You’ve always wanted to write a novel, but never gotten around to actually, well, writing it.
Perhaps you even started writing, but after 30 pages, you got distracted and left it to molder in a dank folder somewhere on your desktop.
You’re too busy with work, with family, with emergency car repairs, you say.
You tell yourself there’s plenty of time to write a novel later, like when you’re retired.
But the truth is that deep down, you haven’t yet written a novel because you’re not sure you can.
After all, only smart, creative people write novels. Or people with lots of time on their hands.
And you secretly suspect that you are neither.
Well, guess what?
You CAN write a novel, and you can do it in less than 3 months, with the right mindset and the proper tools.
This article will show you how to get it DONE, once and for all.
- We’ll go from the big picture view (how to organize your mindset and life so that you have the time and resources to write your novel)
- To the zoomed-in view (how to develop the key factors that go into a novel so that you have material to write).
- And finish with a step-by-step look on how to write your novel in 90 days or less!
Ready? Let’s get started.
THE BIG PICTURE VIEW: NOVEL WRITING PROCESS
Before You Begin: Prepare Your Plan
There are few, if any, (good) writers in the world who are able to whip up an entire novel without ANY form of prior planning.
Writing a novel is like building a tower. If you start without calculating costs and drawing up an architectural plan, you’re going to end up with an eyesore of a half-completed building.
If you want to take on a task as grand as writing a novel, you will likewise have to plan it out first.
You need to plan out the novel itself, and the time you will devote to writing it.
Outline Your Novel
This method teaches novelists to identify the “third rail” the underlying, motivating force that power the novel from beginning to end, and then goes step by step in helping a writer design the outline of a plot that makes sense.
You can also try the Snowflake Method, the Hero’s Journey, or any other method you choose. Experiment and find what works for you.
For more on this topic, scroll down to “The Zoomed-In View”
Outline Your Life
If you’re going to write a novel, it’s going to take time. And that time is going to have to come from somewhere.
Look at your calendar and plan ahead. Schedule time to write daily and keep an eye on days when you know you will not get much done — plan ahead to write a little more to make up for the days when you can’t write.
Set up a physical space with minimal distractions so that you can focus.
Even if you have very little time to write, you can still get a massive amount done, IF you are able to focus and write fast. And the freedom to focus comes from proper prior planning.
Set a Starting Point and Regular Goalposts
Don’t just decide to write a novel and then start on the same day. That’s a recipe for failure.
People often jump willy-nilly into an exciting new endeavor, expecting that their initial spark of interest will last for the entire project.
But it doesn’t work that way.
Not for athletic races, not for marriages, and not for novels.
Of course, that initial burst of excitement is helpful, but only if you harness it. And you harness it by delaying it.
So set a start date for when you will begin the novel — something that is a little bit special, not “right now,” or “some random Wednesday this month,” but the beginning of a month, or on your birthday, or on Persian New Year, etc.
Pick a meaningful date in the future so that you can build up that feeling of anticipation and make sure your initial excitement lasts as long as possible.
But remember: You are going to lose interest in your novel at some point. The key is to EXPECT this and PREPARE ahead of time, by creating goalposts.
Ways to set and keep track of goalposts include:
- Daily word count or time goals (I use the limit of 1667 words per day, based on the number of daily words it takes to write 50K in a month)
- Story structure goals — when you hit the first 10%, 25%, 50% or whatever in your novel, take some time to celebrate and look at how far you’ve come!
- Have an accountability partner or partners and report your progress at predetermined intervals (daily, weekly, etc)
- Keep a journal to keep track of how far you’ve come, and how you felt during your writing that day.
Prepare Your Safety Net/Support Group
I have been writing novels for over a decade, starting every November 1.
Because that is when NaNoWriMo begins.
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an international novel-writing challenge where thousands around the globe gather virtually to write a novel in a month (or 50K in 30 days).
For me, having this virtual group of fellow writers is extremely invigorating.
You may find that this works for you as well. Or else you might like to join an in-person team.
The point is, find some like-minded individuals and get together with them, in-person or long-distance, so that you feel like you have someone walking this road with you.
Writing can be a solitary craft, and it’s easy to give up when you don’t have someone else holding you accountable.
So find an accountability partner or two (or, in the case of NaNoWriMo: tens of thousands), before you start!
THE ZOOMED-IN VIEW: NOVEL DETAILS
Let’s Talk About Your Story Idea
Is your story idea big enough for a full length novel treatment? Is it grand enough to fill 50–100K words, without lagging and losing steam?
Some ideas aren’t, you know. Some ideas are only big enough for a novella or short story.
So how do you tell if your idea is big enough for the full-length novel treatment?
A true novel idea needs to include the following:
- A complex conflict that cannot be easily solved
- An overarching theme that you plan to explore deeply
- A fascinating character that will learn and grow significantly throughout the events of the story
Notice world-building (even though it’s a favorite task of novelists) is not on this list.
That’s because, even if you have an idea for an elaborate world on the same scale as Lord of The Rings or Harry Potter, all of it is useless if you do not have a powerful STORY within that setting.
So make sure your novel passes the above tests before you jump headfirst into it, and emerge, disoriented, three weeks later with thousands of words and no story.
Creating Your Unforgettable Character
Your main character is the voice piece of your novel.
So it’s critical that your reader feels kinship to him. Readers don’t necessarily have to LIKE him, but they have to feel like they understand him.
How do you do that?
You have to visualize a character who is as real as possible in your own mind before you can translate that character onto paper.
A lot of beginning writers take this the wrong way. They think coming up with a realistic character means knowing things like height, hair color, likes/dislikes, ethnicity, etc.
Those things are interesting, but they’re not the most important thing you need to know about your character.
Think about it: what do you love about your best friends? Is it their hair and eye color or their fondness for orange Fanta soda?
Of course not.
It’s their beliefs, attitudes, worldviews, personal history, and even their faults — the things that make them human. The things that make them like you.
That’s what makes them loveable and relevant to you.
It’s the same with novel characters.
Your main character’s physical appearance does not matter so much as how she sees the world, what she believes and why, and those invisible traits like intelligence, courage, vanity, loyalty, sneakiness, corruption, etc., that make human beings multi-dimensional and fascinating.
So get to know your character first, from the inside out, by asking yourself these questions:
- What does my character love/hate and why?
- What would he choose if he had to choose between two difficult decisions?
- What values does she value and why?
- What is she most afraid of losing?
- What are his greatest fears and biggest dreams? What is she willing to sacrifice?
You can even do this interview-style: Imagine you are sitting across the table from your character with a journalist’s notebook, and start quizzing her. Ask her these questions. Write down the answers you hear.
From there, you can decide on physical traits and quirks that will be the finishing touch on a truly relatable foundational character.
Know How it All Ends
In the ancient book of Isaiah, God tells the prophet “I distinguish the end from the beginning.” (Isaiah 46:10)
Writers must do the same with their novels. You need to declare (to yourself) the end before you begin at the beginning.
Because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.
You don’t need to have an ending scene completely fleshed out, but you should at least have an idea of where you will leave your character by the time you write “The End.”
Here are some questions to help you clarify your ending: By the end of the story…
- Has your character lost his misbeliefs?
- Has she reached her goal, or did he find something better?
- How has she changed, internally?
Once you know how the story ends, you can fill in the middle bits.
Outlining For The Win
Your novel outline is the key to successfully finishing a novel.
But when you write an outline, don’t get trapped by the traditional idea of writing a list of “things that happen.”
According to Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius, a truly compelling story is driven by a character’s internal problems, not a string of random plot events.
Your character’s internal struggle — the deepest desire and misunderstanding that keeps him from achieving those desire — is the secret power source that drives your story, just like the third rail of an electric train keeps it running on the first two rails.
So ask yourself:
- Who is your main character?
- What does she want and why can’t she get it?
- What false beliefs does he have that keeps him from getting that thing?
- What revelation is she going to have by the time she gets through the events of the novel?
- What plot events will trigger and highlight his internal struggle the most?
Once you know the answers to these questions, you can begin to sketch out the skeleton of your story, a list of scenes that emerge from the ones that came before and lead to the ones that come after, like daisies in a daisy chain.
Each one of these scenes will build on and deepen the overall theme, help your character to grow, and lead, eventually, to a satisfying conclusion.
If you write completely by the seat of your pants without understanding your “third rail,” without using the internal conflict to sketch out your scenes, it’s too easy to run off after plot bunnies, get lost, lose steam, and quit.
But when you know your story’s goal, which is derived from your character’s goal, you can craft each scene with purpose and take your story from start to finish without getting derailed.
HOW TO WRITE YOUR NOVEL IN 90 DAYS OR LESS
Note: These day numbers are approximations. You may choose to subtract or add days, as suits your particular situation:
Day 1: Come up with your big idea.
Run it through the Idea Test — does it have a compelling theme, complex problem, and character with lots of potential to grow and change? If so, congrats, you’ve got a strong story idea.
Day 2: Answer the questions above about who your character is, what he/she wants, and what misbeliefs are getting in his/her way.
Just pull up a blank page or journal and write out whatever you think. Focus on your character’s internal conflict.
Day 3: Sketch out the broad skeleton of your story, going from the end to the beginning.
Given who your character is and where you plan to leave him by the end of the book, what are some major plot twists that must occur in between to get him there?
Day 4–29: Take a week or two to flesh out your skeleton into scene-by-scene cards
(See Lisa Cron’s Story Genius) Keep that internal conflict/Third Rail in mind as you do this. This is actually the most mentally taxing part of the writing process, so give yourself plenty of time and TLC.
Day 30: Clean your desk and room and calendar. Schedule when you are going to do your writing.
Decide on a daily word count, when you are going to write. Get together a group of friends to keep yourself accountable. If you plan to join Nanowrimo, plan ahead and make sure you have some time to do all of your planning before November 1.
Day 31–59: Write according to the plan you set for yourself.
Keep your story outline open next to you and follow that road map.
Day 60: Assess where you are.
Congratulate yourself on all the words you’ve written. Throw a mini-party. Then look at your manuscript and your roadmap — are you on track? Do you need to revise your writing schedule? If so, do that, and keep going.
Day 61–90: Keep writing according to your daily plan.
Channel your inner Dory: Just keep swimming…just keep swimming…what do we do? We swim, swim…
Day 90: Finish writing! Have a BIG party.
Put your draft away and promise not to look at it for at least a month or two. You need time to let it sit before you attempt to edit.
A Couple Things to Keep in Mind
First: Depending on the scope of your novel, and your writing pace, you MIGHT take a little more or less than 90 days. But the general process is the same.
Second: The key is to keep going. Know that you WILL get bored and frustrated and uninspired at some point during the writing process. That’s why it is so important to invest a week or two before you start in outlining.
It’s kind of like setting out your outfit the night before. When you’re groggy and cranky in the morning, it’s so much easier to have an outfit laid out for you than to expend brain power trying to CHOOSE what to wear today.
Likewise, it’s much easier to write when you know WHAT you are writing about ahead of time, in as much detail as possible.
With a solid novel outline and life plan in place, you WILL finish that novel, and most likely within 90 days.
It’s Time to Let Your Novel Out
Somewhere inside you, you know that you need to write a novel. You want to, desperately. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this.
You’ve got a great novel idea taking up space in your mind. It’s been knocking around with your other thoughts for ages, trying to get your attention. It’s been clawing at your mind, eager to reveal itself to the world.
It is time to let it out.
When you FINALLY write that novel you’ve been waiting years, even decades, to write, you will feel a sense of not just accomplishment, but relief.
You will see what you are truly capable of.
You will have a highly personal, hard-earned project to show friends and family.
You will give your greatest ideas a powerful vehicle to tap into others’ lives and even change them for the better.
You will create fresh new brain space fore even better ideas to come in.
So what are you waiting for?
It’s time to write that novel!