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Writing a Novel: How-To Guide

You’ve decided: you are writing a novel. No matter what obstacles stand in your way, this is the year that you’ll succeed in your dream. Whether you plan on writing a novel in 30 days or taking your time and spending the rest of this year on it, the task ahead is challenging.

Since I started writing professionally more than a decade ago, I’ve gotten lots and lots of questions from people who want to know: what are the steps to writing a novel? How can they break down this big project into manageable chunks? And, what tools, tricks and tips can I share with them?

While there are a lot of gurus out there in internet-land (some are gems, others more like germs: beware!), today I’m offering you a sort of novel writing program, if you will. This will be an intense, short, and simplified look at the steps you’ll need to complete to successfully start and finish your novel.

Ready? Let’s get started…

Writing a Novel: How to Start

Chances are if you’re reading this than you’ve already tried your hand at writing a novel. Whether you were successful at completing the manuscript is another story. Here’s a little nugget of painful truth for you: finishing a full-length novel is a lot harder than starting one.

And here is another truth: I wrote about 1,753,908,731 novels before I actually finished one. Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing.

“Well, geez, J.P., thanks a lot. I was actually trying to find helpful, practical information I could use, not depressing statistics.” You’re right. I’m sorry. Just wanted to let you know that if you feel like writing your novel is a slog, well, that’s because it is.

There is some advice though that I wish I’d gotten really early on in my book-writing journey. In fact, I wish someone had broken it down for me in a numbered list (cause guys, I’m a serious fan of lists in any form).

Writing Your Novel: a Step by Step Plan

  1. Start with your favorite idea, the one that you can’t stop talking about or thinking about

  2. Brainstorm like mad for as long as it takes for you to get so excited you can’t sit still (on paper, on a screen or in your head–they’re all effective)

  3. Figure out how many words you need to write to make up a novel (50,000 is average for a thriller book, some are much higher)

  4. Set a word count goal: it could literally be 200 words or 500 words a week

  5. Write for at least 15 minutes most days of the week (I wrote a book about that, The 15-Minute Novelist, which may help)

  6. Don’t listen to any other writer’s advice (even mine) if you find it’s impeding you/your creative process/your desire to write

  7. Continue with steps 5-6 for as long as it takes you to complete your novel

Now, some of these steps might seem to simple, too babyish for a “real writer”. To that I say, “nuh-uh”.

See, we all like to think in big-screen movie moments. We want to struggle through the writing process, sweating blood and drinking ourselves into a puddle so that everyone will see how much we’ve sacrificed for our work. We want to be able to say, as we hold up our trophy for some prestigious writing award, “I know the pain. I’ve been there. I’ve overcome it. I’m something special.”

We’re writers, after all. We live in a sort of fantasy world of our own imaginations. But when writing a novel, put that imaginary self/world/life aside and think practically.

Here are several steps to take in order to never finish your novel. (Most I know from firsthand experience and years of frustrated failure.)

Failing to Write Your Novel: a Step by Step Plan

  1. Talk about your idea a lot but never commit anything to paper

  2. Listen to other authors incessantly or watch them on YouTube or at live events; try to do everything they did because surely if it worked for them, it will for you

  3. Don’t make writing a practice

  4. Write in huge, marathon-sessions and then go weeks or months or years without writing anything else

  5. Spend lots of time complaining about your lot in life, especially to other creatives

  6. Get really angry and jealous when a friend/colleague/someone you know vaguely from the coffee shop publishes his/her book and secretly say to yourself, “well, it’s not my fault…the world conspired against me”

  7. Write only when you’re in the mood or feel inspired

“What about publishing my novel?”

Okay, so you’ve committed to most or all of the first 7 steps (the good ones) and are well on your way to writing your novel. At what point do you worry about publication? I mean, it’s all well and good to write a novel. But who is going to read it?!?

Slow down. We’ll get there. Nothing is as important at this point as:

a) finishing your novel

b) putting your best effort into it

You can’t do that if you’re already worrying about book sales and keywords and driving traffic to an imaginary author site. Now, there is definitely a time and place for this work (it’s all important…well, maybe not the worrying part so much), but it’s later in the process.

“How will readers find my novel?”

If you want to set up a website, blog or even a simple author page on Facebook, that’s fine. This may help you to build accountability. Some authors even use a little widget to track their word count so that visitors o the site can see it. Cool! But if any of these things are detracting you from your main, overarching goal (writing a novel) then please put them aside for now.

Steps to Writing a Novel: Keep it Simple

There is so much more I want to tell you about the novel writing process! I’ve made so many dumb mistakes in the past several years and would love to prevent you from doing the same.

I also made a lot of good decisions. The best was to continue coming to the computer day after day, week after week, year after year and write. Even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I wanted to toss in the towel. Even when the muse not only left town but took my entire collection of inspirational ideas with her.

If there’s any single talent a writer needs, it’s persistence. If you can keep at your writing and you can learn as you write, you can tell any story you want to tell. Octavia butler

There it is. The bare bones approach to writing your novel. I hope you’ve found this helpful and if not, I’m sure you’ll let me know.

Now, I have a question (okay, two questions) for you: What is holding you back from writing a novel? What one step feels impossible to reach? Please let me know in the comments.

I’d love to hear from you…happy writing!

Note: I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. I would never recommend something that I didn’t enjoy.

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