A Saner Guide to Writing A Novel

I have an impossible and difficult task before me — to explain how to write a novel in a single blog post.

Teaching novel writing on a day or one blog post is impossible. Teaching anyone something as creative and demanding as writing a fiction book is pretty impossible. Every author on the Pulitzer prize list knows this.

Writing a novel is like going on a pilgrimage. You can have the map and the details, but no one will walk you through it. So you have to do it yourself.

Writing a novel is a discovery. A little warning before you start: the process will question you in many ways.

It’s fun to some, but I am not one of those. I have written two novels for myself. They were enough education I needed to understand what was at stake and why it’s so hard to write novels. But in this guide, I will give a saner approach to writing a novel with quality that is above average.

A Short Backstory

I have told this story before and am about to do it again.

Some years back, I wanted to master storytelling so badly. I love the idea of sitting down and crafting the best piece a person could ever write, the way John Steinbeck did in East of Eden, Chimamanda did with Americanah, and Zadie Smith with White Teeth.

So I picked the best book on fiction writing and studied for a year and a half. As an experiment for what I have learned, I wrote a novelette. It was a good read, according to family and friends who read it. But it was my first time, so I can’t say the quality was 10% of my definition of a good book. As an experiment for my learning, I think I did well.

So I did it again. I wrote another novel. It was okay, but I still didn’t feel great about the quality of what I created. I was meant to give up on it until I was introduced to ghostwriting. Then everything changed.

My Experience Ghostwriting

I won’t bore you with too many stories. After writing for some people and getting feedback locally, I started freelancing and set up shop on Upwork and Fiverr. Then I realized that I might be more qualified than I have given myself credit for.

Though I am far from perfect, I am not a complete beginner either.

These are the reviews I got.

I will definitely recommend ghostwriting for the novice who wants to learn how to write novels for beginners. It’s a brutal and faster way to get feedback and improve your skills.

Writing a quality novel that will influence your reader is usually long-term work and a stressful endeavor. It’s a mission you undertake only if you are good at feeling embarrassed and soldering on like it’s nothing.

One of the reasons I stopped writing my own books and focused on ghostwriting was because of my sanity. Novel writing demands so much that it’s like putting your brains on the table for rats to chew. No one wants to do that every day without asking for a prize as soon as they get to the table.

With money on the table, I can finish drafts on time and improve. So far, I have written 100s of short stories between 10 – 30k words. I have written 3 novels of 80k plus for clients.

This experience is one of the reasons I am qualified to write this post, how to write a good novel.

While ghostwriting, I have learned more about the craft, and I think I have one or two valuable ideas about the process now. Hopefully, after I finish this, I will improve at the craft. If you find the post useful, please share it for others to see.

How to Write a Novel for Beginners

I’ve divided the post into three parts. So, these are the steps in writing a novel:

  • Before you ever decide to write
  • When you’re ready to write
  • After writing

Let’s begin.

Before you ever decide to write a novel

Novel writing is one of the activities or tasks that people decide they can do without studying or understanding how the craft works. I have never seen anyone say they can write a movie script without studying it.

It’s wrong. Writing 100k words of fiction that will satisfy readers is more complicated than you think. There is a lot you need to understand. Without that knowledge, your book will be shallow, and you will be contributing more average books that some people will say “reading fiction isn’t beneficial.”

When you book with low substance, you get entertainment and less intellectual value. Like a good movie, good fiction touches on topics that push us to ask more profound questions about life or other powerful life issues.

These are my suggestions to learn how to write such novels and help you do that.

So before you ever write a novel, these are a few things you should have done.

#1. Read lots of fiction.

Writing fiction is a long journey. However, reading will equip you with the surface level of quality writing and how a reader should feel when reading a fiction novel.

#2. Study at least 10 fiction books

So you have read a hundred fiction books. That’s a good start, but you are not better at understanding quality fiction until you can break it down and decipher the magic that happens on the page. You can do these by

  • Have open discussions about the book without book lovers. One of the things they do in writing workshops is to discuss books and see how people interpret fiction differently.
  • Study the book summary. Find reputable websites that discuss themes, characters, settings, etc.
  • Listen to the author’s interview. This is where you will learn the process that brings about the book.

You can discover your strength and interest with this process. What do you admire about your study? What jumps at you, and will you like to replicate it in your own work? It’s great advice to do this step for as many books as possible.

Stephen King did the same by collating his favorite sentences from the book he had read. Many famous authors were apprentices to the work of other authors, not the authors, but the work of their favorite authors.

#3. Learn to demystify the book at the primary level (the paragraph)

A novel has different parts and layers.

The three-act structure divides the whole book into three — the beginning, the middle, and the end.

The chapters divide it even further. Most of them have 20+ chapters, depending.

The paragraph divides the chapter into many units. All of the paragraphs cohesively form the novel. So you need to understand what makes each layer great.

These are the question you can ask in each of the stages:

  • What makes a novel? (looking at the beginning, middle, and end)
  • What makes a good chapter
  • And what makes a good paragraph?

If you do the previous exercise, you will realize that the answers differ from author to author.

I will pick some examples from my own lessons.

Example 1

And what’s inside it. I think of that too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I’ve asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Gone Girls, Gillian Flyn

The narrator is describing his wife’s head here. The paragraph starts with a phrase: And what’s inside it? It’s like a declaration; I am going to describe how the inside of my wife’s head. We have six questions in total. My favorite sentence here is the third: Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes.

Note: Someone else might look at the paragraph and pick different things entirely. This is one of the best things about fiction. It’s often open to multiple interpretations. Instead of the author saying, I want you to think this way; the author is saying, these are the details; think whatever you like. At the same time, the author is conscious of the direction she wants the reader to go. She has to do that without forcing it.

Example 2

When they were gone Kate went to her room and put on her pretty new print dress that made her look like a little girl. She brushed and braided her hair and let it hang behind in one thick pigtail tied with a little white bow. She patted her cheeks with Florida water. For a moment she hesitated, and then from the top bureau drawer she took a little gold watch that hung from a fleur-de-lis pin. She wrapped it in one of her fine lawn handkerchiefs and went out of the room.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

This excerpt is filled with pretty straightforward actions — put on her pretty new dress, brushed and braided, went out of the room. It uses adjectives in an interesting way — Florida water, pretty new print dress, little girl, little white bow, Florida water.

Again, these are things that jumped at me. It shows a paragraph can be filled with actions like this:

She visited his little personal blog and read a hundred articles talking about content creation. Then she bookmarked the insightful one about how to begin writing a book. She hesitated in sharing the post with her friends. But she left the tab open when she was done and promised to come for a second read.

By trying to replicate the paragraph, I understood it better. It’s part of my subconscious now. In the future, when I am ready, I will use something close or use the idea as the basis for writing tight, punchy, and interesting paragraphs. I will develop my writing style/voice if I do this for hundreds of authors and thousands of paragraphs.

Generally, paragraphs can be divided into:

  • ActionHe ran towards the north side.
  • Speech/Dialogue“John ran for his life,” I said.
  • ThoughtHe wouldn’t make it no matter how fast he ran.
  • Description (anything you can see, smell, feel, touch, hear) – He was drenched in sweat after running.
  • Summary/narrationTen minutes later, we wanted to talk about it.

For more details, check the book: Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and Stephen King’s On Writing.

During the writing process

Now you have a little background on what makes good fiction. You can write extensively about what makes you admire a book. You have moved from “I love the story” to “I love how she blends the history of the Biafra war into the entire story.”

Great. You have conquered what most people don’t.

It’s time. Here’s how to start writing a novel (or, more accurately, how I would start).

#4. Know the person you’re writing about

If you want to write a blog post, will you research it or not? If you’re going to write about a stranger, will you learn about them or not?

The same thing applies to fiction writing. You can’t write about someone you don’t know. It’s impossible.

But I can make things up.

Wait, what do you mean to make things up? You will imagine everything out of thin air?

People do not “make things up.” Instead, they combine things in their heads and create fresh stuff. If you are making things up, it’s just another way of using details you already know, people you have read about, or your personal story.

If you use your story, it’s no longer fiction. It’s a memoir.

How you go about knowing your character is up to you. I have my personal template from doing that. It’s long and covers weird things like — what do I have in common with this person? They are humans, after all. And the truth is, all humans have a few things in common, from fear of darkness to love for their daughter or great ambition.

You can create a file and answer a few questions about your main characters. I spend hours or days knowing my major characters. You don’t have to go about it like that. You can do it in a few minutes and let the characters surprise you along the journey.

Don’t know where to start? Write 10 things this character won’t share with random strangers. This is where you understand their fears, quirks, mother’s name, childhood crush, the most powerful to ever happened to them, etc. These details will pop up somewhere when writing the novel.

#5. Find a good idea

Call it a logline.

Stephen king calls it a “what if” situation. Someone already in a kind of trouble and trying to get out leads to more problems than solutions.

A man has been invited to assist the King in ruling the large kingdom; he discovers some secrets about the King’s wife. Unfortunately, trying to handle it led to more problems for his family and the northern part of the kingdom (Winterfell).

This is the entire summary of season 1, Game of Thrones.

You can check this link to some of the loglines of popular movies to give you an idea.

Before you start writing the novel, write a line or two summarizing your entire story. The main situation should be specified. And if you show it to a potential reader, they should be interested in seeing it pan out.

#6. Plot

You need a plot for the story. You can plot a few chapters or the entire book. It’s up to you.

I often plot the entire story and end up with something different after the first few pages. So my plotting is always just a guide for the first three or five chapters.

You will find many plotting templates on the internet if you search for “how to write a novel outline” or “plot template.”

I recommend plotting the first five chapters and leaving the rest till later until you have written up to three chapters.

This is how I work. It’s not mandatory to do the same thing.

#7. Start Writing

Writing the novel is the most challenging part of the process. All you have been doing before now is like a preamble. This is the actual work. What you put down on the page is what counts.

You know I told you to study at least 10 authors. I hope you have files, notes, quotes, and lessons from your studying by now. You will need the notes at this stage.

For instance, I pick my notes and find something inspirational when I’m stuck. I reread essays and passages I have studied or analyzed in the past. I listen again to the interviews I find interesting. And I’m telling you, it works.

Keep writing.

It’s going to be hard, especially if this is your first time. But you have to persevere.

You can set goals such as 500 words per day. This will bring 15,000 words in a month (a short read).

You can set goals of 2000 words per day. This will bring 60,000 words in a month (the length of a short novel).

At 5,000 words per day, you will write 150,000 words per month.

After writing the first draft

#8. Take a break

You have put in the work and deserve to celebrate it.

Zadie smith said you should leave the draft for 6 months so that you will come to it like a different person.

I tried that, and it changed my life. Not only did I fail to recognize the work, I also forgot many details. So, as I turned the pages, I couldn’t stop screaming at myself. What was I thinking? Was I drunk when I wrote those sentences?

You need some break— the longer, the better. But if you are a ghostwriter, you have limited time. So you want to get back to it as soon as you can. Remember the first sentence in this paragraph, though. You can leave it for 6 hours or a day, do something relaxing, and come back to it.

I have read somewhere that this is the best time to start a second book. I like this idea, especially if you are writing 2000 words daily. Then, when you finish the second book, you can go back to edit the first. By the end of the year, you will have 5-10 novels on your PC. Danielle Steel will be proud.

#9. First edit and second edit

The first edit is to ensure your story makes sense. You look at the entire story and ask yourself if the story and its structure make sense. This is like looking at a house from afar and asking yourself, is this house beautiful?

The second edit is rewriting the paragraphs and chapters. Again, using our analogy of a finished house, this is the stage where you walk in and check the arrangements. Are the walls painted properly? Does the couch need to move an inch to the right?

Let’s get back to your draft. Does that paragraph do what you want it to achieve? Does that sentence need rewriting?

Remember step 3 above. The lessons from that exercise will help you here.

You don’t really need a break between the first edit and the second. But if you can afford some time off after editing it the first time, that will help and give you a fresh idea of what you need to improve.

#10. Send it to beta readers

By definition, a beta reader is a person who reads the draft of a novel and offers feedback. They usually don’t know much about the craft, so their review is from the perspective of someone who enjoys reading.

If you write genre fiction, such as romance, your beta reader should be a devoted reader in this genre.

Good luck, though. You are about to receive your first feedback.

The likeliest people you will give it to are your friend and family. But they won’t want to hurt your feelings, so they might not be the best person to help with insightful ideas on improving your work.

You can publish some chapters online, but that isn’t good if you plan to send the manuscript to a publishing house.

As a ghostwriter, I don’t have to worry about this. My clients are my beta readers.

You take the feedback from the beta readers and decide what you want to do with it. If they enjoy reading and point out a few things, then you can decide to change it or leave it that way until you talk to a professional editor.

By the way, you can reach out to me if you write literary fiction or science fiction. (Hadehwrites(@)gmail.com). I will be as nice as your book draft.

#11. Hire an editor

I have done my best to explain how to write a novel.

The final part of the process is hiring an editor. It’s the last piece of the chess game.

A good editor will take your draft and make it suitable for the market.

Try to hire experienced editors, someone who has edited books that are selling. You can ask them if they offer sample editing. Usually, you send a chapter or 1000 words, and they edit for you (for free). You will find editors on Upwork, Reddit, and LinkedIn.

Read how to use storytelling in marketing

Frequently Asked Questions?

How do I get started on writing my novel?

You start by reading. All of the authors alive are moved after falling in love with books. I started dreaming about writing after reading books as a child. The desire continues to grow as I get older. I read and fell in love with more stories.

However, you need to take a step further than the average reader. Study what you read. Analyze them and let them reveal their secret to you. This is a must for anyone who wants to learn how to write a novel.

Which mistakes should a beginner avoid in writing a novel?

Learning how to write a novel for beginners, one of the commonest mistakes is wanting your first draft or first novel to be great. Those are like experiments. Many of the greatest authors didn’t become great with their first-ever draft or book. So you have to write a second draft and another book, and again and again.

Another mistake is starting to write a novel without studying a couple of books. You can’t do an excellent job if you can’t even break down some of the mechanics that make a good novel.

Start by having discussions with other novel readers. You can use Reddit.

Pick one or two books about the craft of writing fiction. Study them.

What overused plotlines should I avoid when writing novels?

You think a plotline is overused because someone imitates what’s already written and does a bad job. If Goerge RR Martin should write another book about a fictional kingdom and throne, many people will read it even though he’s done Game of Thrones.

My point is plotlines are just statements about what we want to read. It’s like reading the description of food. It doesn’t mean the food will taste the same if the same ingredients are given to two different cooks.

Study different novels. Learn the differences and what makes them great. You will realize that plotlines are just one out of a thousand things that make a good novel. Execution of ideas is the greater deal.

How hard is it to write a novel?

It’s hard. It’s like putting your brain in your hand; you can see all your flaws and people laughing at you. However, it’s not as hard as breaking rocks, climbing a mountain, or carrying out brain surgery.

You have nothing much to lose from writing a novel compared to a firefighter at her duty on the hundredth floor of a burning building. No one will die from your mistake.

So yeah, it’s hard, but there are harder things on earth. Anyone can do it if they read, learn and practice. Not everyone can run into burning houses. If you can’t write 2000 words, write 500. Keep working and increasing how much work and time you can give to learn how to write a novel.

Why is it so difficult to write a novel?

So, why is it hard? Well, it demands a lot intellectually. A good novelist is a mastermind of complex, exciting, and intellectual games. She knows the character and presents the details of their actions and life in a way that makes the reader feel connected to something bigger and more stimulating. That’s hard. The good thing is all you have to begin with is one chapter and then another. It takes a lot of practice to master this craft.

Here’s my question for you:

Are you going to try?

This might seem like a lot. But, if you want to learn how to write a novel, the question is, are you going to try? You can answer that by using any of the shares buttons below.

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