If you’ve always fancied the idea of writing a story, we’ve got just the thing. We take a look at some common questions, tips and tricks as we explore how to write a novel.
If you’ve ever tried writing a novel before, you’ll know that it can often seem easy until you actually get to the writing part. Coming up with ideas, scenes, and characters in your head is one thing, but getting them down on paper is quite another. To give you some help (or consolation) during National Novel Writing Month, we delve into how to write a novel.
As well as looking at some step-by-step ideas for writing, we also take a look at some of the considerations and questions to bear in mind as you try and bring your story to life. We also have some tips on planning, as well as some useful methods that novel writers often use.
First things first
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that there is no single ‘best’ way to write a novel. The beauty of writing is that just about anyone can do it, in just about any way they please. This doesn’t necessarily mean that what they produce will be any good, but that’s beside the point.
While we cover a lot of popular advice and several common writing methods in this article, a lot of this will be subjective. It may or may not work for you, and that’s fine. Ultimately, if you want to write, you should do so in a way that suits you.
Why write a novel?
You may have heard the old adage that ‘everyone has a book in them.’ According to the late, great Christopher Hitchens, ‘that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’ The latter point is, of course, somewhat cynical. If you have a novel, screenplay, or song, inside you waiting to be written, you should honour that, even if it’s simply for your own amusement.
So why might you choose to write a book? Well, a 2015 study found that 60% of people surveyed wanted to be an author. Clearly, the idea of being the next Margret Atwood or Stephen King is a tempting one. The romantic and artistic ideal of a writer’s life, along with fame and riches that come with publishing a best-seller seems idyllic.
However, in reality, the chances of becoming rich and famous through writing a novel are very, very slim. Most writers are never published, and those that are rarely sell huge numbers of books. The average earnings for an author in the UK in 2018, for example, were £16,096. What’s more, all the figures show that it has become increasingly difficult to become a full-time author.
So, learning how to write a novel probably isn’t going to make you rich. But it’s still worthwhile, even if you never publish your work. Here are some reasons you might choose to write a novel:
To challenge yourself
Such a big writing project is quite an undertaking. It takes time, focus, dedication, research, rewriting, and more to write a novel. It’s a challenge and an achievement to create something from nothing, even if it’s not perfect.
To improve your writing skills
Getting your ideas from your mind onto the page is a skill in itself. The more you write, the more you’ll find ways to express your thoughts and intent. This skill can benefit you in many areas of your life.
To express yourself
A novel is a creative expression. You can use the writing process to slay your demons, celebrate your victories, channel your love, and confront your fears. It’s an artistic form of self-expression.
Reading is a popular pastime, and creating a form of entertainment can be rewarding. Even if only one other person reads it and finds it interesting, it can be immensely satisfying.
To tell your story
Everyone has their own story and telling it can be cathartic, enjoyable, invigorating, and many other things. You can highlight issues, spark social change, save cherished memories, and pass on knowledge.
How long should a novel be?
This is a question that many aspiring writers get caught up on. The simple answer is ‘as long as it needs to be,’ but that’s not particularly helpful. When you’re thinking about how to write a novel, you should focus on word count rather than page count. However, there isn’t really an ‘ideal’ length for your story. Some are long, while others are short.
Let’s look at some examples to give a sense of scale. Animal Farm by George Orwell is 29,966 words long. Arguably, this makes it more of a novella than a novel, but we’re not here to debate semantics. On the other end of the spectrum, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is 587,287 words long. Each is a classic in its own right.
In reality, the average length of a published novel is somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 words. Yet length often depends on the genre, author, purpose, publisher involvement, and a variety of other factors. Writing projects such as National Novel Writing Month suggest a word count of at least 50,000 words. More on that later.
What should it be about?
This one is another frequently asked question, and it can be a tough nut to crack. In some ways, it’s incredibly freeing; you can write about pretty much anything. However, that also leaves a lot of scope for pinning your ideas down. The decision-making process here can be a tricky one, focused as much on eliminating bad concepts as choosing good ones.
Generally speaking, novels are fictitious prose narratives. But that shouldn’t stop you from writing about what you know. Everyone’s an expert about their own life, and you’ve no doubt got many experiences you can draw on. Whether it’s your work, your hobby or an area of interest, you can find inspiration in all kinds of places.
On the other hand, you may want to create something purely from your imagination. Some of the best novels ever written have been far-removed from reality as we know it. You can let your creativity run wild when coming up with a topic to write about. Start with a ‘what would happen if…’ question and run with it. You can start writing fiction about almost anything.
What’s the deal with NaNoWriMo?
We’ve mentioned National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, a few times in this article. It’s a non-profit organisation and writing community that helps to encourage people to get writing. Back in 1999, NaNoWriMo began as a writing challenge. Each year since, on 1st November, writers around the world embark on a challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
It sounds like a crazy undertaking (and often feels like exactly that!), but tens of thousands of amateur writers complete the challenge every year. It’s more about encouraging people to write and support each other than producing a perfectly polished piece of prose.
To complete the NaNoWriMo challenge, you only need to write around 1,660 words per day. What’s more, the momentum soon builds, particularly if you do some prep beforehand. And, even if you don’t make it to the end, you’ll still have committed some ideas to paper and made some progress.
Tips before you begin
Before we get into the details of how to write a novel, it’s worth mentioning some prep that you can do that might make the process easier. Of course, you might want to dive right into the writing process, in which case, you should do exactly that.
However, to make the process as smooth as possible, many writers recommend doing things like:
Reading a lot
If you want to write in a particular genre, you may want to consider reading as much as possible in that specific area. It can give you inspiration, highlight things you like and dislike, and get you familiar with the trends and tropes. Of course, you might also want to write an entirely new take on the genre.
Keeping a journal
One great way to get into the habit of writing is to keep a daily journal. You can express your thoughts and feelings, keep notes of memorable events, and get the feel for committing words to paper. It can also help with things like mindfulness and wellbeing, which is a bonus.
Writing some ideas down
To get your creative juices flowing, try to note down your ideas when you think of them. A notepad by the side of your bed is often useful for this, as dreams and relaxed musings will often yield something inventive.
Thinking about your characters
Before you start writing a novel, you might want to get familiar with your main characters. Write about them, create scenes or flash fiction with them in, and get to know their personality. It’ll make it easier to then show that in your novel. Character design and development is essential in many different types of media.
Building your world
Whether it’s a real or fictional setting, spend some time fleshing out the main action areas you want to write about. It helps you get a feel and mental image of where the action is taking place.
Having an ending in mind
This one is a little debatable, but many writers find it helps. Knowing where your story is ultimately going can help keep you on track and on target. You don’t have to have all the details before you start writing, but a vague idea can be helpful.
Starting with a summary
To make sure you have clarity for your ideas, try summing it up in just a few sentences. Think of this as your elevator pitch for the novel. If you can’t summarise it, it may lack a bit of direction.
Building a routine
When it comes to writing a novel, you’ll want to try and be fairly consistent with your writing. Otherwise, you might end up like A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) writer George R.R. Martin. He’s been working on the latest novel for over nine years. Come on, George.
How to write a novel: step by step
Of course, some or all of the tips we’ve mentioned above might not work for you. There isn’t an exact science when it comes to how to write a novel. However, we’ve tried to highlight some steps that you might want to take as you progress through your own writing. There can help give you structure and targets while ensuring you hit the right points:
1. Start with a plan
However vague it may be, you’ll possibly want to start your endeavour with some sort of plan. Many writers complain about being beholden to an outline that doesn’t work for them, yet writing without a purpose can mean you lack focus. Your plan doesn’t have to be extremely detailed and rigid, but an idea of some scenes, character interactions, and key plot points can be useful.
2. Choose a point of view and setting
An essential part of how to write a novel is establishing a setting. You want to be as specific as possible here, nailing down a place and time where your story takes place. Of course, it will likely span multiple locations and timelines, but choosing a main location gives you a point to anchor your novel to. It could be a real city, for example, or an entirely fictional world with its own rules and parameters.
Similarly, you’ll want to decide who is telling the story and from what vantage point. Will you write a first-person narrative as your protagonist experiences events? Or will you be a more omniscient narrator who is privy to the thoughts and feelings of every character? Try and find the method that’s most natural to your way of writing when you’re first starting out.
3. Create a story structure
Again, some writers don’t like being constrained by a pre-defined structure. However, most stories follow a fairly similar overall structure which combines your plot and story elements (characters, settings, conflicts, etc.). There are several different ways you play with the framework, but in general, you want to think about:
- An introduction. Often, this establishes the status quo of the main character(s), exploring who they are and what their ambitions are.
- An inciting incident. This is the catalyst that changes everything, forcing your protagonist to act and setting the story in motion.
- A series of challenges. As the action rises, your protagonist must overcome obstacles as they pursue their ultimate goal.
- A climax. This is where your main character appears to have failed, and all seems lost.
- A resolution. The story concludes, and your character either succeeds or fails in their task.
Of course, you can mix this structure up entirely, add elements, and take new approaches. However, you’ll find these steps in just about every story in some form or another.
4. Think about conflict
Central to many great novels is a conflict that needs resolving. It’s what drives the plot forward, as well as outlining what’s at stake and why we should care about the characters. Essentially, it’s a struggle between two opposing forces – a character wants something, but there is an obstacle in their path.
So, you need to think about the event or conflict that’s at the centre of your novel. This doesn’t mean you have to pack it full of meaningless struggle and strife, but there should be something at stake. This could include an internal conflict, where a character strives to overcome something within them, or an external conflict, where they struggle against an external force outside of their control.
Types of conflict you might want to explore include:
- Character vs self. This focuses on an internal conflict, where a character battles something like their morals or mental health.
- Character vs character. When two characters have opposing views, often preventing one character from achieving their goals.
- Character vs nature. Here, a character struggles against a force of nature or a natural environment. Their emotions and feelings are often tumultuous, while nature remains steadfast.
- Character vs society. In this conflict, the character finds themselves opposed to an element of society, such as a government or tradition. There are often other driving factors for this opposition.
Of course, these are just a few examples. You could also pit your character against technology or the supernatural, depending on the genre you’re writing.
5. Write your beginning
Sometimes, it’s easy to get bogged down in the meticulous planning and note-making that some writers like to do. Often, this can detract from the time you actually spend writing. Sometimes the best piece of advice for how to write a novel is to simply start writing a beginning. You can drop your character straight into the action, or spend time developing your setting and world. Either way, getting those first words down is a crucial step.
You might find that the beginning you make isn’t the actual start of your story. That’s entirely fine. Even if you start by crafting some interesting but unconnected scenes, you have a basis for your plot to develop. Start writing and see where it takes you.
6. Set achievable deadlines
NaNoWriMo can be a great writing exercise as it adds some time pressure. You don’t have the luxury of spending ages contemplating the intricacies of one scene or conversation, you just have to write. Of course, you’ll eventually have to go back to edit and rewrite, but at least you’ll have a first draft written.
If you’re not quite up for such a short turnaround, you should still set some deadlines. Otherwise, you might find that all you do is plan and daydream, rather than actually writing anything. Set yourself word targets and when you want to reach them. Learning how to write a novel is often about balancing planning, deadlines, and writing.
Ultimately, if you want to write a novel, you have to actually write things down. You might want to skip every step we’ve outlined so far and just put words on a page – plenty of writers do exactly that. Whether you need lots of planning or none at all, the most important point is getting started and regularly writing.
Methods in the madness
If you’re looking for some tried and tested writing methods to bring some sense among the chaos, there are a few you can choose from. We’ve outlined the basics here, so you can explore them further if they sound appealing.
- Snowflake method. One of the most famous techniques focuses on starting small and building layers. It’s a 10-step process that adds complexity at each level, eventually giving you a first draft of your novel.
- Mirror method. The mirror moment of your novel is the point at which everything in your story becomes clear. With the mirror method, you start writing this middle moment and fill out the rest of your novel around it.
- 5-draft method. This method encourages you to get writing and focus on the finer details afterwards. You start by writing absolutely everything down without editing. Then, you go through a series of drafts, each one focusing on a particular point.
You may find some of these useful, or you may come up with your own unique method of how to write a novel. Whichever it is, good luck with your writing!