor consequences (like giving up your favorite TV show for a month or having to buy ice cream for everyone at work).
- Give your check, plus your list of two minor consequences, to a friend you trust with firm instructions to hold you to your consequences if you don’t meet your deadlines.
- If you miss one of your weekly deadlines, suffer one of your minor consequences (e.g. give up your favorite TV show).
- If you miss THREE weekly deadlines OR if you miss the final deadline, send your check to that organization you hate.
- Finally, write! I promise that if you complete steps one through six, you’ll be incredibly focused.
When I took these steps while writing my seventh book, I finished it in sixty-three days. Sixty-three days!
It was the most focused I’ve ever been in my life.
Writing a book is hard work. Setting reasonable consequences make it harder to NOT finish than to finish.
Watch me walk a Wattpad famous writer through this process:
The next few points are all about how to write a good story.
The reason we set a deadline before we consider how to write a story that stands out is because we could spend our entire lives learning how write a great story, but never actually write it (and it’s in the writing process that you actually learn how to make your story great).
So learn how to make it great between writing sessions, but only good enough for the draft you’re currently writing. If you focus too much on this, it will ruin everything and you’ll never finish.
Writing a perfect novel, a novel like the one you have in your imagination, is an exercise in futility.
First drafts are inevitably horrible. Second drafts are a little better. Third drafts are better still.
But I’d bet none of these drafts approach the perfection that you built up in your head when you first considered your novel idea.
And yet, even if you know that, you’ll still try to write a perfect novel.
So remind yourself constantly, “This first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough for now.”
And good enough for now, when you’re starting your first draft, just means you have words on a page that faintly resemble a story.
Writing is an iterative process. The purpose of your first draft is to have something you can improve in your second draft. Don’t overthink. Just do. (I’ll remind you of this later, in case you forget, and if you’re like me, you probably will.)
Ready to look at what makes a good story? Let’s jump into the next few points—but don’t forget your goal: to get your whole book, the complete story, on the page, no matter how messy your first draft reads.
7. Figure Out What Kind of Story You’re Trying to Tell
Now that you have a deadline, you can start to think more deeply about what your protagonist really wants.
A good story focuses primarily on just one core thing that the protagonist wants or needs, and the place where your protagonist’s want or need meets the reader’s expectations dictates your story’s genre.
Plot type is a big subject, and for the purposes of this post, we don’t have time to fully explore it (check out my book The Write Structure here).
But story type is about more than what shelf your book sits on at the bookstore.
The book type gets to the heart, the foundational values, of what your story is about. In my book The Write Structure, I define ten plot types, which correspond to six value scales. I’ll give an abbreviated version below:
External Values (What Your Protagonist Wants)
- Life vs. Death: Action, Adventure
- Life vs. a Fate Worse Than Death: Horror, Thriller, Mystery
- Love vs. Hate: Love, Romance
- Esteem: Performance, Sports
Internal Values (What Your Protagonist Needs)
Internal plot types work slightly different than external plot types. These are essential for your character’s transformation from page one to the end and deal with either a character’s shift in their black-and-white view, a character’s moral compass, or a character’s rise or fall in social status.
For more, check out The Write Structure.
The three internal plot types are bulleted quickly below.
- Maturity/Sophistication vs. Immaturity/Naiveté: Coming of Age
- Good/Sacrifice vs. Evil/Selfishness: Morality, Temptation/Testing
Choosing Your External and Internal Plot Types Will Set You Up for Success
You can mix and match these genres to some extent. For your book to be commercially successful, you must have an external genre.
For your book to be considered more “character driven”—or a story that connects with the reader on a universal level—you should have an internal genre, too. (I highly recommend having both.)
You can also have a subplot. So that’s three genres that you can potentially incorporate into your novel.
For example, you might have an action plot with a love story subplot and a worldview education internal genre. Or a horror plot with a love story subplot and a morality internal genre. There’s a lot of room to maneuver.
Regardless of what you choose, the balance of the three will give your protagonist plenty of obstacles to face as they strive to achieve their goal from beginning to end. (For best results when you go to publish, though, make sure you have an external genre.)
If you want to have solid preparation to write you book, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Write Structure.
What two or three values are foundational to your story? Spend some time brainstorming what your book is really about. Even better, use our Write Structure worksheet to get to the heart of your story type.
8. Read Novels and Watch Films That Are Similar to Yours
“The hard truth is that books are made from books.”
I like to remember this quote from Cormac McCarthy when considering what my next novel is really about.
Now that you’ve thought about your novel’s plot, it’s time to see how other great writers have pulled off the impossible and crafted a great story from the glimmer of an idea.
You might think, “My story is completely unique. There are no other stories similar to mine.”
If that’s you, then one small word of warning. If there are no books that are similar to yours, maybe there’s a reason for that.
Personally, I’ve read a lot of great books that were a lot of fun to read and were similar to other books. I’ve also read a lot of bad books that were completely unique.
Even precious, unique snowflakes look more or less like other snowflakes.
If you found your content genre in step three, select three to five novels and films that are in the same genre as yours and study them.
Don’t read/watch for pleasure. Instead, try to figure out the conventions, key scenes, and the way the author/filmmaker moves you through the story.
There’s great strength in understanding how your story is the same but different.
9. STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE!
Those were the three words my college screenwriting professor, a successful Hollywood TV producer, wrote across the blackboard nearly every class.
You can be a pantser, someone who writes by the seat of their pants.
You can be a plotter, someone who needs to have a detailed outline for each of the plot points in their novel.
You can even be a plantser, somewhere in between the two (like most writers, including me).
It doesn’t matter. You still have to know your story structure.
Here are a few important structural elements you’ll want to figure out for your novel before moving forward:
6 Key Moments of Story Structure
There are six required moments in every story, scene, and act. They are:
If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, I recommend studying each of them, especially dilemma, which we’ll talk about more in a moment. Mastering these will be a huge aid to your writing process.
For your first few scenes, try plotting out each of these six moments, focusing especially on the dilemma.
Better yet, download our story structure worksheet to guide you through the story structure process, from crafting your initial idea through to writing the synopsis.
I’ve included some more detailed thoughts (and must-knows) about structure briefly below:
Three Act Structure
In the first act, put your character up a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at them. In the third act, bring them down.
Do you wonder whether you should use three act structure or five act structure? (Hint: you probably don’t want to use the five act structure. Learn more about this type with our full guide on the five act structure here.)
Note that each of these acts should have the six key moments listed above.
I mentioned the importance of a character undergoing a crisis, but it bears repeating since, for me, it completely transformed my writing process.
In every act, your protagonist must face an impossible choice. It is THIS choice that creates drama in your story. THIS is how your plot moves forward. If you don’t have a dilemma, if your character doesn’t choose, your scenes won’t work, nor will your acts or story.
In my writing, when I’m working on a first draft, I don’t focus on figuring out all five key moments every time (since I’ve internalized them by now), but I do try to figure out the crisis before I start writing.
I begin with that end in mind, and figure out how I can put the protagonist into a situation where they must make a difficult choice.
One that will have consequences even if they decide to do nothing.
When you do that, your scene works. When you don’t, it falls flat. The protagonist looks like a weak-willed observer of their own life, and ultimately your story will feel boring.
Find the dilemma every time.
Write out a brief three-act outline with each of the six key moments for each act. It’s okay to leave those moments blank if you don’t know them right now. Fill in what you do know, and come back to it.
Point of View
Point of view, or POV, in a story refers to the narrator’s position in the description of events. There are four types of point of view, but there are only two main options used by most writers:
- Third-person limited point of view is the most common and easiest to use, especially for new writers. In this POV, the characters are referred to in third person (he/she/him/her/they/them) and the narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings to a maximum of one character at a time (and likely one character for the duration of the narrative). You can read more about how to use third-person limited here.
- First-person point of view is also very common and only slightly more difficult. In this POV, the narrator is a character in the story and uses first person pronouns (I/me/mine/we/ours) and has access only to their own thoughts and feelings. This point of view requires an especially strong style, one that shows the narrator’s distinct attitude and voice as they tell the story.
The third option is used much less common, though is still found occasionally, especially in older works:
- Third-person omniscient point of view is much more difficult to pull off well and isn’t recommended for first time authors. In this POV, the characters are referred to in third-person (he/she/him/her/they/them), but the narrator has access to the thoughts and feelings of any and all characters at the same time. This is a difficult narrative to pull off because of how disorienting it can be for the reader. Readers are placed “in the heads” of so many characters, which can easily destroy the drama of a story because of the lack of mystery.
One final option:
- Second-person point of view is the most difficult to pull off and isn’t recommended for most authors. In this POV, the characters are referred to in second person (you/your). This choice is rarely (although not never) found in novels.
Need more plot help? Check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love.
10. Find the Climactic Moment in Your Novel
Every great novel has a climactic moment that the whole story builds up to—it’s the whole reason a reader purchases a book and reads it to the end.
In Moby Dick, it’s the final showdown with the white whale.
In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Lizzie accepting Mr. Darcy’s proposal after discovering the lengths he went to in order to save her family.
In the final Harry Potter novel (spoiler alert!), it’s Harry offering himself up as a sacrifice to Voldemort to destroy the final Horcrux.
To be clear, you don’t have to have your climactic moment all planned out before you start writing your book. (Although knowing this might make writing and finishing your novel easier and more focused.)
But it IS a good idea to know what novels and films similar to yours have done.
For example, if you’re writing a performance story about a violinist, as I am, you need to have some kind of big violin competition at the end of your book.
If you’re writing a police procedural crime novel, you need to have a scene where the detective unmasks the murderer and explains the rationale behind the murder.
Think about the climactic moment your novel builds up before the final showdown at the end. This climactic moment will usually occur in the climax of the second or third act.
If you know this, fill in your outline with the climactic moment, then write out the five key moments of the scene for that moment.
If you don’t know them, just leave them blank. You can always come back to it.
11. Consider the Conventions
Readers are sophisticated. They’ve been taking in stories for years, since they were children, and they have deep expectations for what should be in your story.
That means if you want readers to like your story, you need to meet and even exceed some of those expectations.
Stories do this constantly. We call them conventions, or tropes, and they’re patterns that storytellers throughout history have found make for a good story.
In the romantic comedy (love) genre, for example, there is almost always the sidekick best friend, some kind of love triangle, and a meet cute moment where the two potential lovers meet.
In the mystery genre, the story always begins with a murder, there are one or more red herrings, and there’s a final unveiling of the murder at the end.
Think through the three to five novels and films you read/watched. What conventions and tropes did they have in common?
12. Set Your Intention
You’re almost ready to start writing. Before you do, set your intention.
Researchers have found that when you’re trying to create a new habit, if you imagine where and when you will participate in that habit, you’re far more likely to follow through.
For your writing, imagine where, when, and how much you will write each day. For example, you might imagine that you will write 1,000 words at your favorite coffee shop each afternoon during your lunch break.
As you imagine, picture your location clearly in your mind. Watch yourself sitting down to work, typing on your laptop. Imagine your word count tracker going from 999 to 1,002 words.
When it’s time to write, you’ll be ready to go do it.
13. Picture Your Reader
The definition of a story is a narrative meant to entertain, amuse, or instruct. That implies there is someone being entertained, amused, or instructed!
I think it’s helpful to picture one person in your mind as you write (instead of an entire target audience). Then, as you write, you can better understand what would interest, amuse, or instruct them.
By picturing them, you will end up writing better stories.
Create a reader avatar.
Choose someone you know, or make up someone who would love your story. Describe them in terms of demographics and interests. Consider the question, “Why would this reader love my novel?”
When you write, write for them.
14. Build Your Team
Most people think they can write a novel on their own, that they need to stick themselves in some cabin in upstate New York or an attic apartment in Paris and just focus on writing their novel for a few months or decades.
And that’s why most people fail to finish writing a book.
As I’ve studied the lives of great writers, I’ve found that they all had a team. None of them did it all on their own. They all had people who supported and encouraged them as they wrote.
A team can look like:
- An editor with a publishing house
- A writing group
- An author mentor or coach
- An online writing course or community
Whatever you find, if you want to finish your novel, don’t make the mistake of believing you can do it all on your own (or that you have to do it on your own).
Whatever you do, don’t keep trying to do everything by yourself.
15. Plan the Publishing Process
One thing I’ve found is that when successful people take on a task, they think through every part of the process from beginning to end. They create a plan. Their plan might change, but starting with a plan gives them clear focus for what they’re setting out to accomplish.
Most of the steps we’ve been talking about in this post involve planning (writing is coming up next, don’t worry), but in your plan, it’s important to think through things all the way to the end—the publishing and marketing process.
So spend ten or twenty minutes dreaming about how you’ll publish your novel (self-publishing vs. traditional publishing) and how you’ll promote it (to your email list, on social media, via Amazon ads, etc.).
By brainstorming about the publishing and marketing process, you’ll make it much more likely to actually finish your novel because you’re eager for (and know what you want to do when you’re at) the end.
Have no idea how to get published? Check out our 10-step book publishing and launch guide here.
16. Write (With Low Expectations)
You’ve created a plan. You know what you’re going to write, when you’re going to write it, and how you’re going to write.
Now it’s time to actually write it.
Sit down at the blank page. Take a deep breath. Write your very first chapter.
Don’t forget, your first draft is supposed to be bad.
17. Trust the Process and Don’t Quit
As I’ve trained writers through the novel writing process in our 100 Day Book Program, inevitably around day sixty, they tell me how hard the process is, how tired they are of their story, how they have a new idea for a novel, and they want to work on that instead.
“Don’t quit,” I tell them. Trust the process. You’re so much closer than you think.
Then, miraculously, two or three weeks later, they’re emailing me to say they’re about to finish their books. They’re so grateful they didn’t quit.
This is the process. This is how it always goes.
Just when you think you’re not going to make it, you’re almost there.
Just when you most want to quit, that’s when you’re closest to a breakthrough.
Trust the process. Don’t quit. You’re going to make it.
Just keep showing up and doing the work (and remember, doing the work means writing imperfectly).
18. Keep Going, Even When It Hurts
Appliances always break when you’re writing a book.
Someone always gets sick making writing nearly impossible (either you or your spouse or all your kids or all of the above).
One writer told us recently a high-speed car chase ended with the car crashing into a building close to her house.
I’m not superstitious, but stuff like this always happens when you’re writing a book.
Expect it. Things will not go according to plan. Major life problems will occur.
It will be really hard to stay focused for weeks on end.
This is where it’s so important to have a team (step fourteen). When life happens, you’ll need someone to vent to, to encourage you, and to support you.
No matter what, write anyway. This is what separates you from all the aspiring writers out there. You do the work even when it’s hard.
19. Finish Draft One… Then Onward to the Next
I followed this process, and then day, I realized I’d written the second to last scene. And then the next day, my novel was finished.
It felt kind of anticlimactic.
I had wanted to write a novel for years, more than a decade. I had done it. And it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought.
Amazing, without question.
But also just normal.
After all, I had been doing this, writing every day for ninety-nine days. Finishing was just another day.
But the journey itself? 100 days for writing a novel? That was amazing.
That was worth it.
And it will be worth it again and again.
Maybe it will be like that for you. You might finish your book and feel amazing and proud and relieved. You might also feel normal. It’s the difference between being an aspiring writer and being a real writer.
Real writers realize the joy is in the work, not in having a finished book.
When you get to this point, I just want to say, “Congratulations!”
You did it.
You finished a book. I’m so excited for you!
But also, as you will know when you get to this point, this is really just the beginning of your journey.
Your book isn’t nearly ready to publish yet.
So celebrate. Throw a party for yourself. Say thank you to all your team members. You finished. You should be proud!
After this celebratory breather, move on to your last step.
20. Next Drafts: Draft Two…Three…Four…Five
This is a novel writing guide, not a novel revising guide (that is coming soon!). But I’ll give you a few pointers on what to do after you write your novel:
- Rest. Take a break. You earned it. Resting also lets you get distance on your book, which you need right now.
- Read without revising. Most people jump right into the proofreading and line editing process. This is the worst thing you could do. Instead, read your novel from beginning to end without making revisions. You can take notes, but the goal for this is to create a plan for your next draft, not fix all your typos and misplaced commas.
- Get feedback. Then, share your book with your team: editors and fellow writers (not friends and family yet). Ask for feedback, especially structural feedback, not on typos for now.
- Next, rewrite for structure. Your second draft is all about fixing the structure of your novel. Revisit steps seven through eleven for help.
- Last, polish your prose. Your third (and additional) draft(s) is for fixing typos, line editing, and making your sentences sound nice. Save this for the end, because if you polish too soon, you might have to delete a whole scene that you spent hours rewriting.
Want to know more about what to do next? Check out our guide on what to do AFTER you finish your book here.
Writers’ Best Tips on How to Write a Novel
I’ve also asked the writers I’ve coached for their single tips on how to write a novel. These are from writers in our community who have followed this process and finished novels of their own. Here are their best novel writing tips:
“Get it out of your head and onto the page, because you can’t improve what’s not been written.” Imogen Mann
“What gets scheduled, gets done. Block time in your day to write. Set a time of day, place and duration that you will write 4-7 days/week until it becomes habit. It’s most effective if it’s the same time of day, in the same place. Then set your duration to a number of minutes or a number of words: 60 minutes, 500 words, whatever. Slowly but surely, those words string together into a piece of work!” Stacey Watkins
“Honestly? And nobody paid me for this one—enroll in the 100 Day Book challenge at The Write Practice. I had been writing around in my novel for years and it wasn’t until I took the challenge did I actually write it chapter by chapter from beginning to end in 80,000 words. Of course I now have to revise, revise, revise.” Madeline Slovenz
“I try to write for at least an hour every day. Some days I feel like the creativity flows out of me and others it’s awkward and slow. But yes, my advice is to write for at least one hour every day. It really helps.” Kurt Paulsen
“Be patient, be humble, be forgiving. Patient, because writing a novel well will take longer than you ever imagined. Humble, because being awake to your strengths and your weaknesses is the only way to grow as a writer. And forgiveness, for the days when nothing seems to work. Stay the course, and the reward at the end — whenever that comes — will be priceless. Because it will be all yours.” Erin Halden
“Single best tip I can recommend is the development of a plan. My early writing, historical stories for my world, was done as a pantser. But, when I took the 100 Day Book challenge, one of the steps was to produce an outline. Mine started as the briefest list of chapters. But, as I thought about it, the outline expanded to cover what was happening and who was in it. That lead to a pattern for the chapters, a timeline, and greater detail in the outline. I had always hated outlines, but like Patrick Rothfuss said in one of his interviews, that hatred may have been because of the way it was taught when I was in school (long ago.) I know I will use one for the second book (if I decide to go forward with it.) Just remember the plan is there for your needs. It doesn’t need to be a formal I. A. 1. a. format. It can simply be a set of notecards with general ideas you want to include in your story.” Patrick Macy
“Everybody who writes does so on faith and guts and determination. Just write one line. Just write one scene. Just write one page. And if you write more that day consider yourself fortunate. The more you do, the stronger the writing muscle gets. But don’t do a project; just break things down into small manageable bits.” Joe Hanzlik
“When you’re sending your novel out to beta readers, keep in mind some people‘s feedback may not resonate or be true for your vision of the work. Also, just because you’ve handed off a copy for beta reading doesn’t mean you don’t have control over how people give you feedback. For instance, if you don’t want line editing, ask them not to give paragraph and sentence corrections. Instead, ask for more general feedback on the character arcs, particular scenes in the story, the genre, ideal reader, etc. Be proactive about getting the kind of response you want and need.” B.E. Jackson
“Become your main character. Begin to think and act the way they would.” Valda Dracopoulos
“I write for minimum 3 hours starting 4 a.m. Mind is uncluttered and fresh with ideas. Daily issues and commitment can wait. Make a plan and stick to the basic plan.” R.B. Smith
“Stick to the plan (which includes writing an outline, puttin your butt in the chair and shipping). I’m trying to keep it simple!” Carole Wolf
“Have a spot where you write, get some bum glue, sit and write. I usually have a starting point, a flexible endpoint and the middle works itself out.” Vuyo Ngcakani
“Before I begin, I write down the ten key scenes that must be in the novel. What is the thing that must happen, who is there when it happens, where does it take place. Once I have those key scenes, I begin.” Cathy Ryan
“In my English classes, I was told to ‘show, don’t tell,’ which is the most vague rule I’ve ever heard when it comes to writing. Until I saw a post that expanded upon this concept saying to ‘show emotion, tell feelings…’. Showing emotion will bring the reader closer to the characters, to understand their actions better. But I don’t need to read about how slow she was moving due to tiredness.” Bryan Coulter
“Rules don’t apply in the first draft; they only apply when you begin to play with it in the second draft.” Victor Paul Scerri
“My best advice to you is: Just Write. No matter if you are not inspired, maybe you are writing how you can’t think of something to write or wrote something that sucks. But just having words written down gets you going and soon you’ll find yourself inspired. You just have to write.” Mony Martinez
“As Joseph Campbell said, “find your bliss.” Tap into a vein of whatever it is that “fills your glass” and take a ride on a stream of happy, joyful verbiage.” Jarrett Wilson
“Show don’t tell is the most cited rule in the history of fiction writing, but if you only show, you won’t get past ch. 1. Learn to master the other forms of narration as well.” Rebecka Jäger
“We’ve all been trained jump when the phone rings, or worse, to continually check in with social media. Good work requires focus, but I’ve had to adopt some hacks to achieve it. 1) Get up an hour before the rest of the household and start writing. Don’t check email, Facebook, Instagram, anything – just start working. 2) Use a timer app, to help keep you honest. I set it for 30 minutes, then it gives me a 5-minute break (when things are really humming, I ignore the breaks altogether). During that time, I don’t allow anything to interrupt me if I can help it. 3) Finally, set a 3-tiered word count goal: Good, Great, Amazing. Good is the number of words you need to generate in order to feel like you’ve accomplished something (1000 words, for example). Great would be a higher number, (say, 2000 words). 3000 words could be Amazing. What I love about this strategy is that it’s forgiving and inspiring at the same time.” Dave Strand
“My advice comes in two parts. First, I think it’s important to breathe life into characters, to give them emotions and personalities and quirks. Make them flawed so that they have plenty of room to grow. Make them feel real to the reader, so when they overcome the obstacles you throw in their way, or they don’t overcome them, the reader feels all the more connected and invested in their journey. Second, I think there’s just something so magical about a scene that transports me, as a reader, to the characters’ world; that allows me to see, feel, smell, and touch what the characters are experiencing. So, the second part of my advice is to describe the character’s experience of their surroundings keeping all of their senses in mind. Don’t stop simply with what they see.” Jennifer Baker
“Start with an outline (it can always be changed), set writing goals and stick to them, write every day, know that your first draft is going to suck and embrace that knowledge, and seek honest feedback. Oh, and celebrate milestones, especially when you type ‘The End’. Take a break from your novel (but don’t stop writing something — short stories, blog posts, articles, etc.) and then dive head-first into draft 2!” Jen Horgan O’Rourke
“I write in fits and spurts of inspiration and insights. Much of my ‘writing’ occurs when I am trying to fall asleep at night or weeding in the garden. I carry my stories and essays in my head, and when I sit down to start writing, I don’t like to ‘turn off the tap.’ My most important principle is that when I write a draft, I put it out of my mind for a few days before coming back to see what it sounds like when I read it aloud.” Gayle Woodson
“My stories almost always start from a single image… someone in a situation, a setting, with or without other people… there is a problem to be solved, a decision to make, some action being taken. Often that first image becomes the central point of the story but sometimes it is simply the kick-off point for something else. Once I’ve ‘seen’ my image clearly I sit down at the computer and start writing. More images appear as I write and the story evolves. Once the rough sketch has developed through a few chapters I may go back and fill in holes and round things out. Sometimes I even sketch a rough map of my setting or the ‘world’ I’m building. With first drafts I never worry about the grammatical and other writing ‘rules.’ Those things get ironed out in the second round.” Karin Weiss
“What it took to get my first novel drafted: the outline of a story idea, sitting in chair, DEADLINES, helpful feedback from the beginning so I could learn along the way.” Joan Cory
“I write a chapter in longhand and then later that day or the next morning type it and revise. The ideas seem to flow from mind to finger to pen to paper.” Al Rutgers
“Getting up early and write for a couple of hours from 6 am is my preferred choice as my mind is uncluttered with daily issues. Stick to the basic plan and learning to ‘show’ and ‘not tell’ has been hard but very beneficial.” Abe Tse
If you’re ready to get serious about finishing your novel, I love for you to join us!
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re working on your first-ever novel, congratulations! Here are answers to frequently asked questions new (and even experienced) writers often ask me about what it takes to write a book.
How long should a novel be?
First, novel manuscripts are measured in words, not pages. A standard length for a novel is 85,000 words. The sweet number for literary agents is 90,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy tend to be around the 100,000 word range. And mystery and YA tend to be shorter, likely 65,000 words.
Over 120,000 words is usually too long, especially for traditional publishing. Under 60,000 words is a bit short, and might feel incomplete to the reader.
Of course, these are guidelines, not rules.
They exist for a reason, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow them if you have a good reason. For a more complete guide to best word count for novels, check out my guide here.
How long does it take to write a novel?
Each draft can take about the same amount of time as the first draft, or about 100 days. I recommend writing at least three drafts with a few breaks between drafts, which means you can have a finished, published novel in a little less than a year using this process.
Many people have finished novels faster. My friend and bestseller Carlos Cooper finishes four novels a year, and another bestselling author friend Stacy Claflin is working on her sixty-second book (and she’s not close to being sixty-two years old).
If you’d like, you can write faster.
If you take longer breaks between drafts or write more drafts, it might take longer.
Whatever you decide, I don’t recommend taking much longer than 100 days to finish your first draft. After that, you can lose your momentum and it becomes much harder to finish.
That’s It! The Foolproof Template for How to Write a Novel
Writing a novel isn’t easy. But it is possible with the write process (sorry, I had to do it). If you follow each step above, you will finish a novel.
Your novel may not be perfect, but it will be what you need on your road to making it great.
Good luck and happy writing!
Which steps of this process do you follow? Which steps are new or challenging for you? Let us know in the comments!
Writing your novel idea in the form of a single-sentence premise is the first step to finishing your novel. So let’s do that today!
Then post your premise in the practice box below. If you post, please be sure to leave feedback on premises by at least three other writers.
Maybe you’ll start finding your writing team right here!
Enter your practice here: