When it comes to writing a novel, be it your first or fiftieth, there is no right or wrong way to approach it. There is no definitive guide that lays out exactly how to write a best-seller, and it is a matter of personal preference on how to go about it.
That being said, there are a few loose rules that are good to follow and some tips and tricks that can make the whole process a little more enjoyable:
- Be clear on the genre of your work.
- Research the ideal word-count of that genre and what is generally expected for such a story.
- Write for yourself, but keep agents in mind.
- Don’t let rejection get you down because it’s inescapable in this industry.
What’s the Best Way to Write a Novel?
The best way to write a novel is to take it step by step, day by day. Instead of setting an unrealistic goal of writing a book in three months, look at the writing process as a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time - much more time than you think it will - and it can be disheartening to see deadlines come and go with little progress.
For me, I find the best way to write a novel is to be invested in it. It is a story I want to tell and that I want to keep coming back to. You should be excited to open your computer every day, and you should want to see your work come to life. Of course, there will be plenty of frustrating times along the way, but ultimately, if you love the story, you will see it finished.
In terms of physically writing your book, there are two main camps of authors. Let’s take a look at how they work and decide which one is for you.
Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?
A pantser is the kind of writer that will sit down to a blank page and start writing. They usually have little to no outline prepared and will work chapter by chapter, coming up with the story as they go.
A plotter will often meticulously lay out the entire outline of their book, from start to climax. I’ve known authors to have a “vision-board” set up with each character and their biographies, facts about the place in which the story is set, key plot points, and a detailed description of the book from the first chapter to the last.
Now, neither of these is the “right way to write a novel.” As I said before, it is a matter of personal preference. And though I would put myself firmly in Team Pantser, I can see the benefits of being a plotter.
Pros of Being a Pantser
- It can be more exciting to watch the story unfold as you write.
- You won’t get fatigued by re-reading the same information.
- It’s easier to change direction when you haven’t committed to anything yet.
- The possibilities are endless.
Cons of Being a Pantser
- It can be challenging to start from a blank page.
- It can become confusing to keep track, especially if you have multiple characters and plot points.
- Writer’s block can strike at any given moment.
- It can be challenging to know if you’ll make your word goal without knowing exactly what you have left to include.
Pros of Being a Plotter
- You will already be super familiar with the story and characters before you begin, making writing it much more manageable.
- If you’re stuck on something, you can skip ahead to a future chapter since you have it planned out already.
- You have plenty of material to pull from.
Cons of Being a Plotter
- It’s harder to kill your darlings when you’ve spent so much time putting it all together.
- It leaves little room for movement as changing one small aspect can affect the entire book.
- You may find yourself fatigued by the work since you’ve been over and over it and are now writing it in greater detail.
- It’s possible to write something that makes sense to you - who knows the whole backstory - but not realize it doesn’t make sense to someone else without all the context.
Which Approach is Best?
When I wrote my first book, Lightborn, I got more than halfway through without a plan. I kept notes as I wrote, but for the most part, I sat down and wrote one chapter after the other, letting the story come to me as I went. Of course, I had some ideas in my head and could picture its progression, but I didn’t write any of it down beforehand.
At a certain point, I hadn’t fully come up with an ending yet and sat down with my partner to discuss options. At this point, I more or less plotted out the last few chapters - which I ended up rearranging and adding to as I wrote.
For my second book, An Easy Target, I had the general story worked out in my mind - a young, tough woman working for clients - but again, I didn’t outline anything, and for the most part, I just sat and wrote. I don’t think I came up with the ending until I all but ran into it.
So what’s the best way? Whichever works for you!
By outlining your book, even to the minimum amount, you can start with a structure and a vague guide. For those of us that hate looking at a blank page, that will be super helpful. And if you want to plan out the entire thing, chapter by chapter, that can only aid in your writing.
But there’s something to be said about writing off the cuff. I love changing things at a moment’s notice and not having to worry about going back and fixing things or how it will affect my plan. For me, my book plays out in my head like a movie, and I like to watch the scenes unfold on the page.
How Many Words Should Your Novel Be?
This is where those loose rules come in. In general, it’s agreed that:
- Fiction: 80,000 - 110,000 words
- Science-fiction: 100,000 - 115,000
- Romance: 80,000 - 100,000
- Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
- Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
- Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
To put that into perspective, The Hunger Games is about 99,750 words, where the first Harry Potter novel is only 76,944 words. And then, of course, you have the unicorns like George R. R. Martin. The first book in A Song of Ice and Fire is a whopping 292,727 words, and they only got bigger from there.
Although nothing is set in stone, if you are looking to seek representation and potentially have your book traditionally published, making the minimum word requirement is essential.
My YA novel, Lightborn, came in at just over 97,000 words. However, it is more on the New Adult side, rather than YA, and either way, people reading this genre are hungry for more and not usually intimidated by a long story.
Oddly enough, my second book, An Easy Target, came in at just under 98,000. It seems to be my sweet spot, and it felt just right for the story I had to tell. And since the target word-count for a thriller is 90,000 – 100,000, I was super happy to finish where I did.
Steps of Writing a Novel
No matter what genre your work will be, there are a few steps that will be taken by both pantsers and plotters when working on a manuscript:
- Brainstorm - this will be done by both in one way or another. Plotters will usually write their ideas down, where pantsers will keep it all in their heads.
- First draft - the first draft is the roughest copy of your work and will likely be riddled with mistakes, plot holes, and pacing problems.
- Second draft - once you have your basic story written, it is time to go back and start to work on the real meat of it.
- Revisions and third draft - after going through the rough draft and fixing errors, and cleaning up the writing, it is time to read it through and start again.
- Alpha and Beta readers - use these after the first couple of drafts to get feedback from fresh eyes.
- Revisions and fourth draft - take feedback on board and fix any issues.
- More Beta readers - this round, your work should be almost finished.
- Final draft and polishing - the finished manuscript that you would be willing to send to agents.
Should You Hire a Professional Editor?
One of the worst parts of writing a novel is the editing…and the editing and editing and editing. It will seem never-ending, and you will get sick of it fast. But it’s a necessary evil and vital to your goal: a finished manuscript that people will want to read.
Editing means a few things:
- Reading your first draft and going back to flesh out the story.
- Reading your seconds draft, polishing the writing, and tightening your story.
- Taking on feedback from alpha readers and working on plot points that may not have worked or were confusing.
- Reading your third draft, polishing the writing, and tightening your story.
- Taking on more feedback from alpha readers and working on plot points that may not have worked or were confusing.
- Looking over the entire document for spelling or formatting errors.
Obviously, the first five are all quite similar and need to be done by you. You will find yourself going over and over each chapter, rewarding paragraphs, and tweaking dialogue with each new pass.
But the last one is the most important. Checking for spelling and formatting errors can be life and death in the publishing world. If you send your manuscript to a literary agent and it’s full of typos, they won’t look at it twice. Similarly, if you self-publish with typos, readers may find it difficult to look past them.
The bad news is that editing is tough to do on your own. At a certain point, you’re no longer reading the words on the page but instead reading from memory. And when you’re at that point, you will be blind to small mistakes.
For example, I had a beta reader go through my book, An Easy Target, and send me the mistakes she found. At first, she sent me snippets of the page (so that I could see it in my document with context) showing the error.
However, without her highlighting the issue, I misread “she” for “her” several times. I had to ask her to point out the problem, even after reading the paragraph multiple times. I couldn’t see the mistake because I read from memory and read what I knew I wanted it to say.
With that in mind, yes, you should hire a professional editor. It’s their whole job to look for these mistakes, and though they won’t be 100% accurate, they will find the errors efficiently. It’s important to note that beta readers and editors are not the same. Beta readers don’t generally look for spelling errors, and editors won’t be giving you feedback on the story.
But…hiring a professional can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Some will work to an hourly fee, where others offer cents per word. Either way, it is a significant investment and, or many novice authors, out of the question.
If lieu of hiring an editor and spending money you may not have, there are a few great online resources that are much more reasonably priced:
- Grammarly offers both a free and Premium package and checks for everything from tone and clarity to spelling mistakes. I highly recommend paying for the premium package - an annual cost of around $140 - to get access to all their features.
- ProWritingAid is a similar online software that will check your document for spelling and grammatical errors. They charge just $89 for an annual subscription.
- HemingwayApp is a free online resource that will help you clarify your work and check for spelling mistakes.
Although there will undoubtedly be things overlooked, by incorporating all three into your editing - along with the spell checker on your Mac or PC - you should be able to find the vast majority of the mistakes in your manuscript.
One thing I found incredibly helpful when working on editing was text-to-speech software. In many cases, the software is free to use - though the voice will be quite robotic. However, I found that by listening to my work and watching as each word is spoken and highlighted, I was able to find and fix so many small errors.
When it comes to writing, there’s no right or wrong way. The only way is to sit and put in the work. It might take weeks or months, or even years, but if you have a passion for the story and can find the time to commit, you will eventually reach your goal.
To be continued…