I’m going to let you in on a secret up front: The key to writing a fiction novel is writing.
That sounds simple, but writers are excellent procrastinators. To avoid this and make sure you actually write when you sit down to do so, you have two choices. You either write or you stare at the window/wall. You don’t get to research, google character names, or check your phone. If you want to write a book, you need to write. Here’s how:
1. Finding Your Fiction Book Idea
Most people who set out to write fiction do so because they already have an idea for a world, character, or plot. If this is you, congratulations, you’ve completed step 1!
If you don’t have an idea for a story, it’s time to find one. Look at your past experiences. What’s the story you’re asked to tell at family gatherings? How can you twist it into fiction? Scan weird headlines and write the story that lead to that article. Draw from your daydreams. Take a writing prompt and expand it.
2. Make Sure Your Idea Can Carry a Novel
Think through your idea. Make sure it has enough meat to carry an entire book. Take a moment to think about all the things that could happen to your character or all the events that could lead up to your climax. You should have a number of events or scenes in mind, not just one or two.
Movement can help ideas percolate, so go for a walk, clean your home, or perform some other mindless activity while you think about your story idea.
3. Schedule Time to Write
If you’re serious about completing your fiction novel, you need to build time to write into your schedule and guard it with your life. Don’t skip a writing session to clean your kitchen. Don’t give up your writing time for a routine doctor’s appointment or meeting with a client. That time is spoken for.
It might take you a few days to figure out what time of day you are the most inspired or can concentrate on your story without distractions. Many authors get up early in the morning to write before work or their kids wake. Others write late at night after everyone’s gone to bed. Some people write on their lunch breaks. It’s okay to try different times before you find the right one.
If possible, write daily. One of the hardest parts of writing is getting those first few words typed or penned at each writing session. Starting to write can be difficult. The more often you start writing, the better you’ll get at it.
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4. Set Writing Goals and Deadlines
A writer’s best friend is a deadline. Procrastination is so easy when writing. Deadlines force us to get words on the page by a certain date or time, so give yourself deadlines. By what date do you want to be 25% done with your first draft? What about 50%? 100%? Write those deadlines into your calendar.
In addition to deadlines, you need writing goals to keep you on track. When you sit done to write, you should either commit to not stopping for a certain amount of time or you should not stop until you’ve written a certain number of words. Maybe you only have short blocks of time, so you’re going to write as much as you can in 30 minutes. Or maybe you are not going to stop until you’ve written 1,000 words.
Some people prefer weekly instead of daily writing goals. They might commit to writing for a total of 5 hours a week or strive to write 7,000 words a week. Others might try to write a certain number of scenes or chapters each week. Decide on your daily or weekly goals and write them down. You might even tell a friend, so you have someone making you accountable to reaching your goals and meeting your deadlines.
5. Start Writing
Steps 1-4 shouldn’t take more than a day or two to complete. Now it’s time to write! If you’re the type of person who likes to dive right in, write your inciting incident. Write the scene depicting the moment your characters’ lives changed. Then keep going.
If you’re the type of person who needs an action plan, skip ahead to step 6 and/or 7, then come back to step 5.
6. Plot, Plan, or Outline Your Story
You need to know a bit about where you’re going if you want to finish your book in a timely manner, so you need some kind of a plan. For many authors, this means an outline. Take a moment to plan out your story. List the inciting incident, the key events, the moments that change your characters, any twists, your climax, and your resolution. You might even break your story into acts or chapters or scenes. Build yourself a roadmap, so each time you sit down to write you know where you are and where you’re going.
If a traditional outline feels too restrictive, list possibilities or do a bubble cluster/mind map where you brainstorm everything that could happen. You can do this in spurts. Some authors have a general idea of an ending and only outline the next chapter or list the next few scenes at the end of each writing session. That way they know where they’re going but don’t feel like they’ve boxed themselves in with an outline.
At least think about your ending, so you have something to write towards. This could be your climax. It could be how your character grows or changes. It could be how your antagonist gets there comeuppance.
7. Get to Know Your Characters
You should be developing your characters during most steps in the writing process, but some authors need to know the people in their story before they start writing. For some, the character is the story idea. If this is you, list key components of your main characters. Things like names, a brief description, personality traits, quirks, fears, and desires. Then put them in a scene and force them to make decisions.
Some authors use full character worksheets, where they outline everything about their characters. I find these to be an excellent way to avoid actually writing. Remember, character sketches and plot outlines aren’t writing. They are prepping.
If you’ve already started writing, list these key components of your main characters, so you can use them later on or better understand your characters moving forward. The more you know about your characters, the more real they will feel on the page.
Think about how your characters might grow or change over the course of your story. What lessons do they need to learn? What habits do they need to form or break? What fears might they need to face?
8. Write, Write, Write
Keep writing. Don’t go back to fix the beginning or rewrite a scene you think you need to be different. Keep pushing forward. Resist the urge to edit and revise or read everything you’ve already written before each writing session. If you need to reread a scene from your last writing session to get back into that head space, try to read as little as you can get away with. This is writing time, not reading time.
If you don’t know what to write, go back to your outline or character sketch. Pick a scene or aspect of your character you can see clearly and write that. Or throw your character into a random writing prompt or situation and see what they do. You can also skip ahead. You don’t have to write in order.
If you feel overwhelmed, pick one scene, moment, or chapter and only focus on getting to the end of that part of your story. You’re not writing your whole book right now; you’re just writing a small piece of it.
9. Cool Off and Celebrate
After you’ve finished your first draft, celebrate. Take some time to relish that completion. You’ve worked hard to get here. You also need to create a bit of distance between yourself and your story, so when you revise, you will see what’s actually written down instead of what you intended.
10. Revise to Elevate Your Story
Then, go back and read your book. Take notes on what’s working, what’s confusing, what you need to cut, and what you need to add. Make sure each scene is revealing something new about your characters or moving the plot forward. If it isn’t, that part needs to go. In particular, look at your beginning. You need to start with the true inciting incident, not with a bunch of backstory. You may need to cut or move your current beginning.
Make sure your scenes are in the right order. Each challenge your characters face should be harder than the last. This might mean restructuring some chapters.
Double check your ending. Make sure you’ve tied up all the loose threads, answered any questions/solved any mysteries, and have satisfied your reader. A satisfactory ending isn’t always happy; it’s an ending that fits the story.
Then make sure your characters are fleshed out, have changed and are motivated throughout the story. Your stakes should be high and consistently present because they build tension and keep your pace up.
Basically, make each scene as clear and compelling as you can on your own, then ask for outside help.
11. Get Help
Now that you’ve done all you can, it’s time for an outside perspective. You’re ready for a critique group, beta readers, or professional editor. Because you’ve written this book, you know too much about it. What’s on the page might not be as clear as you think it is, so you need an outside, unbiased perspective.
After you receive their feedback, implement the changes you agree with and thank them for their time and effort. Remember, you’re the author, so you don’t have to include every suggestion.
12. Share Your Story
It’s publication time! Now you’re ready to share your writing with readers. Congratulations, you have written a fiction book!
As I said in the introduction, the most important step is sitting down and putting your fingers on your keyboard or your pen in your notebook. If you want to successfully complete your fiction novel, you must use your writing time to write, so you either get to write or stare out the window. I recommend writing.