How to Write a Novel

To date, I’ve completed at least one draft on five different novels. Two were fantasy, one was science fiction, one was slipstream fiction (though on rewriting it may just become a mainstream novel), and one was women’s fiction. The first novel I ever wrote was a high fantasy epic. It was terrible. The writing itself wasn’t too horrible and the characters were decent, but the storyline was so cliched that I will never let it see the light of day in its current form. Instead, I’ll take part of the basic concept and two of the main characters and start over from scratch. It will bear little resemblance to the first draft when it’s finished.

Photo by Marco Arment, via Flick

Photo by Marco Arment, via Flickr

One thing I didn’t mention is the speed I write at. The first draft of my first novel was completed in five days. It was only 46,000 words (a break-neck pace of 9,200 words a day). The scary part about that was that I didn’t hole-up in my house for the entire time. I went out to see friends, went to the movies, and otherwise led a relatively normal life. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed it and haven’t been able to since. My second novel’s first draft was completed in 33 days (91,000 words). The third was finished in a couple of months, and was around 56,000 words. The fourth was finished in 13 days and came in at a whopping 95,000 words (that’s an average of around 7,200 words a day). The fifth was written in approximately a month and came in at 62,000 words.

Subsequent drafts are done at a similar pace. I edited my first novel, adding 13,000 words to it and changing tense from present to past in about a week. I can realistically edit about 20,000 words in a day if that’s my only project (it rarely is). I redrafted my fourth novel (95k words) twice in the scope of a week, tightening up the prose and adding in bits here and there.

I couldn’t handle these kinds of schedules if I had a full time job outside the house. I write and copyedit on a freelance basis, and pick up web and graphic design projects here and there. If I didn’t work from home, my writing time would amount to an hour or two a day, instead of 8-10 hours a day (sometimes 12-14 hours if I’m on a roll or trying to meet a deadline). I write 7 days a week, even when I’m between projects. I’m always planning for the next one or the one after that even. On weekends I do try to cut my writing time back to 3 or 4 hours a day, though it doesn’t always work, especially if I’m working on a new project.

Here’s a bit more about how I write, and more details on specific projects. This is just how I manage it, and should by no means be taken as a definitive guide on how to write or anything to strive for.

Sometimes I start with an idea, other times a character. Inspiration comes from everything around me. Sometimes I’m inspired by something else I’ve read. Sometimes it’s a movie I’ve seen or a TV show. It could be a photo, or just an idea that pops into my head while I’m driving around or trying to fall asleep. My best ideas come while I’m in the shower or the car wash. I find it funny that water is so closely linked to my creative process since I’m an Aries (fire sign). I’m considering getting one of those desk-top fountains for my office.

When I get into the groove of a new novel, my characters talk to me. That’s actually how I know it’s time to start writing. When I can picture my characters and their interactions, that’s when I know it’s time to put them to paper. I start with an outline. This is usually hashed out in a day or two and might range from a page to ten pages, depending on how much of the story has already formed in my head. I can’t begin writing until I have an ending.

At the same time I do research and planning on the setting, characters, time period, etc. (depending on the genre I’m working in). With my first novel, this involved creating a map of the world it was set in and a listing of the different races and creatures in that world. I also had to sketch out how magic worked in this world and other things that were different from out own world. For my fifth novel, the women’s fiction novel set in the present, there was a lot less research and planning to do. The setting was based on a town not too far from where I used to live.

When all of my notes are done, I start writing. My notes are mostly kept in hard copy (or sometimes Google Docs). But I write in Microsoft Word (for Mac). I could not get by without my laptop. It makes it possible for me to write from the couch (regularly), from bed (occasionally), and in the car (obviously not while I’m driving). I couldn’t write at this pace if I was tethered to a desk all day. As I mentioned before, I write for 8-10 hours a day most days. I don’t take days off unless I’m between projects. Some days I might only write a thousand words, other days I might write 15,000 (that’s my record).

In school, I always did reports and papers the night before they were due, no matter how much time we were supposed to devote to them. And, I always got As. If I had failed, I might have changed my methods, but since I didn’t, that is the way that I write most effectively – in as little time as possible. Writing until I physically can’t write anymore or until my brain just absolutely refuses to keep going is the way that works for me.

I started out writing screenplays. I wrote my first one in four days, with no revisions. I then submitted to an online peer-review site, and got pretty good reviews – only minor changes were recommended. Screenwriting is such a competitive business that I never bothered pursuing it beyond that. But screenwriting is how I learned to write dialogue. And churning out a 120-page screenplay is, to me at least, way easier than writing a 70-80k word novel.

I’m currently between novel projects, though I have at least three ideas floating around in my head. Non-fiction is taking precedence at the moment, but by summer I’ll be back onto novel-writing. I’d like to try my hand at writing short stories and flash fiction, too, though I find the abbreviated format much more challenging than novel writing.

Here are some tips for writing this way, whether you are a first-time novelist or a seasoned pro:

  1. Buy a laptop. This way you can write anywhere. I wrote in the car on the way to the movies one day. My personal favorite is the MacBook, though any laptop will work. I’d actually recommend going on the smaller size if you’re only going to use it for writing, as it makes it lighter-weight and much more portable.
  2. Cast your novel. This helps with characterization. Pick actors and actresses for each of your major characters. It makes it easier to write character descriptions and makes your characters more life-like. When you can picture them in your head this way, the way the speak, the way they move, it makes it that much easier to bring them to life. You can use people from real life as well, just be careful not to base a character too closely on a friend or relative.
  3. Use maps. If you’re writing speculative fiction, create a map for your world. If you’re writing something based in the real world, either use a map or create a fake one to keep your locations straight. If the bakery is next to the grocery store one day and then behind the library the next, it’s going to confuse people.
  4. Outline. Create a scene-by-scene outline of what is happening in your novel. I change mine throughout writing, but at least it gives me an idea of where I’m going and where I’ve been. It’s a valuable tool if you get stuck while you’re writing and as a way to get to know your characters better.
  5. Consider writing your beginning and ending first. When you have an outline, you can do this. Without the outline it’s much harder. If you’ve got your ending done, you know exactly where you need to end up. It makes it easier to get somewhere if you know your destination. This is something I did on my first novel, though I haven’t done it the same way since. Mostly because I never have quite as clear-cut of an ending in mind as I did then.

Feel free to share your own writing methods below or any tips you may have!

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13 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel

  1. Goodness, that’s an impressive output! I’m a lot slower, because I revise each chapter as I go, until I’m happy with it, and even then revisit and tweak. But I can’t understand writers who spend years on their first book.

    I’ve used photos that resemble my characters, and online estate agents for their homes. Google Street View is handy, as is Multimap. The internet is a boon.

    And I always write the end of the book at an early stage, so I know where I’m heading.

  2. I’ve never understood taking years to write a book. I can understand if you spend years doing research or thinking about it, but once the actual writing gets started, I can’t imagine taking more than a year or so. I don’t think I could keep momentum up for that length of time.

    I’m a burst worker…I work in short bursts with downtime in between, but I do a lot in those short periods of time when I am working. With fiction writing my bursts are a week or two long, with breaks of a few days to a month or so in between.

  3. Hello!

    Why don’t you give a try at “Interactive Fiction” writting? You seem to have the creativity necessary for it, please check out the following links:

    It seems you could make nice fantasy/science fiction games :)

    Should you have the urge to find out more about the current IF (Interactive Fiction) Community, check out the following foruns on


    Kind regards,

  4. This was an interesting read! It usually takes me a few months (2-8) to finish writing the first draft of a novel, but they also topple over 150,000 and scream, “Shorten me!” It’s great to read someone else’s PoV on the experience.

  5. Hi Cameron,
    You have almost addressed all the concerns I have in writing my novel. With respect to imagining characters and the scenes, i can almost see them as a movie running in mind. The problem is i am a software engineer working almost 10 hours a day. Like how you get your ideas in a shower or at car wash, i get them in the short spans i get between my work schedule. I started to make a note of them in a book to refer later. But i totally lose the momentum and the flow of scenes. How do you collect and organize your thoughts(the ones that you get in unexpected timings like a shower).? I am sure I have to sort these things up before I get into some serious writing. Btw, have you read Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’? I am sure you would have. I am a great fan of his works. Happy writing. Happy life. :-)

    • @Shiva—Thanks for your comment.

      Not sure how much time you have between your work schedule, but if you can, start writing the actual scenes instead of just noting down what they’re about. Don’t worry about making them perfect, just get them down on paper. Also, not sure if it’s allowed at your work, but what about keeping a word processor document open while you work, so it’s right there and ready if you get an idea? If you use a program like Google Docs, you’ll be able to access what you’ve written from home later.

      I’ve actually never read LOTR. I’ve read The Hobbit a couple of times. The first time I hated it, which I think is why I never read LOTR. But I reread it a couple years ago and enjoyed it, and have been meaning to read LOTR since then. One of these days I will get around to it!

  6. Hi Cameron,
    Im stuffed now with lotz of doubts.Im a student now.And want fervently to write a novel now before my hols end.only 7 days left.i planned an entire plot few days ago.but now it seems i keep on spending time in new ideas and regretting for the time being wasted.And can a whole novel be written just on a paper without systems help and within these few days? whom should i give for editing and corrections? i believe i don have that much high usage of vocabulary. can it be successful with waht i know?

  7. And i forgot to add this…this is going to be my first masterpiece..since i havent posted even an article before..except that i would write all poems and short stories to myself..but a very very strong urge to write a novel or a book..that too very soon..are my expectations right? i posted this comment since i gained a new confidence after reading urs..the way uve written ur first draft..but was that the first and foremost?
    Awaiting ur reply.

  8. @Abi – Writing a first draft of a first novel is possible in 7 days (I did my first in 6), but be aware that the first draft is probably going to be horrible. It won’t be a masterpiece by any means.

    The first draft of the first novel I ever wrote was horrible. The writing itself wasn’t that bad, but the plot was terribly cliche and it lacked depth. I revised it once with the original storyline, and then decided it was beyond salvaging. I’m currently slowly rewriting it from scratch with an entirely different plot, only two of the original characters, and a completely different setting. It’s going from traditional high fantasy to dark fantasy mixed with satire.

    I haven’t even looked at my second novel since I wrote the first draft. I’m too afraid. I’m sure it’s awful (it was written for NaNoWriMo in 2008).

    I’m currently working on revisions for my fifth novel (I’ve also started on the 6th, which has kind of hit a stand-still creativity-wise). I’m pretty happy with the way this one is turning out.

    So my main advice to you is to not worry about quality with the first draft of your first novel. Get it out there. Prove to yourself that you can write novel-length fiction. But don’t expect a masterpiece, at least not without a whole lot of rewriting and revising and editing and polishing.

  9. Thanks a lot Cameron for ur immediate response…! so wel…ive understood….il start it now..and could i disturb you by keeping posted in case of any doubt or assistance during the course of my writing??

  10. Hi Cameron,
    Nice to go thru ur blog…very pleasant updates…then a very miserable doubt…how to find whether my idea has already been published in any form,elsewhere? b’coz i came up with a very interesting idea yesterday and was shocked to find from my sis that there s already a movie out with a similar rather the same plot..i was how can this be sort out?

    • Here’s the thing: there are no completely original ideas. They’ve all been done before. What makes a story unique is the voice of the author, the particular characters, the setting, and the spin you put on it. If you try to come up with something entirely original, you’ll almost certainly just drive yourself crazy. Write what you want to write. Don’t purposely copy anyone else’s work. And put your own mark on whatever you do.

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