How to Build Up to Writing a Novel

Sophie Playle

Writing a novel can be an exciting journey, but it’s also a huge and complex undertaking. It requires a huge amount of perseverance and commitment, as well as technical know-how. That’s why it makes sense to gradually build up to writing a novel if you’ve never written one before.

If you throw yourself into the deep end without any preparation, you’re more likely to sink than swim. It’s like trying to run a marathon without ever having even gone for a jog. (I can use more sports-related similes, if you like? Or not.)

On that note, let’s look at some steps you can take to build up to writing a novel.

Read Published Novels with Intention and Awareness

Many people read novels to relax and escape to another world, but you can also read novels with intention and awareness in order to learn what makes a good novel-length yarn.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What happened at the start of the story that made you want to keep reading it?
  • What do you like and/or dislike about the characters?
  • Can you see how the events of the story link together?
  • Do the characters change as the story progresses? What makes them change?
  • Can you visualise the story world clearly? What techniques does the author use in order to provide this effect?
  • Does anything surprising happen in the story, or is it predictable?
  • How does the author differentiate the voices of different characters?
  • Were you happy or unhappy with the ending? Why?
  • What was your overall opinion of the novel, and why did you feel that way?

Read Books on How to Write a Novel

It’s hard to write a novel if you’ve not taken the time to learn methods and techniques from experienced writers.

Luckily, there’s a wealth of craft books out there! Read them!

While some of these books cover every single thing you need to know about writing a novel, some others only deal with specific topics like character development, plotting, and so on.

Here are some of my recommendations to get you started:

  • The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  • Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan
  • Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland
  • Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
  • The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley
  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Make Writing a Habit

If you’re not used to writing hundreds or thousands of words on a regular basis, writing a novel can feel overwhelming. But you can prepare yourself by developing your writing habit before you give yourself the challenge of writing a novel.

With such a habit, you can practice your writing regularly, exercise and stretch your writing muscles frequently and ultimately get better at writing.

You can make writing a habit with the following tips:

  • Make a commitment to write regularly – literally put it in your diary. Perhaps you’ll write every morning, or ever Sunday afternoon.
  • Write during your most creative time of the day. For some people, that’s before the world wakes up, early in the morning; for others, night-time feels like a deliciously creative time.
  • Set a target for your writing session and stick to it. This could be a minimum number of words or an amount of time to spend writing.

Not sure what to write about? Here are a few ideas:

  • Write about anything that comes to mind, without stopping.
  • Write what you feel grateful for today. Or what’s made you angry. Or what’s making you sad. Tap into your emotions.
  • Start with ‘If I had known then what I know now …’ and see where it takes you.
  • Create a written portrait of someone you know well.
  • Grab the book nearest to you. Flick to a random page. Write out the first sentence your eyes land on, close the book and keep writing.

Write Short Stories

Before you dive into trying to write a novel, mastering the art of short-story writing is a really useful thing to do. Why? Because it not only provides you with practice on writing creatively, but it also allows you to practice finishing things.

You’ll learn how to structure a tale and write towards a satisfying ending. It’s really hard to do that on the macro-scale of a novel, but if you’ve done it many times before on a smaller scale – with short stories – you’ll find you’ll hone that instinct.

To help you develop your short story writing, I recommend reading Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story by Vanessa Gebbie.

Develop a Great Premise

To give yourself the best change of starting a novel that you’ll ultimately finish (instead of abandoning because your idea runs out of steam), it can be a good idea to come up with a solid premise before you even start writing.

The premise is a one or two sentence statement that encapsulates your main story idea. It should be unique and interesting – because your novel should be unique and interesting.

Your premise should mention your main character, and allude to their desire or goal and the obstacles or problems standing in their way.

For example:

  • A teenage girl volunteers to take her sister’s place in a mandatory death match televised for entertainment to the ruling classes. (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
  • In Victorian England, a young widow investigates the rumours of a sea creature coming to haunt the marshes of Essex while navigating society’s expectations of her. (The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry)
  • A woman often comes to her sister’s aid when she periodically murders her boyfriends. One day, the sister starts dating the main character’s love interest. (My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite)

Read more about creating the premise of your novel.

To sum up …

Since writing a novel is such a big task, you need more than sheer willpower to complete such an endeavor.

Feed your novel-writing instincts by reading with analytical awareness.

Read books by accomplished writers that teach writing and storytelling techniques.

Make writing a habit – it takes a lot of words and a lot of hours to write a book!

Practice your storytelling skills by writing short stories.

Come up with a compelling premise before you start writing so you’re able to write with excitement and direction.

Okay, now get to it!

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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