How to Start Writing a Novel from Rough Draft to Smooth Finish

pexels-photo-273222I thought I knew how to start writing a novel. I have written several novels, started and didn’t finish even more. What I didn’t know is that I was knocking myself out with what I thought was good “pre-writing” stuff. It was all important material: character development, plot outlines, subplots, character interaction worksheets, action/response worksheets, timelines, who was doing what when (seriously), anything that you could write down or chart out about the novel, I did it before actually writing a word of the story.

How to Start Writing a Novel – Gaining a New Perspective

However, the pre-work didn’t provide the same satisfaction I get from the actual writing of a story, and I was always antsy to get started on it. So I decided to try a different approach: I would chart and plot a little and write a little, chart and plot a little and write a little more. This worked somewhat better for me, but then I found that with the creative juices flowing also came more notes and comments (I use the “comment” feature in word quite a bit when writing), and questions arose like, “Does this scene reflect my lead character’s traits?” Or worse, “What the heck are my lead character’s traits?”, which sent me back to my worksheets.

This method did get the job done eventually, but I began to realize that writing a novel was taking me longer than I thought it needed to. So, I went back to the drawing board to relearn how to start writing a novel, and I’m glad I did.

How to Start Writing a Novel with Unadulterated Abandon

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenges new and experienced writers from around the world to sharpen their pencils (or keyboards) to write a 50,000-word story during the month of November. The 30 days of November. By the nature of the challenge that means writing 1667 words every day. If one day you can’t find the time or just plain don’t write 1,667 words, well then you would need to write 3,334 the next day to stay on track. I never thought I could write consistently at that pace and haven’t even considered trying to. While I was looking for a new way of learning how to start writing a novel, I wasn’t sure this was it.

NanowrimoBut, I had a story idea floating around in my head that I hadn’t yet found time to work on. Then one October, I had a small lull in my freelance writing assignments. I thought about NaNoWriMo; knew it was on the horizon. I batted the idea of participating in the challenge around in my mind, thinking that I hadn’t yet done any of my charts, plots, and worksheets for my novel’s idea, how could I possibly begin writing it? And who can write 1,667 words every day?

How to Start Writing a Novel as a NaNoWriMo Writer

I checked out the NaNoWriMo website and tuned into the fact that writers were “writing with abandon” – they weren’t stopping to check for plot errors, character development flaws, and heaven forbid – not even punctuation. November 1 came and went and I was still mulling over this crazy way of writing. But now time was of the essence. It often is with me; I think things over until like 10 minutes after a deadline and then find a way to slink in the side door. So, I wondered, would NaNoWriMo let me start late? Could I still sign up for the challenge? Short story even shorter – they did and I did. And I’m so glad I did. It turns out that I can write 1,667 words a day, that’s who! (And so can you.)

NaNoWriMo cast a brilliant light on novel writing for me and frankly, the experience changed my perspective of how to start writing a novel. I had nothing but the keyboard in front of me when I began to write the idea that was forming in my imagination. I was following somewhat of a plot in my mind and I just let it come to life – on its own, in a way. I wrote it as it came to me. There was no stopping to check or redo any of what I’d written. I loved it! I let the characters lead the way, knowing that they weren’t yet fully developed and they would most likely have inconsistencies that would later have to be corrected, but that was the point – I would correct, revise, everything later, after I’d had written a first draft of the novel.

Pause to Add Structure to the Novel (and breathe deeply)

stock-photo-sea-beach-ocean-yoga-woman-exercise-meditation-fitness-gym-cf4491c1-e800-43c3-ad69-81fec9a4072bYet, to have a novel with any structure, I knew I had to create a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end. So, I admit to stopping about 2/3 of the way through to take a deep breath and jot down my thought on 3 things:

  1. The beginning – what problem did my lead character need to solve?
  2. The middle –what steps had she taken and what obstacles prevented her from solving the problem?
  3. The end – what needed to happen to bring the story to a resolution, also, what loose ends did I need to wrap up (subplot)?

This resulted in a page of bullet points and I’m glad I stopped to do this. The notes, as brief as they were, kept me focused on finishing the story. I finished the novel on November 30, just before that side door slammed shut.

But was this a completed novel? No, it was not.

Draft Polishing or How to Start Writing a Novel that Shines

A full-length novel has a longer word count, depending on the genre you are writing in. Romance novels will run a little shorter, perhaps at 65,000 words, mysteries can run anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 words, and some mainstream fiction can run longer. There’s still much work to do on the rough draft of a novel, and it involves more than just writing more words. We’ll get into that shortly.

“Writing with abandon” has become my new version of “how to starting writing a novel”. It may not be perfect, and it may not work for everyone, but I do recommend trying out this way of beginning your novel. You don’t have to join the NaNoWriMo challenge to do this (but you can, and it’s fun.) Start writing your novel, writing without guidelines, plotlines, charts, etc. just to get the story out there. I found this method of writing a novel quite freeing.

I will say that, initially, I had to fight urges to correct punctuation and revise scenes, but I didn’t have any overwhelming urges to pull out my worksheet templates. That came later.

I think it would have helped me to do just a bit more character development before I started writing, but even as I write that it sounds like I’m trying to revert to all that pre-planning. So maybe we won’t go there.

Okay, so, let’s say you’ve tried this “writing with abandon” method. As I mentioned, there’s still a lot of work to do to have a completed, polished, full-length novel. Keep reading.

The Rough Draft Novel Revised in 8 Steps – Scene by Scene

pexels-photo-212286Go through your rough draft novel, scene by scene, and fully develop the following elements of your novel:

  1. Genre – ensure that the novel you’ve written and are writing is consistent with guidelines of the genre you’ve selected.
  1. Characters – identify and ensure you’ve correctly portrayed your character’s primary, complexity and contrasting traits in all the scenes.
  1. Scenes – every scene should allow the reader to get to know the characters better, build on the previous scenes, and move the story forward from initial insurmountable problem, to the obstacles along the way, to a satisfactory ending.
  1. Plot – write a short synopsis describing your plot and ensure that your novel hangs true to that plot throughout the novel (or change the plot’s theme). This is also a good time to prepare an “outline” of the plot.
  1. Subplot – ensure that the subplot supports the main plot in some way and flows well within the novel.
  1. Dialogue – what your character’s say and how they say it can really move a story or detract from it, so review the dialogue, expanding it, tightening it up, or adding elements of emotion to it when appropriate.
  1. Setting – enrich your settings of time and place, giving your story atmosphere, without slowing down the story.
  1. Structure – review the structure and organization of your novel with the timeline. Are the scenes in order of occurrence? Are there concurrent scenes involving different characters (perhaps in a subplot)? Make sure there organization and structure will be clear to readers.

How to Start Writing a Novel Your Way

I realize that this “writing with abandon” approach may not work for everyone; many writers feel more in control of the writing process when they do some preplanning and take care of some of the elements of structure before beginning the writing process. I will be adding more articles to help with this process. I’m ticking down the topics you’ll find in my article Your Novel Writing Roadmap Found Here. Stay tuned!

If you find this article helpful, please share it with your friends. Also, I’d love for you to tell me what method(s) of writing a novel work best for you. Have you tried writing with abandon?


4 thoughts on “How to Start Writing a Novel from Rough Draft to Smooth Finish”

  1. For my novel, I first was inspired than as ideas came to mind, I wrote them down to keep track.

    Then the writing started, I just write- not thinking. Its just the first draft so its going to be messy. This book of mine is a children’s fantasy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! The first draft is messy, but getting the story down is essential. When writing, I use the ‘comment’ feature of Word to make note of holes I know I’ll have to fix in the next draft. This allows me to push on through and get my main story down. I have several drafts before I’m finished with a novel. No one gets it in the first draft! So keep writing your children’s fantasy and the best of luck to you! Keep me posted on how it’s going.


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