How to (start) writing a novel

Many Americans dream of writing a novel, but it’s a monumental task, and it’s hard to know where to start.

The first thing to know is that there are no rules. Everyone finds their way through a little bit differently, and it’s unproductive to set strict parameters. That said, most people write a novel because they want to find an audience, so the first thing you need to work out is what your motivation and goal is for writing. Is it to check off an item from your bucket list? Is it for family and friends? Do you want to sell it to a traditional publisher, or self-publish your book? Are you setting out on a career as a novelist?

Your goals shape your path. If you want to write a book out of a sense of personal accomplishment, expression, or for loved ones, you can go about it how you wish. The biggest challenges you’re likely to face are starting, continuing, and finishing, and everyone finds their way through this differently. Some things to try include writing sprints, where you set a timer and focus on getting as many words down as you can. You can try stopping writing at mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. Some writers believe that makes it easier to pick up the pen and start writing again the next day. You can freewrite for a bit, or journal, to ease in to writing, and then switch over. Try a few different approaches to find what works best for you.

If you want to publish a novel and sell it to a publisher, you need to understand genre conventions, market trends, and some of the business side of being a novelist. It’s not at all like movies, or even how other books present it as being. A novelist has to finish a complete book and have it in publishable condition first, and then literary agents should be approached for representation. If a literary agent agrees to represent the book, that agent then approaches publishing houses and tries to sell the manuscript. So, you not only need to write a novel that conforms to genre expectations and hits a trend at the right time, you need to navigate the relationship between agent and editor.

Independent publishers or “self-published” novelists have a similar but distinct challenge. They also need to understand genre conventions and market trends, but instead of learning to query agents, they need to learn the business side and marketing skills to produce and sell their own book.

Genre conventions include things like plot structure (goal, conflict, motivation, rising structure, etc.) and something called “tropes.” These are recurring elements that readers gravitate toward, like a love triangle in a romance novel, or the smoking gun in a mystery, or a widow with a young child who’s gone missing in a thriller. You need to understand plot structure and study the tropes for your genre to have a successful book, if that’s your goal. Those writing a mystery novel should read other popular mysteries, study what elements are in common and why they work, and then consider how they can use those and put a fresh, but not totally alien, spin on them. Those writing romances should work their way through a pile of popular romances and brush up on trendy or perennial romance tropes.

The only way to write a novel is to sit down, face up to that blank page or screen and start! Writers learn by doing. Experiment and try things, from freewriting to plotting, and study other people’s techniques to get a sense for what works.

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