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How to become a novelist: 10 top authors’ tips

Published authors know there are many steps to how to become a novelist. You need discipline, imagination and planning skills to become a writer. These ten helpful quotes by bestselling authors describe some of the most important steps to becoming a writer. When you’re finished reading, try the now novel process to finish writing a book.

Published authors know there are many steps to how to become a novelist. You need discipline,  imagination and planning skills to become a writer. These ten helpful quotes by bestselling authors describe some of the most important steps to becoming a writer. When you’re finished reading, try the now novel process to finish writing a book.

Step 1: Find the story that feels most necessary to you

In an interview for the Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast, the celebrated author Salman Rushdie gives excellent advice on how to become a novelist. For Rushdie, telling the story that feels vital to you is crucial:

‘You know, it’s not just a choice of a job or a career. It really is in the old fashioned sense of a calling– it’s a vocation. And writing speaks to something very deep inside the person doing it.

And it’s necessary– it’s necessary to the writer. And I’ve always thought that the only books worth writing are books of that sort. Books that are necessary to the writer.’

While thinking about the market for your novel is important if you want to sell books (who doesn’t want to sell books?), finding stories that you can infuse with your own passions or obsessions will help you connect with readers, regardless of their usual genre or subject interests. This is essential for reaching any audience.

Step 2: Seek character-building experiences for writing inspiration

Becoming a novelist requires learning how to ‘become’ other people. You have to get inside the minds and lives of your characters. Having varied experiences helps, according to bestselling author John Sandford:

You really need to stack up as much experience as you can if you’re going to be a writer. Those experiences can be mined forever. I’ve been doing it for years. I was in army and was a journalist. When I was in the army, the mixture of kids to whom I was exposed was incredible. For a young writer, those experiences can be really valuable.

Immerse yourself in new experiences and keep a journal where you can note down your experiences for later reflection and use.

Step 3: Become a better writer before you chase reward

Harper Lee was always a straight-talking author. Although she shied away from publicity, she gave a radio interview in 1964, sharing the following advice on becoming a novelist:

Hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed […] You must come to terms with yourself about your writing. You must not write ‘for’ something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward … People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers. 

Follow Lee’s advice and make the pleasure and the growth of telling a complete story your primary goal. Practice enough and your prospects of publication will grow, besides.

Step 4: Write a first draft and treat it as process work

How to become a novelist according to Gillian Flynn

Author Gillian Flynn’s mystery thriller novel Gone Girl spent 8 weeks at the top of The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list. David Fincher later made a film adaptation (for which Flynn wrote the screenplay, too). In an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, Flynn responded to a fan who asked for advice on becoming an author:

‘I had to kind of sneak up on [my first novel] and not let it know it might be a novel. No opening line, no title, nothing. Anne Lamott has an absolutely fantastic book about writing called Bird by Bird. The title means to look at one piece of the novel at a time, not the Whole Big Novel because that will feel too daunting. I agree: I take it page by page. Don’t worry if you spend a whole day and read what you’ve written and realize it’s absolute crap. That’s STILL work. Sometimes you have to get the crappy ideas and the awful, cliched writing out of your system in order to get to the real stuff. My entire first draft of a book is just me figuring out what the hell it is I’m actually interested in and trying to get at: What the point of the book is.’

Don’t put so much pressure on your first draft that it stalls. Take time to outline, get to know your characters and find what it is specifically you want to say, as well as how you want to say it. That’s a fundamental step towards becoming a focused writer.

Step 5: Find a productive time to write

Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison shared her experience of writing while caring for two young children with The Paris Review. What started out as writing in the early morning out of necessity became a crucial writing habit:

Eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.

Whether you’re a morning person or night owl, find a time that lets you write without distraction. Sometimes you have to steal moments and half hours where you can. If time is limited, think of other ways of getting a rough draft down, such as recording your story orally with a voice recorder while otherwise occupied.

Step 6: Cultivate perseverance

One of the most important steps in how to become a novelist is mental rather than practical. You have to convince yourself that writing a book is important and cultivate an attitude of perseverance. Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, makes this her number one piece of advice to aspiring authors in an interview with Daniel Ford for Writer’s Bone:

‘Perseverance is all, and whenever you’re feeling disheartened, read On Writing by Stephen King. He knows of what he speaks, and he’s really funny, too.’

Step 7: Create a space where your imagination can work freely

To become a productive novelist, you need to be able to have productive writing sessions. Sometimes, if you feel stuck, a change of surrounds is all you need. The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk describes how he needs a dedicated space for imaginative work:

‘I have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination. They kill the demon in me. The domestic, tame daily routine makes the longing for the other world, which the imagination needs to operate, fade away. So for years I always had an office or a little place outside the house to work in.’

Of course, the idea of having separate space is a privileged one, especially if you share a very small living space. In this case, you could spend time writing in a quiet public space such as a public library.

Step 8: Don’t let your own or other people’s doubts get in your way

Sometimes when you tell other people you want to become a novelist, you’ll meet disuasion. But don’t let other people’s doubts (or your own) about writing or publishing or any other aspect of being an author get in your way. When a young writer tweeted J.K. Rowling saying that her parents said writing was ‘not a worthy profession’, here’s what the successful author replied:

Step 9: Start writing down everything you don’t want to forget

David Mitchell shares his insights on how to become an author

To become a novelist it’s important to become open to new ideas, experiences and information. Every new encounter, adventure or previously unknown fact potentially holds a story. David Mitchell, whose novel Cloud Atlas was adapted into a big budget Hollywood movie, offered this advice on becoming an author in his own Reddit AMA:

‘Read, read and read, especially the masters – if something’s been in print for 80 years, it’s going to have qualities you can learn from and use. Live as omnivorously as you can without hurting anyone or breaking the law, and get your heart broken a few times. And practice: just write things down that you don’t want to forget.’

Mitchell’s advice is important: Keep a journal, not only for recording day to day thoughts but also for recording words, turns of phrase and impressions that strike you and are worthy of remembering.

Step 10: Market yourself and your work consciously

Margaret Atwood, the distinguished Canadian author and cultural critic has won the Booker Prize (amongst numerous others) for her vast body of work. With characteristic sly humour, Atwood offers the following advice to aspiring writers:

‘It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, nor so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium-sized shtick.

And avoid wearing mini-skirts up on stage unless you have very good legs. Zip your lower front apertures. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. People have cameras.’

Atwood touches on an important point: Your success as a writer depends on many interlinked things. Not just the quality of your writing but also the connections you make and the impressions you leave in the process of becoming novelist.

Finish your novel with a companion and a guide when you work one-on-one with a book writing coach.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

19 replies on “How to become a novelist: 10 top authors’ tips”

Hi Patrick,

Work hard at developing your writing skill and persevere despite setbacks and you could very well get there. Good luck!

How am I supposed to hone my language skills? While most of the time I can feel ideas and stories flowing in my mind it is just so challenging to write , or type, down the thoughts.
I think the biggest barrier for me is my not so strong command of the English language, especially the range of vocab that I have and how I make use of words. Aside from intensive reading is there any approach that I may try to work on this problem?

Hi Cleon, thank you for your question. As you say reading as much as you can and reading writing of different complexity levels (with a dictionary next to you if necessary!) will help. Besides that, try a good guide that systematically works through elements such as grammar, sentence construction, different figures of speech (like simile and metaphor) and so on. The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing is quite good!

Create a list of the parts of writing (or aspects of grammar) you struggle most with and order them from the biggest issue to the smallest. Then set aside ten or more minutes every day to work through this list until you can see improvement in each area. Good luck!

What’s a good number of chapters for a book? I wrote one with about 20 chapters but like 8 of them aren’t important. Also, what’s a good word count for chapters?

I want to be a writer. I dont know if I will be bad or a good writer, but I want to be a writer. I have a whole lot of thoughts, which many times I fail to process. And also I have difficulty with words. Can someone please advice me on how to overcome these issues

Hi Muzammil, thank you for sharing that. When you say ‘I have difficulty with words’ do you mean with vocabulary or difficulties of another kind?

For general language improvement, I strongly recommend doing online grammar exercises if this is an area you find difficult, such as Oxoford’s beginner, intermediate and advanced exercises here. Let me know if you have any questions! You can also reach as via email at help at now novel dot com.

I have poems and clips of my writings of my youner years, and I have so much drama with others trying so hard to shame my name and then hack my computers and emails. But I have not given up. But I need more help on bring my voice out .

I’m sorry to hear about the drama, Judy. I would suggest using a secure and long password you can save in a password-protected free security tool like KeePass if you’re worried about hacking.

Re: bringing out your voice, you may find this article on voice helpful. Although it applies more to characters, it may be helpful to think of the speaker of the poem as a character – who are they, what do they want, and what is their backstory? Good luck 🙂

Hi! I have lots of ideas for my writing, and that’s the problem. I want to do all of them, and can never decide (ex. I want the protagonist to be a poor dirty orphan AND a highly skilled princess and assasin) How can I become more decisive and make my stories the best they can be?

Hi Beth,

Thank you for your interesting question. For starters, I’d suggest seeing if there are ways you could combine all the elements that interest you (for example, what about a princess who loses her position in a revolt and is orphaned and has to become an assasin to survive?). This is an example of how you can take disparate elements such as the ideas you mentioned and weave them into a cohesive whole by thinking about cause and effect (e.g. ‘How could a princess and assassin also be a ‘poor dirty orphan’?).

Being decisive is a matter of drawing a line in the sand, of saying ‘this can’t be everything, but it can be this’. Remember too that a draft isn’t a Last Will & Testament. You can go back in adding things in or taking things out later in revision or redraft. Good luck!

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