How to Write a Novel: Getting Started

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A lot of people want to write novels, but don't know how to begin. There's not a right or wrong approach to novel-writing, but here are some general steps to get you started.

1) Set a writing schedule.

Writing a novel's a big project. If you leave the writing for when you happen to have a free moment, it's not likely to get done.

You need a plan. For example, maybe you can make writing time by waking up half an hour earlier every day. It's okay if you can only write for a short time each day; the key is to be consistent.

Imagine you write just half a page per day. If you do that every day, in one year, you can finish a draft of your novel!

2) Come up with an idea.

Some people get stuck at this step. They're afraid that their ideas aren't brilliant enough or that they're too much like novels that have already been written.

Remember, though, it's not the idea that will make your novel great or original -- it's what you do with it.

Click here for a free e-book with prompts you can use for inspiration.Click here for a free e-book with prompts you can use for inspiration.

3) Develop your idea.

A classic story plot is built around a character's struggle to overcome a problem or to reach a goal. This struggle gives your story a structure, and it gives readers a reason to keep reading -- they want to find out if the character will succeed or fail.

Often story ideas begin like this:

- "I want to write about vampires."

- "I want to write a spy thriller about the Cold War."

There's nothing wrong with those ideas as starting points, but they aren't story plots -- yet.

Your next step would be to decide on a main character and a central problem or goal for the character to struggle with in the story.

4) Outline - or not.

Many novelists like to start with an outline. This doesn't have to be as scary as it might sound.

Remember how we just talked about developing your idea so that your character's struggling with a problem or trying to reach a goal?

Brainstorm a list of actions your character might take to try to overcome the problem and reach his/her goal. What new problems or obstacles might arise? What might your character do then? All of these are possible scene for your novel.

Make a list. Then play with your list, ordering the possible scenes, removing ones that don't seem to fit and adding new ones to fill the gaps. Voilà -- you have a novel outline!

The outline doesn't have to be in any special format. It's just for you.

Other authors prefer to work without an outline and dive straight into the writing. That's fine too. As I've said, there's no right or wrong approach.

Should you outline or not? It's not a life-or-death decision either way.

If you start without an outline and feel lost, you can stop and brainstorm some scene ideas to keep you going. You can go back and outline at any point in the writing process.

On the other hand, if you begin with an outline, you're not stuck with it. When new ideas occur to you, you can explore them. You can update the outline if you want or leave it behind.

5) Flesh out scenes.

A novel outline might begin like this:

- Karen argues with parents about going to Joan's party.
- Vampires attack Joan's family and take over her house.
- That night, Karen sneaks out of her bedroom and heads to party.

Here you have three scene ideas. Now you have to turn them into scenes with dialogue and action and descriptive detail.

For example, take the scene where Karen argues with her parents. What does she say? What do they say back? What is their body language? Where is all of this taking place? If the scene is from Karen's perspective, what is she thinking?

Imagine the scene as vividly as possible from your main character's perspective. Then try to capture it on the page.

You want the reader to feel as if s/he's watching the important events of the story in "real time", as if s/he's actually there.

6) Finish a draft.

It's okay if your rough draft is a mess. It's okay if all the pieces don't fit together. It's okay if you get bored with it partway through. All of that is normal.

Great novels often begin with messy first drafts. They become great with revision. So just keep going.

At some point, writing a novel can turn into an endurance test. Don't give up. Don't get distracted by doubts and by the fantastic, sure-to-be-a-bestseller new ideas that try to tempt you away from your current project. Your job is to finish that draft, and then you'll have something to revise.

For step-by-step help planning your novel, take our online course on story structure.

man writing on pathway to illustrate page on how to write a novel
Photo credit: Nik Shuliahin

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