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How to Write a Novel: Step by Step

Updated on August 31, 2012
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.


Thinking about writing a novel? Don't know where to start? It's not that hard, if you really want to do it. I guess that really is the first step. You have to have the all consuming desire to write. It has to wake you up in the morning and keep you up all night to finish a scene. Getting that novel done is not something you will get to one day. It is something you have to do.

Here are some suggestions on how to write a novel. Please keep in mind that everyone is different, and every great writer has their own set of steps they follow. These should be used as a guideline to help develop your own.

Now, on to the novel!

Step 1 - Have an Idea

You really can't write a novel unless you know what you are going to write about. It's that simple. It's been done before and the result is usually gibberish.

You need to know what you are going to write about. You don't necessarily have to have a complete outline to start. Just know what you will write about.

For example, let's say you sit down and decide to write a story about a girl. Okay. What is it about the girl you want to write about? Where does she live? What is so special about her? Is it a romance? Is it a mystery? You cannot just say it's about a girl. You have to know what it is about the girl that has her demanding to be written about.

Step 2 - Know What the Story is About

This is a slightly advanced version of Step 1. Here you have slept on the idea. Through visual aids or overhearing a conversation you see the girl as a vampire trying to find her family. You want it to be about forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a good start. Now, sleep on it some more. You'll come up with any love interests and possible twists and turns. Let the idea grow on its own.

Now, many authors write an outline of the story about now. I personally cannot do that. I have to let the story lead me though I have a developed idea of what I want to happen. I'm flexible enough to change course as I write. Just know what the story is about and how it should end though that can be a surprise, too, sometimes.

Step 3 - Do Preliminary Research

This is not always needed depending on your story. Now, if we continue with our example of the vampire girl, you'll want to do research on vampires. Read some other books, both fiction and non-fiction, on vampires. Take notes. This preliminary research can help you develop your idea further. Thoughts you had on the novel could be thrown out the door or morphed into something extremely unique.

Don't be too set on keeping your idea the same. Let the research help change it and make it even better.

With this example, you decide out of all the various ways vampires have been rumored to be able to die that you will choose the silver bullet. In your story only that will work. Suddenly the idea hits you. Her father is a gunsmith. Now the story is beginning to show real promise.

Step 4 - Sit and Write

Now, at some point during this research or when you think you are done, you will not be able to control yourself and you'll have to start typing away. You have no idea exactly what is coming out, but you have to get the idea that has been growing in your brain down in the proverbial paper. It has to come out. The story is gaining power. That's a good thing.

Don't sit down and write a paragraph and then begin editing it. You'll get nowhere and will be bald if you aren't already. You'll also be wearing a straightjacket. Just write. Let the words flow and forget grammar and punctuation. Let the story come out. Tidying it comes later. Let the monster out.

Steps to Writing a Novel

Step 1
Have an idea
A meaningful starting point
Step 2
Know what the story is about
A map to get you from the starting point
Step 3
Do preliminary research
Helps in developing the story
Step 4
Sit and write
You have to start sometime
Step 5
Avoid perfection
You learn from mistakes
Step 6
Finish draft
Or you'll never see a completed novel
Step 7
Let it age
Like fine wine....
Step 8
Tear it apart
Reconstruct an even better story
Step 9
Keep learning
You're not dead yet so you can still improve
Step 10
Let it go
Get it published

Step 5 - Avoid Perfection

If you try to make it perfect, you'll never have a novel. You'll always have a work in progress. First of all, your first draft is not supposed to be perfect. You're throwing out the idea and seeing where it takes you. It's like taking a road trip. You know you are leaving home. You know you are going to Florida. How you get there is a whole other story so don't lay out an itinerary.

You can strive for perfection later, but keep in mind that nothing is ever perfect. Your published work will still have flaws that all OCD people will find. Trust me. I know those folks.

Step 6 - Finish Draft

Finish it. What's the use of doing this if you don't. Finish the draft. So what if it is only 25,000 words long. My first novel was that long and it ended up over 85,000 when all was said and done. It's a draft!

Don't keep working it until you have it all laid out because trust me you will make changes and then everything will be thrown off. Just finish the draft and don't worry about the details.

Step 7 - Let it Age

Now, the first draft is done. You start editing, right? Wrong! Let it age.

What do they say about fine wine? You need to let it age so it can get better. Set the draft aside for a few days, maybe even a few weeks or months. Let it simmer there so when you return to it you'll see it with fresh eyes. You'll see mistakes you wouldn't have found before. You'll see areas that could be expanded and developed further to enhance your story.

Step 8 - Tear It Apart

Now that it has aged, you want to tear it apart. I'm not saying rip the only copy you have to shreds for the garbage man. I mean it is time to begin editing. You'll start rewriting sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. You'll find where you can add characters and scenes. When you done tearing it apart, you'll not recognize the creation before you. It won't look like the first draft. It will be better.

Then do it again. Do this a couple of times and watch the story unfold from a potential beauty of a bud to a blossoming rose.

Step 9 - Keep Learning

You can never stop learning. Until you are buried six feet under, you can still learn. There is so much to learn when it comes to writing and there are resources out there to help you.

  1. Readers - One of the best ways to learn where you can improve is to have a trusted reader look over it. They can tell you if the characters are weak or where you are the strongest. The reader is who you will be selling to. See how they view your work and where you need to grow. This might be the most valuable asset in learning you have.
  2. Reference material - That dictionary and thesaurus will become your best friends. Don't ignore them. Learn another way to say walked. The reader can only take that word so many times on the same page.
  3. Resource books - Check to the right for some resource book I thoroughly love. They have helped me tremendously and I couldn't write without them.
  4. Mistakes - You learn from your mistakes. I didn't know that I used the word "that" so much until someone pointed it out. Now, I notice it more often and catch about 90% of the mistakes of "that" I make.

Step 10 - Let It Go

You could edit your novel for ten years and never get it just right. You have to let it go. You have to come to a point where you are done with it and can move on to another project. That is hard, I know. But it has to be done.

Only then can you breathe and begin creating something new.


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    • raciniwa profile image

      raciniwa 4 years ago from Naga City, Cebu

      great advice...i've always yearned to be a novelist...

    • sweethearts2 profile image

      sweethearts2 5 years ago from Northwest Indiana

      I have started and stopped many times. I have such a fear of rejection it holds me back even with my hubs. Voted up, useful and interesting as well.

    • ChristinS profile image

      Christin Sander 5 years ago from Midwest

      Great tips and I agree on letting it go and not striving for "perfection" - it definitely is what keeps writers down. Aging also is very important and something I need to do more of. Voted up useful and interesting