In college, I once asked a Philosophy professor what it takes to get a PhD in the field. He smiled awkwardly and answered uncertainly. Dedication, time, energy, lack of sleep, etc.
It’s the same for writing a novel. But that doesn’t mean it’s a chore that will end you.
As Stephen King says in On Writing, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
That said, the first step to writing a novel is to start writing, now.
What are the steps to write a novel?
Have an idea. You have an idea for a book? Then you’re off to a good start.
Research ahead of time. Ideally, you should “write what you know,” but it’s impossible to know everything your character will be encountering, and you should do you diligence to fill in the blanks for yourself. Become an expert on whatever you need.
Plot an outline. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but have an idea about where the story will start, what the major conflict is, and how it will be resolved.
Remember, a novel is a story about a character and their development. A story is about some aspect of the human experience, and character development is king. Backdrops are fun and cool, but in the end, this is about a main character, so make sure they have a story to tell, the more personal the better.
Start writing. Write short and choppy if you must, but get the story on paper. The first draft can be anything from a wordy outline with a paragraph for each chapter, or well-crafted copy, but it needs to be written, and only you can do that.
How do you write a first draft?
First and foremost, remember that this is the fun part. Too many people make a first draft out to be scary, tedious, or a herculean task. Don’t do that to yourself. Write the story and have fun.
First, have your story idea solidly fixed in your mind, and some kind of outline to steer your course.
Secondly, start writing. Use telly writing, bad writing, or any other kind that gets the story on paper. People will argue with this, but spending hours in a thesaurus looking up the right word will kill your momentum. I’ve seen books abandoned because of editing, self-doubt, and too many days off.
Just write the story from start to finish.
If your characters skip off the outline, don’t fret. You still need to get them where they need to go, so do whatever you must to bring them to the final battle and conclusion, even if they have different plans for how they will arrive there.
You are the author, the merciless god of the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid to use those powers when necessary.
Important note, there will be a ton of revisions ahead of you no matter how tarted up the prose looks, so don’t waste time churching everything up just to destroy entire chapters later. Just write the story as it plays out in your head.
Write every day, and don’t stop until you are finished. Think of it like a work out. You can take a break once the draft is finished.
How do you get unstuck from writing?
Writer’s block is bullshit, so forget about that, but there are still times where the story gets a bit dull, or you aren’t sure how you want to finish out a scene.
And sometimes you don’t feel like writing that scene yet.
Do you know what happens next in the story? Move on. Put down some notes about how the scene needs to go and then get started on the next.
This may sound like cutting corners, but it’s actually very motivating. If you wrestle an idea out that you are unsure of, you’ll have to change it later.
If you come back and plug it in once you have the whole story written, then you’ll know exactly what needs to happen in that scene.
Take a prophecy of the future for example. You haven’t finished the story yet, so how do you know the best way to encapsulate your glimpse of what’s to come?
You don’t. So finish writing the story and then come back and jam some clever words into the mouth of the prophet or the context of a dream. It’s faster, easier, and best of all, it keeps you writing instead of noodling.
Then comes the editing
This is a whole other topic, but the basics will be listed here to sort of round out my little guide.
You will be editing a lot. You’ve finished your draft so take a day or two off, have some pizza, or do whatever to recover.
The next step is block editing. Again, don’t worry too much about fanciful prose, though you can inject a clever line here or there as they come to you.
The main focus of the first edit is to hash out problem areas in the story. This might involve moving scenes around, changing details, fixing errors with the plot or story progression, tying up loose ends, adding new threads to deepen the story, or tossing in some better scenery.
Could be anything, but what it isn’t is a line edit. Remember, story comes first, fancy wording second. A poorly written self-help book with great content sells 100x better than the most well-written boring story. So get the story right first.
Work on your craft
Nobody is born a writer, and believe me, I’ll seen some terrible stories from English majors who are supposed to be good at this stuff.
The more you write, the more experience you will gain and the better your writing will become. This is another reason not to fluff up that first draft with fancy writing. You’ll come back later to read it and wonder how you could have made such trashy sentences.
It happens to all of us, especially on the first book.
As the story starts to tighten up, so will your verbiage. Read in your spare time, spend some effort learning new ways to express what you mean, and try to learn some new words.
It doesn’t matter you background. Anyone can write a good novel, but it will take a lot of work, energy, and dedication. Stay focused and on track, and you will get to the finish line.
Hopefully this article will help you on your journey. There is a lot to this question that will be answered better in other posts, but this should be enough to at least pick up a pen and have a whack at it.