How to Write a Novel

So you want to write a novel? Here's how it's done, along with some of the best things I've learned through experience.

This article provides you with all the information you need to get a novel written, based on my own experiences and many other writers I've interviewed over the years; it does not go into the sales and marketing of a book. The important thing to remember is that there are no set-in-stone rules regarding how to do it. If you're creative and clever enough to come up with your own procedures that work for you, there's no reason you have to stick to the regular stuff.

Let's break it down step by step with a list of the most widely accepted parts of the process.

1) Brainstorming

Before you can write a novel, you need that brilliant story idea. Every writer has their favorite part of the process and their least favorite; very few writers dislike brainstorming. It's painting with a completely blank slate, it's asking "what if?" about anything and everything. The sky is literally the limit.

There are two schools of thought on constructing story ideas. Some writers begin with a plot hook. The best plot hooks will ask a question that the story must answer. My first novel, Relentless, is built around the idea of a man who walks to work one morning and sees himself across the street, walking to work. This hook comes with a lot of built-in questions: how did this happen to the protagonist, why, and who is this other man? From there, I created a main character that was suited to exploring questions of identity in interesting ways, and the existential, psychological crises that come with that.

The other option is to begin with the characters. A lot of writers use this method. You create genuinely unique, original characters, and then let the plot grow organically out of them -- their life circumstances, their pasts, their personalities.

One method is not better than the other, but you will find that you're probably better suited for one instead of the other. There are a few writers that can do both, or that draw bits and pieces from both techniques to craft their stories. Again, there are no rules, so use whatever works best for you.

The flip side of the "blank slate" metaphor is that it can be very intimidating. Looking at an empty white page and thinking about how you have to come up with 100,000 words... to start with absolutely nothing and try to come up with... something. Something good, something entertaining, readable, and meaningful. It can overwhelm even the most seasoned writers.

But it's worth the work. It takes discipline and perseverance, but more than anything, it takes will power. Don't psych yourself out of it.

2) Researching

This one is self explanatory; it's the part where you explore and learn about the details of the world you're going to write in. There are lots of different ways to go about this. If your story is set in a real-world location, you can go there and conduct on-site research. This method will generate the most immersive details for your reader.

If travel is not an option for you, make use of your local library, or you use free online resources like Google, Wikipedia (pictured), and Google Maps. I use all of these tools when I write and find them invaluable.

Let me digress for a brief sidenote on how to put these resources to their best use:

  • Google: the more specific your search terminology, the better results you'll get. Let's say you want to set a scene in your story in an old forest filled with towering redwoods. Searching for "forests" will turn up thousands and thousands of webpages, and you'll have no way of knowing which are most relevant to your interests unless you go through them one by one. But searching for "forests ancient redwoods" will bring up fewer results that are more relevant to you. Remember, all that matters in a Google search is the words you put in; their order or grammatical phrasing are irrelevant. Use quotation marks to search for exact phrases.
  • Wikipedia: Despite what you may have heard, Wikipedia is an accurate source of information. And it's a treasure trove! You'll find entries on everything you can possibly imagine. It's constantly growing and being updated with current info, and if you do find an article that has questionable accuracy, it's always marked as such. Wikipedia is 100% free to use, and it's an indespensable resource for every writer. I can't recommend it highly enough.
  • Google Maps: Nothing roots your story in reality like setting it in a city or country that actually exists in the real world. Can't go there yourself? Switch on Google Maps' "Satellite" feature for a bird's eye view of the world that can be zoomed in surprisingly far, showing you roads, buildings, and remarkable details that come in very handy. A good companion to Google Maps is Wikimapia, another map site built on Google Maps' Satellite view, where users label buildings, cities -- virtually everything -- in the world. Some labels even come with links to articles at Wikipedia.

I know writers who would rather research than write. Seriously! Others find it a tedious chore, and would prefer to get right to the more creative aspects of the process. No matter how you look at it, it's a necessary piece of the puzzle. I used to dislike research, but I've grown to enjoy it more and more. Often I find that really in-depth research can fill in the details of my stories better than anything I could make up. You may be surprised at how often research can strengthen and legitimize your story -- not to mention give you great ideas for scenes, characters, locations, etc.

3) Outline

This is an optional step. Referring back to Brainstorming, if you're more of a character-driven writer, you may find that outlining isn't useful to you, preferring instead to opt for letting the story and the characters take on a life of their own and go where they will.

For other writers like myself, outlining is crucial. I like the idea of building my story towards a truly worthy ending, so I liken it to a route on a map: I can't take the journey unless I know the destination. It's kind of like constructing a jigsaw puzzle in that an outline helps you put all the pieces in the right place. I usually start by the writing out a one-line summary of how the story begins and how the story ends, and then I begin filling in the bits and pieces of how my characters get from one to the other. But again (say it with me): you can do it however works best for you. Start at the end and work your way backwards. Start at the beginning and explore various routes you could take. It's all up to you.

One other piece of advice: No matter what genre your story falls under -- be it period drama, romance, fantasy, suspense, or whatever -- it's always a good idea to include at least one mystery as part of the plot. A troubling enigma about a lover's past, an odd detail about a home or place of work, a mysterious illness that no doctor can diagnose -- it doesn't have to be something big (unless you want it to be!). But anytime you can get your reader to ask "what's really going on here?" you'll always invest them in your story.

Another method for drawing in your reader is to make your main character(s) sympathetic. And this one isn't optional. Doesn't matter if your protagonist is a hero or villain, male or female, child or adult... They must have at least one profound character trait that any reader will relate to, or your reader simply won't care about what happens to them.

4) Writing

Ah, at last we arrive at putting words on the page! I know writers who love this step and writers who loathe it. There's no way around it though: it's just a lot of work.

I find it best to think of my first draft as a foundation on which I'm going to build. What I'm writing at this point of the process is usually my most clich├ęd, and least readable work. But that's okay. The point of writing a first draft is not to wax poetic and impress your editor with your command of language and characterization and prose. The point is to get something down on the page that you can then shape and mold in later stages of the process into that masterwork that you want it to be.

It's a hard thing to do, but I always make my peace with the fact that my first draft is sometimes terrible. There's usually good stuff in there too, don't get me wrong. But if it sucks, I don't stress over it at this stage, because what I've learned is that a lot of times it has to be bad before you can make it good. I'm a very visual person, as are most creatives, and seeing the story written out -- for good or ill -- allows me to see what's working and what isn't, and makes it much easier to reshape and mold it into a story that works all the way through.

The point is: just write. And don't be afraid of writing crap. Sometimes you just have to flush the junk of your system before the good stuff can come out.

5) Editing

If you already have a publisher, this stage will be a give-and-take, back-and-forth process where you work closely with your editor. If you're a first-time writer or a self publishing author, then you're going to be doing all the editing and revising on your own.

There's definitely something to be said for having an objective outsider look over your manuscript and tell you what works, what needs strengthening, what makes sense, and what's confusing. The downside to working on such a long work of prose is that you become so close to it that you can't see the places where you've actually explained your scenarios or your character's motivations clearly, vs. the parts where these things are clear in your mind but not in the text.

Some writers dislike or even fear this part of the process. I happen to enjoy editing, because I find that it's where my very best stuff comes out. Sometimes I arrive at that "best stuff" myself, and sometimes my editor's feedback helps to pull it out of me. What's important is that this is the part of the process where your manuscript is refined. It's molded and shaped and reworked into the best it can possibly be.

One trap you should avoid falling into is the desire to achieve perfection. Take my word for it: it's impossible. You can revise and edit and rework forever. No matter how great your story is, it can always be made better. But sooner or later, you have to let it go -- turn it in to your editor, or if you're shopping for a publisher, send it off. A very smart person once said, "Art is not released. It merely escapes." The more you write, the more you'll find this to be true.


Storytelling is just like anything else: the more you exercise those muscles, the stronger they'll get. Some writers write every day; others write whenever the creative impulse strikes.

However you go about it, the more you do it, the more you'll discover and put your own methods to use.

I welcome your feedback or questions, and please share your own tips and tricks in the Comments below!

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Comments 2 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

You obviously know your stuff, robinparrish. My experience has been limited to newswriting, opinion columns and editing, but the process isn't all that different. If I ever get around to penning the Great American Novel, I'll be sure to take another look at this hub.

Robert Parrish 8 years ago

Thanks, Robin, for good insight into the workings of a pubbed writer. My 1st royalty-pubbed is going through edit right now, so your comments about sometimes finding your best work during this phase was helpful. Thanks!

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