How to Write a Novel

So you have had this idea floating around in your head for years, and you want to write it. It’s a story, fiction, and you think it may be a novel. It has gotten to the point where it is almost bothering you. You need to write it. So you turn on the computer, make a cup of coffee, open a new Word doc, and the wind blows right out of your sails. You can barely get a sentence out.

I have written three novels, and am ready to break ground on the fourth. I know that feeling of looking at the screen and not knowing what to do. I will explain to you step-by-step how to get your novel written and begin the publishing process. But before I begin, one piece of advice. Do not discuss your idea or novel with anyone until you have finished the first draft. Why? Have you ever had something funny or very interesting happen to you? The first time you tell the story, people are rolling over laughing because you have some much energy as you tell them what happened. The 5th time you tell it, the laughs or reactions are not as good, because you have lost energy in the story; the story is no longer completely yours. Every time you tell a story you lose some of it. The great thing about writing a novel is that if the topic is something that weighs on you, when you finish, the weight will leave, that cloud will pass. You need all the energy of your story to get that first draft done, once it is done, you can talk about the story all you want.

First, the basics. What is a novel? Without going into too much detail here, let’s just say that any piece of fiction over 50,000 words. I recommend using this as the minimum because you will find some contests and literary agents who consider that the minimum. So, considering that the minimum you want is 50,000 words, I would shoot for 60,000 so you have plenty of room to trim in the editing stage. Remember, a page is about 400 words (depends on fonts and page size etc)

Your plan. First, create the story in your head, than outline the chapters. I would do a paragraph or two for each chapter. Make a list of each character that appears in each chapter, we will use this later. Make sure the chapters are driving both the story line and the character development. Remember, any story is made up of three things. 1. Exposition: this where you introduce the characters and setup the story. Conflict: Something goes wrong, there is tension. Climax: The high point of the story, maximum tension. Resolution: This is where you tie up the loose ends and make everything nice, or not so nice, but you leave everything resolved.

This is the classic structure. You are an iconoclast? Great, just keep in mind that this is the structure people expect. Remember the famous line from Hitchcock, you can’t show the public the bomb under the table than explode the bomb, they will feel betrayed.

Many people have difficulty understanding this structure, and it is absolutely crucial you have this clear for you book. I will use the film Rocky as an example. Very simple structure and most people have seen it.

Exposition: We see Rocky fighting in cheap clubs, working as a hoodlum, basically living the life a loser. Adrian is introduced, manager, neighborhood etc. No tension, just showing you around.

First Plot Point: Apollo Creed’s opponent cancels big fight for July 4th 1976, so Apollo decides to fight and unknown in Philadelphia, in honor of the bicentennial, and randomly picks Rocky. The tension begins. Rocky is now up against the world champ. He is completely outmatched. He begins to train, but can’t. He fights with his manager, who rejected him, he feels like a bum. How will Rocky confront the great Apollo?

Second Plot Point: Rocky climbs the stairs in Philadelphia, and raises his hands, the music plays, the tension is over, he has won the battle, he has conquered the “bum” inside himself which is the true battle he is fighting. From this point on the film winds down through the fight, which he loses honorably, and all are happy.

Keep in mind your novel needs tension. So as you write the chapter outline, pay attention to where you are in the overall structure of the story.

Write a few paragraphs about each character in the novel. More about the main characters. What do they look like? Where do they live, work, and drink? Where were they born, what did their parents do? What where they in high school (geek, jock, druggy etc.) Review of love life, college, work, dark secrets, and vices (we all have vices and secrets fantasies, know them for each character). Have an idea how long you want the novel to be; this may change or be adjusted, but start out with an estimate, i.e., number of chapters, average pages per chapter.

So before you sit down to begin chapter 1, page 1, you should have an overall outline of the story describing what happens during exposition, conflict, where the climax is, and finally how you resolve everything. You have a description of all the characters that will appear in the novel and you have a description of what happens in each chapter. One note here. Characters come alive, you create them in clay, but as you write, they take on a life of their own, let them, this is good. If they rebel against your structure and begin to go down another path, follow them, change your structure. Don’t be rigid with the characters, the more alive they appear to you, the better your novel will be.

Now the hard part. Writing is not easy, and I have never met anyone who said that it was. So I follow these rules when I am writing a novel, and I have completed three, so this method does work. You must write every day, you must write a minimum of 1,000 words a day, and you must write at the same time, same place every day. Now obviously things happen etc., but I would try and be as strict with this as possible, because it is the best way to make sure that you have a first draft completed in a few months, depending on how long you want the novel to be. Coffee helps. Try and get into the characters, feel them, become them as they speak. First few paragraphs can be painful, but just keep banging out copy, get it out there on the page. You will find that writing is like working out, you hate it, but you will feel so good afterwards.

Now a quick word on types of writers. Let’s just say there are two types of writers, those that write quickly, and spend a lot of time editing and revising, and those that write slowly, the perfectionists. I really think it is a personality thing, so you will have to figure that out for yourself, but really try and knock out the 1,000 words. If you are very much a perfectionist, maybe do 800 a day. But I wouldn’t do less than that.

I always read what I wrote the day before first, do some revising on it, almost as a warm up, to get me into the story. I like to write with music, but, for example, I can’t read with music. Everyone has their quirks. One thing that works for me was a piece of advice Hemingway gave. He said to always leave off at a good point, when you feel you have some rhythm, because this makes it easier to get back into the next day.

Keep writing, once you have twenty or thirty thousand words under your belt, you will feel very good, like you can get the book written. And one fine day you will come the end, type those last few words and you will feel very strange. I can’t say so more about it.

Now, immediately, next day, start with the revision. Try and knock out a chapter a day, no more. You must be very attentive with the first revision, as soon as you get tired you will miss things. Some things will need major re-writes, some things will seem just plain boring and bad, and other parts will seem surprisingly good. If it feels wrong, it is wrong. If you have slightest hesitation about something, re-write it, fix it. Don’t leave it to you feel good about it.

This will take a couple of weeks. Do it one more time than don’t look at the novel for at least three months. After three months, I usually wait a six, but that is up to you, do two more revisions. Now you need someone else’s eyeballs because you know this story way to well. This is where a good copy edit is well worth the money. Someone you don’t know who is a professional writer. They will charge around a $.01 a word, but it is well worth it. If you can’t afford it, join a reading group; just be very careful who you let read your work. The first time you let someone read what you have written can be very traumatic, make sure you have similar tastes, same genre and know how to make a constructive critique. When you critique their work, be constructive, if something doesn’t work, gently let them know and offer a solution, if it works, tell them it works.

After you are confident that the novel is clean, no mistakes, no fuzzy areas in the plot, consistent etc. you can think about publishing. You can do it yourself on CreateSpace from Amazon, and for the cost of one book, about 10$, you will have your novel on Amazon. If you want to try and publish it through traditional channels, there is a book, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. It is an excellent place to start. You will write a query letter, make a lot of Self Adressed Stamped Envelopes (SASE) and send a lot of emails. But the most important thing is that you have written your novel. And nobody can take that feeling away from you.

If you have any questions or comments please shoot me an email at
I can help you with ghostwriting and copy edits, very reasonable prices and quick turn arounds.