Every day I talk to writers who don’t know how to write a novel and worry they don’t have what it takes. Honestly, they’re right to worry. Writing a novel is hard, and the desk drawers and hard drives of many a great writer is filled with the skeletons of failed books.
What if you could begin your novel without the fear of failing? What if you had a process so foolproof, you knew you would finish no matter what? The zombie apocalypse could finally strike and you’d still finish writing your novel.
The good news is you’ve found the write place (sorry, bad habit).
I’m a #1 Amazon bestselling author of nine books, and in this complete guide, I’m going to share the exact process that I use to make sure I finish my books. I’ve taught this process to hundreds of other writers who have used it to finish their novels, too. Plus, I’ll also share the single best novel writing tips from thirty-seven other novelists, not to mention a few life-saving resources that you can use in your novel writing journey.
Table of Contents
Looking for something specific? Jump straight to it here:
1. Get a great idea
2. Write your idea as a premise
3. Set a deadline
4. Set smaller deadlines building to the final deadline
5. Create a consequence
6. Strive for “good enough” and embrace imperfection
7. Figure out what kind of story you’re trying to tell
8. Read novels and watch films that are similar to yours
9. Structure, structure, structure!
10. Find the climactic moment in your novel
11. Consider the conventions
12. Set your intention
13. Picture your reader
14. Build your team
15. Plan the publishing process
16. Write (with low expectations)
17. Trust the process and don’t quit
18. Keep going, even when it hurts
19. Finish Draft One . . . then onward to the next
20. Draft 2, 3, 4, 5
Writers’ Best Tips on How to Write a Novel
My Journey to Learn How to Write a Novel
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, but even after getting an expensive degree, I still 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 still 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.
I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to write a novel.
But then, one year, I decided it was time. I needed to stop stalling and finally take on the process.
So I crafted a plan to finish a novel using everything I’d ever learned about book writing process, every trick, hack, and technique I knew.
And the process worked. I finished my novel in 100 days.
But in case you think, Well of course you finished a novel, you’re a professional writer already, I’ve also taught this process to hundreds of other writers, most of whom are working on their first books, and they’ve used it to finish their novels too.
If you’ve ever felt discouraged, like I did, afraid that you don’t know how to write a novel and you don’t have what it takes, I’m here to tell you that you can write a novel.
You just need to have the write process (oops, didn’t even mean to do it that time).
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. Check those out, choose an idea or make up one of your own, and then 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. The sentence will guide your entire writing and publishing process from beginning to end.
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.
A premise is also the most important part of a query letter or book proposal, and so a good premise can actually help you get published.
What’s an example of a novel premise?
Here’s an example premise 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.
How do you write a premise?
A premise must contain three things:
- A protagonist described in two words, e.g. a young girl or a world-weary witch.
- A goal. What does the protagonist want or need?
- A situation or crisis the protagonist is facing.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
5. Create a Consequence
You might be thinking, Setting a deadline is fine, but how do I actually hit my deadline? Here’s the secret I learned from my friend Tim Grahl.
Create a consequence. Here’s how:
- Set your deadline.
- Write a check to an organization or nonprofit you hate (When I did this, it was during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and I wrote a check to the campaign of the candidate I liked least, who shall remain nameless!).
- Then 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 deadline, you get one of your minor consequences (e.g. giving up your favorite TV show).
- If you miss THREE weekly deadlines OR if you miss the final deadline, your check gets sent to the organization you hate.
- Finally, write! I promise you, if you do steps 1–6, you will be incredibly focused!
When I did this while writing my seventh book, I finished it in just sixty-three days. It was the most focused I’ve ever been in my life!
6. Strive for “good enough” and embrace imperfection
Only after you have a deadline can you start to think about how to actually make your novel good.
The next few points are all about how to write a good story. The reason we set a deadline before we start to think about how to make our story good is because we could spend a lifetime trying to learn how to make our story good and never write our story (and it’s in the writing process that you actually learn how to make your story good).
So learn how to make it good in between writing sessions, but only good enough for the draft you’re on. 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 none of them approach the perfection that you had in your head when you first considered writing a novel.
And yet, even if you know that, you’ll still try to write a perfect novel. I find that most of the work of writing a novel, or any book, is reminding yourself constantly, “This 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.
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 on the page, no matter how messy your first draft is.
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 stories genre.
Genre is a big subject, and for the purposes of this article, we don’t have time to fully explore it (check out our novel genre overview here). But genre is about more than what shelf your book sits on at the bookstore.
Genre gets to the heart of what your story is about. According to The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne (a resource I highly recommend), there are twelve content genres and seventy-seven or so subgenres. You can find a full list and explanation of each of the Story Grid genres here, but I’ll give an abbreviated version below:
External Genres (what your protagonist wants):
Action: Life vs. Death (subgenres include Adventure, Heist, and Revenge plot)
Crime: Justice vs. Injustice (subgenres include Cozy Mystery, Caper, and Police Procedural)
Horror: Life vs. Damnation (i.e. a fate worse than death)
Thriller (which Story Grid considers a combination of Mystery, Crime, and Horror): Life vs Damnation
Love: Love vs. Hate (subplots include Courtship, Marriage, and Obsession)
Performance: Respect vs. Shame (subplots include Sports, Arts, and Business)
War: Victory vs. Defeat
Western: Insider vs. Outsider
Society: Rebellion vs. Conformity
Internal Genres (what your protagonist needs)
Internal genres work slightly different than external genres. For more, check out Shawn’s post on Story Grid Internal Genres here.
Worldview: A character’s understanding of the world changes. Perhaps they move from naivité to worldliness, or from belief to disillusionment.
Morality: A character’s moral compass is challenged or changed. Maybe their moral character is tested and they fail and make immoral choices, or maybe a morally corrupt character redeems themselves by making good choices.
Status: A character rises or falls in social status. Perhaps an aspirational character has a supportive mentor and rises, or maybe a character of high status makes unfortunate decisions and falls.
You can mix and match these 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,” you should have an internal genre too. You can also have a subplot. So that’s three genres 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.
For best results when you go to publish though, make sure you have an external genre.
8. Read novels and watch films that are similar to yours
“The hard truth is that books are made from books,” says Cormac McCarthy.
Now that you’ve thought about what your novel is really about, 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 that were similar in many ways to other books I’ve read. But I’ve also read a lot of bad books that were completely unique. Even precious unique snowflakes look more or less like other snowflakes.
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 and every moment in their novel.
You can even be somewhere in between the two (like me, and most of us, I think).
It doesn’t matter. You still have to know your structure.
Here are three important structures you’ll find in novels:
5 Key Moments
There are five required moments in every scene and every act. Story Grid calls these the five commandments. Some story frameworks, like the Snowflake Method, have six. Others have fewer. Five is good though.
- Inciting incident. There’s a problem.
- Progressive complication. The problem gets worse.
- Crisis. The problem gets so bad that the character has no choice but to deal with it. Usually this happens off screen.
- Climax. The character makes his or her choice and the climax is the action that follows.
- Resolution. The problem is resolved (for now at least).
In The Story Grid, Coyne says crises are always a choice that your protagonist faces, and they come in two easy-to-follow formulas:
- Best Bad Choice. Think of that game “would you rather.” You’re given a choice between two horrible things. For example, would you rather leave the love of your life at a party with another guy, or let her humiliate you as she flirts with him?
- Irreconcilable Goods. Two values that don’t work together. For example, love vs. money. Both are good, but like oil and water, they don’t mix. Other examples: comfort vs. adventure, personal happiness vs. the happiness of others, and success vs. family.
For your first few scenes, try plotting out each of these five moments, focusing especially on the crisis, explicitly spelling out what kind it is, for example, best bad choice or irreconcilable goods.
Three Act Structure
The classic writing advice describes the three act structure well:
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.
Note that each of these acts should have the five key moments, as listed above.
I mentioned the crisis above, but it bears repeating since, for me, it completely transformed my writing process for the better.
In every act, your protagonist must be faced with a choice either between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods). THIS is how you create drama in your story. THIS is how your plot moves forward. If you don’t have a crisis, if your character doesn’t choose, your scene won’t work.
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 he or she has to make a difficult choice.
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 CRISIS EVERY TIME!
10. Find the climactic moment in your novel
Every great novel has a climactic moment that the whole story is building up to.
In Moby Dick, it’s the final showdown with the white whale.
In Pride and Prejudice, it’s Lizzie finally 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.
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 will be building up to. This final climactic moment will usually occur in the climax of the second or third act. Fill in your outline with the climactic moment. Then write out the five key moments of the scene for that climactic moment.
Note: If you don’t know them, just leave them blank. It’s okay to not know at this point.
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 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 at the end there’s a final unveiling of the murder.
12. Set Your Intention
You’re almost ready to start writing. But 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. Then, as you write, you can better understand what would interest, amuse, or instruct them. And 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?”
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 all on your own).
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 this novel (self-publish vs. traditional publish) and how you’ll promote it (to your email list, on social media, via Amazon ads?).
By thinking things through to the end, you’ll make it much more likely to actually get there.
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.
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 and 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 break through.
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 14). When life happens, you’ll need someone to vent to, to encourage you, and to support you.
19. Finish Draft 1… Then Onward to the Next
And then, one 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. And I had just done it. And it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought.
Amazing, definitely. But also just normal. I had been doing this, writing every day, for 99 days after all. Finishing was just another day.
But the journey itself? 100 days for writing a novel? That was amazing. That was worth it.
And maybe it will be like that for you. You might finish your book and feel amazing and proud and relieved. And also just kind of 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.
20. Draft 2… 3… 4… 5
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: with editors and fellow writers (not friends and family yet). Ask for feedback, especially structural feedback, not on typos for now.
- Then, rewrite for structure. Your second draft is all about fixing the structure of your novel. Revisit steps 7 through 11 for help.
- Last, polish your prose. Your third draft 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.
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
“For me, it’s the interaction between all of the characters. It drives almost all of my novels no matter how good or bad the plot may be.” Jonathan Srock
“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
That’s It! The Foolproof Guide on How to Write a Novel
Writing a novel isn’t easy. But IS possible with the write process (sorry, I had to do it one last time). And if you follow each step above, you will finish a novel.
Your novel may not be perfect, but it will be good.
Good luck and happy writing!
Frequently Asked Questions
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. Science fiction and fantasy tend to be longer, in the 100,000 word range. And mystery and YA tend to be shorter, in the 65,000 word range.
Over 120,000 words is a bit long, especially for traditional publishing. And under 60,000 words is a bit short.
But 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, and I recommend writing at least three drafts. With a few breaks in between drafts, that 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 bestselling author Carlos Cooper finishes four novels a year, and another bestselling author friend, Stacy Claflin, is working on her 62nd book (hint: she’s not close to being 62 years old). So you can write faster.
If you take longer breaks between drafts or write more drafts, it might take longer. But I don’t recommend taking much longer than 100 days to finish a draft. After that, you can lose your momentum and it becomes much harder to finish.
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!
Download our premise worksheet. Follow it to construct your single sentence premise.
Then post your premise in the comments below. And if you post, please be sure to leave feedback on premises by at least three other writers.