Do you have ideas for a book but don’t know where to start or how to write a novel? Or maybe you’ve written several manuscripts in the past and are looking to standardize your process. Learn how in these 11 easy steps.
Every writer has their own unique brainstorming, planning, and writing process when it comes to the creation of a novel. No one process is “right,” but if you haven’t yet figured out what works best for you or maybe you’ve tried a few different methods but are looking to expand your understanding of the writing process further, here are a few launching points for your next story.
1. Decide what the book is going to be about.
All books start off as an idea—a spark of a story that will eventually lead to a full-fledged book. The first step is to flesh out your idea. Maybe you have the plot, the characters, or the setting visualized in your head. Now, dig deeper and decide what the story will ultimately be about. Is it a futuristic society where people are forced into faction? Is it the journey of many houses vying for the same throne? Is it a wizard trying to find his place in the world and learn what happened to his deceased parents? (Sound familiar?)
2. Determine who your protagonist and antagonist are.
Now you need to figure out who the reader will follow throughout your story. Who is your protagonist? What makes him/her tick? Learn the nuances of that character’s personality, such as favorite color or how they like to spend their free time. Next, determine what your protagonist wants. This will be what drives the story (the protagonist fighting to achieve his/her desire), such as finding a soulmate, rescuing a kidnapped sibling, getting revenge on the person who ruined their career, etc.
What is preventing them from achieving their goal? This is where your antagonist comes in. For Harry Potter, Voldemort (the person who murdered Harry’s parents) threatens Harry’s new home at Hogwarts by trying to resurrect himself using the sorcerer’s stone. Meanwhile, Harry wants more than anything to have a family.
3. Get to know your characters.
To make your characters three-dimensional, you as the author need to know them intimately in order to portray them on the page. The process of getting to know your characters differs for everyone.
For me, personally, I love outlines. I’ll write out the character’s physical description, tendencies (such as if they’re stubborn, impulsive, etc.), as well as their ultimate motivation through the book (what they are trying to achieve, such as freedom for themselves, bringing back magic, seeing the rebellion succeed, etc.).
Some writers use character mapping tools to get to know their characters.
My friends over at Writers Helping Writers have a character profile questionnaire, a character arc progression tool, and many other amazing resources that may help you get to know your characters.
4. Outline the general events of the book: beginning, middle, and end.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser (meaning you fly by the seed of your pants), it’s usually recommended to plot out the general “big” events of your story. By big events, I mean, where the book starts, the inciting incident, the scenes leading up to the climax/big battle at the end, and the resolution. This way, you will hopefully not only have a general map for where you want your book to go, but it will hopefully mean less editing and killing your darlings during the editing phase.
4.5. Optional: Create a more detailed outline of your book.
If you’re more of a plotter (vs. a pantser), you can, of course, write out your plot in more detail.
For me, personally, I’m a hardcore plotter. In my first few manuscripts, I tried hitting down the big plot points and writing from there. But I soon discovered that my characters were so three-dimensional, they often took the reigns of the scenes (which meant a LOT of scene-cutting while I was editing). Eventually, and after much experimentation, I discovered that making entire book outlines, meaning I outline the events in every chapter, helped me to keep both my characters and my word count in check. While that level of diligence may not work for everyone, experiment to see where you fall on the plotter vs. pantser spectrum.
5. Research word count parameters for your age group/genre.
In order to avoid having to slice and dice, killing many darlings in your manuscript, this is a step I HIGHLY recommend writers do prior to writing their book.
By researching word count expectations for your age group and genre (age group is middle grade/YA/adult/etc., while genre is contemporary/fantasy/thriller/etc.), you will learn the approximate length literary agents and editors are seeking. Should you wish to pursue the traditional publishing route (vs. self-publishing), it’s important to adhere to the rules as a debut author.
As a debut author, you have not yet established an audience base—readers who are guaranteed to buy your book(s). Therefore, it’s a safer investment for publishing houses to purchase (and ultimately sell) shorter books.
When I worked as a literary agent, many writers would say, “But Meg, this famous author writes in my age group and genre, and their book is 200,000 words.” To which, my response was—these are authors who are established and have developed a fan base. Once you’ve established yourself, too, you may have more wiggle room on the length of your books.
In the meantime, be sure to do some digging to learn what the target word count is for your age group and genre. You can also check out an article I wrote on word counts.
6. Read books in your age group and genre.
This is a step many authors overlook, especially in their first few manuscripts. By reading in the age group and genre you write in (such as young adult fantasy), you will learn not only what scenarios have been done in the past (such as wizards at boarding schools), but also what’s selling in today’s market.
So many writers rely too heavily on books that were published 10, 20, 30, or more years ago. But the publishing market then was SO different than it is today. Modern-day readers prefer immediacy, for example, to things like long-winded prologues.
You also want to be aware of tropes, archetypes, and overdone scenarios in your genre, specifically, in order to put a unique twist on your story. One example for fantasy is a protagonist who grows up on a farm and his or her parents die in a horrible accident at the beginning of the story (often caused by the antagonist).
7. Set a daily/weekly word count goal.
Keep yourself accountable by making either daily or weekly goals of how much you want to write/accomplish.
For many writers, especially around NaNoWriMo, they set themselves daily word count goals. Word count goals vary and are entirely dependent on the writer, but you could do anything from 500 words/day to 2,000 (or more or less).
Keep in mind, the average page has about 250 words.
In the beginning, I recommend giving yourself lower/more achievable goals as you’re building up your writerly muscles and learning your process.
Personally, I prefer weekly goals and my goals are more chapter-based than word count-based.
8. Make a writing schedule.
You’ll hear from a lot of people you should write daily. While that’s an excellent goal, it may not work for everyone. For example, if you’re a nurse and work three 12-hour shifts three days in a row, it might be more conducive to your lifestyle to write four days each week for longer stretches than every day for shorter stretches. Figure out what works best for your schedule and, ideally, make it a routine.
9. Edit, edit, edit.
Once you complete the first draft of your book, don’t immediately start sending out queries to literary agents or move to self-publish it (depending on if you want to traditionally- or self-publish your book).
For those of you who don’t know, queries are one-page cover letters specific to the book publishing industry. Writers create these documents with the intention of pitching their book to literary agents to get representation and ultimately traditionally publish their book. (For more information about queries, check out Query Hack.)
However, you do not want to query an agent after you complete the first draft of your book.
According to Terry Pratchett, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
That means, this draft is all about you getting your story on the page. Your subsequent drafts are about polishing the story so it’s ready for the eyes of the reader.
Ideally, you want to edit several drafts of your manuscript on your own before then working with critique partners and beta readers—which leads us nicely to #10.
10. Get feedback on your work.
I did a whole video on my YouTube channel, iWriterly, about why writers need critique partners and beta readers. But the short of it is: while it’s possible to have a bad experience with critique partners (also called CPs) and beta readers, outside feedback is one-hundred percent vital to the success of your manuscript.
As writers, we work on our manuscript for weeks, months, or years on-end, and eventually lose our ability to look objectively at the work in order to pinpoint its faults (and improve them).
Maybe your weakness is describing setting and your characters, although they’re having interesting conversations, seem as though they’re floating in an obscure white room. Or, perhaps, you excel at setting and narrative, but your dialogue reads stilted or unnatural. A critique partner or beta reader, ideally, will be able to help pinpoint these areas requiring improvement so you can make your story the strongest it can be.
11. Brainstorm your next book.
Should you choose to pursue traditional publishing and query your manuscript once it’s been edited, don’t sit on your hands and wait for weeks or months to hear back from agents. Instead, jump back to step number one and start brainstorming ideas for your next book.
I’ll also add that, if the book you just finished was the first in a series, consider writing the first book of an entirely different series (also called a standalone novel with series potential) rather than the second book in your current series.
I’ve said this before, but publishing professionals have to fall in love with book one first. If they don’t, they won’t be interested in a series. The same goes for editors and publishing houses. If readers don’t purchase the required number of books of the first book in your series, then the publisher likely will not be interested in publishing the second book in the series.
Therefore, it would be strategic of you to write a separate book (from your first manuscript) in order to give yourself the most chances to get scooped up by literary agents. In addition, by having another book baby in the world, it makes the rejections from literary agents hurt a little less.
If you choose to pursue self-publishing, then that changes things entirely! You can look at the sales of book one and decide if you want to write the second book in the series. Or you can write the second book regardless if you feel called to do so.
Meg LaTorre is a writer, AuthorTuber/BookTuber, developmental book editor, and former literary agent with a background in magazine and book publishing, medical/technical writing, journalism, and website creation. On Meg’s YouTube channel, iWriterly, she geeks out on all things books—from the concept to the bookshelves (and everything in between). Meg also launched Query Hack, a query critique platform where writers can submit their manuscript queries or Twitter pitches for FREE feedback. To learn more about Meg, visit her website, follow her on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, sign up for her monthly newsletter (Book Nerd Buzz), and subscribe to her YouTube channel, iWriterly.