How to Write a Novel: A 12-Step Guide

How to Write a Novel: A 12-Step Guide

15 Nov 2021 Fiction

You’ve always wanted to write a novel. But something’s stopped you.

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

  • Your story idea didn’t hold up
  • You couldn’t overcome procrastination
  • You feared your writing wasn’t 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 several New York Times bestsellers (most notably the Left Behind Series), I face those same problems every time.

So how do I overcome them and succeed?

I use a repeatable novel-writing plan — one that helps me smash through those obstacles. And that’s what I reveal to you in this definitive guide.

Imagine finishing your first draft. Better yet, imagine a finished manuscript. Or, best of all, your name on the cover of a newly 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 other writers enjoy such things, why can’t 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.

How to Write a Novel in 12 Steps

  1. Nail down a winning story idea.
  2. Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.
  3. Create an unforgettable main character.
  4. Expand your idea into a plot.
  5. Research, research, research.
  6. Choose your Voice and Point of View.
  7. Start in medias res (in the midst of things).
  8. Engage the theater of the reader’s mind.
  9. Intensify your main character’s problems.
  10. Make the predicament appear hopeless.
  11. Bring it all to a climax.
  12. Leave readers wholly satisfied.

Step 1: Nail-down a winning story idea.

how to write a novel

Is your novel concept special?

  • Big enough to warrant 75,000 to 100,000 words?
  • Powerful enough to hold the reader all the way?

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 your story ideas and choose the one you would most want to read — the one about which you’re most passionate and which would keep you eagerly returning to the keyboard every day.

It must capture YOU so completely you can’t get it out of your head. Only that kind of an idea will inspire you to write the novel you’ve always dreamed of.

Step 2: Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.

If you’re an Outliner, you prefer to map out everything before you start writing your novel. You want to know your characters and what happens to them from beginning to end.

If you’re 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, “Put interesting characters in 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 outline and the freedom to let the story take us where it will.

So do what makes the most sense to you and don’t fret if that means incorporating both Outlining and Pantsing.

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

Regardless, you need some form of structure to keep from burning out after so many pages.

I’m a Pantser with a hint of Outlining thrown in, but I never start writing a novel without an idea where I’m going — or think I’m going.

Step 3: Create an unforgettable main character.

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

This main character must 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 heroine)

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?

You’ll also have an antagonist (also known as the villain) who should be every bit as formidable and compelling as your hero. Make sure the bad guy isn’t bad just because he’s the bad guy. 😊

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

You may also need important orbital cast members.

For each character, ask:

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • Why do they want it?
  • What or who is keeping them from it?
  • What will they do about it?

Use distinct names (even distinct initials) for every character — and make them look and sound different from each other too, so your reader won’t 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 posts Your Ultimate Guide to Character Development: 9 Steps to Creating Memorable Heroes, How to Create a Powerful Character Arc, and Character Motivation: How to Craft Realistic Characters.

Step 4: Expand your idea into a plot.

True Pantsers — yes, even some bestselling novelists — don’t plot. Here’s 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 novelist Dean Koontz calls the Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction) changed my writing forever. My book sales took off when I started following his advice:

  1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
  2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only progressively worse…
  3. …until his predicament appears hopeless.
  4. 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.

Plot Elements

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

  1. An Opener
  2. The Inciting Incident that changes everything
  3. A series of crises that build tension
  4. A Climax
  5. A Conclusion

how to write a novel

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 post The Writer’s Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story.

More in-depth plotting resources:

Step 5: Research, research, research.

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

You must research to 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. I’ll 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.

Research essentials:

  • Consult Atlases and World Almanacs to confirm geography and cultural norms and find character names that align with the 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 don’t own a set, access one at your local library or online.
  • 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 a Thesaurus while writing your novel, but not to find the most exotic word. I most often a thesaurus to find that normal word that’s on the tip of my tongue.
  • There’s 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, they’ll let you know.

Even sci-fi or fantasy readers demand believability within the parameters of the world you’ve established.

One caveat: Don’t overload your story with all the esoteric facts you’ve learned, just to show off your research. Add specifics the way you would add seasoning to food. It enhances the experience, but it’s not the main course.

Step 6: Choose your point of view.

how to write a novel

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 what voice to use: First Person (I, me), Second Person (you, your), or Third Person (he, she, or it).

It also involves deciding who will be your POV character, serving as your story’s camera.

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

Readers experience everything in your story from this character’s 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 doesn’t. 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.

I’m 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, reads his tone and 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 post A Writer’s Guide to Point of View.

Step 7: Begin in medias res (in the midst of things).

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

That doesn’t 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 — the guts of the story.

Les Edgerton, a gritty writer who writes big boy novels (don’t say I didn’t warn you) says beginning writers worry too much about explaining all the backstory to the reader first.

He’s saying, in essence, get on with it and trust your reader to deduce what’s going on.

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

Step 8: Engage the theater of the reader’s mind.

how to write a novel

Don’t moviegoers often say they liked the book better?

The reason is obvious: Even with all its high-tech computer-generated imagery, Hollywood cannot compete with the theater of the reader’s mind.

The images our mind’s 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 as you see them, but to trigger the theaters of their minds.

Give them just enough to engage their mental projectors. That’s where the magic happens.

For more, visit my post on What Is Imagery? and Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know.

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

Step 9: Intensify your main character’s problems.

You’ve 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.

Do not give him a break.

Too many amateurs render their hero’s 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.

Conflict is the engine of fiction.

(For more on conflict, read my post Internal 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 he’s growing, developing, changing, getting stronger, and adding more to his skillset through his trials, but his trouble should become increasingly terrible until you…

Step 10: Make his predicament appear hopeless.

Writing coaches have various labels for this crucial plot point.

Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. It’s where even you wonder how you’re 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. You’ll be tempted to give your protagonist a break, invent an escape, or inject a miracle. Don’t 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 only appeared beyond repair.

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

Step 11: Bring it all to a climax.

how to write a novel

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 Hope climaxes 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 they’ve 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.

Step 12: Leave readers wholly satisfied.

A great ending:

  • 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. Don’t let that happen.

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

Don’t rush it. Rewrite it until it shines. I’ve 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 it’s been rewritten enough? When you’ve 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.

Frequently Asked Questions and Novel Writing Tips

1. How long does it take to write a novel?

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

It takes as long as necessary.

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

Quality is the point.

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

How long writing a novel will take you depends on your goals and your schedule.

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

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

2. How hard is it to write a novel?

If you’re 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 didn’t quit.

Resolve to not quit, and you will write a novel. I can’t guarantee it will become a bestseller, but I can guarantee it won’t if you don’t finish it.

3. How do I know if my story idea has potential?

You’ll 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. You’ll 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.

You Can Do This

If you want to write a novel, don’t allow the magnitude of the writing process to overwhelm you.

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

Don’t let fear stop you. Use it as motivation to do your best work.

Avoid wondering What if…?

Take the leap.

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

Follow the steps I’ve given you, and you may find that this time next year, you’re 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.