The Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Novel

The Novel: What it is

how to write a novelA novel is, first and foremost, a literary genre (like poetry is a literary genre). Novels are long, fictional narratives that have tended to be realistic. A more contemporary understanding doesn’t limit novels to any specific genre: if it is a fictional story bound in a book, it is a novel. While there is no hard number defining how long a work has to be to count as a novel, these stories tend to be about 50,000-200,000 words long.

Common elements of novels are:

  • a main plot arc
  • a protagonist
  • an antagonist
  • side plot lines
  • world building


The Novel: How we got it

The oldest novel is attributed to The Tale of Genji, although older manuscripts may be classifiable as novels in their own right. Classically, in the English language the first novel is said to be Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.

As a literary genre, the novel became increasingly ubiquitous and popular in 18th century England. DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe is considered among the prototypes of the “new” form, and by the time the Victorian period hit its full swing novels were so common that “penny thrillers” were sold in most public places.

At this time, the novel wasn’t written to be published as a single, fully complete work. Literary magazines would sell the next chapter or section of each novel on a regular basis. Charles Dickens’ novels are perhaps the best-known example of this style. This is how and why he manages to keep track of so many different characters and plot arcs across the entirety of his novels! (Another popular work written this way is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.)

While these periodical novels were very common in Victorian England, one-time-published novels were still being published. While the first wave of novels were focused on realism and stories that were supposed to mimic life truly, (hence their realistic tendencies) the more novels were being written the more they began to deviate from realism to all the genres we have today, exploring themes to help readers cope with their times.

Today, novels cross endless genre barriers, and tell endless stories about endless topics and themes. More novels are being published than ever before, and the advent of e-publishing has made self-publishing more available to aspiring writers than ever. This deluge of new novels has made the form more available than ever before to a wider audience than ever, despite the alleged decline of reading…

5 Famous examples of English novels

Here are some examples of novels from different genres across the English-speaking novel canon.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

One of the earliest spy-thrillers.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

One of the first stream-of-consciousness novels.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

One of the best children’s novels.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

A classic science fiction novel.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

A contemporary fantasy novel.

How to Write a Novel in 5 Steps

Writing a novel isn’t a quantifiable process. It’s a lot of long hours combined with blood, sweat, and tears. As such, I can’t tell you what to do to get your novel out. I can only offer a process (that is one among a sea of processes) that, if followed diligently, will eventually produce a novel.

While this is a helpful (and hopefully motivating) list of steps, the right way to write a novel is the way that gets it written. Thus:

      1. Outline your Characters and World. Most novels anymore are character-driven, so in order to give you the best ground for writing, choose your characters. Who is your villain? Who is your hero? Why is the villain evil? Why is the hero good? Where are they living? If you’re not writing fiction based on the real world, you’re going to need to have a good understanding of your invented world in order for readers to believe in it. Don’t feel like you need to have every detail to start writing, but know that the more questions you answer beforehand, the less you’ll need to make up and the more consistent your world and characters will be before revision.
      2. Outline your plot arc(s). This can be as simple or as complex as you want. I’ve found having a direction for your story really helps me to never get stuck. What’s going to happen in your novel? Why is it going to happen? Feel free to be flexible with this when you actually get to the writing.
      3. Write it. Just do it—whether you write from beginning to end, write interesting scene by interesting scene, or write from end to beginning… do the writing. If you get stuck, skip ahead and come back later. If you’re still stuck at that point, try to come up with alternate (perhaps more interesting) ways to get from point A to point B. Don’t be too committed to your original plot arcs or character descriptions, but do let them help you in the writing.
      4. Wait. Be proud! You wrote a novel! Once you’ve written the whole thing, it’s a good idea to take a break from it. That way when you come back, you see the story, the words, the characters more clearly and don’t have the happy rose-tinted glasses on. Work on another project.
      5. Revise. The final, optional step: go back and revise (rewrite) your story. This process may take as long as the original writing, as you’ll need to fill or otherwise remove plot holes, create consistency, and otherwise fix your beautiful work to be publishable.

I’ve told you the first two steps should be planning. Many writers just sit down and write. While this can be a viable, fun journey, I’ve personally found that if you’re serious about a story, you need to put in at least some planning. Again, outlining doesn’t have to be in-depth, but it is helpful for writing your novel well.

Extra Tips and Tricks for Writing a Novel

In no particular order, here are some thoughts that are helpful for this particular writerly journey.

        • If it can go wrong, make it go wrong. It’s more fun to write and read characters getting out of situations that just keep getting worse.
        • Do the unexpected thing. Is there an obvious solution to the problem? Have your character do something not-so-obvious and then make sure there’s a good explanation for why they did it that way.
        • Learn your characters. It’s their lives, so they should help tell you how they’re going to live it. If they do something that is inconsistent with who they are, make them deal with that inconsistency.
        • Write every day. Whether it’s 30 words or 3000 words a day, writing regularly will help you stay in touch with your characters and their troubles. There’s never too little time to write!
        • Skip to the interesting parts. If you get bored with your writing, so will readers. If you’re in the middle of a boring sequence, skip away and come back later to decide if you even need it.
        • Use down time to plan what happens next. Use little in-between moments to daydream the next sequence, what happens, fun dialogue snippets, etc. It’ll help you write more when you do sit down to do it.
        • Sign up for something like NaNoWriMo. The deadlines can be helpful to keep you actually writing, so that you finally finish a manuscript. Challenge your friends to come with you for even more accountability.
        • Have fun! Because writing a novel is great and empowering. SO FUN. If you’re not having fun… try something else!

Truth is, anyone can write a novel. So are you going to?

If you could only read one more novel for the rest of your life, what novel would you want to read? If you’ve written a novel, what advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?

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