How to write a novel: a beginner’s guide to the basics of storytelling.

First off, you have to know these two things:

  • Your first draft of your first book will be terrible.
  • All your favorite authors of all time wrote a terrible first draft of their first book too. Probably a terrible second and third draft, maybe even a terrible second and third book.

This is okay. It can make writing hard sometimes, but the point of writing is not to whip out a masterpiece the first time you type: it’s to have fun exploring new settings, watching new characters grow, and being the first person to ever experience this story–your story–progress!

So, where do we begin?

Know thine story.
(or ya know… to don’t.)

Before you tackle any kind of project that will take months, even years, of work you want to first decide what you’re actually doing. In the case of writing, we outline. (Or sometimes, we deliberately choose not to online, but only after we thought about outlining and maybe tried it out a little.)

There’s no wrong way to outline. Every writer does it differently, and therefore there’s about a million different methods. You can instantly find a ton of them using google, and these are a bunch of my own personal outlining tips.

The things you should know by the end of your outline include:

Setting. Where does your story take place? What does this place feel like? (If it were being filmed as a movie, what would the color palate look like?)

Worldbuilding. If you’re using a real place, how much research have you done? If you’re creating the setting from scratch, in which ways is it like our real world and in which ways is it not? (You don’t need to know everything about your world building going into a project, but it’s good to keep track of what you haven’t figured out yet, so you don’t get to the end of the rough draft and realize that everything you made up along the way contradicts itself.)

Main Characters. Who are they and what do they want? What beliefs or flaws are keeping them from getting what they want, or driving them to want something which hurts them? What’s the first trait someone notices about them? (Check out this nifty character creation sheet for some simple development questions!)

Plot. Now, plot sounds scary to a lot of writers, but a plot is just the accumulation of your other story aspects put at odds with each other. Your characters will make choices trying to get what they want, and those choices will effect the rest of the world, which in turn comes to bite the characters in the butt and force them to make more choices until eventually they get what they want, for better or worse. That’s the basis of a plot: it’s everything standing between your character and the rest of their life. (If you don’t have any semblance of a plot, check out these nifty tricks.)

Genre. Specifically, why are you telling this story in the genre you chose? How do the themes and tropes of the genre work with your story? What would the story look like in another genre?

Optional: The Beginning. If you come to the blank page of death without knowing exactly where you’re starting it can be incredibly daunting. Check out my tips on writing the first act for more help.

However you choose to outline, (and whether you choose to outline at all), the most important thing to know going into a story is what will produce the central conflicts?

Conflict drives a story. 

  • Conflict between characters and other characters.
  • Conflict between characters and the obstacles to their desires.
  • Conflict between characters and their own flaws and beliefs.

Even if you have no idea where your story will go or how it will end, as long as you start out your story with a conflict that’s difficult to resolve, you’ll always be on the right track!

Now, to the writing.

For the first draft of your first book, I’m going to suggest this controversial tip: Ignore all the writing advice.

The learning stage of your writing journey (aka the first three books you write) will be a mess of picking up and throwing out advice, and you’ll have plenty of time to do that once you start revising your rough draft, but for now the most important thing is finishing your first novel. 

Write your story exactly how you want to and damn the advice.

Some important things to do though:

  • Decide how many words or pages you want to write a week and try to continuously hit that. (But start out small! Your writing heroes might be churning out a novel in a month, but a thousand words a week can be an good and ambitious goal during your first novel!) The key is to build a habit. 
  • Find someone to motivate you! This can be another writer friend but it can also be a non-writer friend you’re comfortable talking about your writing with. Tell this person what you’re doing and how much work you want to put in each week and let them be your cheerleader.
  • Don’t get feedback yet. If you do have a writer friend cheering you on, it might be temping to send them your work asking for their opinion, but negative feedback tends to demotivate and make you question yourself. If you’re letting people read your first rough drafts, ask them just to be motivational right now, and then save their critique for when you’re ready to edit!  
  • Don’t even get feedback from yourself. It’s very tempting to stop every three paragraphs and wonder if you could have written them better a different way. And the truth is, you probably could, BUT imagine how much better future writer you (who has finished the whole manuscript and has far more skill than current you) will fix those paragraphs up?! Current you has barely any more skill than the you who wrote those paragraphs last week, so let your future far more skilled self handle it.
  • Don’t be afraid to change your story and process as you go. If you go into your story believing something specific about it, but you come up with something you like better as you write, you’re allowed to change it. You’re allowed to write it out of order. You’re also allowed to write another story beside (or instead of) the one you set out to write.
  • Above all: KEEP WRITING. Writing can be tough (even for the best and most skilled of writers) when you stop writing and start thinking, because thinking often leads to doubting and fearing. Just put one word after the next and let your future self worry about whether those words sound good together.

You can find more of my advice about the rough drafting stage here!

So, you have a novel… now what?

Now comes the revision stage. (And yes, you will have to revise. Some writers have to do more revisions than others, but nearly every author worth their salt will have at done at least three drafts of a story before sending it out into the world.)

Just like outlining, there are many ways of revising and each writer has to do what works best for them. Some people rewrite the entire book from scratch. Some take elaborate notes and then rework pieces at a time. Some just dive in and change whatever they don’t like as they read. Here’s an in-depth look at what I do when I edit my rough drafts.

For your first novel, I’d suggest one of two ways:

  • Rewrite it all. This is a good method if you either changed your story a lot while your wrote or you didn’t have a thorough outline so your resulting story ended up having huge holes. Rewriting is never a waste. Your pacing, dialog, even your prose, will all come out better when you rewrite the same story over.
  • Re-outline it all. This is a good method if you don’t think you need to rewrite but you don’t know where to begin editing. Read through the story and track everything that happens and then compare it to standard character arcs, three act structures, and so forth. The goal is to figure out how your story compares to the ideal simplistic stories in your genre and then tweak your story to make it closer to the ideal.*

*In no way do you have to stick with traditional or simplistic structures for all your writing, but if you don’t know how and why the traditions work, it’s very hard to produce a great story that defies them.

Once you’ve done some editing yourself, you want to find another writer (or three, or five) who’s of a similar skill set as you and get their feedback. They’ll be able to pick out issues you didn’t notice.

The final thing you’ll have to deal with in the editing process is your prose. Most writers have terrible prose for the first 50k to 100k words they write. Beginning writers who’ve already written short stories or role played or wrote a lot as youngsters tend to have an advantage in this. The thing to always keep in mind is that it’s okay if your first book’s prose is awful

You’ll have improved your prose just by writing it, and you’ll have a better grasp on story as well. This book doesn’t define who you are as a writer. If you really love the story, you can chose to rework it further to clean it up, or you can use what you learned through it to write another book that’s cleaner from the get-go. 

THINGS I WISH I’D KNOWN STARTING OUT

1. First books almost never get published. 

A lot of us resist this, because our first books are good, dammit, we worked very hard to make them that way! But the quality of the book isn’t always the thing that holds it back; often the first book we write ends up pretty similar to the more poorly written published fiction, but it wasn’t written with knowledge of the publishing industry and the market

And that’s okay! It’s okay to write a lovely book that you put aside so you can publish your second or third or fourth book instead. That first story is still wonderful and it still helped you immensely.

2. Not everyone will like even the best story you ever write. (And even if it’s a literary masterpiece some of them will quote literary flaws as the reason they don’t like it!)

It’s common knowledge that everyone has different tastes in literature and one person might dislike a story another person loves. What’s talked about less often, is that the people who dislike a story based on taste, will often pinpoint specific literary aspects they believe were done poorly. They’ll say the characters are bad, and the plot had too many holes, or the prose was clunky. And they’ll probably believe what they say, and find evidence to back it up.

And that’s okay! As long as the majority of your target audience isn’t finding these things a problem, then you’re in the clear as a writer. Not every reader’s critique is valid and not every piece of feedback is worth listening to, even if it has the lingo of a legit critique.

3. You have to be reading in order to write well. Or, more specifically: If you aren’t reading books, you won’t write as well as you can.

It’s easy to assume that just because we read a lot of books growing up and know how stories work that we can write good ones. And in some ways, that can be true. We can write good stories without reading good stories—but we can’t write great ones.

A writer who really wants to improve their craft should try to read a book a month, or more if possible. If you have limited time, you can read shorter books, listen to audiobooks, or quit any book that doesn’t immediately hold your interest. But do read. Read, read, read, read.

4. If you can’t write a blurb, the problem is in your story.

Maybe this is a little harsh; there’s a lot of skill required to writing blurbs and it does take practice! But whether you have a concise story with characters whose goals and resulting conflicts weave seamlessly into the setting and create an easily describable plot with specific, emotional stakes and hard character choices will be very clear when it comes time to write those down as a 200 word blurb.

It’s so essential to blurb writing to have a tense, well paced, nicely woven story, that writing the blurb while you work on the story’s rough draft can actually help you produce a better story!

5. Sometimes the best stories are not the epic masterpieces but the ones you’d want to whiz through despite its many flaws.

And these stories are worth writing. Don’t feel the least bit bad for choosing to write the book you’d want to read as a ‘guilty pleasure.’

And on that note, if you’re still reading this, go check out my guilty pleasure book Our Bloody Pearl to support my ability to keep writing (and also get a swell read about a sassy, disabled siren and a soft, freckly pirate.)

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