How to Write a Novel
10 Steps from New York Times bestselling author Michelle Richmond, founder of Fiction Master Class
The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there are no easy answers. The second thing you need to know is that there is no magic formula. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world.
Still with me? Good. Because, as it turns out, writing a novel isn’t just a head-banging exercise in utter frustration and despair (although, trust me, sometimes it is just that). It’s also a deep swim into your own head space and a joyful adventure. It’s your world. You get to make it, populate it, cultivate it, and bring all of the pieces together.
If you’re ready to take on the challenge, here are 10 steps to get you started.
1. Forget the Outline
Outlines are fine unless they derail you. I’ve seen it again and again: writers who end up spinning their wheels for years, beholden to a failed outline. The good thing about an outline is that it gives you direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities and may cause you to get hopelessly stuck. For the first fifty pages, at least, write your novel without an outline. Instead, try more intuitive scene lists. (You’ll find scene lists and other helpful planning tools in my Novel Planning Worksheets.)
2. Establish the Setting
Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when?
Ian McEwan’s chilling novella, The Comfort of Strangers, derives much of its tension from the setting of Venice — the convoluted streets and hidden alleys are essential to the feeling of disorientation that leads to the protagonist’s undoing. When I began writing The Year of Fog, I knew it could happen only one place: San Francisco. And I knew the story of a child disappearing into the fog must begin on Ocean Beach, where the summer fog is so dense, you can see only a few feet in front of you. I’ve since published several more novels set in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The moment I set foot in San Francisco twenty years ago, I found my muse.
What location is your muse? What place do you know so intimately, you can describe it like no one else?
When you consider the setting of your novel, be as specific as possible. If it begins in a city, what part of the city? What street? What building? Why does the story happen here?
3. Consider the Point of View
Who is telling the story, from what distance? Do you have a first person narrator at the center of the action, an omniscient narrator who can access the thoughts of any character at any time, a limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character? Do you have multiple narrators telling the story from different angles?
In The Stranger by Albert Camus, the protagonist Mersault engages the reader’s empathy, despite his seeming coldness, because the first-person narration invites the reader into Mersault’s anxious mind. We understand his motivations from his own point of view, and actions that might otherwise seem reprehensible begin to make sense.
Who is telling the story? From what distance?
I write novels in first person, because I love the intimacy of first person. It’s the point of view that allows me to most deeply inhabit the protagonist’s voice. When I settle in for the long haul of a novel, first person just feels more natural to me. For short stories, however, I often write in the limited third person, which provides a different kind of stylistic freedom.
If you’re just starting out, try writing in the point of view that feels most natural to you. Don’t force the novel into a point of view that doesn’t engage you. Choosing the point of view that instinctively feels right will remove some of the friction and will help you to establish an authentic, engaging voice. As you become more skilled and confident in your writing, you can try out different points of view for different novels and stories.
4. Consider the Protagonist
You need someone at the center of the action. This will be a character your reader ends up rooting for, no matter how flawed. And he or she must be flawed in order to be realistic and interesting. Emma Bovary is deeply flawed, but in the end, we care what happens to her as she hurtles toward self-destruction. Flaubert isn’t easy on Emma, but he portrays her in all of her complexity — her ambition, her passion, her rapacious desire for status and luxury. Every great novel is character-driven; your protagonist must be a character worth caring about.
Your protagonist isn’t you. He or she can (and should) make bad decisions you would never make and get into trouble you’d never get yourself into.
If you find it difficult to separate yourself from your protagonist, consider making the protagonist different from you in some significant way. After writing four novels with female protagonists, I wrote The Marriage Pact from the point of view of Jake, a marriage therapist who can’t get a handle on his own marriage. Writing from the male perspective challenged me and took me to places in the story I might not have gone otherwise.
Remember: your protagonist isn’t you. He or she can (and should) make bad decisions you would never make, get into trouble you’d never get yourself into. Trouble is the fun of fiction. Go there.
5. Embrace Fragments
Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged scene or chapter in the early stages of writing your novel. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, give yourself the freedom to think small. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 800 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator,” or “Today I’m going to write the last paragraph of the novel.”
That last one is kind of weird, right? But the point is, you don’t have to write in a linear fashion. You can piece your novel together later. For now, get some stuff on the page.
If you tell yourself, “I’m writing a paragraph today” instead of “I’m writing a chapter,” the process will feel less daunting.
I wrote much of The Year of Fog in fragments, which I later pieced together. The same is true for Golden State. Occasionally, I write a book in a more linear fashion, but one bonus of working in a non-linear way is that you don’t have to stop if you get stuck on a scene or plot point. You can just write something else. Of course, a scene needs to hold together as a scene, with a beginning, middle and end, but working in fragments can help you banish the fear of the blank page.
6. Consider the Conflict
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there is no novel without trouble. Every story begins with conflict. What’s yours? In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a woman goes missing in the first chapter, and her husband appears to be implicated in her disappearance. In John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet, a middle-aged man meets his dead mother along an aqueduct in Lisbon, and must come to terms not only with his own country’s past, but also with the mysterious nature of the uncertain boundaries between life and death.
Trouble is the fun of fiction. Go there.
The Marriage Pact opens with a man alone on a small plane with a stranger, injured and starving, unsure what day it is, where he’s going, or exactly how he got his injuries. When you drop your protagonist into the middle of a bad situation on page one, or at least chapter one, you buy yourself some time with impatient readers. You can go back and weave the background in later, the how-we-got-to-where-we-are story, after you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention with a terrible situation. No matter where you start, remember: your novel must begin with trouble.
While you don’t necessarily have to include conflict in the first page of a novel, it doesn’t hurt. Make the reader understand, somewhere within the first 10 pages, why this particular story is being told at this particular time.
7. Consider the Stakes
What is at risk in the story? What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain? What does he or she want, and why is it important? The stakes must be clear for the reader to care.
Jane, the protagonist of Joanne Ramos’s The Farm, is an immigrant from the Philippines and a struggling single mother who is serving as the surrogate for a wealthy family. She lives with other Hosts at The Farm, a prison-like environment where residents’ lives are tightly controlled, their pregnancies closely monitored. Meanwhile, her own small daughter faces unknown dangers in the outside world. Jane confronts two competing needs: to make money in order to survive on one hand, and to be with her daughter on the other hand. There are no easy answers, no clear solution. The stakes are high, so we read on.
The stakes must be clear for the reader to care.
Often, there will be more than one thing at stake, more than one big risk. In my fourth novel, the political thriller Golden State, the narrator is trying to get across San Francisco to deliver her sister’s baby on the day that California is voting on secession. Her marriage has fallen apart. Against this backdrop, a violent hostage crisis at the Veterans Administration hospital where she works threatens the narrator’s safety and that of her sister and her co-workers. The stakes are both personal and public. Remember, your characters do not exist in a vacuum; their lives play out against a larger narrative.
8. Write What You Don’t Know
The old adage is, “Write what you know.” But you also need to be willing to write what you don’t know. In the spirit of discovery, allow one character to work in a field about which you know very little, or allow some element of the plot, or a subplot, to delve into something you find unusual and fascinating. Then research it.
Sure, you could make your main character a struggling writer, something you presumably know a thing or two about, but that’s a little boring, isn’t it? Why not make her a welder instead? Then go online and research welding. Take a welder out for beer. Write five paragraphs that can be woven throughout your novel embracing the lingo and physicality of welding. Voila–you’ve created something interesting and textural, something that may just take you in an unusual metaphorical direction you never would have imagined if you were sticking to what you knew.
When Ian McEwan decided to write about a violent crime in Saturday, he researched the link between neurological disorders and crime. Writers of historical fiction, like Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, immerse themselves in research to get the details of a place and time right.
I spent my school years terrified of math, so it was an odd choice when I decided to write a literary murder mystery involving a centuries-old unsolved math problem, The Goldbach Conjecture. The book, No One You Know, required months of research, and, to my surprise, I enjoyed it. For Golden State, I shadowed a physician at the VA hospital in San Francisco.
Writing what you don’t know takes you someplace new and unexpected, and it can be as fun for your readers as it is for you.
9. Set a Realistic Deadline
Set a deadline for the completion of the novel, sure, but first, set a deadline for the completion of the first 25 pages. Set a second deadline, far enough in the future, for the completion of the second 25 pages. It’s great to tell yourself you’re going to write a novel in a month, but it can be wildly discouraging once you get to the end of the month and realize you’ve produced only 20 pages. 20 pages is great, unless you’ve set yourself up for failure by believing you would produce 300 in that amount of time. Whatever your time frame, keep in mind that you’re writing a first draft. Be kind to yourself and set yourself up for success by setting realistic deadlines.
If you write 2500 words per week, you can complete a draft of an 80,000 word novel in eight months. A class like Novel in Nine, in which participants write 2500 words per week for eight months, devoting the ninth month to revision, will help you stick to your goals and get your novel on the page in less than a year.
10: Find a Trusted Reader
(but don’t show it to everyone you know)
One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is showing their early efforts to anyone who will look. It’s tempting. You’re writing a novel. You want feedback! You want support! You want someone to tell you it’s awesome. But hold your horses. If you let too many people see your novel too early, they’re going to have all sorts of ideas about where it should go and what it should be about, what you should include and what you should leave out.
If you show your novel to several people before it’s ready, somebody will want you to focus on the sister. Someone else will say you should write it from a different point of view. Someone else will insist it should be set in Morocco instead of Greece, and can’t you make that minor character a major character and maybe throw in a murder or a basket-weaving scene?
It’s your story. Spend some quality alone time with it.
Give yourself time to get your own vision onto the page before other visions interject. Many novels are written by collaboration, but most are not written by committee. It’s your story. Spend some quality alone time with it. Before letting anyone else read your manuscript, give it a strong edit for passive voice, overused words, clunky dialogue tags, and pacing issues. (The best software to help you do this efficiently is Autocrit.) You only get one chance for a first impression, and you want your early readers to focus on the story without being distracted by avoidable mistakes and clunky writing.
When you’re deep enough into the work to understand what you’re trying to do, when you’ve edited and revised at least once, find a trusted reader or two, or hire a professional editor.
Now…go and write that novel!
So you want to write a novel…
Get support, community, and comprehensive craft lessons in Michelle Richmond’s Fiction Master Class.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections. She has taught in the Masters of Fine Arts programs in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco, California College of the Arts, Notre Dame de Namur University, St. Mary’s College of Moraga, and Bowling Green State University, and has designed and taught online novel writing courses for Stanford Continuing Studies. Michelle’s latest novel, The Marriage Pact, has been published in 30 languages. Her new novel is forthoming from Grove Atlantic.