How to Actually Write a Novel

how to write a novel

Hey, I’m Sam. I’m one of the Capulet Mag editors, and I’m also a novelist. By novelist, I mean I’ve written horrible, vomit-inducing first and second drafts over 50k words. In this post, I’m going to attempt to share how to actually write a novel.

I write for a living. That sounds like a fake sentence. “I write for a living.” The words “writing” and “paycheck” don’t belong in the same sentence according to the thousands of people who asked me if I planned to teach with my English major. But I’m not bitter or anything, obviously. 

In reality, writing for a living means I write marketing copy and articles and companies pay me for this service. It’s not glamorous. Picture a 20-something wearing her pajamas for an embarrassingly long amount of time and you’ll have an accurate picture of my day-to-day life.

This post isn’t supposed to poke fun at my daily existence. It’s to share some insider tips on how to actually do-the-damn-thing (Bachelor Nation, anyone?) and write an actual novel. Important note: I won’t be going into how to PUBLISH a novel. That’s a beast I don’t expect to face for a long, long, long time.

However, I can help you write a crappy first draft. You might even go so far as to say I’m a crappy first draft aficionado. My specialty, if you will. Some are poets, some translate music, some crank out horrible word vomit like it’s their job. (Oh wait, it is my job.)

I digress.

Sitting down and writing a book is hard. It’s probably one of the top five hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. At the same time, it’s SO EASY.

I like to compare writing a novel to my years spent running cross country in high school (varsity club, eyyyy). Let me just be clear: I hated running. I’ve since developed a healthier relationship with cardio, but at the time I dreaded any pace above a brisk walk. Let’s not talk about how I was also the team captain with this positive outlook.

Running a 5K is easy. Warming up and waiting at the starting line is not. Dealing with that anticipation and knowing how bad it’s going to suck was what made me feel like I wouldn’t be able to start in the first place.

It’s the same for writing. I spent years saying “not now.” It wasn’t the “right time” to write a novel. I needed to wait until I had more free time, knew what I was doing with my life, or had a great idea. These were all excuses. I spent so many years waiting for the ref to blow the air horn signaling the start of the race that I forgot how easy it would be once I actually started running. Sure, the first half mile would be a bit of a fumble, but then I’d hit my stride. 

I finished my first novel in 26 days. I’d decided I’d waited long enough, and it was time to blow my own air horn. Now, several weeks and 20k words into my 3rd draft, it’s still just as easy. I did it while working a 9-5 job, running a blog, and keeping up with this magazine, and so can you.

I don’t care what you’re waiting for, and neither should you. Don’t have an idea? Don’t know how to write realistic characters? Don’t think you have anything to write about? It doesn’t matter. You can do it, trust me.

Get a Routine

Let me set the scene. It’s 10 pm. I turn on the smaller lamps in my living room. I light a Glade candle (a sign of real quality), and I pour a very generous glass of wine. This is my writing space, and this routine tells my brain, “Hey, we’re gonna do that creative thing now.”

I can write without the routine, but I write more consistently with it. It’s not some magic trick. Creating your own writing routine won’t suddenly inspire the Great American Novel. What it will do is condition your mind to turn off your anxiety and transition into writing mode.

It doesn’t matter if your routine is to dance in your underwear to Miley Cyrus or to walk around your house three times backward. Just stick with it. Here are my favorite routines that won’t take your entire day, but will help you build your own “writing mood.”

  • Take a bath/shower
  • Go to your special writing place, like a desk or a favorite chair
  • Meditate
  • Start with a 150 word writing prompt
  • Pour a glass a wine (trust me, the words will start flowing)
  • Journal about your day
  • Choose an inspiring playlist

Write Every Day

If you do nothing else, do this. Because I write for a living, I write a lot. I don’t write creatively in my day-to-day writing, but I still write, and that’s worth something. Every time I write 9 articles in one day about SEO or e-commerce, I walk away as a stronger writer.

Don’t scoff at the small things. Whether you spend your daily writing time journaling, playing with a poem, or angry-typing a letter to your professor, you’re writing. You’re training your brain to put your thoughts to paper. You’re a real, Capital W Writer.

Don’t just take my word for it. The most well-known writers on the planet all subscribe to the write everyday philosophy, and they seem to do pretty well.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” 

– Ray Bradbury

While there’s something to be said for reaching a certain word count, when it comes to your daily writing, give yourself some space to relax. Some days I write an entire chapter in one sitting. Other days it’s a struggle to get through 500 words. That’s okay, because at least I’m the girl who showed up.

How do you actually write every day? It’s easier than you think.

  • Carve out a time to write every day
  • Write before bed
  • Plan your days around your writing
  • Protect your writing time

Challenge Yourself

Remember how I said I wrote my first novel in 26 days? I wasn’t kidding, but I needed a push. I wrote during National Novel Writing Month in November. This is a national event where writers around the country at all levels try to reach 50k words in a single month.

Writing during this event was such a big help for me. Not only did the support system of writers really push me along, but it also showed me how possible it is to write extensively if I just put pen to paper.

You don’t need a formal challenge to get started, but I would definitely recommend NaNoWriMo if you’re feeling up to it. Here are some other challenge ideas:

  • 30-Day Writing Challenge: This is for writers who want the thrill of NaNoWriMo without having to commit to a full-blown 50k. It’s a great concept that walks you through how to write a novel with different writing challenges every day for 30 days. 
  • Story a Day: While not centered around novel writing, Story A Day challenges writers to write a short story every day for a month. 
  • YeahWrite: A platform with one writing challenge every week in a number of categories and genres. 

Stop Editing

Let me just put something out there: your first draft is going to suck. Actually, it’s supposed to suck. The first draft of my 50,000+ word monster sucked so bad that I ended up trashing it altogether and going at it again.

One of the key principles of NaNoWriMo (and many other writing challenges) is to just write. When you have to write upwards of 2k words a day, there’s no room for editing. There is no going back, no passing go, no collecting $200. And you know what?

It’s liberating. 

It’s the best thing that will ever happen to you as a writer. Yes, 95% of what you write is going to be garbage. But that 5% left is what makes it all worth it. You’ll have the skeleton of something much more concrete. At the end of the day, we can all agree that it’s better to write a bad first draft than to have no draft at all.

I’m giving you permission right here right now to just write. Block your own cross country air horn. You can spend your whole life waiting for that golden idea, or you can actually start today and have an adventure of your own.

That’s the big secret behind how to actually write a novel. I spent years of my life thinking it all came down to talent, time, and a good idea. Sure, those things help, but they’re not the be-all-end-all. The real magic trick is just sitting down and giving yourself permission to write a horrible first draft.

Cheers to you, soon-to-be novelist! Together, we can conquer this thing one chapter at a time. I’ll leave you with my favorite Anne Lamott quote from Bird by Bird (a life-changing book on the art of writing and life) that sums up my experience:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Anne Lamott

While you’re still here, be sure to check out our submission guidelines. We’d love to see your work in action for ourselves! Also, flip through our latest edition for some inspiration. Then get to that crappy first draft! 

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