How To Write A Novel: A Rookie Guide

Welcome to National November Write a Novel Month (more commonly known as NaNoWriMo). It’s an annual writing project where participants are challenged to complete a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Thousands of people do it every year – and I am it’s newest participant.

Oh, where to start. How about with the fact that I don’t know how to write a book.

I don’t know how to set up a scene or develop characters or write dialogue. I don’t know if I’m supposed to follow a process or write an outline or read some sort of writing bible that anyone who has ever written anything worthwhile knows is literary suicide to not have a copy of.

I don’t have a golly wonking clue.

But I do have one thing going for me, something I’ve picked up over the last few months, and that’s the ability to get from point A to point B in 30 days.

How I Plan to Write this Book

I made the grave mistake of not giving this challenge any thought or consideration until the morning of November 1.

Ideally, I would have wanted to sit in a country cafe sipping coffee, pondering plots, and imagining characters.

country cafe

I’d have wanted to bounce ideas off of my husband over a glass of wine and, over the course of a few days or weeks, let the story come to me.

Instead, I had to pull the first idea out of my head that seemed somewhat plausible – no intricate story lines with dark and twisted backstories, no mystical worlds where unicorns and trolls exist, no subjects that would require intensive (or any) research.

[My idea: The dysfunctional life of an advice columnist.] 

My protagonist, I decided, is a woman who is suffering. I made her a woman because I am a woman and I know how to write about women better than I do about men or children or animals. And I am making her suffer because suffering is the part of life that happens to nice people in good stories. It’s original, I know.

Next came the outline. I spent an hour dumping any idea that came to me – the bad, the good, and the absurd, and, again, with no rhyme or reason, picked the ones that I felt I could turn into a compelling narrative.

[My outline: Each chapter begins with a “question and answer” from the advice columnist (i.e. my husband cheated on me! What should I do?) followed by her story, told in the first person, of her life and struggles.]

There’s love, deceit, struggle, hurt and, of course redemption that all comes together in a masterfully woven, page turning, tear jerking yet-to-be determined arc.

At this point, my brain in dire need of a creative jolt, I put my computer away and pulled out a stack of index cards.

On the front, I wrote out twelve question ideas (because twelve is this wonderfully versatile number that is divisible by two, three, four and six) and, on the back, thoughts on how I might answer them. I grabbed another stack of cards and set off to map out twelve sub-plot ideas. I could only come up with nine. So I left three blank and started matching the “questions and answer” cards with the “narrative” cards in a way that flowed.


Two hours and 30 minutes later, my guide was complete.

1700 Words Every Day

Now, the writing. It’s hard stuff, this writing business. Especially when you lack the skill to articulate your ideas in a way that has dimension and depth. And even more so when you spend your evenings reading the works of your favorite writers who you know that, even if you wrote every day for a hundred years, you would never come close to that level of mastery.

But I said I was going to write a book and so I am getting up every darn morning before the sun comes up to sit at my computer and write. Even if I’m tired, even if I’m uninspired, and even if I know that 95% of the words that get left on the page will be rubbish.


With that, I leave you with words that I have found comforting over these past few days from none other that Mr. Ernest Hemingway who, of writing, says:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going…I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.

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