A step-by-step guide to writing a perfect novel

A few days ago someone found this website by searching “how to write a novel step by step guide pdf” on Google. As you can see, there is no step by step guide to writing a novel available on my website.

It seems to me that it’s in our nature to search for shortcuts. That’s why how-to guides are so popular. We want guides, recipes, formulas, and crucial insight from experts. We have gurus in basically any field. And I understand. It’s part of what makes us great – we evolve by building upon what others built before us. But, sadly, writing is not the same as gardening. It’s not just a craft, no matter how much we’d like to believe so.

In fact, this is why some people will disagree with my previous statement. It’s human nature to think that everything is a skill that can be acquired. It’s the easiest way to look at it. We don’t like unanswered questions and unsolved puzzles. We like things to be clear-cut. We are systematic creatures.

But art is not like that, because art incorporates our views of the world, our habits, addictions, phobias, and everything in between. And these things change rapidly.

In one of the most popular posts on this blog, E-book vs. Print, I said that fiction (and the way we expect fiction to be) has changed. Fiction has become blunt, stark. Maybe a bit darker in tone. But there are other, more subtle changes as well. Like transitions. You don’t have to explain each and every action. And there’s also this fact that visual writing doesn’t involve page long descriptions. We need less to see more. Maybe this is what television has changed in the way we perceive the world around us.

Of course, there are exceptions.

And this is why there is no holy set of rules to fiction writing. Exceptions.

If you read enough fiction, you’ll find writers who break certain rules with great effect. Writers who use a lot of adverbs, writers who tell a lot, and the list goes on and on. For every rule there’s at least one great writer who chose to discard it.

I have said it quite often here, and I will say it again. You should read about writing, read all the rules of famous writers, all their habits, but only choose to incorporate into your own writing what you think works best for you. It’s your choice, your fiction. And your chance to leave a mark on the world. The same goes for any feedback you might receive, regardless of the person who’s offering that feedback.

Fiction has evolved so much over the century precisely because of this. Because of the few who chose not to obey a strict set of rules. And they made what I like to call beautiful mistakes.

When I started blogging, I didn’t want to write about writing. I wanted to write about my books, to promote, to write one or two reviews, and to spend the rest of my time aimlessly wandering the Internet. Because I felt that writing about writing is the only shortcut a writer can take. It’s easy. You write down a set of rules, try to make yourself sound as the expert, and then wait for people to agree with you.

As Oscar Wilde once said, The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.

But then I realized there’s more to writing about writing than just giving advice. It’s also a way of understanding your own process and the process of others. So instead of just giving advice and sounding like a guru I opted to write about the process, about what works and what doesn’t (for me) with the intention of finding out what I can do to be a better writer.

That’s what those comment boxes are for. The process may be intrinsically similar, but it’s also different. Not only that the stories we write and the way in which we write them is different, but also our rules and habits are different.

As long as you aspire to be different, not for the sake of being different, but because that’s who you are, I believe there’s no reason for you to be searching the web for step by step guides on how to write a novel.

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31 comments on “A step-by-step guide to writing a perfect novel

  1. I absolutely love this. I totally agree with you. It took me a long time to get to the point of realising what you just said, but once I figured that out my writing skills increased! Over a month ago I almost finished a story of 300 pages, but decided to delete it. I started all over again and it was the best decision I ever made. It’s not really about following any rules, I believe you should follow your mind while writing!

  2. I very much agree with you Christain. Writing is such a personal experience, it doesn’t matter how much you read and learn about the “how to” in the end it comes down to practice and personal style. Finding ones voice and going with it.

  3. misfit120 says:

    I wrote what I thought WAS a perfect novel following the rules and doing my research as well as having a noted archaeologist write the forward to my book. However, it is and will forever be dead in the water thanks to a publishing company that does absolutely nothing to promote the book, and, if they do, you are required to pay for whatever they do. Which is why I’ve given up writing novels and simply write my daily MisfitWisdom blog. Oh yeah….by all means DO NOT EVER sign a contract with “PublishAmerica.” Trust me on this one.

    • Thanks for the tip, misfit120. I get lots of no-name publishing firms calling me, but I just hang up on them. If they’re calling me then they don’t have much going on. I had my first book (non-fiction) published by McGraw-Hill, and I did that all by my wee little self and no agent. Take it from me, anything is possible when you have the guts!

  4. ashleyomelia says:

    Love this! I have read so many books about writing and what the rules are, but then I find great fiction that breaks all those rules!

  5. seanmunger says:

    Great article, and there are some terrific insights here. I think there are a lot of people out there, sadly, who do think that writing a novel can be reduced to some kind of formula, like a gym exercise regimen or a diet. Unfortunately I think this “diet regimen” view of fiction writing is promoted by events like NaNoWriMo, which tend to communicate the impression that writing a book is largely a matter of hitting a word count every day. NaNoWriMo is not the only example, but when people focus so much attention on the technical aspects of writing–like word count, manuscript format, what agents or publishing industry bigwigs supposedly want, etc.–instead of the things that really matter, like characters, story, and most importantly passion, you’re going to get a skewed view of what the process is like and what results it’s supposed to have.

  6. Two rules:
    1. Read
    2. Write

  7. Beth says:

    Just a plain & simple ~ Thanks!

  8. “You don’t have to explain each and every action. And there’s also this fact that visual writing doesn’t involve page long descriptions. We need less to see more. Maybe this is what television has changed in the way we perceive the world around us.”

    Interesting observation.

  9. I taught high school English for 2 years – and yes, teaching those kids to write was…interesting! Some had it, and some did not. And at least one who had it thought she didn’t need to learn anything more and got mad at me when I corrected anything she wrote. I wonder what she’s up to these days?!!

  10. windsinger3 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I truly agree with you about writing. All authors have to find their own voice and discover what works best for them. Is it ok to research different techniques? Absolutely! I love reading about how other people write, but when it comes down to it, I’m the one writing, so it has to work for me. :)

  11. colin says:

    My father said, for anything to have meaning to us, it has to be hard to achieve. I suppose that my father would agree with your post as I would.

  12. Wow great. Somehow I clicked your post really to know what is the rule. And now I realize, I searched for a shortcut. All I need to do is a continual practice with what I have in me. Thank you 😊

  13. Very interesting and very helpful.

  14. jdai90 says:

    Yes. Wonderful article. Writing should be organic and self breathed.

  15. SKHYLAR says:

    I needed to be reminded of this. Thank you. Oh, and great post too!

  16. unknown says:

    The perfect novel – heh. No such beast, except to you if you really like something that much that you’ve either read or written. There are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines, and as you say it’s the exceptions that provide the variety. Fiction has got starker, true, and the days of Henry James taking three pages to cross a room and turn the door knob are gone. Which is mostly good – except, of course, for those writers who have an interesting way of using those three pages… It’s like comedy – if it’s funny, it’s funny. If it works, it works. No shortcuts. Unfortunately.

  17. We’re all unique alright, and it definitely takes a while for us to discover our creative styles! Experiencing life can definitely help in discovering one’s own style, too!

  18. Maggie Pill says:

    Interesting thoughts. I agree, there’s no formula, but it’s interesting that a lot of pop fiction is pretty formulaic. Big publishers look for that formula that will keep readers buying a series, and then they make the author keep pumping them out until he/she dies and hire someone to “franchise” their work. And people buy them!

  19. I agree with your thoughts. I blog for the same reason. I like to write about the process and give advice (though I’m no expert). I like to share the stuff I learned from other writers while reading blogs from other people to learn from them. Writing, like any art, is a balance of learning and teaching, I think.

  20. jasongrey39 says:

    As a new blogger I really appreciate this article. Frankly I agree and like it when I find an author who breaks the rules and surprises me as a reader. Often I can see the story and twists before they happen, too many authors are paint by number or connect the dot authors. Thank you for checking out my blog and following me.

  21. I remember the 400 metre runner Michael Johnson who broke every rule in the book, when it came to his running style that coach’s would probably cringe at, but is still the 400 metre world record holder years after retirement.

  22. Great post! This is advice everyone who writes can benefit from. It’s good that you said this, it was always kind of buried in my mind but you pulled it out and made it clear. Thanks!

  23. ajo5ephine says:

    How is it a person whom wants to be a writer dislikes reading? I completely understand getting bored to easy when reading. I have a novel, has been finished for some time. My venture is to have it published in the near future. My delay is, I have spent many many months (ok this past year) researching on writing. I have learned writing is not just about writing. So I proceed to research which is what brought me to your blog. I enjoyed reading it and found it to be helpful. No shortcuts for me but I am pretty sure I have read all I can. I thank you for taking the time to write this guide being that you did not want to write about writing. :-)

  24. Prima says:

    I am enjoying reading this. I don’t know but somehow, you in this writing feed me with healthy melancholy, on you mildly opposed the idea of many “how-to” article as an shortcut. And as you know, melancholic atmosphere mostly can take out the best in me. Thank you.

  25. mcscarry says:

    There is one basic rule to great writing. That rule is read a lot.

  26. Christian, I am reminded of Pat Schneider’s advice to write in your own voice, the voice you grew up with as a child, the voice you use to tell someone about your day, the voice that speaks in your inner ear when you’re listening to yourself without expectation, without judgment. Thanks for telling us your stories in your blog.

  27. Oh gosh I should google “how to write a comment on a blog step by step guide”. I’m not sure how to do this.
    All jokes aside, this was very inspirational. I love the way you talk about writing as an art, how it incorporates our ever changing view of the world, and how it is different and personal for everyone. I often write about art in my blog and explore how it is truly impossible to define because everyone’s idea of what art is is unique, and no one’s is wrong. I think writing is very similar. Everyone has their own rules and process and no one approach to writing is more right than any other.

  28. vonzex says:

    The only thing I would add is that you kind of have to still abide by the laws of grammar–least you come off as someone that doesn’t know their dick from their balls when it comes to readability. Of course there’s exceptions to any rule, but generally speaking, you can’t really hand in a manuscript that looks like shit. Good stuff, but there’s certainly a great many things I’ve shown publishers that they instantly hate.

    Apparently, most editors won’t read a manuscript if it starts with the protagonist’s morning routine.

    My high school English teacher was the same. She got so sick of the kids ending their stories with “and then he woke up; it was only a dream” that she banned it :D

  29. Wranglers says:

    Nice blog. Cher’ley

  30. No word needed to be added or deleted.

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