Writing a Novel: A Guide

Deciding to write a novel is like deciding to run a marathon. 

You might start your first race thinking it’s going to be easy – believing your muscles are in good shape. But before long, you learn just how much more preparation, dedication and perseverance are required to finish. 

Over my career as an academic and fiction writer, I have completed more than thirty romance novels – as well as four non-fiction books on linguistics. My experience has left me well acquainted with the struggles of creating a finished piece. 

This page is for you, whether you’re writing your first novel or you’re a writing veteran. Here I have compiled all of my most useful tips that might help your writing process become less painful and more organized.

Before You Begin

Coming Up With An Idea

Every novel has to begin by formulating a good story idea.

Really, though, when you’re coming up with story ideas, chances are you won't come up with anything new. Ultimately, your challenge is coming up with your interpretation of the plot you have chosen from the finite pool of story ideas that have existed for all time.

The point is, you don’t have to be discouraged because your story fits into one of the seven basic plots. Instead of trying to find a completely unique storyline, find the plot structure that grabs you and figure out how to make it yours.

Get in Writing Shape: Read More!

Need to come up with fresh story ideas? A surefire way is to fill your head with narrative structure. That means read, read, read. Want to improve your writing style and abilities? Well, how do you improve your tennis game? The answer is obvious. You play with someone who challenges you with her serve, her return shots, her speed and her strength.

I say it over and over: in order to up your writing game you need to read. In particular you need to read authors who are better than you are. Reading for authors is like eating for athletes. You can’t run a marathon if you’re on a no-or-low-calorie diet. It’s not just about calories, though, that is, if I’m making an analogy between reading words and eating food.

More importantly, reading widely gives you, the author, plenty of material to evaluate. By reading other people’s work, you discover what does and doesn’t work for you in your work. Other authors’ plot lines, characterizations, descriptive powers, imagery and so forth give you food for thought.

Think About Your Vision

Before you begin writing, you should think about how long your story will become. You may have already decided that you’re going to write a short story or a novel. However, categories like ‘short stories’, ‘novellas’, ‘novels’ and so forth don’t really mean anything and they aren’t binding.

Think about your piece as a blank canvas. The size of your story idea should inform how big your canvas should be. Focused topics need small canvases and big themes go on murals.

Immerse Yourself in Research

When I began writing romance novels, I fell in love with the regency period. This is the period where King George III’s son, Prince Regent ruled in Great Britain from 1811-1820. If you’re like me and you love to write about another time and place (such as the regency period), get ready to research. You will need to do extensive research, studying and observing to add accurate details to your scenes. But after all that research, you’re only going to use about 10% of it.

You may think, “If I’m only using 10% of the research, why do I need to do all of this extra research?” Great question. You still need the feel of the time and the sense of what it was like to live in a different world to evoke the time period of your writing. [I say only use 10% because the historical accuracies should only be sprinkled in. They should not be the bulk of the scene setting.] My strategy has always been to choose three areas of historical focus to present to the reader.

Let’s say you want to set your story in early 18th-century George II London. You can go to town, pun intended, with descriptions of the period clothing. Weave it into the fabric of your story. You could set a scene with plot significance between a gentleman and his tailor or a gentleman and his valet. Then terms like breeches and clocked stockings would naturally come into play and help bring the era to life. And there are all sorts of things those guys stuffed up their sleeves. Have fun with them and be sure to make them plot relevant!

Add two more areas of focus, weave those into your plot as well, and your reader will likely have a satisfying historical experience. If you’re writing a contemporary piece, visit the location in person so you can get a better feel of your setting. Treat your setting like another character in your story. You want to give your readers enough description that they get the sense that they’ve seen these places.

Writing Process

So you have your story idea, plot structure, and your research and you’re finally ready to start writing. Where do you start?

One thing that will help you write is knowing your biorhythm. This just means figuring out what time of day you work best. For example, if you’re an early bird, don’t force yourself to burn the midnight oil. If you’re a night owl, don’t force yourself to wake up at 7 a.m. and write. 

Knowing your biorhythm will help you set a writing rhythm for yourself that allows you to be more productive over time and sustained attention. 

 

As you begin writing, chances are it won’t be linear. You will probably go back and add a scene somewhere or write a scene on its own and see how it fits in later. 

The need to jump around in your story makes it difficult to stay organized but staying organized is extremely important. 

Becoming a more organized writer will help you avoid plot holes, writing scenes that don’t make sense and mischaracterizations. 

Here are some tips to keep you organized:

1. Write a free form outline. Write down any and all ideas regarding the story and try to break each thought into sections – for example,  Plot, characters, scenes.

2. Open several documents: Outline, Characters, Setting/World Details, Series Bible, Research Notes, Draft, Scene List. I like to use Word Doc, but some people like to use One Note. Use whichever is easiest for you and begin filling in these documents with the bare bone details.

3. Create a Scene List. Write down each scene and underneath it write a bullet pointed list detailing whose point of view it’s from, what happens in the scene, what day of the week it is and the scene description.  

It's important to stay focused on the big picture. Like any creative field, writers can get bogged down by negative thoughts. The other day one of the students commented, “You guys, I’m not a very good writer.”

My reply: “You’re a beginning writer. Whether you’re good or not you don’t yet know, and that’s not your problem anyway.” 

I like to take a page out of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and remind myself that it’s not my job as the artist to determine whether the work is good or not. My job is to create to the best of my ability. Don’t compare yourself negatively to other writers or even your future self. Do the best that you can and be proud of your work.

Try to have a clear idea of where your story beings and ends. When you start to write your story, it can be helpful to start as close to the end as possible. It’s up to you to determine what is drawing you to telling your particular story. Is there some central scene that compels you? Is it a dramatic event that changes the life/lives of the main character/s? You can’t start with that scene or event, but you can use it to think backwards to what must be the initial conditions that will eventually produce it. 

Sure, you can open with a dramatic event like a car crash or an earthquake. But this initial event is not the equivalent of whatever you want the main action of your story to be. It only gets the ball rolling.I have read many a story where a Prologue is written to narrate the childhood event. Then Chapter One opens when he’s 40.

I have an aversion to this narrative choice. The childhood event is relevant only now in terms of the present-day story and so should be woven into it, not separated from it. Once again: The beginning should be as close to the end as possible. If you decide to include a prologue, use it as an introduction, not a device for plot convenience.

Where you finish your story is determined by what kind of story you’re writing.

If it’s a story of overcoming the monster, the story ends when the monster is slain. If it’s a rags to riches story, then the character(s) ends up rich. If it’s a story of a great quest, then the story ends when the valuable object is in hand. If it’s a story of voyage and return, then the story ends when the character(s) return home. If it’s a story of rebirth, then the story ends when the character(s) has/have a new life. 

If your story is a romance novel, it’s hard to tell if the “Happily Ever After” should be the ending. I know of some romance writers who like to write a long-ish final scene where the couple is shown post-conflict in their day-to-day interactions. I’m not one of them, and so sometimes I err on the side of leaving too much after the “Happily Ever After” to the reader’s imagination. 

First of all, you should know that it’s going to happen no matter what. Writer’s block is almost unavoidable, so don’t get too discouraged when it happens to you. 

1. Be patient with yourself. It is frustrating when you feel like you need to be writing and you can’t, but it’s part of the process of discovering your story.

2. Don't get bogged down. Don't think that if you're not writing, you're not a writer. Already having a story idea counts as writing. 

3. You don't have to write all day. Writers typically don't spend 8 hours at their laptop writing. Carve out 15-minute increments to write without distraction. 

4. Concentrate on discovery, not discipline. Motivate yourself to write to find out what's going to happen next with your characters, not to put a check on your calendar that you wrote today. 

5. You don't have to start at the beginning. You can start writing your story anywhere, even if it's a scene you think will be in the middle. 

6. Always have a piece of paper and pencil. You never know when inspiration might strike, so keep a paper and pencil handy.  

7. Create sticks. These are methods that you use to get yourself to write when you're hitting that block. Sometimes filling the blank page is a bitch, and you have to wrestle her to the ground. 

8. Find your why. Find what you like most about the writing process and maximize it. 

9. Don't judge yourself. You need to be free to make mistakes and errors without the fear of judgement. Write, just write. If it comes out ugly, you can always revise. 

10. Take a walk to ground yourself. Sometimes you need a break from staring at the cursor blinking on your page. Get up, walk outside and breathe some fresh air.

11. Write three morning pages. It will help you pour out the drivel to get to the good stuff. 

12. Go on an artist date. Take yourself on a date once a week for an hour and do something just for you. 

13. Create a narrative timeline of your life. Divide your life into periods of five years and record various things you remember from each period. It helps you dredge up the past so that you can turn the psychic soil over and plant new stuff.

14. What holds for plot also holds for character. When I get stuck on what a character should say or do next I always go back through earlier scenes to see what breadcrumbs I might have left behind: a character’s stray thought, an off-hand action I hadn’t thought was terribly important but still needed to be there or even something another character does or says about the first.

15. Consider creating chapters. You don't need to have chapters in your finished piece, but creating titles for your manuscript can help focus each chapter and figure out where to go next. 

16. Ask yourself "What am I working on?" This can help give your story focus and find themes, ideas and plot twists.

A Writer’s Choices 

Every writer has to make a set of specific literary choices that defines the shape of his or her story. These are some of the most important choices I’ve noticed myself making over the years, and some suggestions on how to navigate the decision process.

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable and appealing when displayed. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point size, line length, line-spacing (leading), letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space within letters pairs (kerning).

Choosing Your Seductive Character

If you are writing a romance piece, you have one very important decision to make: determining what type of seductive character you’re going to create. Typically, there are nine different types of seductive characters: 

This is ultimate male fantasy figure because she offers a total release from the limitations of his life. Her presence quivers with sexuality.

The great female fantasy figure. When he desires a woman, brief though that desire may last, he will go to the ends of the earth for her. 

This person fills the fantasies of people who find themselves disappointed by reality. He or she thrives on broken dreams and is an artist in creating and fulfilling the illusion you require.

This seducer is fluid and ambiguous and creates his or her own persona. Dandies play with masculinity and femininity and seduce in large numbers.

They recreate the golden paradise of childhood and is always playful.

They have the ability to delay satisfaction, which is the ultimate art of seduction, and while waiting, the victim is held in thrall. 

The charmer seduces without sex. They cast their spells by aiming at people’s primary weaknesses: vanity and self-esteem.

They excite us. Radiating energy while remaining detached, they can seduce on a grand scale. 

He or she gives us escape from the harsh grind of daily life. Stars glitter and fascinate.

What makes an effective seducer? One who is not interested in himself but his victim. 

The effective seducer succeeds first by fulfilling his victim’s emotional and psychological needs so thoroughly the victim can think of nothing but him. The effective seducer is furthermore never suspected of seducing. Once you have chosen your seductive character, you must determine the seductive process and which counterpart will be the perfect victim to the seducer. 

Anti-Seducers are the opposite of seducer: insecure, self-absorbed, and unable to grasp the psychology of another person. They literally repel. The Anti-Seducer comes in seven varieties: Brute, Suffocator, Moralizer, Tightwad, Windbag, Reactor, and Vulgarian. The names speak for themselves. 

Choosing the Elements of Your Scene 

To create a scene, you first need to think about the purpose of it. Try to avoid creating a scene that only serves one purpose. Each scene you create should reveal something new. If you’ve stated your characters’ motivation or backstory, you don’t need to keep repeating it. 

When writing, remember to include all the senses and not limit your descriptions to sight and sound. As you’re writing your story, if nothing surprises you, your reader won’t be surprised either. Not everything should be determined beforehand.

Next, you’ll need to choose the point of view from which your scene is being told. There are a few options for POV:  

This story only has one narrator, who is generally the main character, and uses pronouns such as I, me, my, mine.

This story has multiple narrators who alternate telling the story from their perspective. As each character tells their story, they use pronouns such as I, me, my, mine.

This story has one narrator that follows one character throughout the story and knows the thoughts and feelings of that character. The narrator uses the pronouns, he/she, they, them.

This story has one narrator, but the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.

Lastly, your scene should end on a high note. I don’t mean it should end where everyone is happy, but it should end on a plot revealer or twist, a snappy comeback or an emotional punch. Avoid ending scenes where your character simply goes to bed. 

Creating Your Characters

Choosing your characters’ personalities and creating new people is one of the most exciting parts about writing a novel. 

As you think about your characters’ backstories, think about packing a suitcase. How each person would pack a suitcase is telling of their character. Maybe they don’t pack a lot of accessories because they’re a no-frills type of heroine. The way that their suitcase is packed can also describe what is important to your characters. Maybe the hero always packs a watch that his wife left him when she passed away. 

However, this last example raises an important point. If your hero is a widower, when you use personal details like that, make sure it adds to the plot and it isn't just a quick way for the audience to become more sympathetic to the character. 

Naming characters can be difficult. Some authors go through several different character names before settling on the right ones. When you name your characters, don't give major characters the same first initial. If your characters are Richard and Robert, change one to Ben. 

Also, keep in mind that names should make sense for the time and place of your novel. You wouldn’t have a Khaleesi in your 1814 Regency romance. Also, it’s generally a good rule of thumb to refrain from naming your character after someone you know unless you have their permission. 

Every story needs a villain. Every villain is either an outside force or an inside force. What type of villain will best suit your story?

As an outside force, your villain is not already within the hero/heroine/'s immediate sphere of influence who threatens the main characters' livelihood, safety or both. For example, in a historical romance it could be a greedy landowner. In a contemporary romance it could be a CEO or lawyer in a hostile corporate takeover. 

An inside force, by contrast, is someone within the main characters' sphere of influence such as a family member or close friend who intends to do harm.

As you develop your secondary characters, remember that each character thinks they are the main character in their own novel. They need to be fully formed individuals with characteristic thoughts, goals, and actions. You need to know them in their three-dimensional individuality and not just as they relate to your main characters. 

As you being to write dialogue, make sure your characters sound different from each other and have different verbal fingerprints. Getting to know your characters will help you determine each one's unique verbal fingerprint.

Creating too many characters can confuse your audience, but you also want to have enough people to create a community of friends and family for the lead characters. If you have too many characters, the number can be whittled down by combining traits of several characters into one. 

Each character should be unique and there should be diversity in your characters. Unless your story takes place in a prison or a religious order, make sure you have both female and male characters. For secondary and supporting characters, avoid the Greek chorus. A Greek chorus is a non-individualized group of performers who comment with a collective voice on the dramatic action. They aren’t secondary characters. They’re caricatures. And there’s only one adjective to describe their creation: lazy. 

Once you have assembled your cast of characters, you can begin to develop their character arcs further. 

When creating a character arc, you can choose where to start. It can start at the beginning and you can introduce your character in a “getting to know you” scene and have the conflict immediately present itself -- or it can start in the middle when she’s already struggling and down on her luck. 

Wherever your character starts, she must end with her best self. If you’re starting with a “getting to know you” scene, avoid using the mirror scene to introduce your character. No one looks in the mirror and notices the color of their eyes or their hair color unless something is different about them. 

Also, be sure to avoid point of view errors where your character mentions one of their basic physical characteristics. Again, no one reaches for the car door and notices their skin color. To avoid the sagging middle, make sure that the characters and plot are developing and unfolding together. Think about your character constellations: a set of adjectives that describe and define your character can help identify your individual characters.

Remember that you are creating a new universe for your readers and you must stay consistent. Everything your characters say and do must be in line with what the audience already knows about them. If you’ve established your heroine as a cool, calm and collected lead, don’t write interactions where she immediately freaks out or panics. If you can, try to walk a mile in your characters' shoes. Take up an activity or hobby that they would do to better understand how your characters experience their bodies.

Creating Authentic Dialogue and Monologues

How to create believable dialogue

Dialogue is a tricky beast, but it’s important in any novel. Good dialogue helps bring your story to life and demonstrates how characters relate to each other. Dialogue is also a great way to break up long descriptive scenes and speed up the action.

1. Know how your character makes sense of the world. Then make sure the words they speak align with their center and sense.

2. You don’t yet know your characters very well at the beginning of your writing. Their dialogic interactions are your opportunity to find out who they are individually and as a couple.

3. Don’t use the tongue-tied cop out. When your hero and heroine meet, don’t make them so flustered because of their overwhelming attraction to the other character. There are other ways for them to express their attraction toward each other.

4. Use a car scene. The hero and heroine are alone in a confined space and it's the perfect opportunity to rev up the relationship through dialogue.

5. Read your dialogue aloud. If it’s choppy, unrealistic or not working in some other way, you should be able to hear it.

6. Learn from others. Study the dialogues of your favorite authors. See what works about their writing and learn from them.

7. Don’t worry if the hero and heroine are trading words or phrases. We  naturally adopt phrases and words from the people around us. Just make sure there are other ways they distinguish themselves verbally.

8. Writing good dialogue is an art. You don't want to write real dialogue because people constantly start, stop, backtrack and stutter in normal conversation. You simply want your dialogue to sound authentic.

Writing strong interior monologues

Interior monologues take place in the middle of dialogue. It gives your readers a look into your characters’ thoughts and feelings during the interaction.

1. Don’t use interior monologue in the midst of dialogue to reveal backstory. If you go off on too long of a tangent, your audience will forget the conversation between your characters.

2. Use interior monologue to control the pace of your story. Dialogue speeds up the action and interior monologue slows it down. If there's a large scene of dialogue between two characters, try weaving in some interior monologue to slow down the pace.

3. There is no ideal ratio of dialogue to interior monologue. The ratio is ultimately up to you to decide. The proper balance between the two exists in function of the particular characters.

Editing and Refining

Be happy! You have a first draft! Not everyone makes it this far. Know that it’s okay that the first draft isn’t perfect, it isn’t supposed to be.

1. Review you character arcs and make sure that there aren’t any glaring mischaracterizations. Did you plant challenges and opportunities for your character to change so that they can grow throughout the story?

2. Check your plot. And by the way what is your plot? Can you identify the central conflict? Have you paced it properly? 

3. Enlist the help of a trusted reader. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, you will always need feedback from a trusted reader who is, ideally, your excellent professional editor.  

Everyone that works in a creative field deals with criticism. The trick is to not let it keep you from creating content that is true to you. 

1. Consider the source of the criticism. Reviews may not be the best source of criticism to listen to as they usually don't offer useful advice. Reviews are usually for readers, not for you. 

2. Be open if it's sincere. You shouldn't listen to online reviews, but make sure that you take criticism from those who are sincere in helping you make the story better such as your editor, friends and family or other authors you respect. 

3. Listen creatively to criticism. When you have a reliable reader that says a part of your story or character doesn't make sense, examine the story as a whole. It might be that a section earlier in your writing that contradicts an action of your character. 

4. Accept all reliable criticism as a gift. Remember that criticism of your story is not criticism of you. 

Once you have taken the good criticism and ignored the bad, use it to help you grow as an author.

Publishing and Promoting

Congratulations! You’re at the final stages of writing your novel – but you’re also just at the beginning of the journey. If you’re self-publishing, you have more freedom over what you create and your overall career, but you are now in charge of every aspect of the process. You can go it alone, but you can't do it alone. Find a good editor, copyeditor, graphic designer and publicist.. 

1. Editor – Your editor will focus on the meaning of your content. They will make sure that your story has a good flow and makes sense as a whole. They will also check for any plot holes.

2. Copyeditor – Your copyeditor will help you with the technical qualities of your writing. They will correct grammar, spelling and sentence structure. 

3. Graphic designer – Your graphic designer will create cover page and any mid-story illustrations. They will also ensure that the visuals align with your branding.  

4. Publicist – Your publicist will help you get coverage from journalists and influencers.  

Social media platforms are crucial to an author and a great way of connecting with your audience, fellow authors and others in the publishing world. It will also help you create a community for your readers to share their thoughts and connect with each other. Once you have an audience that you’re starting to build, make sure that you are constantly creating content to keep them interested and engaged. 

So now that you’ve finished your novel. Onto the next one. 😊

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Here's a convenient infographic to use as you go through your journey of writing your novel. Refer to it, use it as motivation and make sure you're on track.