A 2011 survey announced that more than 80 of Americans want to write a book. Yet, the vast majority of those people will never put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Their dreams of authorship will languish in the back of their head, and their book will never see the light of day. Why is that? Because, despite popular belief, writing is a LOT harder than it looks. Writing is hard work and you get good at it the same way you get good at anything—through study and practice. But that doesn’t mean writing a book is impossible. Far from it!
Some people do have the determination needed to write tens of thousands of words but simply don’t know where to begin. How does one turn a story idea into a full-fledged novel? Below I take you step-by-step through the process. Note that, as with any advice, your mileage may vary. However, these are the lessons I’ve learned as someone who’s completed a rather long novel and has helped many others do the same.
CHOOSE AN IDEA THAT WILL EXCITE YOU FOR YEARS
The first step is to pick an idea or world that’s going to keep you engaged for a long time. You could spend years writing the book, and so many stories are never finished because the author’s enthusiasm evaporates a few chapters in. You want to pick an idea that A. has legs and has lots of room for development and expansion 2. Is original. Now, I’m not saying the idea has to be completely and utterly unique. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. But you don’t want a carbon copy of someone else’s book either. Someone once told me you should throw out the first idea you think of, and the second, and the third. If an idea immediately pops into your mind, it’s most likely because it’s one that you’ve seen before—likely many times. If you toss the first few out, it forces you to dig deeper, to think harder. If you do decide to go with a cliché or archetypical story, the type of story that’s been done numerous times, try to subvert or twist it in a way that hasn’t been done before. If you decide to play the trope straight, make sure you’re giving it depth and dimension. Once you come up with an idea that fascinates you and that has the potential for development, think of another, and another, and another. A short story can be based off of one cool idea. A book needs several, working in conjunction.
NAIL THE SKELETON OF YOUR STORY
Ideas are the foundation of your story, now it’s time to build on top of it, brick by brick. It’s generally accepted that writers tend to fall into two general categories: pantsers and plotters, also called gardeners and architects. The former writes by the seat of their pants. They start off with the germ of an idea and figure it all out as they go along. The latter is highly organized, writing a detailed outline before they begin. These, in actuality, are two extremes, on either side of the spectrum and most writers will fall somewhere in between. However, I think both types have their pitfalls.
Plotters can sometimes have the problem of over-outlining, and this can have several different consequences. Some writers put so much into their outline, they feel as though they’ve already written the story, and their enthusiasm disappears. Others become obsessed or perfectionistic with their outlining or worldbuilding to the point that they never actually start writing. Stories are shifting and evolving things, and one might find that even though they wrote the plot going in one direction in their outline, they find that it falls flat on the page, or that the story is naturally progressing on a different path. The best advice I could give to plotters is to leave room for discovery and be willing to adapt. Sometimes our character’s surprise us. Sometimes we find that the ending we planned actually isn’t satisfying. It’s all part of the process. Outlines can be revised as you’re writing the novel. Use it as a road map, not a prescription.
As for pantsers, structure is necessary for a novel to sing, and a lot of pantsers don’t recognize its importance. I started off as a pantser, which was perfectly fine, but it meant it took way longer to shape my novel into what it needed to be than it could have. Even if you’re pantsing, I highly recommend constructing the skeleton of your story beforehand, coming up with the major elements of the novel while leaving plenty of room for discovery writing. There are certain core components that a novel NEEDS to work, and it’s worth deciding on those things before you get started. Those components are the protagonist’s arc, the conflict, the stakes, and the setting. Let’s dive into each of these in more detail.
DESIGN YOUR POV CHARACTER
I can’t emphasize enough how important the protagonist is to the success of a story. The protagonist(s), almost always the viewpoint character, is the gateway through which the reader connects to your story. If the audience is unable to care about the POV character, then they don’t care about what happens to them, and therefore are uninterested in the story as a whole.
Choose the protagonist carefully. KM Weiland teaches that the viewpoint character should be the one with the most to gain or the most to lose. This is because they need to drive the story forward. They should be proactive, relatable, but flawed and with room to grow. Once you nail down the basic details of your character, figure out what their arc is going to be.
Your character should be growing, evolving, and changing throughout the story, becoming a better or worse person by the end. Decide what is the flaw that is hindering your protagonists’ progress, and how do you want them to overcome that flaw at the end. I highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s book Creating Character Arcs for a detailed tutorial.
CONFLICT AND STAKES
Now that we have the characters and know whether they’re going to have a positive or negative arc, it’s time to come up with the conflict that will force them to change. As Stephen King says, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.” The conflict could be anything, from a family feud, to a love triangle, to saving the world from dragons. No matter what, the conflict has to be tied to the protagonist and their desire. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin breaks it down beautifully, “Somebody wants something, and something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the money; they want the girl; they want to get to Philadelphia. Then the obstacle to that has to be formidable, and the tactics they use to overcome that obstacle are what shows us the character.” Once you have the conflict in mind, decide what the stakes are. Stakes are the reason why the reader should care about what’s happening. What is the protagonist risking by embarking on their journey? What happens if they don’t succeed?
Now if you’re a pantser, you probably don’t want to write out the entire plot scene by scene. That’s perfectly fine. But I suggest you at least work out your Inciting Incident and your Climax. The Inciting Incident, as John Yorke says, “the catalyst for the protagonist’s desire.” It is the moment where the plot runs into the protagonist like a train and forces them on the journey they will travel throughout the book. It’s the moment of no return for your main character.
The climax, on the other hand, is the absolute peak of the action and tension. The all-or-nothing moment when the conflict reaches its crescendo. Often, it’s a battle between the protagonist and antagonist. Your Inciting Incident and Climax are what create the arc of your story. I think all writers should try to figure the Climax beforehand because then you can make sure the story is laser-focused towards its ending. You’ll be writing toward something rather than writing aimlessly.
RESEARCH - SEE HOW IT'S BEEN DONE BEFORE
Next, it’s time to read. I don’t believe anyone can be a truly great writer if they don’t read. Read a ton of books in your genre, especially any of those you can find that have similar elements or plots to yours. Analyze the stories for what they did well and where they fell short. This way, you have a picture of where your book will fit into the publishing market (for traditional or self-publishing) and you can avoid the pitfalls that ruined other books. Dissect the novels to figure out how all its individual elements function. What was the purpose of that plot twist? How did that particular setback further the protagonist’s character development? Read with a critical eye. This will also help you be less cliché when writing your own novel, as you’re aware of how a trope has been handled before.
After you’ve front-loaded the most important things, it’s time to write! Don’t stress about how long your novel should be, or how many chapters you have. Tackle one chapter or scene at a time, and let yourself move at your own pace. Most importantly, don’t expect the first-draft to be anywhere near perfect, and don’t start editing until you’re completely finished. Writing a book is like sculpting a statue. On the first pass, your goal should be to form a lump of stone into the basic visage of a human. Every pass you chip away, adding more detail, until that block of stone looks like a human being. Same with writing. A first pass just gets you the basic shape of your novel. Then it’s time to get the chisel.
REVISE, REVISE, REVISE
At the end of the day, revision makes a novel. As you’re writing you’ll find problems, with character arcs, with pacing, with prose. Put the novel down for a little while, maybe give it to some friends or hire a professional editor, and discover what you need to fix. This is why I’m always encouraging authors to read books on the craft of writing and storytelling, so that they understand the mechanics of a story. When you’re trained to critically analyze a work, you can tell what’s not working and why. You’ll know a novel is done when you feel as though you’ve done everything you can to make the story as strong as possible.
As you can see there’s a lot that goes into writing a book or novel. But it is one of the most rewarding, fulfilling things you can do. If you’ve had that story idea bouncing around in your head and didn’t know where to begin, I hope this article helps you get started on your writing journey!