how to write a novel

You have a book inside you. This article is all about how to get started writing a novel, including how to write a novel, novel word count, novel page count, how to write a query letter, and how to find novel literary agents and publishers.

How to Write a novel

Many scribes wonder how to write a novel, and there’s no cookie-cutter answer. The craft of writing fiction is as varied as the stories out there in the world. But all novels do have several things in common for you to consider. Novels set up for success in today’s fiction marketplace usually fall into two broad categories. First, the literary novel, or literary fiction. These books put a premium on the beauty of the writing and the depth of character development. Then there is the commercial novel, or trade novel, or general fiction novel. These novels certainly need to be well-written, but the focus tends on be on character relationships, dialogue, action, and plot. Genre novels, like fantasy, sci-fi, women’s fiction, and romance, tend to fall into this latter group. 

If you’re wondering how to write a novel ... meaning, how to start a novel or how to commit to writing an entire manuscript, that’s a different issue. I’d definitely recommend deciding which broad category you want to tackle, as all categories have different expectations. If you’re writing romance, for example, there are specific beats you’ll want to hit, that are going to be very different from what sci-fi readers might expect. But then, you just have to ... do it. That’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is that nobody’s stopping you. The bad news is that you’ll probably stop yourself at some point, mostly by not making enough time to commit to a daily writing practice.

Yes, I recommend writing daily. If you haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo, you may want to think about it, no matter what month it is, because it will help you get into the writing groove. And don’t worry too much about your novel opening right away. That crucial first chapter or two can always be polished in revision. Some writers find it helpful to create an outline or road map before they begin. Others just write and know they can always make sense of everything later, during their novel revision process (sometimes called “pantsers,” because they fly by the seat of their pants).

Most writers arrive at their novel first draft themselves. Others find it helpful to get early feedback on an outline (this is a service I love to do with anyone writing fiction, because we really pressure test the idea and make it strong before you spend the next two years chasing it down and making mistakes). But still, writing means writing, not just thinking about it. So the question of “how to write a novel” is often answered with a gentle but stern reminder that you just have to begin!

novel Word Count

Novel word count is a hot topic because writers like to know what to shoot for. The aforementioned NaNoWriMo considers a complete novel to be 50,000 words minimum, and I’d agree with this. Most novels tend to be longer, though, especially in the realms of genre like fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, historical, epic, or other categories where a lot of worldbuilding is required. I’d caution you about going over 100,000 words for any project, though. Publishers tend to be wary of very long novel word count from debut writers because these books are more expensive to edit, produce, ship, and store. They simply take up more space. There’s also a lot of tightening at the sentence level that usually tends to accompany a book this long—I’ve never met a “six-figure novel” that couldn’t use at least some trimming. The same caution applies to shorter manuscripts. Anything shorter than 40,000 words occupies a novel word count closer to that of a novella, which is a tough category to publish into. Frankly, the market is just not as robust. A lot of writers who tend to prefer the novella format end up publishing independently. Many bigger publishers won’t consider or issue many shorter novels. If you’re looking for a good novel word count range that’s substantial enough, without becoming too long, 60,000 to 80,000 words is the sweet spot.

It’s important to note that word count considerations apply to novels for young readers. You can find more information about chapter books, middle grade, and young adult here.

novel Page Count

Novel length varies quite a bit, as you can see, and with it, novel page count. Especially since page counts in published books are so variable to begin with. Novel page count is highly influenced by factors such as font size, book layout, and other formatting details. That’s why a lot of unpublished manuscripts are discussed in terms of novel word count, which gives a much more accurate measure of length. However, if you need a ballpark figure, the average novel length is between 250 and 400 pages. Longer projects are, obviously, going to take up more pages. Shorter projects, as mentioned above, can be problematic.

how to publish a novel

Though many writers are hesitant to put a label on their precious creative work, and understandably so, publishing likes its categories. So figuring out what kind of novel you’re writing (ideally, before you start writing it) will help answer the question of how to publish. Otherwise, what will you tell novel publishers? The very first question anyone asks when they hear that you’re writing a book is, “What kind of book is it?” You need to formulate a logline or pitch, one that can be delivered quickly and succinctly (sometimes called an “elevator pitch”). This is also important to do as you prepare to approach novel publishers. So think about your genre. Is it a fantasy adventure? Redemptive women’s fiction? A space opera romance? If you feel that your work straddles two different genres, combine them in a way that puts the spotlight on the primary category first.

If you have no idea where your novel fits in the publishing landscape, this can be problematic. “It’s never been done before!” or “There’s nothing else like it!” might sound like positive attributes, but they’re actually more difficult to publish. When novel publishers and novel literary agents hear this claim, they almost always think, There’s probably a good reason... Very “unique” or “genre-bending” novels may be difficult to market, and since novel publishers are running a business and selling a product (books!), they tend to be somewhat risk averse.

To get inspiration for what’s out there, start reading. Some writers refuse to read because they don’t want to “pollute the pool.” This is a very bad idea. By spinning in your own world, you’re not getting a sense of the bigger publishing landscape. You’re also missing out on seeing true masters practicing their craft. If you’re reading as a writer, you are always learning valuable lessons that will filter down to your own work. So break out of your solitude and read around, books that you think are similar to yours, and different. There’s a whole world out there!

Finally, once you’ve nailed your genre, logline, and have a complete manuscript, you are ready to write a novel query letter. You will need this to approach both novel literary agents and novel publishers. The former are necessary if you want to break into a major publishing house, but there are also publishers accepting unagented novels, though they tend to be smaller outfits. You can learn more about the book submission process here.

hiring a novel EDITOR

Now you know more about how to write a novel. It always helps to have professional feedback to gear you toward success in this marketplace, ideally from someone with extensive experience in fiction. Check out further resources on how to find an editor, and get insight into editorial service rates.

Please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.

Click here to purchase Writing Irresistible Kidlit, my book on fiction craft for MG and YA novels, out from Writer's Digest Books. This will show you my writing craft philosophy and give you lots of valuable advice, including tips for the novel revision process and self-editing. There are over 35 example novels cited and discussed throughout. It’s a valuable resource for any writer’s toolkit.

It genuinely feels like you’ve handed me a golden compass so I can trek off in the right direction now to ultimately find buried treasure. I’m so excited to not be wandering around aimlessly on this story any more. I can move forward on it now with confidence.
— Kendra