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Down to the Basics: How to Write a Novel Step-by-Step

Updated on January 12, 2014

Learn the Basics of the Writing Process to achieve a Written and Completed Novel!

Some people may argue that writers are born, not learnt. Although I do believe that some of us have the inner ability to be a writer, writing is, like everything else, a skill. And a skill needs guidance, practice and persistence.

There is a whole world hidden behind a published novel. It is a world that we can easily become lost, that we have no sense of direction.

Through this lens, I will guide you through the basics of each step of the writing process, from getting started, getting ideas, planning your novel, writing your first draft to holding a polished manuscript.

Writing a Book Step-by-Step

A brief overview of the writing process

1) Know yourself, your goals, your strengths and your weaknesses. Discover what kind of novel you want to write.

2) Getting Ideas

3) Planning your novel

- Create your main characters

- Decide on the setting

- Identify your plot

- Decide on the point of view

- Create conflict in your story

4) Researching certain elements of your story (if needed)

5) Writing the 1st draft

6) Rewriting: revising & editing

7) Proof-reading your manuscript:

- by a colleague

- by a critique group

- by a professional

8) Publishing

* Keep in mind that the order of each step differs from writer to writer. There are certain steps which you will go to and fro during the writing process.

Let's start at the Beginning...

You have decided to become a writer, where do you start?

1) Find a place to write.

Ideally, it is best to have a desk in a secluded place where you can write without being disturbed, a place that you can call your own. You can listen to music or cherish the peace and quiet. Have a nice little drawer to keep all of your writing material in a safe place.

From time to time, delight yourself by writing somewhere out of the house, such as a park or a coffee shop. Avoid feeling "coop up" in your house.

Discover what gets your inspiration flowing.

2) Establish a routine.

To become a writer, one must write almost daily (or at least, on a regular weekly basis), even if it is just for 30 minutes. Analyze your schedule and reserve some time to write.

It is important to keep to that schedule as much as possible.Write even if you do not feel like it. It may be hard at first, but the key is persistence and you will become accustomed to it. With time, it could even become a necessity.

Also, consider your life style, such as whether you are more productive in the morning or in the evening. Experiment to find your most creative time(s) of the day.

3) Keep a notebook with you at ALL times.

(And I am not kidding !). When you become a writer, your notebook becomes your best friend. Write all your ideas in that notebook. Have it small enough so that it may be easily carried anywhere. Keep it beside your bed at night.

4) Reflect on the kind of novel you want to write.

For some, this decision will come naturally, but for others, it will be more difficult. Usually, it is the genre of novel that you read or that you prefer. Also, think about what inspires you. Think of what you want to share with the world.

If you have no idea, do not worry ! The genre will choose you during the creative process.

Most importantly, write what you are passionate about, what interests and intrigues you the most. You need to care about your project.

5) Write for yourself.

Writing a novel should firstly be for yourself. Not for the money, not for the glory nor for the fame. Use these goals for motivation, but deep down in you, it must be something that YOU want to do, that YOU need to do.

Writing a novel is very hard work and will take a lot of your time. So, enjoy yourself and have fun!

6) Persistence.

You may experience writer's block or it may take you longer than expected to reach your finished manuscript. But do not give up ! Persistence is one of the key factors of achieving your written novel.

General Tips on Writing

1) Write everyday (or almost!).

2) Do not get hung up on a title. Do not force it. It will come to you eventually during the writing process, when you will have a better feel for the novel.

3) First and last scenes can be written last. You can write them summarily with what you have in mind at the moment, but do not stress about it. Work on them after your 1st draft, bit by bit.

4) Take the time to create your main characters before starting writing. Your inner voice will come more easily when your characters are concrete in your mind.

5) Keep a notebook with you at ALL times. Write down your ideas as soon as they come to you.

6) Set time to write. Make a schedule and make sure that it is respected. Demand not to be disturbed when you are writing (unless of an emergency).

7) Being a writer is a work-in-progress. Takes a course, read a how-to-write manual on writing, learn new techniques, meet other authors for advice and encouragement. But, most of all, keep on writing. It is by writing that you will grow the most as an author.

8) Read many books. Read a book with an analytic point of view. Try to look at it as an editor would. The more you do, the more you will learn about the craft, and the more you will be able to notice the techniques and the style the author uses.

9) Be persistent. Do not give up. Sometimes life just throws something that can take you away from writing, but return to it as soon as you are able.

10) Discover your strengths and weaknesses. And then gradually work on improving those weaknesses.

11) Do not stop writing when you are waiting for a book to be proof-read or published . This is a perfect moment to think about your next book and/or to gather ideas. It is also at these moments that you can take a course, or read a book to perfection your craft.

12) Join a online writing or critique group. They provide support, feedbacks and advice. You can also join a creative writing group, such as the most popular NaNoWriMo, in which participants attempt to write 50,000 words in a month.

Where and How to Get Ideas?

Like any kind of novel, it must start with an idea, no matter how small it is. And where we get these ideas depends on each individual. It is important to find out what works best for you. Some authors start by creating their protagonist, others get their inspiration from a location, or even a theme they want to explore.

Ideas come from everywhere: the newspapers, the television, the radio, conversations, images or photos, dreams, even your experiences. The resources are limitless. Keep your mind open.

Use your eyes and ears every day, at every possible moment to look for anything interesting and inspiring. And it is crucial to write down your ideas as soon as they come to mind. Always keep a notebook close at hand, even when you are out of the house. Trust me ! It is easy to forget even the most interesting idea that you were so sure to remember by the time you got home.

The trick is to put all of your ideas on paper, whatever they are. One train of thought will lead to another until you have found what you are looking for. And then suddenly an image will just click and make you say: "That's it!"

Do not hesitate to use numerous techniques during this process, such as brainstorming, speedwriting, mapping and visualisation.

Of course, you won't use most of your ideas. But the important thing is to find the "great" idea, an idea that is ingenious, motivating and yours.

Do not be surprised when your final idea will be completely different from the original one.

(Do not forget to keep your other ideas in a safe place. You may need them later while writing your current novel, or you may use them for your next novel.)

As these questions get answered, the story takes form bit-by-bit. So, after a time, you will have a good outline for you story.

Always ask yourself: What if? Why?

Just by asking these questions, numerous ideas will come to you.

And o not forget to write them down !

The Creative Writing Process

How to get in touch with your creativity.

There are many ways to go about finding ideas for your next novel and building your story.

Every story begins with an idea, however small it is. Some people have more creativity than others. These people can just have an idea, sit down to write and develop a novel from that idea without using any creative techniques per say.

As for me, I need to know where my story is going. I need to know that I have a great idea before putting some energy into it.

Here is a list of some creative writing techniques. Try each of them out. Do not limit yourself to only one style of creative writing. By using many techniques, you increase your chances of finding interesting ideas for a whole novel faster and efficiently.

1) Brainstorming:

This is the classic technique which work very well when you are at the beginning stages of your book. Usually, it works best when using pen and paper, but you can do this on the computer also. Choose what inspires you the most.

Brainstorming consists of writing down your ideas on a blank piece of paper. The ideas do not need to be related, you just write down what comes to mind and you keep at it until you have no more.

Try to come up with as many ideas as possible, as quickly as you can.

Then you look at what you have written down and see if anything strikes you as interesting. Maybe a general idea will stare right at you.

If this happens, you can take that idea and do another session of brainstorming.

Some authors set a timer for brainstorming, but I do not recommend it. The best ideas can come right after the time has elapsed. If you have the time, keep brainstorming until you feel "drained" of ideas.

Then take some of these ideas, the ones that appeal to you, and ask the classic questions: Why? When? Where? Who? and How? (depending on which ones are relevant).

Write down the answers to those questions. You will be amazed on how many more ideas will come to you. You can use this method with each main character, specific plot or scene.

2) Speed Writing (or free writing):

Speed writing is an interesting technique to help you get your imagination flowing and for finding new ideas. It is also very practical for someone suffering from writer's block.

You simply begin to write and you continue to write everything that comes to mind. You can set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Do not stop to correct misspellings or punctuation. The idea is to get the mind flowing as you write.

If you do not know what to write, then write exactly what you are thinking: "I do not know what to write" Just keep at it, writing exactly what comes to mind and your mind will eventually trigger on something and then ideas will come to you. Of course, most of what you write will be rubbish. But something very interesting may come out of it.

You will be amazed how this technique is efficient. The ideas that come to me when doing this technique are incredible.

3) Storyboarding (or index cards):

This technique requires the use of index cards or sticky notes (or just plain cut pieces of paper, whichever you prefer). The idea is to write each scene or plot on a card. You can use colors to highlight specific information, such as characters or subplots, attributing one color to a specific character or subplot.

On a big surface, such as a table, place the cards in chronological order. Then see how the story unfolds before your eyes. This technique works really well since it is visual; you can easily see what is missing and know what to work on. By seeing the story right in front of you, you will have a better perspective of your story.

Take note of all the missing elements and try to work on it. With time, make new cards and place them in their right place, or change with one already in place.

You can write small comments on the front or on the back of the cards as ideas come to you.

4) Visualisation:

Re-enacting scenarios is a great and fun way of getting ideas and getting your story together. This technique works best when you have a general idea of what your story is about and of your main characters.

You can do this mentally, by daydreaming, or physically, by acting it out yourself (of course, you may want to do this alone at home).

Using this technique is effective in giving your character more substance and gives him a voice. I find this very useful when I start writing my novel, since my main characters are already anchored in my mind, giving them a life of their own.

5) More techniques°

- Mind Mapping

- Bubble chart

- Snowflake Method

How Do You Write a Novel?

There is no straight way to write a book. Find your method.

If you think that writing a novel is to write from beginning to end in a straight line, then think again. There are many ways to write a novel, and each is as good as the others; it all depends what works best for you.

Here are a few ways:

- You can write with or without an outline;

- You can write backwards, from the ending to the introduction;

- You can write linear, from the introduction to the ending (the classic approach);

- You can write important scenes in any order, then put them in chronological order and fill in the gaps.

- You can start from a scene, and work your way into the story from that point.

- You can write the middle of the story and keep the introduction and the ending for last.

Choose the method that works best for you. Go with your inspiration.

Writing Your First Draft

An important key to success

Maybe you won't believe me when I say that one of the most important things to do to achieve success is to finish the 1st draft of your novel. I am not kidding, it's true! So many authors say so.

It happens too often that new authors try to put words onto paper only to stop without completing their very 1st draft.

First, take some time to get to know the craft of writing. Reading a how-to-write manual will help you guide you through the planning process of your novel and give you a few pointers. It helps to know where you are going. There are so many things to learn and to think about.

Some authors write an outline before writing their 1st draft. Others just write the story as they go along. Choose the method that best suits you.

When writing your 1st draft, do not stop to edit or to revise your manuscript, just keep on going. Just write down what comes to mind. Do not stop too long to think about beautiful prose or clever dialogue.

The goal of the first draft is to get your story onto paper in a less-than-perfect form. Probably, it will be bad. Your first draft will lack description and style, scenes will be incomplete and dialogues will be wooden. It may even be confusing and disorganized. But that's OK. You will have time to revise and edit it later.

If a passage is too difficult, just write it very summarily. If you are blocked on a scene, just write a line to describe what should be there and skip over it.

Keep small notes of changes you want to make in a notebook kept beside your computer to read later. Do not make any corrections on earlier scenes while writing your 1st draft. Just keep on writing until your reach the last chapter. You make the necessary modifications in your 2nd draft.

When you have finished your 1st draft, put your manuscript aside for a few days. Let your story and your mind rest. Then, take it out and start writing your 2nd draft, one scene at a time.

So, keep at it until you write that 1st draft! Do not give up!

Useful Websites on Writing

Writing World.com

This is my favourite website on writing. It covers everything, from learning the basics to getting published. There is also a section for mystery, romance, and sci-fi and fantasy.

For Authors.com

Providing valuable resources for both prospective and current writers, it contains a very large database of articles on writing.

Advanced Fiction Writing

Author Randy Ingermanson gives insightful tips on writing. He is also renowned for the "Snowflake Method", an original way of outlining your novel. He also makes a free monthly newsletter that I really appreciate.

Robert J. Sawyer Writer's Workshop

Author Robert J. Sawyer gives good advice on numerous topics on writing.

Advice on Novel Writing - by Crawford Kilian

Author Crawford Kilian gives a very good mini how-to-write a novel manuscript, containing the basics on novel writing.

Rewriting: General Editing and Revising Tips

For many authors, editing and revising their manuscript is a necessary evil. On the other hand, some authors, including me, anticipate the process. But whether you like it or not, it is a crucial step in polishing your novel.

During this process, you will need to revise and edit your 1st draft many times. Between drafts, leave your manuscript alone for at least a week. In this way, when you will return to it, you will look at it with fresh eyes.

Usually, I do not do any editing or revising in my 2nd draft. My 2nd draft is more to complete the story, where I take it scene by scene and include the details and the dialogues that I did not take the time to think about in my 1st draft. It is when I finish my 2nd draft that my story looks more like a novel. Then I start editing and revising, one point at a time.

Editing and revising is a long and complexe task, especially when you do not know what you are looking for. I highly recommend owning a book on self-editing to help you with this process. My personal favourite is "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers", a pioneer in this field.

Of course, it is important to know that it takes a lot more time to revise a novel than to write the 1st draft.

I divide the process into two categories: 1) grammar and style; 2) and anything pertaining to the elements of your novel, such as plot, character, structure, etc. I have listed only a few examples of each category.

Grammar and Style:

1) Adverbs

Edit as many "-ly" words as possible.

2) Adjectives

Remove as many as possible

3) Remove Intensifiers, such as:

very, quite, so, extremely, really, absolutely.

4) Use active verbs instead of passive verbs:

replace: is, was, were, am and are for active verbs

5) Eliminate as many Qualifiers as possible:

usually, always, never, etc.

6) Repetition: do not repeat words in close proximity (unless for a desire effect).

7) Avoid using too many words that replace the word "said".

Elements of your novel

1) Check the first paragraph of each chapter for "hooks"

2) Check the end of each chapter for "cliffhangers"

3) Look for inconsistencies

4) Eliminate passages that don't move your story forward.

Writer's Block

The author's worst nightmare.

But wait! There are ways to get past your block and get back into business of writing your novel.

Try these tips:

- Take a break.

It can range from an hour to a couple of days, depending on the importance of the blockage.

- Use a creative writing technique to get back on track, such as brainstorming, speed writing, storyboarding, or visualisation.

- Skip the passage that you are blocked on and work on a scene later in the book.

- Turn off that nagging little voice that keep criticising your work. Concentrate on writing your novel one step at a time.

- Take a walk, take a bath, or watch movie.

- Start a new project, such as working on a new book, taking a class, reading a novel, doing research, etc.

Proof-Reading your Novel

Put it to the test with an outside opinion.

So, you have sweated your way to perfect your novel for many weeks now, revising and editing one draft after the other until finally you feel that your story is now mature enough to pass another crucial step: proof-reading.

This may be done in several ways, but it is important to choose how you will proceed in your best interests.

Choices are:

- a family member

- a friend

- a contact

- a critique group, online or in person,

- a professional.

The Final Step: Publication

Will your novel pass the test?

Finally! You are holding in your hands your polished manuscript. You feel proud of yourself and cannot wait to see it in print. Reward yourself and celebrate!

I do not as yet have pertinent experience in this department. But I do know that you need to do some research before sending your novel to any publisher. Learn how to make a query letter and make a good synopsis of your story.

Search the internet for publishers who are specialized in your genre of novel and learn their requirements. Keep track of who you sent your manuscript and when. Be careful! Do not send your manuscript to a publishing house for romance novels when you have written a mystery novel.

Take the time to seek out the appropriate publication houses.

Be prepared for the worst. You may receive plenty of rejection letters. But do not give up! You have worked so hard to get this far!

Remember that J.K. Rowlings' first Harry Potter novel was rejected by every publisher she sent it to until the last one accepted; and that came to be only because the young daughter of the publisher read the first chapters and wanted to read the rest. And the publisher warned her that her book would not be a best-seller! Amazing, hein?

In the end, it all comes down to your persistence. Let the reader be the last judge.

Let's Go For A Vote!

Which Part Of The Writing Process Do You Find The Most Difficult?

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    • JennyRowling profile image

      Jenny Rowling 3 years ago from London, UK

      There is one rule I go for - when writing the first draft, don't be afraid to write complete idiocy :D The first draft is always bad and I wasted too much time trying to write a good first draft. Took me a few years to realize it's stupid to go that way. Just write whatever you want to create the skeleton of your story and then revise. Revising and editing the plot is what really shapes it into the novel you want to present to the readers.

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      Although I have been writing all my life, I have only ever written non-fiction and poetry. I am just starting to write my first novel and this has been most helpful, thanks

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 3 years ago from UK

      Thanks for your help with a number of points I also found your links very useful. Just started on my first novel and I need all the help I can get

    • profile image

      The_Storyteller 4 years ago

      Thank you so much for this lens! I really appreciate the information and advice, and I also greatly appreciate the well-written and easy-to-read manner it is written in. This is by far the best lens I have read yet on the subject of novel writing, and, in my opinion, LotD worthy.

      I have been working on my novel for several years now, and am still hashing through it! So true about persistence, even though I know I am taking a long time I don't let it discourage me and instead just keep focused and writing. I finally feel like things are really coming together, and I'm really looking forward to what it becomes!

      Thank you again for this useful information. Very well-written and very helpful. I am sure I will be giving this another read!

    • JohnGcorner profile image

      JohnGcorner 4 years ago

      Well I think that my "nagging little voice" needs to shut up and let me write the damn stuff haha. Seriously, great, well researched info, that's a squid like from me!

    • AmberColleen LM profile image

      AmberColleen LM 4 years ago

      Fantastic lens! Good tips and thoughts.

    • HuggsX3 LM profile image

      HuggsX3 LM 4 years ago

      Great lens! I want to write a horror novel!

    • nanafisher profile image

      nanafisher 4 years ago

      Thank you so much for your lens. I have written several manuscripts and published none. My goal is to publish at least one of them and your lens will help. I seem to have developed a bit of Dsylexia so I installed a grammar and writing tool and this has helped. Again, I plan on using your advice and we will see. Thank you

    • Stephanie36 profile image

      Stephanie 4 years ago from Canada

      This is a great tool for anyone working on a novel!

    • JillY88 profile image

      JillY88 4 years ago

      enjoyed your lens and found it really helpful. Now, where's that notpad?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Very useful lens. Many sound tips and ideas.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      great lens!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      great lens!!

    • profile image

      nifwlseirff 5 years ago

      I would say that finding the time and mental space to write is my most difficult challenge!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      wow, so much great material for those of us who want to write, who love to write, who have a passion to write. thank you for the insightful way you sought out to show through to your readers.

    • agoofyidea profile image

      agoofyidea 6 years ago

      Great lens. Very thorough!

    • bbudoyono lm profile image

      bbudoyono lm 6 years ago

      This lens is very impressive to me. You touched all the bases. Thanks a lot for writing it.

    • pompom210 profile image

      pompom210 7 years ago

      Hey Karen,

      Cool lens! :O)

      With lenses, I'm as guilty as the next--but you might want to edit the first third a bit for typos & style. But your content ABSOLUTELY ROCKS! :D

      & what you say about always keeping a notebook around is so true! People have no idea how much they come up with & let slip away every single day.

      I also like what you have to say about rewriting & how your second draft is mostly about finishing the book. That's the kind of looking-over-your-shoulder tip I love getting from other writers.

      You obviously know your stuff, so this may be overkill--nonetheless, I invite you to check out a lens featuring my favorite books on writing, Karen.

      https://hubpages.com/literature/best-writing-books

      Sunshine & Blessings,

      Giovani

    • carny profile image

      carny 7 years ago

      Very helpful. I have a dream of writing a book someday :)

    • Peregrina LM profile image

      Peregrina LM 7 years ago

      You have a lot of great information! I lensrolled it to my two writing lenses.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Well done. Blessed by an angel today (/my-angel-blessings)

    • Rachel Field profile image

      Rachel Field 8 years ago

      Great tips, lensrolled to Rachel writing. Thanks :)

    • MichaelSellars profile image

      MichaelSellars 8 years ago

      This is a great lens and, to say the very least, comprehensive. Five stars from me.

    • profile image

      flowski lm 8 years ago

      Thanks for all the great writing tips!