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So You Want to Write a Novel—A 7-Stage Guide to Crafting Your First Novel

Updated: Feb 7


a woman frustrated with writing

The Importance of Having a Guide to Writing a Novel

According to a recent survey, over 80% of Americans say they want to write a book someday. However, many aspiring writers find the process overwhelming and don't know where to start. This is where having a comprehensive guide to writing a novel can be invaluable. A guide provides structure and direction, breaking down the daunting task of writing a book into manageable steps. It can also help prevent writer's block by providing inspiration and motivation throughout the writing process. Additionally, following a guide can improve the quality of your work by ensuring you cover all necessary elements of storytelling.

Overview of the Steps Involved in Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is an intricate process that can take months or even years to complete. While every writer's journey is unique, there are some general steps that are essential for crafting compelling fiction. The pre-writing stage involves understanding your genre and target audience, brainstorming, and developing your idea, as well as creating an outline and timeline for your story. During the writing stage, you will develop characters with dynamic arcs that resonate with readers while crafting dialogue that advances the plot forward. You will also build tension through conflict throughout the story while utilizing setting and description to enhance the reader's experience. Editing comes next, starting with self-editing to revise things such as clarity, pacing, and consistency. Next comes polishing which involves copy-editing for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting your manuscript according to industry standards. Finally, we will discuss publishing your novel, either traditionally or self-publishing, which will require the appropriate marketing, which I will also discuss in this article.

1. Pre-Writing Stage

Understanding your genre and target audience

Before starting to write your novel, you need to understand the genre you are writing in and who your target audience is. This will help determine the tone, style, and subject matter of your book. For example, if you are writing a romance novel, it would be important to know what tropes and themes are common in that genre. Knowing your target audience will help you tailor your story to their interests and preferences. Researching other books in your chosen genre can be helpful when trying to identify common themes or plot devices. It is also important to keep up with current trends in the market so that you can write a book that will appeal to readers.

Brainstorming and developing your idea

Once you have a general understanding of the genre and audience for your book, it's time to start brainstorming ideas for your story. This can involve developing characters, settings, conflicts, or plot points that interest you. One way to generate ideas is through free-writing exercises where you write down whatever comes into your head without worrying about structure or coherence. Another approach is to use prompts or visual aids such as photographs or artwork that inspire creativity. As you develop ideas for your story, consider how they fit within the framework of the genre and what aspects might appeal most strongly to readers. This can help you create something unique but still marketable.

Creating an outline and timeline for your story

Once you have a solid idea of what direction you want your story to take, it's time to create an outline. Outlining helps ensure that all necessary elements of the story are included while also providing a roadmap for writing each chapter. When creating an outline for a novel, start with broad strokes such as major plot points or character arcs. Then, break these down into smaller sections that can be developed further. This will allow you to see the big picture of your story while also being able to focus on details. Creating a timeline for your story is also important in order to keep track of events and ensure that the pacing is consistent throughout. This can include a general timeline of major events as well as more detailed timelines for individual characters or plot points. By having a clear outline and timeline, you will be better equipped to start writing your novel with confidence.

2. Writing Stage

Developing Characters and Their Arcs

a man and a woman in love

Characters are the lifeblood of any story, and in order to make them engaging and relatable, it's important to develop them fully. This means giving them personalities, backstories, motivations, and flaws that make them three-dimensional. The best characters are those who undergo some kind of transformation or change over the course of the story—this is known as a character arc. When developing character arcs, think about what your characters want at the beginning of the story versus what they want at the end. What obstacles will they have to overcome? What sacrifices will they have to make? How will their relationships with other characters change? These questions can help you create compelling character arcs that keep readers invested in your story.

Crafting Dialogue That Moves the Story Forward

Dialogue is one of the most important tools for moving your story forward and revealing character traits. Good dialogue should sound natural and realistic while also advancing the plot or revealing something about a character. When crafting dialogue scenes, it's important to keep in mind each character's personality and how they would realistically speak in a given situation. One way to ensure that your dialogue is effective is by using subtext—this means having characters say one thing while meaning another, which creates tension and conflict within scenes that keep readers engaged. Also, it's important to vary sentence structure within dialogue scenes so that they don't become monotonous—use short sentences for tension-filled moments and longer ones for more introspective conversations.

a man hiking on a mountain trail with a huge bear ahead

Building Tension and Conflict Throughout the Plot

In order for readers to stay invested in your story until the end, there needs to be tension and conflict throughout. This doesn't mean every scene needs to be action-packed or full of drama—sometimes quiet moments can be just as impactful. However, there should always be some kind of obstacle or goal that the protagonist is working towards. One way to build tension and conflict is by creating stakes. What will happen if the protagonist fails? What are the consequences of their actions? Also, keep raising those stakes throughout the story so that readers never become complacent. Don't be afraid to take risks with your plot—unexpected twists and turns can keep readers on their toes. I'm not going to lie though, keeping track of all those twists and turns is difficult, so stick to your outline and timeline and adjust it as things in the story change.

Utilizing Setting and Description to Enhance the Reader's Experience

Setting and description are often overlooked elements of storytelling, but they can play a huge role in immersing readers in your world. The best descriptions are those that appeal to multiple senses—what does something look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like? This creates a more vivid picture in readers' minds. In addition to describing physical surroundings, it's also important to convey mood and atmosphere through the setting. What kind of emotions do certain settings evoke? How does the setting affect character behavior? Remember that less is often more when it comes to description—don't overwhelm readers with too much detail or flowery language.

3. Editing Stage

After completing the writing stage of your novel, it's important to take a step back and give yourself time to recharge before moving on to the editing process. I put my current novel, Mysterious Ways, on the back burner for two months before editing the first draft. Actually, that's not entirely true... (and I just said I wasn't going to lie to you). I disable the editor, spell-check, and auto-correct when I'm writing because it interrupts the creative juices from flowing—that stuff can be easily edited later. So, when I finished the first draft of M.W. in Google Docs, I copied it to MS Word (better editor) and then fixed all of the spelling and grammar mistakes. Then, I waited two months. Shit, it took me two months to say that! Sorry about that—but if it helps you as it helped me, then NOT sorry. The editing stage of writing is where you'll fine-tune your manuscript and ensure every element of your story is working together seamlessly. The three key components of the editing stage are self-editing, revising, and seeking feedback from beta readers or critique partners.

The Importance of Self-Editing

Before seeking feedback from others, it's essential to take responsibility for the initial edits of your manuscript. Self-editing should include focusing on areas such as grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency with character names or details, and pacing within chapters and across the entire novel. Take time away from your work so that when you return to it you can see with fresh eyes any weaknesses that need attention. It is also important to review each scene in great detail—does it move the story forward in some way? Does it contribute something meaningful? Make sure every scene is crucial or cut if it doesn't serve a purpose.

Revising for Clarity, Pacing & Consistency

Once you've completed a thorough self-edit, go back through your manuscript once again and revise for clarity, pacing, and consistency in character development. In terms of clarity: ask yourself if there are any places where things get confusing or muddled—then revise those areas until they are clear. For pacing: ask yourself if certain scenes drag or move too quickly; use dialogue tags when necessary and vary sentence lengths as needed throughout the text to create movement throughout the story arc. In terms of consistency: check that characters have consistent personalities across all scenes, making sure their dialogue aligns with their characterization throughout.

Seeking Feedback from Beta Readers or Critique Partners

After self-editing and revising, it's essential to seek feedback from beta readers or critique partners. These individuals can provide valuable insights into character development, pacing, plot holes, and other elements of your manuscript. The feedback may be difficult to hear at times, but it will help you create a stronger and more engaging final product.

Finding the right critique partner can be challenging; look for someone with similar interests in fiction or genre (unless they have experience writing in a different genre), and who is willing to give constructive criticism. Overall, the editing stage of writing should take time—up to six months on average for most writers—to ensure that you are creating the best possible manuscript that showcases your storytelling abilities.

4. Polishing Stage

Writing a novel is one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences a writer can have, but it's crucial to remember that before you submit your manuscript for publication, it must be polished and error-free. This process involves copyediting your work for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. Copyediting is all about catching mistakes that could distract your readers from the story you've worked so hard to create. During this stage of the writing process, it's essential to step back from your work and approach it with a fresh eye. One way to do this is by setting aside your manuscript for a few weeks after completing the last draft. This break will help you come back to your work with a clear mind and allow you to see any errors or inconsistencies that may have slipped through during the writing process. When you return to your manuscript with fresh eyes, look for common mistakes like misplaced commas, run-on sentences, passive voice constructions, and homophonic errors (e.g., "their" vs. "there").

Copyediting for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors

When copyediting your novel for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors there are several tools available both online and offline. The most popular apps are Grammarly and Hemingway Editor, which highlight any grammatical or punctuational errors in real time and provide suggestions on how to fix them. I use Microsoft Word, though I don’t agree with some of the editing suggestions it provides, and like any other editing software, Word isn’t perfect, so for best results, use these apps in addition to human copy editors. Another key aspect of copy editing that writers often overlook is formatting guidelines set by publishers according to industry standards such as MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). These guidelines specify things like font size/style, margins, line spacing, page numbers, etc. Make sure that you are familiar with these standards before submitting your manuscript, as it can save time during later stages of the publishing process.

Formatting your manuscript according to industry standards

In addition to grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, it's important to ensure that your manuscript follows industry standards. Follow these guidelines as they set the basis for professional formatting of manuscripts and are the accepted standard across most publishing companies today. A few things to keep in mind while formatting are:

- Use a legible font like Times New Roman or Arial; font size should be 12-point

- Double-spaced lines and one-inch margins on all sides

- Use only one space after a sentence, not two, like I was taught

- Number all pages consecutively

Following these guidelines will make your manuscript look professional and easy-to-read, which will allow agents or publishers to focus on the story you've crafted rather than get bogged down by formatting errors!

5. Publishing Stage

Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

One of the most significant decisions a writer must make when completing their manuscript is how they will publish it. Two primary options exist traditional publishing or self-publishing. Traditional publishing refers to the method by which an author submits their manuscript to a publishing house with the hopes of securing an agent and book deal. Self-publishing, on the other hand, refers to when an author takes their finished manuscript and publishes it independently, often through platforms such as Amazon KDP. Traditional publishing offers many advantages, including access to established marketing channels, professional editing services, and wider distribution opportunities through major retailers such as Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million. However, self-publishing provides authors with greater control over every aspect of their work and a higher royalty rate on sales.

people lined up at a bookstore

Query Letters, Agents, and Publishers in Traditional Publishing

If you opt for traditional publishing, there are several steps you will need to take before your manuscript can earn its place on bookstore shelves. The first step is creating a query letter that succinctly conveys your story's plot while enticing agents or publishers into reading more of it. Query letters should be professionally written with impeccable grammar and spelling since they serve as the first impression of both you and your work. Once an agent expresses interest in your work based on your query letter or sample pages submitted via email or mail-in submissions, he or she will then read through the full manuscript before deciding whether to represent you officially. With successful representation comes access to established marketing channels for publication.

Self-Publishing Options Such as Amazon KDP

Self-publishing has gained popularity over recent years due to its ease of use among independent authors looking for greater control over every aspect of their book's publication process without sacrificing professional quality. Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing platform offers a user-friendly and cost-effective method for self-publishing. Once you've completed your manuscript, you can format it for the Kindle and paperback versions using Amazon's tools, upload your files, choose pricing, and then begin marketing your book to the world. Amazon KDP handles distribution and printing and even offers promo tools such as advertising options. However, independent publishing also requires significant investment in marketing efforts such as website development or social media presence to reach readers. While traditional publishing is historically been seen as the only way to achieve literary success; modern technological advancements have made self-publishing a viable option in recent years. Ultimately, the decision of how to publish is up to each writer, considering their goals and preferred level of control over the publication process.

6. Marketing Stage

Building an Author Platform

Once you have completed the writing process and your manuscript is ready to be published, it is important to start building your author platform. This involves creating a presence for yourself on social media, creating a website, and utilizing other online resources to connect with readers. Social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook can be used to build relationships with potential readers by sharing information about your book and engaging with others who are interested in the same genre. Creating a website is another important step in building your author platform. A well-designed website can help you establish yourself as a professional author and provide readers with important information about your book(s). This includes providing links to where the book can be purchased, offering sneak peeks of upcoming projects, and sharing any press or media coverage that your wor