How to Start Writing a Novel in Three Easy Steps

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Don't fear the blank page - photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

We talk a lot on here about various stages of the writing process, but a quick glance at the Internet reveals several people who want to write books but have no idea how to get started. Well, my friends, here’s how.

1. Getting the Idea

You’ve got to start with an idea. This can be any number of things. It can be a character (“cheesemaker who loves books and has an ugly dog named Ahab”). It can be a partial plot (“bored millionaire attempts to take over the world”). It can be a setting (“a space station 500 years in the past”). Or a single scene (“faun with umbrella under lamppost in snowy wood”).

What’s your favorite kind of book to read? What do you daydream about? Typically, if a storyline or setting is interesting enough for you to daydream about it multiple times, it’s a good thing to start writing about.

While you’re waiting for that idea, try writing some short fiction (prompts here weekly, folks). That’ll get you some practice, and you may even stumble on an idea with enough legs to become a novel.

2. Plotting

If you don’t know where the story is going, you’re likely to get bored with it fast. But don’t worry about planning every detail at first—most of it is likely to change as you do the actual writing. A quick list of major events in the story, in chronological order, is a good start.

3. Facing the Blank Page

Now comes the part so many writers seem to fear. Actually writing. Let me help you with this:

Your first draft is going to be terrible.

It’s supposed to be terrible.

The point of the first draft is to get down everything you know about the story, as fast as possible. It’s to get you started. So quit worrying about finding the perfect words or structuring the perfect sentence. Quit worrying about being eloquent or poetic. Just get some ink on paper. Because before you perfect the story, you have to discover it, and to discover it, you have to dive in and write it.

Reassure yourself that no one else will ever read this draft. Give yourself the freedom to write badly, honestly, and with vulnerability. I guarantee you the final draft will look nothing like the first draft. But I also guarantee that you can’t write the final, glorious draft until you write the first, terrible draft.

And while it’s okay to edit a tiny bit as you write, restrain yourself—don’t spend hours rearranging a paragraph you’ll just end up cutting later (there’s a 99% chance* you will cut it later).

A Final Warning

Writing a novel is will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You will deal with constant discouragement, from the beginning stages to getting published and beyond—if you get published—and I’ll tell you right now, your chances aren’t good. Nobody’s are. But you know what?

It’s still worth it. 100%.

What’s keeping you from starting a book?

*Yes, I pulled this number out of thin air. It’s true, nonetheless.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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16 Comments

  1. I recommend reading fiction-writing books so you have an idea about how important structure is. I began thinking, “Oh, I must write down Katie’s story.” The problem is it turned out so sloppy — like it had no bones.

    Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” will set any writer on the road to success. I’m doing a post on the 6 Core Competencies from his book on my blog if new writers want a peek of how great the book is for helping us understand how to write successful stories: http://rebeccaberto.wordpress.com/category/the-best-advice-ive-learned-series/

  2. I think remembering that your first draft is supposed to be terrible is the most important thing to keep in mind. So many new writers expect their first draft to be as perfect as the idea in their head, and so they set themselves up for disappointment.

  3. Great post, thanks. You may have inspired me to finally get on with writing something longer than Flash Fiction (even though I love the variety of Flash Fiction).

    I’d never thought about just bashing out a story and not worrying about it being perfect. Perfectionism is a personal challenge so I might be able to kill two birds with one stone as it were.

  4. *beats head against desk for a while* WHYYYYY?! Of all things why did I have to love writing so much! And why, if I had to love writing, did I also have the drive to make it the best I possibly can?

  5. I don’t really know, to be honest. What does one do when the p.o.v. character of a scene is in shock? There isn’t another character to switch to, first-person looking back on the event doesn’t seem right. I probably need to move on and come back to it when my subconscious offers a solution.

    • Hmm, fun question. Some depends on how much you have to convey in that scene, but I’ve seen it done, and it can work really well. Present or past tense? Either way, there are some techniques you can use that will convey the shock of the narrator. Have the narrator notice, almost be distracted by, tiny details (like a ceiling tile out of place) while they don’t even notice major events (like a bomb going off). Sounds can be muffled or far away. Or, put in the dialogue of other characters, but don’t let your narrator react to it – as if they didn’t hear. They can drift in and out of consciousness and only remember snippets. You can use a lot of one-word sentences for descriptions. Their thoughts can be confused, questioning, distracted. Like…
      John said something, but I didn’t hear. I was staring at the blood on my hands, mesmerized by the way it gathered at the corners of my fingernails. I was shaking. Or was it the ground?
      “Get up!”
      It had to be the ground, because there was thunder, too. And little gray snowflakes were raining down on John’s hair, making him look like an old man. It almost made me laugh.
      John lunged for me and picked me up. I think I yelled at him to leave me alone – I was just so tired – but he didn’t seem to listen. So I just watched the red streak trail out beneath me as he dragged me backwards. Then metal. Humming. Screeching. We were driving down a long, empty stretch of road. I didn’t remember getting in the car…
      And so on. This is sort of a dramatic example, but the same stuff works if your character is just in a hospital room somewhere, recovering. They don’t know what day it is, they can’t keep track of the people coming and going from their room, they think the nurse is trying to poison them, etc. Just sort of write in incomplete thoughts. Chase rabid trails into nonsense. And subtly slip in hints of anything your reader have to know that your narrator is too out of it to notice.

      I hope that helps!

  6. One difficulty is that it is an introductory scene, and though there is not a lot that needs to be clearly conveyed, it does need to be clear enough to draw a reader in rather than confuse and so put them off. It’s currently in past tense 3rd person limited, though I am still searching for the right narrative voice. I think the current voice is close enough, though, that I should forge ahead and worry about refining it in later drafts.
    Hmm… that’s a very helpful example! Thank you! Also… “rabid trails?” 🙂

    • Oh, an introductory scene. That’s even more of a challenge. Wow. But since it’s third person, you do have a little more wiggle room, even if it is limited. But you’re probably right – it’ll take some waiting and working on other parts until you can come at it from just the right angle.

      Rabid…yeah. Uh. That’s how they spell “rabbit” in the UK. Right? No? Well, it worked for ‘travelling/traveling’ – a girl can hope. I suppose if a rabid dog was foaming at the mouth and left a trail of said foam, you could chase that. : P

      • I did just that, and I had scarcely moved on before another character, with uncharacteristic gallantry, stepped in to take up the responsibility of the introductory scene. I may still use the character-in-shock scene, but this takes some of the pressure off of it. Anyhow, time to forge onward to the next challenge.

        No, I think they spell rabbit “coney” in the UK, daft old nation. I advise against following a rabid trail, though, unless accompanied by Atticus Finch. 😉

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