So You Want to Write a Novel? Four Steps for Aspiring Authors

Have you got a story inside you? Are you wanting to write but you’re sure how to get started? It’s not quite as difficult as you might think it is. If you have the time and the commitment, you can do it: How to become a writer in 4 easy steps...

A guest post from Author Daniel Grabowki


Writing isn’t a talent. It’s a muscle. And like any muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. I’m not going to talk to you about metaphors or the best place to put a comma; if you’re reading this it’s likely you already have a fairly good idea about those.

Right now, you don’t need tips on your craft. One writer will tell you to only use 'said' when recording dialogue, another will tell you only using 'said' is far too boring. Then there are those who will say to never use adverbs when their newest book is littered with them. It’s all so subjective it’s easy to get lost in all the advice. What you need is to get your story started and more importantly, finished.

What I’m here to talk to you about is the habits and the discipline I have used to complete four manuscripts, three of which have been published (to date). Hundreds of pages, hours and doubts . While I could probably write a book on this subject, instead I’ve tried my best to condense it down into 4 steps to completing your manuscript....

4 Steps to completing your manuscript

Step One: Set Your Workspace

This may seem odd but writing is working. It may be a hobby to you but taken seriously it will end up becoming like a job. And like all jobs there will be some days where you just don’t want to go. This is why it’s important to set up a space that is for writing and nothing else. Make sure it’s tidy, and before you sit down at it every day (or almost every day) that you have what you need. You need to be focused. No getting up and no distractions. Put your phone out of reach; checking Facebook isn’t going to get chapter one finished.

Step Two: Set Goals and Plan

The biggest mistake you can make is just to sit down and start writing. While your idea may be itching at the back of your mind, running headlong into things without proper planning will only ensure you’ll run out of steam. At which point, you’ll be likely to throw in the towel altogether.

Setting goals is imperative if you want to achieve something. To write well you need to be committed and consistent. Taking the time to plan ahead and set goals is a great way to make sure you don’t lose momentum. Setting word goals for the day and week, while making sure you take time to plan out your story will help hugely in the long term. This is essential as these daily goals will help you build the habit of writing. Writing at a particular time can help, too. Once you have the habit, it is hard to break and it will only get easier to get into the creative flow.

Planning is paramount when it comes to writing. Unless you want your big idea to fizzle out, the more you do here, the better your manuscript will fare when it comes to the fun part. Doing research, creating characters, locations with descriptive notes, a plot; these are all crucial foundations for you to draw from for your novel. Post-it notes are your friends, especially for plotting!

Step Three: the Fun Part

Write! This is the fun part so don’t be scared! By now you’ve set your goals and you have a plan, so here is where you can just let your imagination go. Hammer at the keyboard until you hit your word goal for the day.

Given that a typical page of a novel is around 300 words, I would advise around 600 to start you off, maybe 1000 if you’re feeling confident. If you’re not dab-hand on a keyboard or you’re using a pen, set yourself a time limit instead. See what you can achieve in thirty minutes and then an hour.

Initially you may hit your target and want to carry on, as you’re taken by inspiration. By all means do that, but not for much longer; all you’ll end up doing is burning yourself out. The inspiration fade is inevitable and the days where you feel you can’t write will come (Trust me, they always do) and this is where your word count goals come into play. It’s better to write a thousand words of rubbish than none at all; Jodi Picoult said you can’t edit a blank page and I’m fairly sure she knows what she’s talking about.

Top Tip: write in Calibri or Times New Roman size eleven or twelve, double spaced. That will roughly give you 300 words per page, and generally when it comes to submitting (Yes, you should aim that high!) that is how agents or competitions like their manuscripts. Best to get into the habit now.

Step Four: Editing and the Existential Dread

Editing isn’t crossing t’s and dotting i’s. Editing is actually re-writing. Some writers do it as they write the first draft, while others prefer to lock their first draft away for a time to forget all about it, and then pull it out again to tear it to shreds. The whole point of editing is to go back through your manuscript with the aim of making it all make sense, ensuring all your characters contribute to the story, and to make it look like that you knew all your twists and big reveals from the very beginning, seeding in little clues and a touch of foreshadowing.

Not only that, but here is where you conduct surgery on your syntax and sentence structure, to make sure your readers won’t stumble over any awkward sentences or become encumbered with lumbering and hard to follow paragraphs. Clear and concise prose is your primary goal, as functional sentences are your primary focus, not wonderful language and striking metaphors.

Yes, editing is not easy. There will be sentences you’ll agonise over, parts where you can’t for the life of you work out a better way to write it, and some parts you’ll absolutely refuse to cut. Here a friend might be helpful as a beta reader; a second set of eyes can often bring clarity when you can’t see the forest for the trees.

A piece of advice I saw once was very clear cut in its stance, saying that if it does not serve the story or drive the plot forward, you should cut it no matter how great you think it is. If that were true most fantasy would be about twelve pages long. While it doesn’t serve the story, that little chat at the campfire builds character and the world.

I prefer to think of the editing process like this: the first draft is telling yourself the story. The second is making it functional (cutting out plot holes and making it look like you know what you were doing from the start). The third is where you apply the polish, upscaling your metaphors, vocabulary and syntax. The point I’m making here is that your first draft is not going to be pretty. So do not agonise over a sentence for twenty minutes. Just tell the story instead.

So, with that very brief guide, you should now be ready to tackle your story. If I’ve not quite inspired you to wield your pen yet, there’s plenty more advice online and on the shelves in your local library. But for those of you who do pick up your pens (or your laptops) keep an eye out for my next post as I discuss the inevitable onset of writer’s block and how to overcome it.

If you're looking for a publisher, order yourself a copy of this book:

Author bio: Daniel Grabowski, Author, former Teaching Assistant  and Stepdad to one.