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How to Write a Good Novel - Twenty One Things To Do Before You Start To Make the Process Quicker and Easier

Updated on June 9, 2014

Tips on Novel Writing

It isn't easy to write a book. I've had four published so far, and there were times when I wished I'd done something easier, like have another baby.

Almost everyone wants to give you advice on how it's done, even (maybe especially) those who've never done it. If I had ten cents for every piece of writing advice I've received, I'd be a lot richer now. A fair bit of it was contradictory and completely useless, but in among the dross were some nuggets of gold. Advice which seems really, really simple, can make a big difference to the writing process and to your life while your write.

Take it from someone who's done it, not once, but several times. The most helpful stuff has nothing to do with formatting, the use of meta fiction or narrative technique. The most useful advice you can give a writer is all very practical, and some of it can be applied to any important project you decide to take on, not just writing.

This hub has twenty one of the pieces of advice I found most useful. I can't promise that if you follow the advice here you will write a best seller, but I can promise it will make the writing process simpler and quicker.


This is Gimli, a red Eurasier. An essential companion when writing, he stops me from getting lonely and he keeps my feet warm.
This is Gimli, a red Eurasier. An essential companion when writing, he stops me from getting lonely and he keeps my feet warm. | Source

Before You Start Writing

There are a lot of things to think about; where and when will you write are up there at the top. If you can't find a space in your life for writing, then it really doesn't matter how good or original your ideas are, you won't get them down on paper, but unless your're single and have no family or friends, the number one piece of advice for writers is

1. Tell the family what your’re doing and how they can help. Get them on your side before you start.

Sounds obvious? Maybe it is, but there are a lot of people who don't do it. If you have a life, you'll find that some things don't get done while you're writing a book, and that can cause a lot of bad feeling. You'll find it difficult to do any sort of writing without your significant other's buy in, I wrote from five am each day through to breakfast before setting off for work, so my husband made breakfast because we worked it out before hand and he was happy to help. Children can be more of a problem, but if you explain that it's not for ever (it isn't, really) and that it's important to you, hildren can be among your greatest supporters

2. Find a comfortable place to write that’s free from constant interruption.

Finding the right spot to write is really important because the only way you're going to make it to the end of the first draft, never mind the third, is by being consistent. You have to write regularly. Some people prefer to write outside the house in order to reduce interruption. Libraries and coffee shops are popular choices. Try it if the idea appeals. Most writers are people watchers. If you find yourself watching people and listening to their conversations more than writing, then it's back to the house for you.

Remember that comfort is a personal thing. Your chair is important - you'll spend a lot of time in it. I have a friend who gave up half way through her first draft despite enormous enthusiasm for the story she was telling, she just couldn't face the daily slog, or so she said. With a bit of analysis we discovered that the real problem was an uncomfortable chair that was putting her off. You'll need a fan or air conditioning in the summer, adequate heat in the winter, and if you like to listen to music, make sure that's available too.

Try to prepare for interruptions - let your phone go to voicemail or give it to someone else to answer and do the same for the doorbell. The interruptions may be short, but they break the mood. Let your friends and family know when you write and ask them as a favor, not to disturb you.

3. Find the right tool to write with.

Believe it or not, some people produce better work with a pad and pen. With a word processor it's difficult to resist the temptation to edit as you go along, or to change what your wrote yesterday. This is a serious drain on your productivity. If you do go for an electronic method, try out different keyboards. Keyboards are not expensive and many people find they can type much faster on a keyboard with a firm key press as opposed to a virtual keyboard or one where there is little travel in the keys. Find what's best for you, because you want to get those ideas out fast to keep the flow going. If you find typing difficult and a pen is too slow, try using a speech to text product like dragon naturally speaking. If you spend the time to train the program in your voice and the words you habitually use, you'll find it can be amazingly accurate. Many writers prefer to work out loud, its a good way to test dialogue, but of course it's not ideal for coffee shops or libraries.

4. Make sure your keyboard or paper is at the right height for you.

Back strain isn’t good for anyone and will put an end to your writing for a while. There's a reason why computer desks have keyboard shelves, normal desk height is not ideal for keyboard use, so keep that in mind if you plan to use your laptop at the kitchen table. You can buy add on keyboard drawers these days, or perhaps adjust the height of your chair, so sit higher or buy an inexpensive computer desk if you have room for one.

5. Whether you use a computer or a pen, find a way to backup your work as you go.

If you write using a pen, get yourself a copier/scanner and copy the pages at the end of each working period and put them away somewhere safe. Paper has a tendency to get tidied up and lost, even thrown away. Don't let that happen to you.

If you use a computer then there are many ways to backup your work, google drive provides free cloud storage as do a number of other services, so backup your work at the end of your session. It is not as common as it once was, but hard disks do fail. You can lose everything. Do you really want to start again? I've had it happen to me, and it is truly awful. Do anything you can to prevent it. I use a software package called Scrivener to write my books and articles, and I have it set up to perform and automatic backup of my files at the end of each session. It also saves regularly as I go along.

How to place your computer screen

The Seven Steps of Every Story

A Story Plan

Section of a full story plan, color coded.
Section of a full story plan, color coded. | Source

The Next Stage

6. Decide when you’ll write, make a schedule and stick to it.

Yes, writing is about being creative, but it's not necessary to be disorganised to be creative. You can make and stick to a schedule without losing your credibility, and since this will help you avoid interruption, it will make your life a lot easier and your book will grow faster.

7. Refuse to believe in writer’s block. Make a list of non-writing activities for when you don’t feel creative.

In other words, stick to your commitment. There are times when you won't be in the mood to write a violent scene, or one full of tenderness, but that doesn't mean you get to do nothing. You can write scenes out of order, or you can work on other things, like book blurbs, summaries, blog posts, aspects of your writers platform that are just as necessary as the book itself.

8. Take time to learn to use the software package you choose to write with.

If you are going to use a word processor of any kind, learn to use at least the basic features at the start. As mentioned before, I use a program called Scrivener. It isn't hard to use and it has some features I use a lot which I find very helpful, for example it allows me to write each part of my story separately and yet keep the whole thing together, it does autoamtic backups for me and has a very versatile way of adding labels, tags and keywords to my files so I can track almost anything I like, from which character is in which scene to what state the scene is in, first draft, copy edit etc. It also lets me play with scene order in a really easy way, and has both an index card and outline mode.

If this sounds like a pitch for scrivener, I really love the software, but if you'd rather use word, that's find by me. Word also has a lot of features that make writing easier as long as you learn how to use them.

9. Remember that fonts and formatting are the last stage, right now they don’t matter at all.

Don't get caught in the format trap. Some people spend hours 'experimenting' with a good format. Your format doesn't matter. If you submit to a publisher you need something bland. If you self publish you may need someones to lay out the pages for you. In either case this comes right at the end. Playing with fonts now is just that, playing, and is a waste of your time.

10. Don't put it off.

If you've taken all the above precautions, you've realised that many people start a novel but never finish it. Even more people never start. Make a date and get going. Better still, start now.

11. Set a reasonable writing goal for each day.

Most books have around 300 words to a page, so a 100 page book will have 30,000 words, a 300 page book will have 90,000 words. At 1000 words a day, your first draft should take 2-3 months if you write every day. If you write on weekdays only it will take one and a half to six months. If you write on weekends only, well, you need to write more than 1000 words a day. Set your target accordingly.

12. Pick a premise you really feel enthusiastic about

So many self published authors pick something because they think it will sell, not because its something they really really want to write about. You're going to spend a lot of time working on this, and even more time thinking about it. If it isn't something you feel really really keen on, then you'll get sick of it and you'll give up.

13. To avoid getting stuck after the first enthusiasm wears off, write an outline that covers the entire story.

Most writers know how their story starts, some even know the middle, but very few know how the story will end. Work out as much as you can before you start writing. Why? Because at this stage, where the story is only an idea, its easy to change. Reduce it to bullet points, single lines - a does this, B does that, C doesn't like it. Work it through to the end, move the lines about and you'll find natural boundaries. These are your scenes. The story should have a pressure, pushing you through from beginning to end. The pressure is easier to acheive if you know it ends right from the start.

14. If you can’t come up with a plot, steal one from history.

A lot of writers know what they want to write about, but they don't have a fully fledged plot in their heads. If you can't come up with one yourself, steal it from history where there's no copyright to infringe, the only thing you have to worry about is that the truth really is stranger than fiction most of the time. Is this cheating? Not really. There are no new ideas,

15. If you still can’t come up with a plot, consider retelling a classic, but in a new way.

How you tell the story matters as much as the events you relate. Change the sex or age of the characters, set it in the future, tell it as a diary or a series of emails. The story may be old, but you can make it your own.

16. Let the outline sit for a while while you decide if its good enough.

Like a good chef, let your outline marinade for a while. Think it through, see if there are any plot holes, any scenes or characters that can be combined. Tighten it up. If you think it's too short or too simple, add a layer, perhaps more character work, or an added layer of complexity. All this is fairly easy to do at the outline stage.

16. Make sure you’ve chosen the right character to be your protagonist.

The protagonist needs to be interesting. All the way through. The protagonist does not have to be 'nice' or 'likeable'.

17. Create your antagonist in such a way as to create conflict in your story.

In some ways the antagonist is more important than the hero. Don't believe me? Think about Star Wars. Make sure you've chosen a protagonist who will bring conflict to your story

18. Create a compelling antagonist with a good reason for their actions.

You story will be lot more interesting if the bad guys are bad guys for a good reason and not simply 'evil'.

19. Build other personalities to highlight or contrast with the main characters in your story.

A story is not simply made of people and events. Everything should come together to enhance the story, and one way to make your characters stand out is to create others who contrast with them and do things differently. Design your characters to help tell the story.

20. Never Use Character Sheets to Design a Character.

The web is full of character sheets, even character generators. Character sheets can be a useful tool, you need to remember what your characters, even the minor ones, look like, but don't treat the sheets as a tick box character design tool. Your characters should be capable of driving the plot, not merely reacting to events. Build them a backstory, make it consistent and be sure to give the hero room to grow.

21. Remember the outline is just for you.

Write in note form, make sentences short, use bullet points. Keep things brief so they are easy to change.

Plotter or Pantser? Take Our Poll

If you're a writer, which way do you prefer to write?

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© 2014 Lesley Charalambides


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