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The Quick, ULTIMATE Guide on how to Write Your Novel from Idea to Published Book

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Writing a book is hard work. I’ve heard a lot of people over my lifetime tell me that one day, when they have some time, they’re going to sit down and write a book. I applaud them—and I hope they get around to it. But until you’ve sat down and actually written a book, you don’t really understand the process or how difficult it actually is to begin and complete an entire long form work of prose. So, I’m going to lay it out for you, at least how I did it and still do it, and you’ll at least have one writer’s perspective on what it takes, what my process is, and all of the minutiae in between.

Getting Ready

Let’s assume you’re a reader, because why else would you want to be a writer unless you’ve experienced the power of the written word. Now, when you read, where do you do it? You probably read in your favorite reading chair, or at the kitchen table, maybe by the fireplace, or on the train ride into work. Wherever you do it, you’re able to focus on the book, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading. The same holds true for writing, and probably more so.

So, what do you do?

The first thing you need to do is figure out where you’re going to write. Creating a writing space that allows you to be comfortable enough to focus on your writing is key to getting the words on the page. For me, it’s usually a desk somewhere where I can be alone. Over the years my writing desk has been in Granada, Spain, overlooking the Alhambra castle; in the basement of my home in Colorado; in my office at my home in Atlanta, Georgia; in my parents’ garage in Hollywood, Florida; on a wooden plank set on cinder blocks I got from Home Depot; and recently it’s been on the kitchen table of my home in Southern Illinois.

The benefits of all of these locations was that I was alone. There were no phones to bother me, no family members or anyone disturbing me, and I had a large area to put my research books and laptop on (I used to write with pen and paper but found that I can write just fine on my computer), and a comfortable chair. Location is pretty key for me to be able to write. So, pick a writing space that works for you and make sure you’ll be undisturbed.

Next are the tools you, specifically, need to have in order to write without having to get up from your writing area. For me, as I mentioned, are my research books. When I write, I tend to write about specific things—events, technology, processes, and so on, to enhance the worlds in which my characters live, so while I use the internet for much of it, I still enjoy having books at the ready for the days when I want to be completely offline. You don’t have to do that—if you can write on your computer without getting distracted by YouTube or just surfing the net in general, more power to you.

But if you don’t use a computer, if you write with a pen or pencil or marker or even crayons, then you’ll want to make sure you have plenty of those handy. And if you do write with those tools, you’ll need to have a notebook or loose sheets of paper or, like Jack Kerouac, write it on one long-continuous scroll, so you don’t have to ever get up from your chair to find something to write on. (Kerouac actually typed his novel “On the Road” on the scroll rather than writing with a pen or pencil). You may use paper clips to hold your sections or chapters together (which I do while I’m editing), sticky notes with different colors for differentiating things such as point of view, or places you need to return to for whatever reason, bulletin boards for laying out the structure or chapters of your work in progress, and so on. I use all of those things and more.

Whatever your setup, just make sure you’re able to concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t make excuses for why you can’t write—there’ll be plenty of things that get in the way as it is. So set yourself up for success. Your writing deserves your full attention.

Starting Your Novel (or novella)

This is where the fun and the pain begin. If you’re a new writer, meaning you’ve never written, you should be an avid reader of not only the types of books/novels you want to write, but also the craft books out there that will teach you about the craft of writing. I’m not saying you need to go get an MFA in creative writing (though it doesn’t hurt), but you’ll need to have a basic understanding of grammar, of storytelling, of a million other things that go into writing a novel. The way I learned was by having a passion for books and then attempting to write them. This is before I was even out of high school. I remember I started writing bad poems to impress girls I liked, then bad short stories because I’d read a few good short stories in my English classes, and then, eventually, I tried my hand at an actual novel.

I remember like it was yesterday. I was twenty-three, and I’d just read “On the Road” as part of a Beat literature class I took in community college (yes, I was a latecomer to going to college—traveling cross-country and working in national parks delayed my entry). Anyway, I fell in love with the influence and impression that that book had on me. So, I started focusing on learning craft, though I wasn’t even sure what the term really meant.

In college I took as many creative writing classes and literature classes that I could. Eventually, I got a BA in English Literature, an MA in Literature in English, and an MFA in Creative Writing. I went back for an MBA, but that’s a different story. There were many years between when I earned those degrees. During those in-between years I read. I also wrote. I workshopped my writing wherever I could. I took criticism, and I learned, little by little, what makes a story, but more specifically, what makes a story “work.” It takes that kind of devotion, and more, to learn how to write. I no longer believe in “writer’s block”; writer’s block only means you’re not writing what you want to write at the moment you want to write it. If you’re having trouble getting pen to paper, try some of these things to get you moving:

Figure out what you’re going to write about. We’re writing fiction, so the world is your oyster.

Here are some ideas:

a. You can write about your life, in a fictional way. Be careful about using real people’s names, or at least change them later on if the subject matter is too sensitive and you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

b. You can start with a character (pick a name that seems appropriate for the setting (time/place/political environment/topic of what you’re writing about), and put that character in a tough situation. What do they do? What’s in their way? How do they overcome the thing that’s blocking their progress?

c. You’re writing a long work of prose, so pick an idea or topic that you’re passionate about, because if you’re not, your novel will go nowhere. Are you interested in something politically? A relationship between two or more people? An unsolved murder? A clash of cultures? Whatever it is, be so interested in it that you’re going to be able to write three hundred pages about it. If you’re not interested in your topic, it’ll show, and your readers (if you get that far) will know too.

d. Is your novel about a historical event that actually happened? If so, you’ll need to make sure you know the event and the history thoroughly. That will require plenty of research—online, reading books, interviewing people, watching movies and documentaries, and so on. I once wrote a novel that was about a WWII bomber pilot, so I interviewed a bomber pilot. You do what you have to do to get the details of your historical novel right. If you don’t, you’ll lose your reader. I spent a year gathering details and very accurate information about WWII for the novel—and I ended up cutting it all from the novel. Sometimes, you have to “kill your darlings.” And let me tell you, killing the WWII scenes from the novel was devastating. But it improved the novel. So, I did it.

Writing Your Novel

Now that you have your writing space and your writing tools set and in place, and now that you know what or who or why you’re writing your novel, it’s time to actually get started. The first thing you should ask yourself is what sort of writer you are. Are you an outliner? Or are you a pantser (a writer that writes by the seat of their pants)? I’ve personally been a pantser my entire life, until I have my first draft. Then I write an outline, because I have a pretty good idea where my novel is loosely going, and I want to tighten that up plot-wise. I know where my scenes will go, what I’m trying to do, what my character arcs are, and so on. As a pantser, I go on a journey without knowing where the characters are taking me. It’s part of why I enjoy writing in general. The open-ended journey can be scary for outliners. I get it. But it’s how I write and how many people write, and either way is fine. Whatever gets you writing is how you should go about writing.

If you need more structure up front, that’s completely fine as well.

Outlining helps outliners create a blueprint for what happens to whom, and when. It provides writers with the ability to focus on when in the novel things happen—the exposition, the inciting incident, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution, and the dénouement. Outliners know exactly where their plot points will go, what their required scenes are going to be, and where they will occur, who and how characters influence our hero, and how our hero changes by the end of the novel. Before outliners begin writing, they know what’s going to happen all the way through. Once they’re done with the outline, they just have to write the novel.

The seven steps I mentioned above are taken from Freytag’s Pyramid, but they apply to all novel structures in some form or fashion. Once you understand how to identify these elements in the novels you read, you’ll get a better understanding of how to implement them into your own writing. Anyway, let’s get back to starting your novel.

First, commit yourself to writing every day. You don’t have to write seven days a week, but I personally try to, because I know that even taking two days off for the weekend interferes with my ability to remain consistent in my narrative. Those two short days (for me) always get in the way. That may not be the case for you, and you’ll figure it out as you go. But commit to some sort of solid schedule one way or another. If that means an hour a day, so be it. If you can do eight hours a day like you would a fulltime job, even better. Most writers I know write for somewhere between three hours and five or six. After that amount of time, most of us get tired and need a break away from the page. Stephen King writes between four and six hours a day, or six pages total. At that rate, writing seven days a week, he’ll have a three-hundred-and-sixty-page novel, give or take, in two months. Maya Angelou has said she writes for seven hours, from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story every week. Discover what works for you, but set that schedule, and follow it religiously.

Next, don’t wait for the muse—the muse will come to you when you’re at the desk. This is something my friend and the great writer and professor, John Dufresne, champions, and I believe it wholeheartedly. Stare at the blank page or the blank screen if you must, but sit in the chair. Eventually you’ll start writing. What you write initially may not be what you want to write, but write. This is part of the process. There’s a great chance you’ll throw away what you’re writing, or edit it out later, but you have to go through that bit in order to get to the stuff you’ll keep. We all do it—that’s what writing is; no one writes perfect sentences the first go around. We get there during the revision process; we don’t get there in the first draft.

The purpose of the first draft is to get something down that we can work with in future rewrites.

So, now that you know your character or subject matter or have completed your outline, now that you have committed to writing your novel, it’s time to write. You have the parameters in your head (or in your outline), and it’s time to get going. So, begin. And don’t stop—just keep going until you’ve reached the time or word count or number of pages you’ve allotted for the day. It’s that simple. You’ll know, consciously and unconsciously, what your characters are telling you to do, and you’ll write. Try not to edit while you’re writing, just write. The goal is to get the first draft of your novel down as quickly as possible. Remember, you’re first draft is just about getting it all down—not writing a perfect draft. We’ll revise and rewrite later, once you’re done and have given some space between you and your draft. Don’t worry; everything you want to do you’ll be able to do, it just won’t all happen right away. Right now, we’re just discovering what we’re writing about. That even applies to outliners. It’s one thing to outline a novel, it’s another thing to actually write it. Nothing ever comes out exactly as we thought it might, and so we’ll have to adjust our expectations. And that’s okay. It’s also part of the process of writing, and of being a writer: we adapt.

Revising Your Novel

Once you have a completed first draft, the next step will be to start the revision process. My preference is to give myself some space from the novel, because I feel I’m took close to it immediately after completing the first draft. I normally put the first draft into a drawer or file cabinet (I print my drafts out and then revise with a pen or pencil, then transfer my edits back into Word and do it all over again), and I begin writing something new within a day or two. When I return to my first draft later on, I come at it with fresh eyes and am able to see what’s working and what isn’t. If you can jump right back in immediately, more power to you—you just have to see what works for you.

So, revision. Revision is the act of revising. Margaret Atwood says “Revision means re-vision — you're seeing it anew, and quite frequently when you're doing that, you see possibilities that you didn't see before and that light up parts of the book in a way that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't done that.” I don’t know if she came up with that herself or if it initially came from someone else. At any rate, your brand new first draft will need to be revised.

If you’re an outliner, you’ll have to make sure that what you’ve written aligns with the novel you set out to write in your outline, including if what you’ve written meets all of the elements of what makes a novel. If you’re a pantser, you’ll have to do the same, just without an outline (unless you write your outline after your first draft, like I do).

And there are myriad things you’ll need to take into consideration now that you have this wonderfully awful first draft before you. (I kid, but only partially). Your book has become something that isn’t quite what you set out to do, not really. You may have outlined every single chapter and scene and every bit of dialogue, but what you’ve written is not what you’d initially set out to write. Same if you’re a pantser. The characters are maybe a bit flat. The dialogue sounds stilted. Something is off about the setting. And worst of all, now that you’re a reader (and editor) of this thing you wrote, you realize all the promise it had at the get go isn’t there. Or, at least, the promises you thought you were making to the reader aren’t realized. The chapters are a mess. You have extra characters, maybe even some caricatures, that need to go. They don’t add value to your story, so why are they there? And that scene where the big fight happens between your heroine and her antagonist that you thought was the climax of the novel? It’s not the climax at all.

Things have changed, and not for the better. But that’s all right. You’re a writer. Writers know that the first draft is just that—a first draft. Now it’s time to tighten things up. Now it’s time to pull out our editing and revising and rewriting checklists, and it’s time to get back to work. We’re in it for the long haul. Round 2 is starting. It’s time to put the metaphorical gloves on, time to get into the ring. And in that ring, we’re going to do certain things to guarantee that the next draft will be even closer to what we’d imagined at the start of the first draft.

So, now that we’re editing, now that we’re revising and rewriting, how, exactly, do we approach this step in the process? Well, like anything in writing, if something works for you, then that’s how you should do it. Here’s how I approach a second draft. You don’t have to follow my process, but take what you like, discard what you don’t. It’s your novel after all.

1. The first thing I do when I’m ready to begin my second draft is I print the manuscript out in its entirety, and then I re-read it. I try my best not to revise or rewrite a single word. I’m basically self-workshopping. I do this because I want to get a sense of what’s working, what’s not working, and whether or not I have a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m not saying I don’t jot down ideas for the second draft, or don’t fix typos, only that I’m not materially changing anything from the novel. Not yet. Right now, I’m just seeing what the novel is about (with fresh eyes), and making notes on what I’ll need to focus on for this next draft.

2. With my newly-printed draft in hand, I find somewhere to sit that’s pleasant and quiet and I mark up the manuscript based on the edits I think need to happen. Now, normally what I do on the second draft is make macro changes. By that I mean I move paragraphs around, or delete them, and do the same with obvious things that are clearly not working. If I see a plot line that leads nowhere, I cut it. I make notes, of course, because if I’ve written the first draft thinking that certain plot lines or characters or whatever are going to be woven through the entire novel, I’ll need to make sure I remove them completely. That will require extensive rewriting, but that’s fine. That’s what this draft is all about. The second draft, for me, is about honing in on the real story and shedding the rest. It’s about understanding what my hero wants, what gets in her way, how she overcomes those obstacles, and, in the end, whether she comes to a win or a loss. And while I’m doing this, my notes eventually become my outline. Whatever chapters I’ve written, I now break down even further, because I know what’s needed and what’s not. I separate my chapters and paperclip each one, so that I can tackle them individually. I know that in chapter 1 this happens, and then in chapter 2 this happens, and so on, and I write brief synopses of each chapter so I remember:

a. What happens

b. Which characters are in the chapter

c. What scenes are in the chapter

d. How the things that happen in the chapter lead to the next chapter

e. And how the chapter contributes to the whole of the novel

This gives me the outline I’ll use for the remainder of the revision process. I’ll make changes along the way, certainly, but I now have something that’s a little more structured to work with. I can see the hero’s journey with more clarity. I know—or think I know—roughly, how many chapters I’ll have in the novel, as well as where the various elements of Freytag’s Pyramid will reside. In case you forgot, below is a visual of Freytag’s Pyramid:

If I can point out to myself where the various elements of the Pyramid are, it helps me understand in more detail how I’ve constructed my novel (remember, I’m a pantser first and foremost; outliners will likely know much sooner where all of these elements are in their manuscript before they even start writing draft one).

Okay, I now have my outline. I have a general gist of what my novel is about and how it unfolds, but there’s still much work to do, and, at least for me, a number of rewrites (drafts) that I’ll need to go through in order to touch on all of the elements of fiction I’ll need to make sure are properly addressed. For me, this next draft (the third draft), is where I allow myself a little flexibility in terms of how many of the elements I actually focus on, and when I focus on them. Crafting a compelling and interesting first sentence and chapter is something I take a lot of time developing. Now that I know what my story is about, now that I know, roughly, what the plot will be and how the novel might end, it’s easier to write that first sentence and that first chapter. It probably won’t be perfect, but I’m getting closer. We’ll likely return to the opening sentence later, but for now let me run through my process, which will hopefully help you in your journey to get your book done.

In general, here are the elements I concentrate on during this round; the order I tackle them in depends on where I’m feeling there’s either a lack of clarity or some sort of deficiency or other:

1. Characters and characterization – Meaning, are the characters that I haven’t killed off yet (removed from the novel) still needed? If they aren’t, if they don’t serve a purpose, even as a minor or “flat” character, then they’re gone. Remember, you have to be ruthless in “killing your darlings.” If I like the character, I’ll save her for another novel. But if she serves no purpose for this one, she’s out. Next, I touch on characterization. By this I mean, are my main characters, in particular my protagonist, three-dimensional? Do I know their backstories, what they look like, how they think, how they act, what their quirks are, their fears, their likes and dislikes, and so on. I may or may not use a Character Profile or Character Dossier template or spreadsheet, which are documents that help me remember everything about a character from the color of their eyes to why they’re afraid of cats, in particular hairless cats. I use these documents to ensure my characters remain consistent throughout the novel. But I don’t always use them, especially if my novel is a tight, straight novel with only a couple of characters. It completely depends on what I’m writing. Lots of characters in my novel equals dossier. Not a lot of characters, no dossier.

2. Point of View. Now, this can be a difficult one or it can be a pretty easy one, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. For beginning writers, point of view or POV can be a pretty intimidating element to maintain throughout a long work of fiction. Point of view is the perspective or position from which the narrator tells or conveys the story to the reader. There are a few types of POV, including:

a. First-person

b. Second-person

c. Third-person omniscient

d. Third-person limited

e. Third-person objective

There are also variations on first-person, namely the first-person plural point of view, which uses “we,” “us,” or “our,” as well as One, Someone, Anybody, Anyone, Somebody, and so on. This is rare in literature, but there are some good novels out there that have pulled it off. As a note, some writers/educators refer to this POV as the fourth-person point of view as well. It’s important to pick a POV early on, because it’s how the reader experiences the story. It’s whose eyes were experiencing what transpires throughout the novel. There’s also writer’s ability to alternate POV, and there are a few ways to do that, including alternating POV between chapters, chapter breaks, and right in the middle of the narrative, but the last one is tricky and executed well primarily by someone who has mastered point of view in genera. Anyway, POV and “voice” are critical to establishing the reader’s understanding of what’s happening, and how they “feel” it’s being communicated through the writing.

3. Voice. Voice is the person—the narrator—whose perspective the story is being told from. Google says voice in literature, refers to the rhetorical mixture of vocabulary, tone, point of view, and syntax that makes phrases, sentences, and paragraphs flow in a particular manner. Agents often turn down novels specifically because they couldn’t connect with/didn’t like the voice of the novel. Voice is that powerful. Colleen McCullough said, “It's a dead give-away of an inexperienced writer if every character speaks with the same voice.” And she’s right. We want not only the narrator to have their own distinct, interesting, and compelling voice, we want the same for every character. It’s your job as the writer to make sure that happens. And it happens by reading everything aloud so you can hear the voice(s) for yourself before the reader ever gets to it.

4. Setting. One of the things I’ve noticed over time in my writing is that some of my work dives relatively deep into setting, while other works only touch minimally on it. For me, world building is important, but I tend to do it in different ways depending on the type of novel I’m working on. Remember, I’m a pantser, so I don’t know, at the start, who my characters are going to be, where they’re going to be, what their troubles are going to be, or anything else, for that matter. This translates into my works in very different ways, unless I’m writing a book that’s related in some way to a previous book I’ve written. Normally, however, I write stand-alone books, so everything is new to me as I write. Setting is no different. In my novel, THE LOSSES, there are multiple settings. In brief, they are:

a. A cabin in the small town of Helen, Georgia, and the streets of the town itself

b. A mansion on Long Island, New York

c. An office in a building in Manhattan

d. A hostel in Prague, Czech Republic, and its environs

e. A house in a conservative midwestern town (and everything that that implies for my gay character)

And I go into pretty detailed descriptions of those settings, because I’m going for a certain effect with relation to the character in that world. Same in a few other novels I’ve written. But I’ve also written novels where setting is barely mentioned. One of my novels takes place in Miami, but besides mention of a few landmarks, I rarely describe much of what’s around my characters. If I do, it’s sparse on detail—there were palm trees along the highway; it was a big hotel with a Chihuly glass sculpture in the lobby; he lived in an apartment on Warren Street, right above the Whole Foods. It gives the reader a picture they can visualize, but they have to make up the details for themselves. It's up to you how much or how little you want to describe the setting of your novel. You’ll gain this by writing. Experience is the mother of all good fiction.

5. Dialogue. While dialogue is part of the characters, I treat it as a separate thing to focus on while I’m editing. Sometimes I read the dialogue aloud to hear if the dialogue “sounds” right, and sometimes I don’t. If the characters are from a certain area and have accents or if they speak in dialect, I look to see if I’ve done it justice. If I’ve gone overboard, I pull it back some. If I’ve been too sparse with it that you forget they have an accent or speak in dialect, I ramp it up. But I want to get that dance between the characters’ words as realistic as I can get it. If it’s not realistic, then the scene isn’t going to work. Dialogue is when characters speak to each other in scene, for the most part (dialogue can also be referred to in other ways, but we won’t get into that here). Dialogue in fiction is not the same as dialogue in real life. We don’t want the pauses, the um’s and ah’s, and the mundane small talk we might have in real life. If we have those things, we cut them out. For every scene, we read the dialogue and look for inconsistencies in the characters’ words (if someone’s from Boston or from Idaho, besides having different accents, they’ll likely use different words). I also look to see if I’ve created the musicality I was trying for. Am I using too much description and action while the characters speak? Too little? Is it clear who’s speaking? If not, I’ll have to add something to ensure the reader doesn’t get lost—a dialogue tag like “Mike said,” or maybe some other descriptor that lets me know who’s who. Okay, let’s move on to scene.

6. Scene. Scene is the next thing I focus on in my third draft. If I’m being diligent, I’ll have a scene-by-scene spreadsheet in excel, or I’ll just highlight the scenes in my outline. I don’t necessarily try to have a designated number of scenes in each chapter, but certain genres and authors do allocate a specific number of scenes for pacing and for other reasons. What I try to do in my scenes is simply make them count. What I mean by that is that each scene needs to propel the plot forward or give insight into the characters or emphasize the conflict in some exciting or intriguing way. There should be a purpose to every scene in the novel, otherwise cut it. On the flip side, there are often a lot of times that exposition (summary) should be in scene, and so I try to analyze if I myself am doing that in any way, shape, or form. Beginning writers, and plenty of experienced writers, make that mistake. I’m not saying all summary should be in scene, just that you should be diligent in deciphering when something being told should be shown. Dramatic, important revelations and moments should be in scene—they shouldn’t happen off screen.

7. Plot. You’d think plot was something that I’d focus more on earlier in the process, and I do. For me, however, while I don’t address plot issues immediately, it’s always at the back of my mind. I have a general understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish, and I let that sort of permeate my thoughts as I go along. I don’t want to know the ending—I want to work towards the ending plot point by plot point. I jot down these plot points in each chapter, with the consequences of what happens driving the plot forward. For example, if my hero’s neighbor continually steals her mail and our hero catches him on her Ring camera, naturally she’s going to either confront him directly or she’s going to call the police. Plot is about cause and effect, remember. So, in this case, she knows he’s stealing her mail, and thus she has two options—the confrontation or involving law enforcement. She must choose one of these in order for the plot to move forward. If she confronts her neighbor, there’ll likely be more tension. If she calls the police, it likely won’t be as dramatic a scene—but it could be. And then because she confronted him, or because the cops got involved, something else transpires. Cause and effect.

For the novel to have this cause and effect, these plot points, I make sure that I track each and every plot point to ensure 1. that it’s there, and 2. that it naturally leads to an effect that creates a similar sort of conflict. These hurdles are what our hero must face and overcome if we’re to move forward. Your readers expect this, whether they know they do or not. Your job, as the writer, is to make sure you deliver. By highlighting the plot points, I then have the ability to see if the progression makes sense, if the cause is plausible, and if the effect is plausible—and that it hooks the reader to continue on. In fiction, things must make sense. In real life, not so much.

8. Conflict. Conflict, for me, is another element of fiction that just sort of happens as I write. I know to put my hero into situations that are tough situations—catching the neighbor stealing her mail on the camera; having a father stumble upon his underage daughter sharing a beer with the neighborhood hoodlum; a woman overhearing her work colleague’s plan to sabotage her ability to get a promotion. These things are the setup. When our hero takes action, when they confront the neighbor or the hoodlum or the colleague, we have conflict, and we have tension. We have the clashing of two forces, and something’s going to come out of it. Our hero may “win” the conflict or “lose” it, but sure enough, whichever happens, it’s going to lead to the next problem or hurdle. In the examples I mention above, the conflict stems from our hero not wanting her mail stolen, the father not wanting his daughter corrupted, and the woman not wanting to lose the promotion she thought she had coming to her. The conflict has to be powerful, and we, the reader, need to feel the discomfort. That discomfort is the tension we’ve implemented into our novel, and it’s what keeps us on edge. That’s our jobs as writers—to make the conflict count, and to keep the readers on edge. Readers on the edge keep reading.

9. Theme. Theme is another one of those elements, for me, anyway, that just sort of materializes as the writing progresses. When you throw characters into dire situations, when you put hurdles before them, certain themes naturally arise. For example, in the above situations—thievery, distrust, sabotage, predation, work relationships—are all themes. As writers we will likely have a great number of themes in our works, especially our more complex novels and works of fiction. But there are tons of themes out there—loyalty, coming-of-age, justice, life and death, change versus tradition, and so on. It’s up to you to identify the themes that are intentional, as well as the themes that you subconsciously write into your work. Build upon those themes in ways minor and major, however you like. It’s up to you how far to take them.

Getting Your Novel Published

Once you’re written and rewritten and revised and let your novel rest and then rinsed and repeated, shown your writer friends and had them provide their constructive criticism and done it all again and there’s nothing else you think you can do to add value to your novel, it’s time to send it out into the world. It’s a scary time, but it’s also an exciting time. It’s when you get to see if what you’ve poured your heart and soul into is valued as much to someone else, in particular agents and acquisition editors at publishing houses. So, how do you do it?

The first thing you’ll need to consider is whether or not you’re going to go the traditional route (meaning sending your manuscript to literary agents who’ll then work with you to send your manuscript out to publishing houses), or the self-publishing route, where it’s you and you alone who’s in charge of getting your novel into the hands of your potential readers. Let’s talk about going the traditional route first.

Getting a Literary Agent. I’ve often heard it’s more difficult to get a literary agent than it is to get published, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. While I have an agent now, it wasn’t always so. In fact, I queried hundreds of agents before I was offered representation. My story is a little different—I was offered representation by two different literary agents for two different books on the very same day. I hadn’t met either of those agents through my query letters—they were both referrals. I chose one agent, and I’ve stuck with her for years. But I was lucky. Most writers have to go through the query process in order to get an agent, or at least that’s how they start out trying to get an agent.

Querying literary agents is an arduous, time-consuming process. It requires that you:

· Know your book well enough and know the genre you’ve written in

· Know which published books out there are similar to yours (think about where your book would sit if you were to put it on a shelf in a bookstore?)

· Know how to write a query letter.

Query letters should have:

a. Addresses (yours and the literary agent’s)

b. A cordial greeting (can be “Dear [First Name]” or more formal, “Dear Ms. [Last Name]

c. The title & hook--what makes your novel special; make sure to use a similar writing style to the one you use in your novel

d. A short synopsis about the novel—i.e., who it's about, the plot, conflict, etc.

e. A little about yourself and if you've had anything published, mention that—but don't list everything if it's a lot. You don’t want to overwhelm the agent

f. A solid, cordial close where you thank the agent for their time

g. Your contact information

Keep a query letter spreadsheet where you keep track of what you’ve sent to whom:

Know who you’re going to send the query letter to. For this step you’ll need to do your research.

You’ll want to send your query letter ONLY to literary agents who:

a. Represent the type of book or novel genre you’ve written (make sure to mention any of the books/novels they represent that are similar to yours and how you believe your book would be a good fit because of it

b. Are currently open to receiving queries (check their websites)

c. You’ve done some research on (check their rules on their websites)

d. Personalize the email to that agent. Use their name, revise your letter to cater directly to that agent, and so on

*If you have a previous connection to the agent—maybe you met them at a conference and had a chat with them, or perhaps you were referred to them by someone, be sure to include that in your query. Referrals and personal connections go a long way.

· DO NOT send the same query letter to all of the agents you’re querying. It shows you’re not a professional, and agents want to work with professionals. As I mentioned above, personalize your query letters to each individual agent. Research their websites. If you can’t find online who represents a book like yours, look at the acknowledgements in the book. Oftentimes the author will mention their agent there.

· DO NOT follow up too soon with the agent after you’ve queried them. Literary agents literally get dozens (if not more) queries a day. They’re overwhelmed, even with the interns and junior agents working for them. Remember to follow the guidelines on their websites, if they’re listed there.

If the agent requests a partial or full manuscript, make sure you format it appropriately:

a. Use 12-point type

b. Use Times Roman

c. Make sure to double space your manuscript

d. Don’t put any extra spaces between your paragraphs; if you want to show a time/section difference, use three asterisks (***)

e. Indent each paragraph half an inch by using the “tab” button on your keyboard (don’t hit the space bar five times—that’s carried over from the days of typewriters and is irrelevant these days)

f. Flush your text to the left with a ragged right, and do not justify

g. Don’t get fancy with the text; just use black text on a white background

h. Use one-inch margins

i. Create a header. The header will appear on every page after the title page. The header should contain the title, followed by your last name and the page number.

If you didn’t know it before, you know it now: there are a lot of steps in going from an idea in your head to having an actual printed book in front of you. Whether you choose to go the traditional publishing route or self-publishing your novel, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll go into self-publishing in another blog post, because there’s a lot that needs to be done on that front, especially depending on how you’re going to do it, meaning what platform (such as Amazon’s CreateSpace or KDP or some other service). At any rate, however you go about it, there’s nothing quite like seeing and holding a printed (or digital) version of your novel. Be proud of yourself—it’s a heck of an accomplishment and you deserve to reward yourself with whatever it is that makes you happy. Congratulations on all your hard work. But now it’s time to get back to what you do best: writing.

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1 Comment

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Nov 27, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So thorough. Thank you!

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