You’ve had that idea for a novel going on in your head for weeks, months, maybe even years. It bugs you day and night, until you can’t stand it any longer – you simply must tell your story. So, why haven’t you written your novel yet?
Do you tell yourself it’s because you’re too busy? You’ll do it when you retire? Or because you’re not the world’s greatest speller? Forget all that! Writing your first novel is simpler than you think.
Bear in mind the words of successful author Louis L’Amour:
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
By the end of this simple, step-by-step guide to writing your novel, you’ll believe you can, and should, do it.
Step 1. Take a practical approach
You have your story ready. Now, you need to approach the physical act of setting it down in novel form as a purely practical task.
Fortunately, modern technology means that not all of them involve actually writing. Sure, you can write the story yourself using pen and paper or type it onto a word processer. But you can also tell it by speaking into a video recorder, to be transcribed by yourself or someone else later. Or you can dictate it to someone who writes it down as you speak. Once you decide on a method that suits you, you’re ready to go on to the next step in achieving your ultimate goal – telling your story in a novel.
Step 2. A place to write
The next practical step in creating your novel is designating a specific place with enough room to work comfortably and equipping it with whatever you need. A home office, a bedroom, a balcony, a closet – it doesn’t matter, as long as you set it aside as your special spot for working on your novel, where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. After a while, you’ll find that just being there will make the creative juices flow. Also, sticking to a fixed schedule and writing at the same time every day helps in maintaining discipline and creating habits that make the writing process almost automatic.
Step 3. Make a plan
Everything good we achieve in life goes better with a plan, and the same goes for writing your novel.
At this stage, it’s helpful to focus closely on the story you want to tell and ask yourself what sort of story it is and why you think people will want to read it. The following three tasks will help you do that.
What’s your title?
Start by imagining your finished book, cover and all. What’s the title? If you already know, write it down. If not, write down a few ideas and see where they take you. It doesn’t matter if you can’t decide at this stage – you can make a final decision later – so pick a working title for now. For inspiration, take a look at some titles that have impacted you and think about what it is about them that attracted you.
Front cover blurb
Not all novels have a front clover blurb, but they are increasingly popular, especially for romance, thriller, and crime novels. This is a pithy 1-2 sentence description that appears below the front cover title and sums up the book in a nutshell. It should make potential buyers turn over and read the back blurb.
Here are some examples:
Elizabeth Kostova’s bestseller The Historian (2005, Time Warner Books):
“To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history. . .”
Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1998, 4th ESTATE):
“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”
Jessica Ruston’s romance novel The Darker Side of Love (2012, Kindle Publishing):
“A gripping novel of secrets, lies, and betrayal.”
Focusing closely on your story like this and trying to sum it up in a few words will help you answer the question of what kind of story it is, which will be helpful later on.
Back cover blurb
Next, consider the back cover blurb. This gives more scope for describing your story than the front cover blurb, yet it still only consists of two to three short paragraphs, ideally under 100 words. You know from your own experience that these few paragraphs are vital in persuading people to buy a book, so they must pack a punch. Look at the back cover blurbs of novels that hooked you into buying them. You’ll notice that a good blurb doesn’t give the whole plot away but entices you to buy by promising a gripping story, interesting characters, and plenty of twists. It’s a great exercise in economy and will help you gain an idea of what genre, or genres, your story fits into. It could well be more than one. Is it a romance, a sci-fi tale, a historical piece, or maybe all three?
Keep all your notes – they are now a vital part of your novel-writing plan. You have already started the process of writing your novel!
Write a synopsis
Writing the blurbs will also help you in the next task: writing the synopsis of your novel. Write out a detailed description of your story from start to finish that answers these questions: Who does what, with whom, where, when, how, and why. This will help you define the characters’ actions or events that drive the story on and become the backbone of your novel – the plot. Each one of these is termed a plot point.
Write a plot outline
Using the synopsis as a guide, write a plot outline for your novel, chapter by chapter. The synopsis will tell you when an important plot point occurs; one, possibly two, plot points are sufficient basis for one chapter. Numbering the chapters as you go, gradually break the synopsis down into separate chapters. It doesn’t matter if the action is not chronological, as long as each chapter includes its relevant plot point[s] to keep driving the story onward. Here’s an example:
- Dick is recovering from a heart attack and decides he needs a holiday.
- His wife Beverly has been depressed while he’s been in hospital and has hidden from Dick the fact she’s gambled away most of their savings.
- Unbeknownst to Dick, Beverly decides to ‘borrow’ some of the money she knows her Uncle John keeps in his safe at home.
- Beverly’s Uncle John is returning home from a late-night dinner when he sees a light inside the house and fears an intruder. He arms himself with his gun and goes inside.
- John hears noises in his bedroom; he sees a shadow by his open wall safe and shoots at it. The figure screams, and he realizes it’s a woman. The thief escapes through the window before he can catch her. He calls the police.
Continue this process until you come to the final chapter, when you will have produced a detailed plot outline for your novel. If you write, say, a chapter a day, you’ll be finished in no time!
Step 5: Set a daily timetable for writing
You now have your writing space, your blurbs, synopsis, your full plot outline – you’re just about ready to go! But there’s one crucial thing above all you need to succeed in completing it: Self-discipline.
Here’s what one of the most prolific writers of modern times has to say about the writing process: In his book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (2012 Hodder Paperbacks), Stephen King says: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
At this stage, it’s best to commit to write a little every day, so think about how long can you realistically set aside each day to write? Some authors have fixed times. For example, Stephen King writes daily from 7 am to noon. Other authors write a certain number of words or chapters per day. Decide what will work for you and stick with it. That way, you’ll soon find your flow and will have the satisfaction of seeing steady progress.
Step 6: Forget perfection
Don’t waste time on finding that perfect word, phrase, or metaphor; just get your story down, chapter by chapter, until you complete your first draft. There are few better feelings in life than making that final keystroke and hitting save.
As you keep writing, you will eventually develop a process that works for you. Initially, your focus should be on getting it done. A first novel may not be perfect, but it’s an essential part of your development as an author. If your first novel sucks, then write another one, keep learning and writing till you get better at it.