Is it your dream to write a novel? Are you unclear on the process?
Perhaps you’ve read a ton of books on writing or done a class, but you’re still confused on the way forward.
Don’t worry. I know how you feel!
When I started out writing fiction, I was just as overwhelmed as you might be right now. But after 12 bestselling novels, I’ve nailed down my process, so I hope this overview helps you on your way to finishing your novel.
The writing craft is like an iceberg, with hidden depths that you can spend the whole of your life exploring. When you’re writing your first novel, it can be overwhelming to try and learn everything at once.
But you only have to know about the small section of the iceberg above the water to get that first book written! Here are the basics.
[If you want to get started right now, check out my course: How to Write a Novel: From First Draft to Finished Manuscript.]
(1) Understand what you’re writing and why
Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, it’s worth stopping for a moment to think clearly about what you’re doing. Firstly about yourself, and then about the reader.
Why do you want to write a novel anyway? What is your definition of success? Do you just want to hold your book in your hands, do you have a burning desire to change people’s lives with your words, or do you want to make an income from your writing? The answers to these questions will shape what you write, how you publish and whether you’re happy with the result.
Consider your potential readers.
This book will not be a journal for your eyes only. At some point, a reader (hopefully lots of them!) will pick up your book. Who are they? Which other books and authors do they love? Where do they find your book on the bookstore shelves?
These are important questions because, however you want to publish later on, you need to understand where your book fits in the eco-system. If you get an idea of this now, it will help you shape your story as you move forward.
Of course, none of us like to think about putting ourselves in boxes, and we all want to be original. So here’s the best way to work this out, since after all, writers are usually voracious readers!
What are the 5-10 (bestselling or award-winning) books that are similar to the story you want to write?
Which authors write the books that you love and are similar to your future book? Make sure that you use authors who are currently publishing in today’s market rather than classic literary works.
Write down your list and then go and check them out on Amazon. Scroll down to the Product Details section and find the Amazon Bestseller Rank, which includes the sub-categories where the book is ‘shelved,’ sometimes described as the book’s genre.
If you know where your book sits from the outset, you know what you’re aiming for. You can write what you love, but you can also write something that will find an audience.
(2) Fill your creative well
“Where do you get your story ideas from?”
This is one of the most common questions for authors and one I used to struggle with. I spent thirteen years working in large corporates implementing financial systems, possibly one of the least creative jobs possible! I felt like I would never have any ideas or original thoughts. I needed to retrain myself to recognize ideas because you can’t write a book without them.
Follow your curiosity.
When you walk into a bookstore, which sections do you browse? When you stroll past a magazine rack or a parade of shops, what draws your eye? If you overhear a conversation, what do you notice about the people? When you decide what to watch on TV/film, what do you choose? What interests you?
When you go to a new city, where do you want to go first? What do you want to see? Do you like architecture, museums or historical places? Do you want to eat the local food or go dancing or to cultural performances? Do you want to talk to the local people?
These instincts are often things we take for granted, but becoming aware of your curiosity is the first step to finding ideas. Once you begin to notice what you’re interested in, then you can take the next step.
Write down the sparks that appear.
These don’t have to be fully-formed ideas. They can be anything from quotes to sensations, to places or things that you see. I use Moleskine notebooks (always plain paper!) and also the Things app on my iPhone, as well as taking pictures which I post on Pinterest and Flickr when I travel.
These ‘sparks’ can become part of stories over time. For example, when I visited the Hunterian Museum in London a few years ago, I wrote down the sensation I felt when I looked at the medical specimens in jars.
That location and those specimens became the basis of Desecration, my first crime thriller, a murder mystery with an anatomical theme. One of the characters, Blake Daniel, came to me fully formed after I visited the British Museum and wondered what it would be like to work there.
Trust that other people find the same things interesting.
Whatever you’re into, there are people online who love those things too. Your ideal reader doesn’t have to be in your town. They might even be on the other side of the world!
I always thought I was a bit weird because I enjoy visiting graveyards. I find them beautiful, peaceful places and I bring this awareness of death into my fiction. It turns out that a lot of other people enjoy graveyards too, and when I started sharing pictures and writing about them, I found a whole new community!
Once you’ve tuned into your curiosity and started writing down your ideas, you’ll find that they coalesce into potential stories over time.
(3) Write a story, not just a pile of words
Professional editor, Harry Dewulf, recently told me about the biggest problem he finds with manuscripts from first-time authors. “They give me a load of typing, instead of a story.”
And prize-winning literary writer Flannery O’Connor said, “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
So even if you have read thousands of books, it’s still hard work to write a story that readers love.
Too many writers try to start a novel by writing words on the page with no direction and soon run out of steam, wondering what’s wrong. This is where you need to understand the basics of story structure but don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Consider what you love about your favorite books as a reader.
How do the books begin and end? Why do you want to turn the pages? Is the book a series? Why do you crave these types of books?
For example, I write supernatural thrillers and my ARKANE series has been described as ‘Dan Brown meets Lara Croft.’ Readers of my books also like Steve Berry, James Rollins, Clive Cussler and James Patterson, authors of fast-paced adventure thrillers, many with an edge of the supernatural.
This type of story usually has a single protagonist who has to save the world before the bad guys destroy everything. There’s a ticking clock which keeps the plot moving, and puzzles to solve, as well as global locations and a final confrontation between good and evil. This fits with the expectations of readers who like supernatural thrillers.
Another great example is the romance genre, where the readers are some of the most voracious and demanding in the publishing business. If you want to satisfy romance readers, then you need to deliver the HEA, the Happily Ever After, as well as obligatory scenes like the first kiss.
Use classic story structure to expand on your ideas.
The Three Act Structure goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics, and the best-loved stories follow this tried and true path. Structure and boundaries help you to be more creative, and you’ll find it easier to come up with the various aspects of your story if you follow it. Here’s an overview.
As an example, consider The Hunger Games. The book opens in the ordinary world of Panem, where Katniss is hunting for food for her family in a district oppressed by a central government. Then Prim is chosen for the Reaping, which is the Inciting Incident as Katniss has to make a choice that then propels her into the story. Act Two of the book is the preparation for the Games and the obstacles of the arena itself, where Katniss has to fight to survive. She faces death rather than leave Peta behind and in the Climax, defeats President Snow and wins the Games, returning to the real world of the district at the end, forever changed.
This same story structure is used for many bestselling books and films, so it’s definitely worth using to help you finish your first book. After all, if it ain’t broke …
(4) Write a character that people want to spend time with
If you want readers to want to spend their precious time on your book, then you have to write a character that keeps them engaged. This doesn’t mean that you need a goody-goody-two shoes perfect person, but you do want to write a compelling, authentic protagonist that hooks the reader, so they are desperate to know what happens next in the character’s world.
Use one main character.
The multiple character arcs of Game of Thrones might make for compelling reading/watching, but it’s much easier to start writing by focusing on one central protagonist.
Consider Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, or Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey, or Harry Potter. There are other people in the worlds of those books, but the main characters are the ones that we care about most and follow through the books (and also why these became huge films as well as multi-million selling books).
Your character will also shape the Point of View you write from, and this is critical because every story is different from a different perspective. The bad guy never thinks they are the bad guy, after all. S/he is the hero of their story (think Despicable Me!).
Focus on these questions.
What does your character want and why? What/who stops them? How do they overcome the obstacles along the way? How are they changed as a result of the journey?
Go back to the books you love the most and you are likely to find that these are the core aspects of those stories.
(5) What happens, why and where?
Once you have a character, and you’ve considered what they want and why, you can start fleshing out the details of what or who stops them from getting it. You can also think about where this will happen, otherwise known as the setting. You can’t just have characters talking to each other in an empty white room. There needs to be action that takes place somewhere specific.
Use setting to bring conflict to your plot.
Game of Thrones is a great example of this. Take Jon Snow at the Wall in the North. The wall keeps out the Wildlings, who fight the Knights’ Watch; then it becomes the site of a huge battle and then becomes the only thing stopping the White Walkers. The ice and snow bring a dark, cold tone to the experiences of the characters and makes life much harder than those who live in the golden city of Kings Landing in the sunnier south.
The Hunger Games also uses setting to derive plot, with much of the first book taking place in the games arena where Katniss must survive the deadly traps set for the Tributes.
It doesn’t have to be all death and destruction, though! In Gone Girl, Nick must find his missing wife Amy, and figure out the psychological games she has been playing as he falls into the domestic traps she has set.
Remember that plot and setting is experienced by the character and the closer you get to the emotions of the protagonist, the more your readers will resonate with the story.
(6) Get words on the page for your first draft
When you read a book that makes you think, ‘I could never write something like this,’ stop for a minute. Because that is NOT what the author wrote the first time they put pen to paper. The reality is that everyone starts with a first draft, and most authors would never show that draft to anyone.
We’ll come onto editing in the next section, but first, you need to create that first draft.
“The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway
Once you understand that you will rewrite your work later, especially when you’re first starting out, then you can let go of any sense of judgment over what you write.
In my experience, the amazing ideas I have in my head turn out to be a mess on the page. Finding the right words is difficult. And how the hell did my character even get into this dilemma in the first place?!
But you can’t edit a blank page, so just try to get as much down as possible. Don’t obsess over your word choice or how cliché your characters are, just get black on white and work it out later. I try not to re-read my words until I’m ready for the second draft.
Schedule your writing time
Do you schedule your gym classes? Your children’s school events? Your meetings at work? Your social life? So why don’t you schedule your writing time if it is that important to you?
I use an old-school Filofax diary and schedule my writing time in blocks. When I worked a full-time day job, I would get up at 5 am and write before work, because I knew I’d be brain-dead when I got home. Now I tend to go to a cafe or a co-working space and pound away at the keyboard while plugged into Rain and Thunderstorms on repeat. Anything to quiet that critical voice!
Use focused, timed writing
Once you are in your specific place at the specific scheduled time, then you need to focus. No Facebook, no email, no social media, no texting.
You are there to write.
Set a timer and start small, since writing takes stamina and you have to build it up over time. Try ten minutes of typing and just write down what your character is doing in a particular place. Allow yourself to write a load of crap without censoring and I guarantee you that there will be something there worth saving!
Take a quick break and then do another ten minutes. Repeat this until you have your first draft. It really is that simple (but not easy,) and you get the bug, this will turn out to be immensely satisfying and addictive!
Bonus tip: You can write by hand on paper, or use MS Word, but many writers now use Scrivener software which helps you organize and write your novel. I have personally found it life-changing!
(7) “Writing is rewriting.”
So said Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and many other incredible bestselling books. This is particularly true when you first start writing fiction because there is a huge gap between the books that you love and the pitiful first draft you have created. But that’s okay because you can now edit the manuscript into some much better!
Start with self-editing
I like to print out my entire draft and then edit by hand.
I end up with pages of scribbled notes, arrows, lines and extra scenes, strike-through marks across whole pages, as well as grammar and typos fixes. Then I put all those changes back into my Scrivener document, remembering to back up my files along the way, of course! That first edit is usually my most significant one, and then I will print it out and go through it once more before working with a professional editor.
Use professional editors
The best way to improve your writing is to work with an editor on your manuscript. If you want an agent, then improving your manuscript before submission is a good idea. If you’re self-publishing, then this step will make your book more likely to please readers. You can find a list of editors here.
There are different types of edits. A story edit, or content edit, is a great way to check whether your structure is working, whether your characters are engaging or whether your plot has massive holes. You’ll be given a report with details on how to improve the book.
Too many writers think editing is about fixing typos, but that is the least important thing at this stage. Readers will forgive terrible writing if your story is amazing. After all, 50 Shades of Grey sold 100 million copies! Getting a story edit is often the best way to improve your work and well worth investing in. Then you can do your rewrites based on the suggested changes.
The next stage is a line edit or copy edit, the classic ‘red pen’ approach when an editor pulls apart your whole manuscript, and you make the changes that will improve the book further.
After you’ve done more rewrites, the book will need proofreading which is the last stage of checking for typos, grammatical errors and anything else that may impact the finished product.
Then it’s done.
Congratulations, you can now hold your novel in your hand and say, “It’s (finally) finished!”
This article has been a whistle-stop tour through the process, but I want to reassure you again that it is possible.
You can finish your novel.
I know because I’m writing my thirteenth at the moment. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it! So I wish you all the best with your book.
What are you waiting for? Go write!
Do you need more help?
If you want to get started on your novel right now, and get into these topics in more detail, then check out my multimedia course: How to Write a Novel: From First Draft to Finished Manuscript.
What are your problems with writing your first novel? Or do you have any tips on writing for those getting started? Please do leave a comment below and join the conversation.
Marcia Richards says
HI, Joanna! This was a great mini refresher course for me. I spent four years writing and have some not quite finished manuscripts, one complete flash fiction that won second place in a contest, a few incomplete short stories.
After two years of no writing due to serious life changes, I’m ready to get back to my writing. This blog post gives me the jump start I needed. Thanks.
Joanna Penn says
Glad you found it useful, Marcia!
I have one concerns about sending your book to someone you don’t know to edit. What if they see this book as a winner and steal the manuscripts and make it there own. How do you protect the First draft?
Joanna Penn says
This is not something to be concerned about! (a) sign a contract with the editor (b) you have copyright of the work anyway from first draft anyway (c) you’re paying them to make it better and especially if it’s your first book, it’s likely to need a lot of work (d) the most pirated work in the world is Harry Potter and JK Rowling is doing OK. See this: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/09/08/piracy-vs-obscurity/ All the best!
this has been so helpful, i just finished my first draft, Hand written. now typing it all up. this article was amazing.
Hi Joanna, I love this post — it’s insightful and helpful without being (too) overwhelming. Quick question: Is there a way to print your posts in a format that doesn’t look totally horrible? (I sometimes like to print out posts so I can mark them up and easily refer to specific parts and so forth.) Thank you much!
Joanna Penn says
I’m so glad it was useful 🙂 You could copy and paste the article to a Word doc and then remove the images and print from there? I’ll also be sorting out a book in the next year, once I gather all my thoughts together. Thanks
Sukhi Kaur says
a brilliant post outlining what it takes to get the book finished. Although writing is hard….i am finding editing even more difficult! But it’s all a learning process and I’m excited to finally hold a book in my hands at the end of it. thanks for all the encouragement!
Jill Harris says
Hi Joanna, Great article. Sums up the process in essence. I find the more I write and study storytelling, story structure and novel writing, the less I know. There’s always a point – usually after my first full edit, when I can’t believe how rubbish my book is. For years, I ditched every novel I wrote when it got to this stage, and at the time I was teaching creative writing and novel writing. I felt such a fraud! I wanted to write literary stuff, but loved to read weird sci fi and thrillers. When I found your podcast last winter, I realised it was okay to write genre fiction and self publish. Since then, I’ve published one novel, and am just about to publish the second in the series. Oh, and a non-fiction book about writing. I have you to thank for that – and I’m so grateful for all the stuff you do for other authors out there. May the force be with you!
Joanna Penn says
“When I found your podcast last winter, I realised it was okay to write genre fiction and self publish” – that makes me so happy, Jill! And it’s exactly what happened to me. Once I let go of “I must write a prize-winning literary book,” I was much happier and my creativity exploded!
Lisa Avedon says
I love your blog (and books!) and this post is so timely. I just signed up for NanoWriMo to write a book in the month of November. Are you familiar with this event? This blog post is exactly what is needed for those of us who are participating! Thanks for all you do! Lisa
Joanna Penn says
I’m glad you found it useful! And of course, I started my first novel in NaNoWriMo 2009 – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/firstnovel/ and I also recently interviewed Grant Faulkner about it all – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2016/06/27/write-50000-words/ Have fun!
Icy Sedgwick says
#2 is my absolute favourite! I think some writers think writing equals typing, and the “butt in chair” maxim doesn’t help with that assumption! Sure, you don’t want to waste three years just researching (and putting off the actual writing in the process) but it’s totally okay to read random stuff, visit new places or expose yourself to a new movie genre. Where else will you get ideas from?
That’s my excuse for visiting cemeteries and I’m sticking to it 😉
Joanna Penn says
I’ll join you in the cemetery 🙂 Research is part of why I do this job!
Marion Hermannsen says
Hi Joanna, great article and I’m right in the middle of the first draft of my very first supernatural romantic urban fantasy, after lurking for a year, thanks to you!
One question about your editor – do you get the draft back after each step, incorporate any changes and send it back out? Or does your editor do all steps in one edit? I’ve contacted some editors and they all seem keen to do it in a once-over…
Thanks again! You’re such an inspiration to beginner writers like myself 🙂
Joanna Penn says
yes, usually it’s a once-over per type of edit – so a story edit/structural edit will be one – then a line edit – then a proofread. I use different editors for each.
William Ford says
Hi Joanna: I really look for how to start the media or film writing. My friends suggest me to try different ways to start the writing but what kind of. Sci-fi, film or what. Thanks, Bill…
Thanks for this – a quick overview just in time for my first NANOWRIMO.
Such a great article. Thanks so much for sharing it.
Learning that my first draft isn’t what people are meant to read was the hardest thing to do as a writer, but once I came to term with that… I felt free.
That’s why I like challenges like the NaNoWriMo. Many people tell me they don’t like the constrain to write every day a specific amount of words. Personally? I find that liberating. Because I know I have only a certain amount of time to write a certain amount of wrods, I write without thinking too much to all the things I need to take into consideration when writing a story, That’s work for the rewrites. I’ve come up with ideas I would have never conjured by just thinking about it. Were they perfect? Of course not. But I could perfect them as I revised 🙂
And writing about what makes me curious is my creed. Mayeb that’s why I write historical fiction.
Thanks again so so much for sharing this.
Brenda Jo Liddy says
Very helpful and well written article.
I teach creative writing and sometimes I think it’s such a huge topic and it is hard to put across. However I agree that the craft can be honed and there is no substitute for hard graft.
J A Taylor says
Wow! You are a wealth of knowledge! This is by far the most informative writing info yet. Thank you for the amazing advice and encouragement. I’m writing my first draft, muddling through chapter one. I’m struggling with what I feel is character dump, and how I am writing my story (third person, omnitive)
I feel that I am giving too much back story and not enough character dialogue. And not sure how to do that. Does that make sense? I don’t even know if that’s what I am trying to say. (Your readers are pointing and laughing)– “amature, amature”. Sounds like I need professional help, literally and figuratively:) thanks — JA
Hitesh Sahni says
Great article Joanna. Just a little type that bugged me – In the context of Game of Thrones, it’s the Night’s Watch. Not “Knight’s” Watch. There is no K.
Wow! 😊 this really helps me a lot and motivate to continue writing thanks a lot you’ve really done me a big favour.
Woow, this is informative, thank you for sharing such useful tips, now i have regained my confidence on writing my first novel
Very informative article. Thanks for it! As I wrote down the answers for all the points you have mentioned here, I could see that I actually have a shape for my story. This is a great start for me. I would like to ask a question here. Do I need to know how my story progresses and how it is ending while I start my first chapter? Or is it something I can figure out as it progresses?
Gaurav Kumar says
Similar to ebook writing, writing a novel is also not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of time and efforts to put together everything and write an inspiring story that not only entertain the reader but also bound him with the story.
Character development is one of the most important part in any novel.
Thanks for sharing these steps.
Sharik Ali says
Hey Joanna Penn,
Write a Novel was not quite easy before reading this post. but your tips work really great for needy people like us and I would like to thank you for sharing these amazing informative tips with us and I hope you will continue it in the future.
Bereket H says
Thank you dear Joannan! I was almost on the way to stop creating and writing some non sense stroies . Now, thanks to you, after reading your very useful blog , I even realized my non sense stories are the great work of mine as they are my first work. Thank you for sharing us such a wonderful tips! Your each words helped me a lot.
Carol Wilson Mack says
Excellent post Joanna. Writing an amazing book requires you to be an amazing author. It requires you to be inspired, passionate, skillful, and open-minded.
John G says
I am only 13, but I want to write a book about a small group of superheroes, though I do have a main character out of them. I have already written a semi-detailed prologue, and about 30 points for the main story. Where do I go for editing? as I am not able to afford an expensive editor.
Joanna Penn says
Hi John, I’m so glad you’re writing! I’d suggest checking out the resources at https://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ as they help young people.
You might also ask your parents or teachers for help with editing.