How To Write a Novel: 10 Steps to Get You Started

The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there’s no magic formula. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world.

If you’re ready to take on the challenge of writing a novel, here are 10 steps to get your started.


1. Consider the setting.

Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when?


2. Consider the point of view.

Who is telling the story, from what distance? Do you have a first-person narrator who is at the center of the action, an omniscient narrator who is able to go into the thoughts of any character at any time, a limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character?


6. Forget the outline.

Outlines are good, unless they are bad. The nice thing about an outline is that it gives you a direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities. For the first fifty pages, at least, work without an outline. See where the story is beginning to take you. Try The Paperclip Method.


4. Consider the conflict.

No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there is no novel without trouble. Every story begins with conflict. What’s yours?


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5. Consider the stakes.

What is at risk in the story? What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain? What does he or she want, and why is it important? The stakes must be clear if you want the reader to care.


6. Consider the protagonist.

There has to be someone at the center of the action. Generally, this will be someone your reader ends up rooting for, no matter how flawed the character may be. (And he or she must be flawed in order to be realistic.)


7. Embrace fragments.

Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged chapter in the early stages of novel-writing. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, allow yourself the freedom to think in small bits. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 1200 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator,” or “Today I’m going to write the last paragraph of the novel.” That last one is kind of weird, right? But the point is, you don’t have to write in a linear fashion. You can piece your novel together later. For now, get some stuff on the page.


8. Write what you don’t know.

The old adage is, “Write what you know.” Okay, sure, it’s pretty good advice. But you also need to be willing to write what you don’t know. In the spirit of discovery, allow one character to work in a field about which you know very little, or allow some element of the plot, or a subplot, to delve into something you find unusual. Then research it. Sure, you could make your main character’s sister a struggling writer, something you presumably know a thing or two about, but that’s a little boring, isn’t it? Why not make her a welder instead? Then go online and research welding. Take a welder out for beer. Write five paragraphs that can be sprinkled throughout your novel that embrace the lingo and physicality of welding. Voila–you’ve created something interesting and textural, something that may just take you in an unusual metaphorical direction you never would have imagined if you were sticking to what you knew.


9. Set a deadline, but be realistic and kind.

Not for the completion of the novel, but for the first fifty pages. Set a second deadline, far enough in the future, for the completion of the second fifty pages. Be kind to yourself and set yourself up for success by setting realistic deadlines.


10: Find one or two trusted readers.

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is showing their early efforts to anyone who will look. I know, it’s tempting. But be patient. For a little while, at least, you need to protect your novel. Find one or two trusted readers–a professional or a friend who knows good books–but resist the urge to ask for advice from your mother, your uncle, your girlfriend, your best friend, your taxi driver. Give yourself some time to get your own vision onto the page before too many other visions interject. Many novels are written by collaboration, but, unlike screenplays, most are not written by committee. It’s your story; hide it in a drawer until it’s ready to see the light.


Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, Golden State, and four other books of fiction.

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How to End a Story

Stories are like relationships: the beginning is always so much fun, and the ending is fraught with turmoil.

When I sit down to start a story, the first sentence just sort of comes to me. The second sentence too. If I’m lucky, the third swiftly follows. The inimitable short story writer Kate Braverman once visited a class I was teaching and told the graduate students that she channels her characters. They speak through her and onto the page, she said, as if she isn’t even there.

I, unfortunately, channel nothing. It is all rough work after sentence three. By the time I’m in the middle of the story, I’m feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Where am I going? Where have I been? Have I gotten lost in the labyrinth? Probably, yes.

Somehow, I find my way through. The characters do things. They meet with hardship and grief, or maybe they just meet someone challenging in a Laundromat. They get into trouble, maybe out of it. Probably not. I find myself feeling that they have done all they can do. Not much more can be said. The action has fallen. We have all had our dénouement (which, by the way, is a French term meaning untying, from Middle French desnouement, from desnouer - to untie - from Old French desnoer, from des- de- + noer meaning to tie, from Latin nodare, from nodus knot.) And here we are in the labyrinth again, attempting to untie the knot, unwind the rope, escape the not-so-fun funhouse.

It’s time to write our way out.

One wants to resolve things, after all.One feels a deeply human need to conclude. After the falling action, there is often something more. Something unexpected. And here we come to what I have been meaning to say all along: a good ending is layered. The reader thinks she has discovered everything she can possibly discover about a story, but then: another image appears, another paragraph hums along, another question begs to be answered. One is left with the feeling of having walked out of the dark theater into the light, only to realize there was something else playing after the credits, some secret part of the film, some final moment. You can hear it through the door, vaguely, but you can’t get back in. You’re not sure what you’ve missed, but you’re certain that you’ve missed something, that the reel kept on playing, the story kept on going, after your departure. You were only an observer, a brief malingerer, there but not there. The lives within the story carry on.

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NaNoWriMo Day 7

It’s day 7 of National Novel Writing Month. If you’re following the plan of writing about 1,660 words per day, you’ll have just shy of 12,000 words by the end of the today. If all is going well, by now, here’s what you have established in the past seven days:

  • Your protagonist’s motivation
  • Your setting–where and when the story takes place
  • The point of view: who is telling the story, and from what distance?
  • The premise: what is the primary conflict driving the novel?


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The Rumpus Interview with Thaisa Frank

This week, Yuvi Zalkow interviewed Thaisa Frank for The Rumpus. They met at the bar of the Hotel Rex, where Frank, author most recently of Enchantment, talked about where stories come from, among other things. I’ve long admired Frank, beginning with her story collection A Brief History of Camouflage, have often taught her work in creative writing classes, and in recent years have been honored to get to know her.

In the intro, Zalkow says that the interview itself felt a bit like being inside a Thaisa Frank story. If you’ve read her work, you’ll have a vague and disturbing sense of what that means. When stepping into a Thaisa Frank story, it’s almost impossible not to feel displaced, as if you’ve walked into a dark, empty bar and have brought none of the right equipment, not to mention the right frame of mind, to encounter whatever it is you’re about to encounter. When I first came across her stories in a San Francisco bookshop fifteen years ago, I felt as though I’d fallen through the rabbit hole. The stories in Enchantment, magical in every way, unexpected at every turn, seem to come from a different universe.

Read on for some of the highlights from the interview, which you’ll find in its entirety on The Rumpus.

On where stories come from:

 I often feel there’s a triggering event that makes me want to start a story. There is a title often, but the title contains the stuff of the story. The title is like a packed piñata, even if it’s made of iron and I have to beat it and beat it for the stuff to come out.

On what happens when the story turns out not to be anything like the story you intended to write:

 And it’s the failure of the intended story that usually guarantees, if not success, then the forward motion of the final story.

On surrealism:

Old-fashioned surrealism is where you take one or two extraordinary things and have them in a world that obeys all the laws of reality…I’m also very interested in classic surrealism, where you take one thing that really couldn’t happen —like how Kafka took a guy and turned him into a bug—but after that, everything proceeds pretty logically.

On what’s missing from the teaching of fiction

…one of the things we don’t have in teaching fiction is a true poetics of fiction—a way of talking about fiction without getting tangled up in the content.

Read the Rumpus interview with Thaisa Frank. Visit Thaisa Frank’s website. Visit Yuvi Zalkow’s website.

Writers: Submit your work to the Fiction Attic Press First Novel Contest.

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NaNoWriMo Day One 2013

Are you ready to draft a 50,000 word novel in 30 days? If so, you’ll be pleased to note that Thursday is the first day of the annual brouhaha known as National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo.

On November 30, I’d like to catch up with the 160,000 or so folks who have signed up for Nanowrimo this year, just to see how many have written a draft of a novel in 30 days. And then I would like to shake their hands.

I wrote my most recent novel in three four years, the one before that in a year (under duress), the one before that in four years, and the one before that in two. My story collection took, oh, eight years or so. I would not recommend taking this long to write a novel. One becomes depressed as the years drag on and the novel sits unfinished. One begins to look back and think, “What did I do with all those days?”

Of course, I imagine that most people embarking on Nanowrimo are younger than I am. It may be possible to draft a novel in a month if you have a job but no kids, or if you have kids but no job. Other things you should not have if you want to participate in Nanowrimo: emergencies, car trouble, a leaking roof, a spouse or live-in partner, a roommate, a dog, a drinking habit, scheduled work trips, scheduled vacations, a yoga habit, a habit, outbursts of mental laziness. Since writing is my day job and I clearly have no yoga habit, I have just talked myself into attempting a draft of a novel in 50 days, the spouse be damned. My outbursts of mental laziness will have to cease and desist. Okay, maybe not a whole draft of a novel, but half of a draft. I hereby commit. I’ll check in 30 days from now and tell you how far I got.

Meanwhile, if you’re up for the challenge, head over to for camraderie and encouragement. And today, day one, try this: (more…)

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