Many of us dream of writing a novel one day but only a few of us make that dream come true.
Here’s the thing: as long as you keep the task of “writing a novel” in the “eventually” pile, it won’t happen.
There will never be a perfect time or enough time. You must make the time.
Writing a novel isn’t easy. Some days, you’ll sit at the keyboard and feel completely uninspired. Other days, you’ll be unable to rein in all of your great ideas. But successful novelists don’t wait for inspiration. Instead, they write every day because they know that consistency (and not inspiration) is the best way to finish a novel.
In addition to rock-solid discipline, you also need guidance to complete your first book. You may be a born writer, but no one’s a born novelist. Every first-time novelist can benefit from a step-by-step plan.
Well, here it is!
Below, we share all the steps that you need to finally crank out your first novel.
Let's start with the basics.
What is the common structure of a novel?
Most novels contain five elements: characters, conflict, plot, setting, and theme. While some experimental novels may deviate from this structure, the majority interweave these elements to tell a relatable and entertaining story.
What is the average length of a novel?
The average novel contains 80,000 words, but don't let that word count scare you! A novel of this length could be written in less than a year. It’s even doable in less than three months.
Thousands of writers participate in the annual novel-in-a-month project, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). This project takes place in November and encourages participants to complete a 50,000-word novel in only 30 days.
The idea behind NaNoWriMo is the same one that I'm emphasizing in this post: write now and write every day. Even if you only write 1,000 words per day (which amounts to approximately two typed pages), you can complete a full-length novel in 90 days.
Now, let’s discuss what steps to take to complete your novel.
Step 0: Develop a Basic Story Idea
Let's call this “Step Zero.”
Before you can move forward with this guide, you need an idea.
As simple as it sounds, the process of developing a viable story can be difficult. I've spoken to many fledgling writers who have a desire to write a novel but are unsure of what to write about. Indecisiveness is common among us writers.
Maybe you have so many story ideas that you’re overwhelmed and not sure which one to choose. If this sounds like you, my advice is to go with the story idea that you like the most.
Maybe you feel compelled to make a statement on the human condition but aren’t sure how to turn it into a story. You have a theme (i.e. a big idea, such as “love conquers all” or “hard work pays off”). What you don’t have is a vehicle to drive that theme home. You need the other four elements (characters, conflict, plot, and setting) to create a story. If this sounds like you, use a story generator. Here are some to try:
- Plot Generator by Masterpiece Generator
- The Story Idea Generator By Film Crux (This generator is for screenwriters but it can work for novelists, too.)
- Plot Generator by RanGen
- Random Plot Generator by WritingExercises.co.uk
Learn more about story ideation here: How to Turn Your Simple Idea Into an Unforgettable Novel
Step 1: Get to Know Your Main Characters
Characters drive the narrative. In other words, the story doesn’t happen to your characters. Instead, your characters create the story.
This means that you can’t write characters you don’t know. Get to know your characters, especially your protagonist and antagonist. Discover their backstories, their idiosyncrasies, their goals, and what compels them to act.
Here are two guides to help you craft well-rounded characters:
Here’s a handy checklist to help you write your first novel. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.
Step 2: Insert Conflict
Conflict happens when two forces oppose each other, such as character against character or character against an idea. Conflict is necessary to move the story along in a forward direction.
A good story introduces two types of conflict: internal conflict within the minds of the main characters and external conflict which prevents the characters from easily meeting their goals.
To learn more about conflict, check out these resources:
Step 3: Choose a Point of View for Your Story
It’s important to consider your story’s point of view (POV) before you start writing. Decide who will tell your story.
Will it be a personal narrator, such as the story’s protagonist? This is the first-person POV and it uses “I.” A first-person narrator is someone who is personally involved in or tied to the story as a character. This personal narrator could also be a secondary character in your story.
Will you choose the POV of the reader? This is known as the second-person and it's the least common POV. It requires that you turn the reader into an active character in your novel, which is hard to do, but it has been done. This POV uses “you.”
Will you use the POV of an impersonal narrator who does not exist within the story? This POV is known as the third-person and it uses “he,” “she,” or “they.” This POV can be broken down even further.
You can write from a third-person limited POV where the narrator sticks with one character, usually the protagonist.
You can write from the third-person multiple POV where the narrator can hop between several characters. The narrator doesn't know everything, but he does know the characters that he follows.
Finally, you can write from the third-person omniscient POV where the narrator has a god-like knowledge of every character in the story, including their motivations and thoughts.
Need help choosing the right POV? Check out this guide: All About Point of View.
Step 4: Choose a Setting
Let's talk about the setting of your novel. Decide on the time period and whether it's an actual location or an imagined one. Because your characters live there, it's important for you to see and know what they do.
We've created two helpful guides on world construction that you can find here:
- How to Build a Dystopian World
- Fantasy World Building 101: How to Create a Breathing World for Your Fantasy Novel
Step 5: Give Yourself Plenty of Deadlines
There's nothing like a looming deadline to motivate me. Do you feel the same?
According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, we perform best when pressure (i.e. stress) is applied. This is why deadlines are important. A deadline doesn’t only provide a time limit, but it also encourages you to do your best work.
To complete a novel, you’ll need plenty of deadlines. Here’s a basic guideline that you can borrow:
- Give yourself a deadline to choose a story idea. This step can take years but don’t let it take longer than 15 minutes. Seriously. Decide on a topic that you like and then move on to the next step.
- Set a time limit for research. This includes learning about the main and background elements in your story, such as its location and time period. It also includes figuring out how to write a compelling story. Set a time limit for when you should leave this step and enter into writing mode. If, after researching, you realize that you don’t like your story idea, go back to step 0. But be careful not to repeat this loop too often.
- Outline your story. There are two groups of people: those who like to outline their novels and those who don’t. Because you’re reading this post, I’m willing to bet that you prefer outlining. Set a deadline for when you'd like to complete your story’s outline.
- Give yourself a word count to target each day, such as 1,000 to 2,500 words. This deadline should reset each day.
- Set a final deadline for when you’d like the first draft to be completed.
- Read through your first draft and make revisions. This process may take a few weeks.
- When making revisions to your first draft, assign deadlines to complete each chapter. Check out these tips for writing chapters.
- Send your manuscript to a professional editor for a manuscript critique (also known as the big-picture edit). This edit takes between five to seven weeks, on average.
- Make a second round of revisions based on the editor’s advice. This process can also take a few weeks.
- Send your revised manuscript to a professional editor for a comprehensive edit, which also includes a line edit. This process takes between six to 12 weeks.
- Review notes from the comprehensive edit and then make changes to your draft. This process can take a few weeks.
- Send your manuscript to a professional copyeditor for a copyedit. This type of edit focuses on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other technical errors that may be in your manuscript. Copyediting is necessary for any novel before publishing. This process takes between three to five weeks.
Impose plenty of deadlines to keep yourself moving forward.
Step 6: Hire a Professional Editor
Speaking from my experience as a writer, all writers need editors. Just like peanut butter goes with jelly and coffee with donuts, writers and editors make a great team.
No matter how much time you take away from your novel, you will always be too close to your own work to critique it impartially. Plus, there's the matter of grammar. From dangling modifiers to adverb abuse to subject-verb agreement errors, you may be committing tons of grammar sins without even realizing it. Let's not even talk about typos! Even the smallest grammar mistake could damage your story because it interrupts the reader's focus.
Step 7: Resolve to Finish
This step requires a simple mental shift, but it’s perhaps the most important step in this guide. Make a promise to yourself that you will finish your novel by [insert deadline here]. Write the promise down. Tell others. Let us know in the comments below! Hold yourself accountable. Remember that only you can make this dream happen, and that process starts right now with a promise and an action plan that you can find in the downloadable resource at the end of this post.
To complete your first novel, you need to take a practical approach. You can’t wait for inspiration to strike. Use the above guide to turn your dreams into a realistic action plan.
Before you go, don’t miss these related resources:
Here’s a handy checklist to help you write your first novel. Subscribe to receive this extra resource.