How to Write a Novel

10 Steps to Start Writing Your Novel from New York Times bestselling author Michelle Richmond, creator of Novel in Five

Novel writing advice from the internationally bestselling author of THE MARRIAGE PACT

1. Forget the Outline. Start with Situation.

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.

  • What if a child goes missing on a beach while in the care of her soon-to-be stepmother? (The Year of Fog)
  • What if an FBI agent in the aftermath of personal tragedy moves home to discover her small Northern California town has become a Silicon Valley suburb on steroids, obsessed with an annual exam called The Wonder Test?

2. Establish the Setting

Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when?

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?

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.

Michelle Richmond at home with THE MARRIAGE PACT

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Do you want to write a novel?

Get support, community, and comprehensive craft lessons in Michelle Richmond’s Fiction Master Class. Michelle helps writers complete their first novel in Novel in 9 and the accelerated program Novel in 5.

Visit Michelle’s author website

New York Times bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT and THE WONDER TEST. Books at michellerichmond.com Write with me at https://thenewMFA.com