The 12 Steps of Writing a Novel Explained
When you first sit down to write a novel, you’ll likely have a lot of questions.
How should you organize your story, and what details should you include? How long should your novel be? Are there ways to overcome writer’s block, or do you always have to force your way through? What about naming your novel, finding an editor, and one day publishing it?
With the huge variety of questions that come when writing a novel, you may start to think it’s impossible—that your story will remain stuck in a desk drawer forever. However, you can write a novel. You just need to tackle the writing process one step at a time!
The Long and Winding Journey of Writing a Novel
- 1 The Long and Winding Journey of Writing a Novel
- 2 Why Writing a Novel Doesn’t Have to Be Complex
- 3 The 12 Steps of Writing a Novel
- 3.1 #1 An Initial Idea:
- 3.2 #2 Getting Specific:
- 3.3 #3 Planning Your Story:
- 3.4 #4 Creating Your Cast:
- 3.5 #5 Finalizing Your Plot:
- 3.6 #6 The First Draft:
- 3.7 #7 A Much Needed Rest:
- 3.8 #8 Structural Editing:
- 3.9 #9 Getting Feedback:
- 3.10 #10 Fine Tuning Your Novel:
- 3.11 #11 Final Production:
- 3.12 #12 Going Live:
- 4 Writing a Novel, Step-by-Step!
I remember the first time I did serious research on what it would take to write a novel.
I had just failed my very first National Novel Writing Month and, though I was frustrated I didn’t hit 50k, I felt confident I had something good on my hands. My draft was unpolished, rough, and incomplete, but the story hidden inside had potential.
Now, I just had to learn how to improve my draft and turn it into a finished novel. So, I turned to the internet…
That was my first mistake.
Through my research I found tons of articles, books, videos, and podcasts about everything from brainstorming to editing, rights licensing and publication.
Suddenly, writing a novel wasn’t just about creating a good story, but about studying marketability, genre conventions, finding an editor, approaching literary agents, or setting up a self-publishing imprint. Each article I read stressed me out more and more, and I remember thinking I could never do all of these things.
It was simply too overwhelming.
Worse yet, it almost spelled the end of my writing career. I was so close to calling it quits, because there was so much I had to learn, and I thought I had to learn it all at once. In reality, that was (fortunately) far from the truth.
Why Writing a Novel Doesn’t Have to Be Complex
Flash forward five years and I’ve now self-published two books, with many more to come. While that initial peek into the complex world of writing and publishing novels was almost a deal breaker, I’ve since learned that writing a novel isn’t as difficult as the internet can make it seem.
The key is understanding where you are along your personal writing journey and not worrying about problems that are two or three stages down the road. Instead, you can focus on the tasks at hand, taking the writing process one step at a time.
When you think of writing a novel this way, you’ll begin to see five distinct phases:
Of course, even these phases can feel stressful—“writing” is a broad task, after all!
That’s why I like to take things even further.
Instead of thinking of writing a novel as a series of five phases, I split it into twelve steps. Better yet, each step handles a very specific part of the writing process, meaning you can focus on that step and that step alone. Once you’re done with one step, you can move on to the next, avoiding the sense of overwhelm I and many other writers have almost ended our careers with.
Ultimately, while writing a novel isn’t easy, it also isn’t impossible by any means. All you need is a plan and the patience to take it one step at a time. 🙂
The 12 Steps of Writing a Novel
Since this article is all about preventing you from being overwhelmed by the novel writing process, I encourage you to skip around these steps. Find the one that fits best with where you are, and check out the resources and articles it recommends.
Then, bookmark this article so you can come back when you’re ready for the next step!
#1 An Initial Idea:
Every novel starts with a single idea.
Whether your current novel was inspired by a dream, an interesting conversation, another story you love, a personal experience, or something else entirely, it’s this initial idea that will form the foundation of every step from here on out.
Of course, this initial idea is rarely enough to create an entire novel from.
This means that the first step when writing a novel is to brainstorm and expand on your initial idea until you have a rough understanding of:
- Your general storyline
- A handful of characters
- Your story’s mood/atmosphere
- The conflict of your story
This rough understanding of your story will give you a jumping off point as you dig deeper into the specific elements your novel will need. While these things will naturally change and evolve as you continue refining your novel, for now they’ll serve as your foundation!
So, take a day or two and stew over your story. Think about the possibilities, look at photos that inspire you, and write down your thoughts. These don’t need to be organized or even any good, they just need to serve as a record of your ideas—and that’s important, because you can’t give into your inner editor at this stage.
Above all, don’t censor yourself.
Let ideas come and go and don’t worry about how “good” they might be. Like I said, you’ll be refining your story over time, so for now just focus on unleashing your creativity—no matter what it comes up with!
#2 Getting Specific:
Once you have a rough idea of what your novel will be like, it’s time to whittle it down into something more specific. This is where you’ll create your novel’s premise, and while that may sound complex, it’s actually a fairly straightforward process.
I’ve talked about how to create a premise in a lot more detail in The Ten Day Outline, and this is a good time along your journey to dive into that book, anyway. I definitely encourage you to check it out, however, here’s the short version as well:
- In a single paragraph, summarize your story.
- Looking over that summary, ensure it implies a conflict, hints at the start of your story, and gives you an idea of how your main character will respond to that conflict.
- Condense that paragraph into a short, 1-2 sentence blurb.
- Ensure that blurb meets the same criteria as the full paragraph.
To help you see what I mean, here’s the premise of How to Train Your Dragon:
- A young Viking captures a dragon, but when he fails to kill it it ends up becoming his best friend. Now the two must fight to convince his society that dragons aren’t the enemies they thought they were.
This premise is a summary of the core idea of your novel, and it’s a great way to hone in on your story after the open-ended brainstorming you did in the previous step.
Now, whenever someone asks you what your novel “is about,” you can tell them your premise. Likewise, as you continue fleshing out your story, your premise will be there to keep you grounded and ensure all of your characters and storylines remain relevant to your core idea.
#3 Planning Your Story:
With a premise in hand, you can move on to creating a fully fledged outline for your novel.
This outline will serve as your roadmap for the rest of these steps. Whenever you come up with a new idea or need to remember something, you’ll turn to your outline. Creating characters? Outline them. Need a blurb for your back cover? Reference your outline.
While it may sound like I’m exaggerating here, I mean it—once I’ve created an outline, I use it for the rest of the writing and publishing process. Sometimes I even reference it after launch when I need help planning sequels or answering readers questions.
An outline really is an invaluable writing tool.
Of course, for your outline to fulfill all of these roles, you need to build it with some care. An outline is one of those things you’d rather do right the first time, instead of having to recreate it later or struggle to find what you need.
Unfortunately, creating an outline is simply too involved of a process for me to fully explain here. Check out the articles below and consider picking up either of the two books I’ve listed as well. There are tons of ways to create an efficient outline, from more in-depth methods like mine to more minimal ones.
Once you’ve done a bit of searching, you’re sure to find the right outlining system for you.
- 10 Steps for Outlining Your Next Novel
- Writing a Trilogy: How to Plan a Series of Novels
- The Ten Day Outline: A Writer’s Guide to Planning a Novel in Ten Days
- Take Your Pants Off: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing
#4 Creating Your Cast:
While many writers—including myself—make character creation a part of their outlining process, it can also be helpful to think of it as its own step.
You see, creating characters is one of those skills that requires a lot of reading.
Crafting believable characters is essentially like dreaming up real people, complete with personalities, unique psychologies, backstories, prejudices, likes, and dislikes. It’s a process that takes some getting used to, and the best way to do that is by learning everything you can about these general topics:
- Character arcs
- Character motivations
- Archetypal characters
- How characters and structure combine
There will always be more to learn, but a decent grasp on these topics will get you pretty far.
However, you need to remember: your characters don’t need to be perfect.
Just like with the rest of the writing process, your fifth book will be markedly better than your first, simply because you’ve had time to practice. Creating a cast of characters becomes easier and easier the more you do it, so don’t stress too much if your first try isn’t exactly what you imagined.
Simply start by creating a list of your characters, and include a few notes on their arc, backstory, personality, and inner conflict for each. Then, think about the roles they’ll each play in your story, and you’ll be well on your way!
- Character Arcs 101: Positive and Negative Arcs
- How to Write a Hero: The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Character Arc
- The Ultimate Guide to Motivating Your Protagonist
- Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction
#5 Finalizing Your Plot:
By this point, you probably have a good idea of what your novel’s plot will be, albeit with a few holes. However, now is the time to nail down those details.
How will you do that, you might ask? Story structure.
Just like with character creation, this is something I usually fold into my outlines—which you’ll notice if you read The Ten Day Outline earlier on—but it’s still involved enough to deserve its own step. Also like character creation, structuring stories is a skill you learn through practice.
Fortunately, a little knowledge goes a long way here!
Story structure essentially gives you a rough framework to test your plot against, identifying any holes, weird pacing, weak plotlines, and flimsy conflicts early on. For beginners, I recommend reading up on The Three Act Structure, simply because it’s what you’re most likely to be familiar with. From there, match the events of your story to the plot points below:
- The Hook
- The First Plot Point
- The Midpoint
- The Third Plot Point
- The Climax
- The Resolution
While there are a variety of smaller, more nuanced plot points nestled between these big six, these will give you a broad overview of how well your story is working from a structural perspective. Check out the links below for more details on what each of these mean and how to apply them to your own story.
Of course, you can also branch out, and I’ve included one of the best books on another story structure—The Hero’s Journey—down below!
- An Introduction to the Three Act Structure
- The Two Types of Conflict Every Novel Needs
- Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for an Outstanding Story
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
#6 The First Draft:
We’re finally at the big event—writing your first draft!
Of all the steps required to write a novel, this is the one that stops most writers in their tracks. Writing a first draft (all fifty thousand plus words of it) will naturally be intimidating, but it isn’t impossible.
You’ll just need to consider your mindset.
When it comes to this stage of the writing process, you have to remember that your first draft doesn’t need to be good—it doesn’t even need to be decent! Your first draft’s only job is to get the basic form of your story down on paper. Once that’s done, you’ll be able to edit and polish it until you have a well-written story on your hands, but you can never start that editing process without finishing this draft first.
From there, you’ll need to figure out when you’ll have time to write, and how long it’ll take. This is usually as simple as determining how long you want your draft to be, how much you can realistically write in a day, and then how many days it’ll take to finish a draft of that length.
Finally, it’s time to write.
No matter how well prepared you are, you’ll never finish your novel if you don’t sit down and put words on the page—meaning now is the time to trust yourself and start writing!
- How to Write a Novel in Only 10 Days
- Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write Like a Movie Camera
- Write Faster: How to Write 5,000 Words per Day
- The Ten Day Draft: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing a Novel in Ten Days
#7 A Much Needed Rest:
With your first draft out of the way, you’ll have earned a much needed rest. As odd as it might sound, your only job for this step is to set your writing aside and forget about it for a while.
This step of the writing process serves two purposes:
- It gives you a chance to recharge after writing your first draft.
- It provides some distance from your story, which makes editing easier later on.
Basically, this period of rest helps you get out of writing mode and transition into editing mode. It’s not something you’ll want to skip—and trust me, once you’ve finished your first draft, you’ll be ready for a break too!
Of course, this break has some limits.
While the ideal rest period for every writer is slightly different, I encourage you to rest for at least two weeks, but no longer than two months. You want some time to relax and recover after writing your draft, but you don’t want to forget about your story entirely. Worst yet, you definitely don’t want to lose your momentum!
So, enjoy some time without writing, but keep your draft in the back of your mind. Mark the day you’ll come back to your novel in your calendar, and honor that date!
- Mental Health for Writers: 7 Ways to Nurture Your Writing Life
- 8 Ways to Create Positive Writing Habits (And 5 Habits to Try)
#8 Structural Editing:
First up on your editing to-do list is structural editing!
Now that you’ve finished resting and have returned to your novel, you’ll hopefully have a more objective understanding of your story. This means you’re ready to read back through your first draft from start to finish, just like a reader would. Along the way, highlight or mark any sections that don’t seem quite right, and jot down notes for what you’d like to change or what needs improvement.
Specifically, you’ll want to focus on these questions:
- Does your plot have a strong, compelling conflict?
- Do your characters play a clear role in that conflict?
- Are your character’s arcs well-represented?
- Does your plot have clear turning points and good pacing?
- Are any areas of your novel weak, or in need of expansion?
- Is there fluff in your novel, and how can you remove it?
These are all big-picture story elements, and that’s because structural editing isn’t about fixing prose or grammar—after all, you’ll likely be redoing or reshuffling large chunks of your novel during this step.
Instead, spend this step focusing on whether your story works as a whole, regardless of how “well-written” it may be. Don’t be afraid to cut, rework, and rebuild sections of your novel, and reference your outline whenever you need an overhead view of your story.
Once you feel confident that your story is working from beginning to end, you can move on to the finer details of your writing.
- The 10 Steps of Editing a Novel
- 4 Reasons Your Protagonist’s Blue Eyes Don’t Matter
- The Ten Day Edit: A Writer’s Guide to Editing a Novel in Ten Days
- How Long Should Your Novel Be?
#9 Getting Feedback:
Before you start copyediting your novel, you’ll want another chance to rest, making this the perfect time to share your novel with others! You see, when writing a novel, it’s hard to remain objective about your story. This is your creation after all and seeing the flaws in your draft isn’t always easy.
That’s where other people come in!
By now, your draft is in a solid place to receive feedback, meaning it’s officially safe to share it with others. This feedback can come from a variety of places:
- Beta readers
- Critique partners
- Professional editors
- Writing tutors and mentors
- Writing-savvy friends
All of these sources of feedback are worth pursuing, though I do recommend some over others. For instance, I strongly encourage every writer to work with a professional editor, not just because I am one. Editors are excellent teachers, and can drill down to exactly what you need to improve in your novel—leveling up your writing skill by leaps and bounds.
However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore these other groups by any means.
Whether you work with an editor or not, finding beta readers is a great way to get a feel for how real readers will respond to your story. Likewise, trading drafts with a critique partner not only gets you some feedback, but lets you give back as well.
Finally, once you’ve collected feedback from one or two of these sources, take some time to apply it judiciously. You don’t need to take every piece of advice you’re given, but pay attention to any complaints you hear multiple times—it’s likely these are the most pressing problems with your draft.
#10 Fine Tuning Your Novel:
With your story set in stone, it’s time to turn your attention to the finer details of your novel:
These are the final things you’ll change about your novel, meaning you’re now on the home stretch. Understandably, this is also where many authors enlist the help of a professional copyeditor and proofreader.
However, you can DIY this step if you choose.
While every writer will have their own tricks for copyediting their work, I personally like reading my draft aloud in two different ways. For instance, I’ll read my entire draft to myself, fixing passages whenever I hear something that doesn’t sound quite right. Then, I’ll have my computer read everything back to me and make any last changes.
This gives you two chances to root out the problems in your draft, preventing your eyes from glazing over the page and missing major errors. You’d be surprised by what your ears pick up that your eyes miss!
Once this copyediting is complete, it’s time to proofread.
This is a very tedious step, because you need to scan through your draft line by line to make sure your spelling and punctuation are flawless. I like using a program called ProWritingAid to help with this, but that still doesn’t eliminate all the tedium from proofreading.
Still, while you should plan to spend at least a few weeks on this step, it’s well worth the time to create a professional novel you’ll feel proud of!
- Self-Editing Basics: 10 Simple Ways to Edit Your Own Books
- What’s the Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading?
- How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps From First Draft to Publication
#11 Final Production:
We’re officially at a point where these twelve steps diverge, depending on whether you’re self-publishing or pursuing traditional publication.
If you’re going the traditional route, this is where you’d want to query literary agents and start looking at publishing houses. On the other hand, this is when self-publishers need to approach cover designers and figure out how they’ll format their final manuscript.
Personally, I’ve always been self-published, and I really like the flexibility and control self-publishing gives me over my work. However, traditional publishing is still a great option—it just depends on what you’re looking for!
Still, I can only speak to self-publishing here.
I’ve included some great resources below on both traditional and self-publishing, so no matter what path you take you’ll find something below. For self-publishers specifically, you’ll need to consider:
- Where you’ll publish (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, etc…)
- When your book will go live
- Whether you’ll publish an ebook, paperback, or both
- Who you’ll get your cover designed by
- How you’ll format your book (I highly recommend Vellum!)
- And how you’ll promote your launch
This can seem like a lot, especially for your very first novel, but trust me—it’s all doable.
Just like every other step along your writing journey, the best thing you can do is take each of these tasks one at a time. Do your research on where you’ll publish, make your decision, and then move on to what formats you’ll use. Continue down the list until you’re ready to launch!
- How I Published My Second Book in 14 Days
- How to Commission a Great Book Cover Design
- Self-Publishing Tips: How to Format an eBook and Print Book With Vellum
- The Pros and Cons of Traditional Versus Self-Publishing
- Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published
#12 Going Live:
The day is finally here—your novel is ready for publication!
After all of your hard work, from brainstorming to writing and editing, you can now officially hold your finished novel in your hands. Launching your first book is a magical feeling, and it’s a feeling you can repeat with each novel you complete.
I’m sure you’re already thinking about the next novel you’ll write, whether it’s a new story entirely or a continuation of the series you started here. However, I have one request before you start this process over back at step one:
Take some time to celebrate.
You’ve reached a major milestone and officially become an author. If there was ever a time to enjoy the payoff from your work, now is it. Share your book with your friends and loved ones, flip through it and realize how real it all is, and donate a few copies to your local library.
You officially did it!
Writing a Novel, Step-by-Step!
Of course, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea here: you’ll naturally face setbacks along your writing journey, and some of these stages won’t always go as planned. Yet, by taking each of these steps one at a time, you can overcome any challenges you face.
Instead of working yourself into a panic when you realize all the work you have to do two or even five steps down the line, keep yourself focused.
Writing a novel is overwhelming—but, each individual step doesn’t have to be!
Above all, enjoy the process. Sink into your story and cherish all the amazing ideas and inspiration you come up with. Soon enough you’ll be on the other side, officially able to call yourself an author. I look forward to seeing you there. 🙂