The Basics: So You Want To Write A Novel

Nat RussoBasics, Characterization, How-To, Plot and Structure, Reference Books, World Creation, Writing 10 Comments

Where Do I Begin?

If you’ve landed here, you’ve got a good head start. I’m going to make a couple of assumptions about you, if that’s ok:

  1. You’re an avid reader.
  2. You want to write a book-length work of fiction (i.e. you want to write a novel).
  3. You’ve never done this before, or you’ve had a lot of starts/stops in your past.
  4. You’re willing to dedicate the next several months…perhaps years…of your life to telling a single story.
  5. You have no idea where to begin.
You may think I’m a mind reader now. But the simple truth is that I’ve just described most of us. And by “us” I’m referring to pretty much anyone who has ever taken the first step on the journey to becoming a novelist. Those 5 assumptions definitely describe where I began.
I have some answers for you. They may not be the best, but the advice I’m going to give is the advice I took myself. It’s the same advice that helped me complete my first novel, which is a goal I had wanted to achieve for more than 20 years.


The Highlights

If you’ve read my About page (you’ll find the link at the top of the screen), then you know I’m a fantasy writer. Most of what I write here will be from the perspective of a person who writes in that genre, but I think you’ll find the advice to be general enough to apply to your specific area. About the only section that won’t apply directly is the first – “World Creation”. Although, on some level, every novelist has to go through the process of learning the milieu they intend to write about.
Everyone’s process will differ, and eventually you will settle on your own. But this is about beginnings, and I’m the type of person who usually finds new things a little easier if I have some sort of template to follow. So, I’m going to let you in on my process…the process that helped me complete my bestselling debut fantasy novel Necromancer Awakening.

World Creation

If you’re writing speculative fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, etc.), then you probably need to do some amount of world creation, unless your setting is a direct copy of your present time/place. However, it is doubtful that your story is going to be very “speculative” if it doesn’t contain elements of…well…speculation: non-existing technologies, strange modes of travel, magic, alien creatures, etc. Those things, after all, are the bread and butter of speculative fiction.
Whether you intend to write a series of novels in the same setting, or just one, your world needs to be believable. It has to seem like a real place to the reader, or you’ll fail to transport them there in the fictive dream you create.
Give some thought to the following when building your world:
  • Map. 
    • What does your world look like? What is the geology like? How does the geology impact your political divisions?
    • What types of natural resources exist in your world? Are some in abundance while others are scarce?
    • Where are your cities? Why did they form there? Trade routes?
  • Culture.
    • Do you have many cultures or only one? What are their governments like? Do they have many religions? A single religion that is interpreted in different ways depending on geopolitical affiliation? Are some locations/territories on your map considered sacred by one or more of these religions?
    • What about modes of dress? Dialect? Customs and behaviors?
In short, you’re building a world, so consider the elements that make up our own world and change them up a little! Here’s a link to a great book I read on the subject. It started the whole ball rolling for me.
Orson Scott Card gives some wonderful advice about the entire writing process, so don’t miss out on this great craft book! I can’t overstate how helpful I found this book, in more ways than one.

[Update 8/22/2013: In a recent article, I discuss Card’s opinion that a writer should never use profanity. For my take on it, give Profanity in Genre Fiction a read.]

I wrote an article a while back that has since become one of my most popular: World Building Primer. I intend for that article to be the first of a series that I’ll be writing in the future.


Plot and Structure

You’re going to hear a lot of different things about plot and structure. Some writers will point out that plot is a four-letter word, and react as strongly to it as other four-letter words. Other writers will claim that if you’re “plotting” then your writing will be formulaic…another word with horrible connotations. When you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll form your own opinions, as we all do. For now, I’m going to assume you’re looking for a starting point.
The Three Act Structure is a tried and true structure for telling just about any story. The technique is an ancient one, and it works for a reason: it resonates with people. There are many other structures we could use, but let’s start here for the time being. The entire structure can be summed up like this:
  • Get your characters up a tree (Act I)
  • Throw rocks at them (Act II)
  • Get them back down (Act III)
You need to start by taking your main character and throwing the literary equivalent of a hand grenade into his life (get him up a tree). From there, you spend most of your novel placing one obstacle after another in his path (throw rocks at him). Then, when you’re finished torturing the poor person, resolve the situation (get him back down).
After spending years trying to finish one novel after another, and failing miserably, I stumbled on a book written by James Scott Bell that made everything click for me. After reading it, I realized what it was I had been doing wrong all those years. The symptoms were many, but at the most basic level I never took the time to develop a plot! Once I figured this out, the story just flowed out of me like water from a spring.  
Here’s a link to it.


You probably have some idea of the characters that will make an appearance in your book. If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you know a little about your main character. And since you’ve already planned a few of those “rocks” you’re going to throw at him/her, then you probably know something about the person or people that will be your main character’s primary opposition.
This is a good start, but you need to flesh these people out, otherwise they’ll be paper thin and unbelievable. And that’s not what you’re going for.  Orson Scott Card wrote a book on the topic of characterization (which I’ll link below for convenience). In that book, he says “A character is what he does.” No truer words have ever been uttered on the subject. Don’t tell the reader that your main character is a good guy who should be liked by everyone. Show the reader! Give your main character behaviors that a “good guy who should be liked by everyone” would possess. Put him on the stage and have him perform those behaviors and your readers will agree with you.
Here’s the link. 


You’ve made it! You’ve created your milieu. You can quote fictional works of theology and philosophy written by the ancient sages of your world. You know where all the good fishing holes are. And you know you’d better not go near that cave over there, or the Blue Brothers of Boopsie will think you’re trying to steal their Bouncing Ball of Bippity.
You’ve crafted a plot that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud, and your characters promise to be engaging, living and breathing people.
Now what?
Well…now you have to write it. This is where the rubber meets the road! Sit yourself down and type one word after another until they form sentences. Then the sentences form paragraphs, and so on. You’re a writer now!
If only it were that simple. A detailed look at Writing as a general topic is beyond the scope of this article. In fact, this entire blog is about the various facets of the craft of writing, so it would be impossible to encapsulate the entire topic in a single post. But here are some pointers that have helped me:
  • Find a quiet place with no or few distractions. You need to be completely immersed, at least in the beginning. Many writers will tell you this will always be the case. It’s going to be hard enough as it is, at first, so take as many obstacles out of your way as you can. Obstacles are for your characters, not for you.
  • Back up your work. I store most of my stuff in the cloud (as well as locally) so that it is always safe and available.
  • You are your own boss…so act like you’re a boss. Make demands of yourself. Be disciplined. If you wait for the muse to arrive, I hope you’re not holding your breath while doing so. The muse only visits writers who are writing, not waiting to write.
Remember the first item in my list of assumptions? You’re an avid reader. I hope this is a correct assumption, because one of the best ways to learn how to write is to read. Pick up a book in your chosen genre and read. Heck, pick up a stack of books in your genre and read all of them! You’re going to learn something about the craft from each experience. Some lessons will be simple: how does that author indicate internal dialogue? Others will be complex: how did that author manage to weave five separate plot lines together so masterfully?
Don’t just read books in your genre. Read others as well. Every genre has its own bag of tricks, and there are few rules that can’t be broken with wonderful results, when broken by the right hands. Read books on the craft. They will be invaluable to you in the beginning.
Speaking of which, here are my favorites. All of these books are on my shelf right now, and several have taken up permanent residence next to my keyboard.
This is a great book about crafting individual scenes. Elements of Fiction Writing – Scene & Structure
Great tips on style. I keep this one with me at all times. The Elements of Style Illustrated
I spoke about conflict and how to “throw rocks” at your main character. This book will teach you how to do that.  Elements of Fiction Writing  – Conflict, Action & Suspense
Stephen King is a master story teller. He wrote this book while he was recovering from a hit and run accident. It’s a wonderful memoir and guide for would-be writers.  On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
So grab one or more of those craft books and learn as much as you possibly can! And while you’re at it, follow me on Twitter at @NatRusso I’m very active and offer some writing tips throughout the day.
Writing is a learned craft. You can learn!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 10

    1. Thanks so much, Scarlett! I love your blog by the way. It’s always great to read the insights of other writers. This can be a crazy world to navigate!

      It appears that your work “Sky Stone” has a lot in common with my own “Necromancer: The Awakening”, in that it’s a portal fantasy. My protagonist is a college student from contemporary Austin, Texas who is transported to the world of Erindor where he discovers he is a necromancer.

  1. I just wanted to say thanks for the insightful article. I have a ton of projects that’re unfinished (I write about 50K, decide it’s terrible, and move on/start over). I’m going to start another new project soon, which I’d really like to finish, and will be taking your advice. Thanks again!

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      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Krityn!

      The single most-important thing you can do is turn off your inner critic until you finish your first draft. One way to guarantee you’ll never have a finished book is to never have finished a book.

      You’re deciding it’s terrible because…get ready for it…IT IS. The first draft of ANYTHING is pure and utter garbage. But you can’t fix what you don’t have.

      Embrace the crap 🙂 Recognize that you’ll have some work to do on revision and move past it. As you spot issues, makes notes for yourself and forget they exist for now.

      Just write the thing. The rest will sort itself out, I promise! 🙂

  2. Wow! Thanks for more great information! I appreciate all the tips and information so much! I am learning so much!

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  3. Love your articles Nat – I have some books from this post but many are new to me so I will check them out. I’m currently working on short stories to improve my writing and find my voice but wonder if I should take the leap and try a novel again (tried on before, finished it, but it was poor, though it was a first draft). Just need an idea that really resonates with me though (which is the real trick, I guess).

    Anyway, great stuff!

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      Thank you, Lee!

      One thing I will say, having written both short and long-form fiction, is they are very different mediums, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) gradations in how you use the craft the convey the story. Perfecting the art of short fiction doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll improve your long-form fiction, and vice-versa. I found each to have their own unique learning curve.

      So dive in at either point and have at it! 🙂

  4. I like your simple summary of the three act structure and have been keeping it in mind the last few months. Even in a shorter work, it still applies, or even in a single scene. If I don’t know what to do as the writer/plotter, I can think of where we are in the tale: Am I putting my characters in a tree? Is the tree big enough? Am I throwing rocks at them yet? Am I throwing hard enough? How are they getting down? What are some alternative ideas to getting them down? Conflict is the substance of drama, and it helps to stop and think about what rocks we can throw at our characters, and what the reaction to those rocks can tell us about our characters.

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