How To Write Novels: Basics

What they Don’t Teach You In Writing Classes

Can you learn how to write novels, or does it require a special gift? The essence of this question is about skill versus ability – skills can be learned, abilities are innate. So, yes, you can learn – writing is a skill. However the quality of what you write will depend to some extent on ability (and persistence).

Here are some guidelines to help you along the way. Many writers will say that going on creative writing courses is of little help. Maybe – I started without any formal training, and perhaps it shows in my work. So, these guidelines are based on what I found worked for me, learned the hard way.

Read Widely

Read widely in your genre – you need to read the competition, particularly the best. This is a good place to start learning how to write novels, because you see what sells (but remember that good marketing can sell poor quality work).

Plan The Story And The Book (Or Not)

Many successful writers do start out with a plan for a book, start, middle and end, charted on whiteboard. Well, I spent my other professional life planning projects, but I just can’t write books this way. I like writing a work of fiction to be a journey of discovery for me as well as the reader. Find which method works for you.

How To Write Novels – Just Do It

Sit down and write. Easy to say? Dead easy, but it will force you to think about ‘point of view’ (POV). Who is speaking in the story you are writing – that is, whose point of view is it? There are many technical perspectives here, but the rule is simple – decide your POV and stick to it, ensuring your writing is consistent.

Show And Tell

This just means that many writers tell the bulk of the story using dialogue between characters (‘showing’) in preference to a plain narrative (‘telling’), which can be boring unless the author is highly skilled.

A Plot Will Happen

Don’t worry about a plot, if you don’t have one. It will come. Just imagine your main character (MC), and start describing them, talk about a typical day. Where is the MC – is there a place you know well? Many novelists set their stories in their home town or county. Put your MC there.

Then inject randomness to that day – maybe they witnessed an accident. What was the story behind that accident, who was injured? Or, take a news story, and think about how it got to you – did it come from a reporter in Afghanistan or Paris? Write about the story itself, the reporter, his day, a soldier he met.

The act of writing will engage your brain and release your creative side (I really do find that a glass of wine helps me get creative).

The school of life is a wonderful teacher, so draw on your experiences whenever you can. People write best about what they know. Research thoroughly those areas/subjects/topics you don’t know well – the internet has been a real boon to researchers.

Structure: Threads

Write a thread about your main character (MC), and other threads about other characters who you create in the MC’s thread. Then, when the story is more than half way written, start weaving these threads together into chapters. I can’t write a piece of fiction chapter by chapter – I need to work with threads – it is less structured, but allows much more flexible thinking, for me. Break your threads into scenes – meetings, action sequences, some background narrative.

If you get stuck on a thread, then go to work on another, add some words to that whilst giving your subconscious time to figure out how to progress with the other. That way, you keep up your output.

Grammar and Punctuation

If you feel you are shaky in these areas, don’t worry, an editor can fix these, though if you are really poor in this aspect then it would be best to hire an editor before you attempt to submit a manuscript to a publisher or prospective agent. James Patterson famously said ‘forget the grammar and get on with the plot’!


The main ‘rule’ is – just do it. Write the first word, then the sentence and so on. Be modest with you early goals. Write your first hundred words. Review them, then write your next hundred. As you write, ideas should spark – capture them on a separate ideas page, for inclusion later. Join a writers’ forum, and talk to others – there are thousands of people learning how to write novels, and exchanging ideas and getting advice is a great way of learning. If you really want to find out how to write novels then Litopia is the place to go.

And then, persevere.

It took me seven years to complete my first book. When I started, I went away for a month to write, then gave up after three chapters. Then there was a gap of six years and I picked it up and finished it in six months. You can do it too. I’m still a beginner, still learning…