Every question about writing your first novel, answered

The first time you’re writing a book, you might feel lost as to where to begin. And we’d know — over the years, we’ve had countless questions asked in our Instagram AMA’s and our Facebook writer’s group. On this page, we’ve set out to answer all the most common questions we’ve encountered.

Getting started

I’ve never written before. How do I start writing a novel?

There’s really only one way: open up a blank page, and put words on it. The words will be terrible; this is fine. Keep writing until they’re no longer terrible.

If you’d like a head start, we made free online course just for you:

Should I write on a computer or by hand?

If you value speed, backups and maintaining muscle function in your fingers, the computer is your friend. If you’re easily distracted or want to look really cool at your local café, go pen or feather quill.

What supplies do I need to write?

Something to write with, something to write on, and a family size bag of Skittles.

Motivation and productivity

How long does it take to write a novel?

Anywhere between a day and several decades is A‐okay. By which we mean to say: comparing yourself to other writers is a surefire way to drive yourself insane — if you’re making progress, you’re doing great!

How much time should I spend writing?

That depends on your schedule, but consistency is key. It’s better to write 15 minutes a day for a week, than to write 3 hours in one sitting.

Where can I find inspiration for my novel?

Literally anywhere. Inspiration isn’t a single bolt of lightning: it’s a million little static shocks. Always have your story in the back of your mind, and you’ll soon discover there’s beautiful stories hidden in our everyday lives.

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month; a glorious time in November when countless writers across the world set out to write 50.000 words in one month’s time. 

Plot

Do I need to know my entire story before I start writing?

No — in fact, that’d be nearly impossible. Novel writing is more like growing a tree than building a house: all you need is one initial idea that the rest of your story can grow out of.

Should I outline my novel?

That’s mostly a matter of preference, but it’s a good idea to at least have tried. It is better to have outlined and then ignored it, than to never have outlined at all. 

Do I need to stick to my outline?

Absolutely not. If you find something better, go with that better thing.

Do I need to write my story in chronological order?

You don’t — start with whatever you have most inspiration for. Once you’re in a flow, it’ll be a lot easier to fill in the gaps.

Characters

How do I name my characters?

Think of what you know about your character’s background, and then go with what feels right. If you don’t know your character yet, feel free to use a placeholder name until you do. 

What makes characters three-dimensional?

It’s essential for us to empathise with your characters; to understand why they do the things they do, even if we find them revolting. This means they should have not just sensible motivations, but their own flaws and insecurities as well.

How many point-of-view characters should I have?

As many as works for your story. A single point-of-view tends to be more intimate and focused, whereas multiple ones allow you to play with opposing views and multiple story lines.

How do I make my readers care for my protagonist?

More than anything, we need to understand why they do the things they do. Their actions need to make sense for them, as people; not just for your story.

How do I write more interesting romances?

Without fail, the most compelling romances are between real, three-dimensional characters. Write people first, lovers second.

Story structure

How long should my novel be?

As long as is needed to tell your story. There’s so much difference between stories that word count is a fairly useless metric, but everything you write should move the story forward.

That being said, certain genres are known for being somewhat heftier than others. For reference, here’s the word count to a few novels you may have heard of:

  1. A Game of Thrones: 298.000 words
  2. The Da Vinci Code: 182,085 words
  3. A Tale of Two Cities: 135,420 words
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird: 99,121 words
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone: 76.944 words
  6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: 26.432 words
  7. The Alchemist: 47,580 words
  8. Le Petit Prince: 34,510 words
Should I write a prologue?

In a lot of cases: no. Many new writers make the mistake of using a prologue to share every minor detail of their storyworld, also called an info dump. As a general rule of thumb: first make your readers care about your characters, then tell them about the backstory.

Should all my chapters be the same length?

Not by default, no. Chapter length is a great way for you to control your pacing: shorter chapters usually feel fast-paced but are more superficial, whereas longer chapters can go deeper but tend to also feel slower.

Editing

Should I use beta readers?

You should. Beta readers are great for showing you what parts of your story work, and what parts do not. They’re not there to come up with solutions, however — that’s your job.

How do I find beta readers?

That’s a tricky one. Unfortunately, there are many people who’d like their stories to be read, and not nearly as many willing to do the same for others. You’ll have a much better chance if you break that cycle: find fellow authors looking for beta readers, and offer to read their work in exchange for yours.

Getting published

A publisher rejected me. Does that make me a bad writer?

Not at all. There’s a million reasons you might get rejected, and many of them are business-related. Supposedly, Harry Potter got rejected 12 times. 

Are all self-published novels bad?

No. Self-published authors are much like indie musicians: many of them might not reach a certain standard, but there’s plenty of gems that are well worth the hassle.

Are all traditional publishers stuck-up?

No, although some are slow to innovate. The publishing industry is hard, but the people in it are mostly just as passionate about books as you are.

I was offered a contract, but I’ll have to pay my own costs. Still good, right?

Absolutely not — steer very, very clear. You’re dealing with a so-called vanity publisher, who are malicious vultures profiting off an author’s desire to see their name on the bookshelves. They make their money off of your desperation, not by selling your novels.

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    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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    Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Semicolon enthusiast.

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