Writing a novel is a big undertaking. In this post, I’m going to lay out some definitions and give an overview of the process in order to lay a foundation for the following series of posts on how to write a novel, and to establish a few key ideas for first time novelists.
So. What is a Novel?
At it’s most basic, a novel is a work of prose fiction that is at least 50,000 words in length—depending on how dense your writing is, that’s usually between 80 and 100 single spaced pages in Times New Roman, 12 pt font.
Well, if this sounds arbitrary, that’s because it is. 50k is a benchmark number that roughly marks the lower threshold for how short a story can be and still be likely to have the scope, depth of development, and plot complexity expected of a novel. Lots of literature that we consider novels are actually quite a bit shorter than this, as is quite a lot of Middle Grade fiction. It’s worth noting that most trade fiction is much longer than 50k and, depending on the genre, tends to run somewhere between 75 and 100k words. For more information on word counts.or to find out where these numbers are coming from this post is a good place to start.
A Working Definition
While this series of posts discusses “novels,” we’re going to expand the definition a bit to any book-length work of fiction that has a sustained narrative arc (as opposed to a collection of short stories, which may have several smaller arcs but does not necessarily have a larger arc that ties the stories together). That is to say that whatever else happens in the novel, there is a core conflict and the story’s forward momentum is driving towards a resolution. It starts close to the beginning, and it resolves at the end.
Novels may be standalones or part of a series and they may fall into any genre, though its worth noting that these posts will primarily address genre fiction rather than literary fiction.
Should I Write a Novel?
Good Reasons for Writing a Novel
- You have a story to tell
- You like to write
- You’ve always wanted to try it
- You’re looking for a creative outlet
- It makes you an all-around better human being (it might. No promises)
Bad reasons for writing a novel
- Because it’s easy (it’s not)
- To get rich quick (you won’t)
- To get famous (good luck with that)
- Your family has been kidknapped by merpeople who are demanding that you write 85k words of steamy romantic thriller by the next full moon, or else (you have my sincerest apologies)
The General Process for Writing a Novel
Ideas and Planning
While it varies from person to person, there is a general progression. Before starting, you need to plan a bit and generate ideas. Some people plan meticulously and write up character sketches, timelines, and plot outlines (a post on these is forthcoming), while others just come up with a premise and dive in. How much groundwork you lay before you get started is up to you. Likewise, research—while recommended for writing about topics that you aren’t well-versed in—is optional.
After you’ve done your initial planning comes the first draft. First drafts are gloriously messy. At this stage, the story isn’t going to be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The important thing is that you get it written. Expect some rough spots—plot-holes, inconsistencies, and even weaknesses in the story arc are all acceptable at this point. Your characters may be radically different at the end of the story than they were at the start, and some of the major plot points may have changed during drafting.
Revisions and Rewrites
Once you have a first draft, you can begin revising and reshaping it into something that’s closer to the story that you want to tell. Sometimes, if you find that there are deep structural issues that require major changes to the story, or if you’ve radically changed your mind about where the story should go, it may also be in your interest to rewrite. During this phase of the process, it’s usually good to get in contact with a critique group. As you get closer to completion, you may also want to get in touch with beta readers and editors to help you sand off some of the rough edges. Revising is the part of the process that seems like it ought to be short since you already have a draft, but often takes the longest since there’s always something that can be done.
What you do after you finish revisions is up to you. If you’re writing for yourself, this may be where you put the book aside and start a new project, or where you show it to a few friends and family members. If you’re writing for publication, this is when you would start shopping your book out to agents or getting things in order to self-publish.
It’s worth noting that publishing is really the last step here.There are two major implications of this. First, while it’s good to research the industry and get a feel for how things work, most agents don’t want to hear from you before your book is finished. Publication is a long-term goal. Take your time polishing your work before you send it out or put it up on Amazon. Your manuscript still doesn’t have to be perfect, but you should be confident that it’s the best you can do. Second, any market trends that you’re seeing when you start your book will probably have come and gone by the time that you get here, so don’t worry about writing what you think will sell. Novels take a huge amount of time, labor, and commitment—make sure you’re spending it telling the story that you want to tell.
And once I publish my manuscript, then I’ll get a huge advance and probably be famous, right?
No, hypothetical reader. Probably not. But you will have written a damn good book.