How to Write a Novel A 12-Step Guide

Youve always wanted to write a novel. But somethings stopped you.

Maybe youve tried before, only to get a few, or several, pages in and lose steam because:

You couldntovercome procrastination

You feared your writing wasnt good enough

You ran out of ideas and had no clue what to do next

You may be surprised that even after writing 200 books (two-thirds of those novels) over the last 45+ years, including severalNew York Timesbestsellers (most notably theLeft BehindSeries),I face those same problems every time.

So how do I overcome them and succeed?

I use a repeatable novel-writingplan one that helps me smash through those obstacles. And thats what I reveal to you in this definitive guide.

Imagine finishing your first draft. Better yet, imagine afinished manuscript. Or, best of all, your name on the cover of anewly published book does that excite you?

Imagine letters from readers telling you your novel changed their lives, gave them a new perspective, renewed hope.

If otherwritersenjoy such things, why cant you?

Of course this goes without saying, but first you must finish a novel manuscript.

This guide shows you how to write a novel (based on the process I use to write mine). I hope you enjoy it and can apply it to your own writing!

Want to download this 12-step guide to reference whenever you wish? Click here.

Determine whether youre an Outliner or a Pantser

Create an unforgettable main character

Choose your Voice and Point of View

Engage the theater of the readers mind

Intensify your main characters problems

Make the predicament appear hopeless

Come up with a story laden with conflict the engine that will drive your plot.

I based my first novel,Margo, on this idea:A judge tries a man for a murder the judge committed.

Take whatever time you need to prioritize yourstory ideasand choose the oneyouwould most want to read the one about which youre most passionate and which would keep you eagerly returning to the keyboard every day.

It must capture YOU so completely you cant get it out of your head. Only that kind of an idea willinspire youto write the novel youve always dreamed of.

If youre an Outliner, you prefer to map out everything before you start writing your novel. You want to knowyour charactersand what happens to them from beginning to end.

If youre a Pantser, meaning you write by the seat of your pants, you begin with the germ of an idea and write as a process of discovery.

As Stephen King says, Putinteresting charactersin difficult situations and write to find out what happens.

One or the other of these approaches will simply feel most natural to you.

But, in truth, many of us are hybrids, some combination of the two needing the security of an outlineandthe freedom to let the story take us where it will.

So do what makes the most sense to you and dont fret if that means incorporating both Outlining and Pantsing.

(I cover strategies for both types and talk about how to structure a novelhere.)

Regardless, you needsomeform of structure to keep from burning out after so many pages.

Im a Pantser with a hint of Outlining thrown in, but I neverstart writing a novelwithout an idea where Im going orthinkIm going.

Your most important character will be your protagonist, also known as your lead or your hero/.

This main charactermust experience a life arc in other words, be a different, better or worse, stronger or weaker person by the end. (I use he inclusively to mean hero or )

For most novels, that means he must bear potentially heroic qualities that emerge in the climax.

For readers to be able to relate to him, he should also exhibit human flaws.

So resist the temptation to create a perfect lead. Who can relate to perfection?

Youll also have an antagonist (also known asthe villain) who should be every bit as formidable and compelling as your hero. Make sure the bad guy isnt bad just because hes the bad guy. 😊

He must be able to justify if only in his own mind why he does what he doesto make him a worthy foe, realistic and memorable.

You may also need important orbital cast members.

Usedistinct names(even distinct initials) for every character and make them look and sound different from each other too, so your reader wont confuse them.

Limit how many you introduce early. If your reader needs a program to keep them straight, you may not have him for long.

Naturally,your lead character will face an outward problem a quest, a challenge, a journey, a cause But he also must face inner turmoil to make him really relatable to the reader and come alive on the page.

Heroic, inventive, morally upright, and physically strong? Of course. But your protagonist must also face fear, insecurity, self-doubt.

The more challenges he faces, the more potential he has to grow and develop.

Much as in real life, the tougher the challenges, the greater the potential transformation.

For more on developing your characters, check out my blog postsYour Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes,How to Create a Powerful Character Arc, andCharacter Motivation: How to Craft Realistic Characters.

True Pantsers yes, even some bestselling novelists dont plot. Heres the downside:

Like me, you might love being a Pantser and writing as a process of discovery, BUT even we non-Outliners need some modicum of structure.

Discovering what bestselling novelistDean Koontzcalls the Classic Story Structure (in hisHow to Write Best-Selling Fiction)changed my writing forever. My book sales took off when I started following his advice:

Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.

Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only progressively worse

until his predicament appears hopeless.

Finally, everything your hero learns from trying to get out of the terrible trouble builds in him what he needs to succeed in the end.

Want to download this 12-step guide to refer to whenever you wish? Click here.

Writing coaches call by different names their own suggestedstory structures, but the basic sequence is largely common. They all include some variation of:

Regardless how you plot your novel, your primary goal must be to grab readers by the throat from the get-go and never let go.

For more on developing your plot, visit my blog postThe Writers Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story.

Though fiction, by definition, is made up, to succeed it must bebelievable.Even fantasies need to make sense.

You mustresearchto avoid errors that render your story unbelievable.

Once a reader has bought into your premise, what follows must be logical. Effective research allows you to add the specificity necessary to make this work.

When my character uses a weapon, I learn everything I can about it. Ill hear about it from readers if I refer to a pistol as a revolver or if my protagonist shoots 12 bullets from a gun that holds only 8 rounds.

Accurate details add flavor and authenticity.

Get details wrong and your reader loses confidence and interest in your story.

ConsultAtlasesandWorld Almanacsto confirm geography and cultural norms and find character names that align withthe setting, period, and customs. If your Middle Eastern character flashes someone a thumbs up, be sure that means the same in his culture as it does in yours.

Encyclopedias. If you dont own a set, access one at your local library oronline.

YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of results. (Just be careful to avoid wasting time getting drawn into clickbait videos.)

Use aThesauruswhile writing your novel, but not to find the most exotic word. I most often a thesaurus to find that normal word thats on the tip of my tongue.

Theres no substitute for in-person interviews with experts. People love to talk about their work, and often such conversations lead to more story ideas.

Resist the urge to shortchange the research process.

Readers notice geographical, cultural, and technological blunders and trust me, theyll let you know.

Even sci-fi or fantasy readers demand believability within the parameters of theworld youve established.

One caveat:Dont overload your story with all the esoteric facts youve learned, just to show off your research. Add specifics the way you would add seasoning to food. It enhances the experience, but its not the main course.

The perspective from which you write your novel can be complicated because it encompasses so much.

Your Point of View (POV) is more than simply deciding whatvoiceto use: First Person (I, me), Second Person (you, your), or Third Person (he, she,orit).

It also involves deciding who will be your POV character, serving as your storys camera.

The cardinal rule isone perspective character per scene, but I prefer only one per chapter, and ideally one per novel.

Readers experience everything in your story from this characters perspective.

No hopping into the heads of other characters. What your POV character sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, and thinks is all you can convey.

Some writers think that limits them to First Person, but it doesnt. Most novels are written in Third Person Limited.

That means limited to one perspective character at a time, and that character ought to be the one with the most at stake in each scene.

Writing your novel in First Person makes it easiest to limit yourself to that one perspective character, but Third-Person Limited is the most common.

Im often asked how other characters can be revealed or developed without switching to them as the perspective character.

Read current popular fiction to see how the bestsellers do it.

(One example: the main character hears what another character says, readshis toneand his expression and his body language, and comes to a conclusion. Then he finds out that person told someone else something entirely different, proving he was lying to one of them.)

For a more in-depth explanation of Voice and Point of View, read my postA Writers Guide to Point of View.

You must grab your reader by the throat on page one.

That doesnt necessarily mean bullets flying or a high speed chase, though that might work for a thriller. It means avoiding too much scene setting and description and, rather, getting to the good stuff theguts of the story.

Les Edgerton, a gritty writer who writes big boy novels (dont say I didnt warn you) saysbeginning writersworry too much aboutexplaining all the backstoryto the reader first.

Hes saying, in essence, get on with it and trust your reader to deduce whats going on.

The goal of every sentence, in fact ofevery word, is to compel the reader to read the next.

Dont moviegoers often say they liked the book better?

The reason is obvious: Even with all its high-tech computer-generatedimagery, Hollywood cannot compete with the theater of the readers mind.

The images our minds eye evokes are far more imaginative and dramatic than anything Hollywood can produce.

Your job as a writer is not to make readers imagine things asyousee them, but to trigger the theaters oftheirminds.

Give them just enough to engage their mental projectors. Thats where the magic happens.

For more, visit my post onWhat Is Imagery?andShow, Dont Tell: What You Need to Know.

Want to download this 12-step guide to refer to whenever you wish? Click here.

Youve grabbed your reader with a riveting opener and plunged your hero into terrible trouble.

Now, everything he does to get out of that terrible trouble must make it progressively worse.

Too many amateurs render their heros life too easy.

They give a private eye a nice car, a great weapon, a beautiful girlfriend, an upscale apartment, a fancy office, and a rich client. Rather, pull out from under him anything that makes his life easy.

Have his car break down, his weapon get stolen, his girlfriend leave, his landlord evict him, his office burn, and his client go broke. Now thrust him into a dangerous case.

(For more on conflict, read my postInternal and External Conflict: Tips for Creating Unforgettable Characters)

His trouble should escalate logically with his every successive attempt to fix it.

You can hint that hes growing, developing, changing, getting stronger, and adding more to his skillset through his trials, but his trouble should become increasingly terrible until you

Writing coaches have various labels for this crucial plot point.

Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Its where even you wonder how youre going to write your way out of this.

The once-reprobate lover who has become a changed man and a loving fiance suddenly falls off the wagon the night before the wedding.

Caught red-handed doing drugs and drinking with another woman, he sees his true love storm off, vowing to never speak to him again.

Imagine the nadir, the low point, the bleakest moment for your lead character. Your ability to mine this can make or break you as a novelist.

This is not easy, believe me. Youll be tempted to give your protagonist a break, invent an escape, or inject a miracle. Dont you dare!

The Bleakest Moment forces your hero to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to prove that things onlyappearedbeyond repair.

The more hopeless the situation, the more powerful your climax and ending will be.

The ultimate resolution, the peak emotional point of your story, comes when your hero faces his toughest test yet. The stakes must be dire and failure catastrophic.

The conflict that has been building throughout now crescendos to a final, ultimate confrontation, and all the major book-length setups are paid off.

Star Wars: A New Hopeclimaxes with the rebels forced to destroy the Death Star.

In the original version of the movie, that scene felt flat. So the filmmakers added that the Death Star was on the verge of destroying the rebel base.

That skyrocketed the tension and sent the stakes over the top.

Give readers the payoff theyve been set up for. Reward their sticking with you and let them experience the fireworks.

But remember, the climax is not the end. The real conclusion ties up loose ends and puts everything into perspective.

Honors the reader for his investment of time and money.

Is the best of all your options. If it comes down to clever, quirky, or emotional, always aim for the heart.

Keeps your hero on stage till the last word.

Because climaxes are so dramatic, endings often just peter out. Dont let that happen.

Yourendingmight not be as dramatic or action-filled as the climax, but it must be every bit as provocative and riveting.

Dont rush it.Rewriteit until it shines. Ive long been on record that all writing is rewriting, and this is never more true than at the end of your novel.

When do you know its been rewritten enough? When youve gone from making it better to merely making it different.

Write a fully satisfying ending that drops the curtain with a resounding thud. Your readers will thank you for it.

A lifetime. It will pull from you everything you know and everything you are.

I know those answers sound flippant, but remember, speed is not the point.

Spend as much time as it takes for you to be happy with every word before youstart pitching your manuscriptto the market.

How long writing a novel will takeyoudepends onyour goalsand your schedule.

A manuscript of a 100,000 words, including revision, should be doable even for a beginner in six to nine months.

Develop andpractice the right habits, set a regular writing schedule, and stick to it.

If youre anything like me, it will prove the hardest thing you have ever done. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Every published novelist (yes, even any big name you can think of) was once right where you are unpublished and unknown. They ultimately succeeded because they didnt quit.

Resolve to not quit, and youwillwrite a novel. I cant guarantee it will become a bestseller, but I can guarantee it wont if you dont finish it.

Youll know your story has legs if it stays in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it.

The right concept simply feels right. Youll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must compel you to write it.

Tell your story idea to someone whose opinion you trust.

You should be able to tell by their expression and their tone of voice whether they really like it or are just being polite.

If you want to write a novel, dont allow the magnitude of the writing process to overwhelm you.

Attack it the way you would eat an elephant one bite at a time. 😊

Dont let fear stop you. Use it as motivation to do your best work.

Stay focused on why you started this journey in the first place.

Follow the steps Ive given you, and you may find that this time next year, youre holding in your hands a manuscript that could become a published novel with your name on the cover.

Want to download this 12-step guide to reference whenever you wish? Click here.

4 Steps to a Writing Routine You Wont Want to Break

4 Ways to Create Tension in Your Story

A Writers Guide to Point of View

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