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How to write a novel

This list is adapted from an article on my website, Shock Notes.

Joanna Penn has been an inspiration to writers around the world for over a decade. She wrote over eighteen novels and novellas over the course of her career so far, as well as many non-fiction books to help writers with their craft. Her most recent non-fiction book, How to Write a Novel, is aimed at writers interested in writing their first novel.

Here are my favorite takeaways from the book.


    1. Keep it simple

    “All you need for a story is:

    • A character In a setting
    • Who has a goal
    • Who has to overcome all kinds of conflict on the way to achieving that goal while
    • Someone or something tries to stop them
    • The character either achieves their goal or fails
    • And along the way, they go through some kind of transformation”

    2. Realistic characters

    “Realistic characters must each have flaws, strengths, and traumas”

    3. Don’t overuse dialogue tags

    “replace dialogue tags with character action, so the reader knows who is speaking. For example: Morgan walked over to the window and looked out at the sparkling blue water. ‘The key is out there somewhere. We just have to find it.'”

    4. Discard your first three ideas

    “As [James Patterson] outlines, he considers multiple endings to each scene, and says, “When there are big plot points, discard your first idea, and your second, and your third. Otherwise, it will be obvious to the reader.””

    5. How Joanna Penn reads fiction

    “I only read fiction in ebook format these days, and here’s how I shop. I find out about a book somehow —through social media, or a podcast, or a recommendation, or browsing in a physical bookstore. It might also be through browsing categories on Amazon, or through a recommendation email from a promotional site. If I like the look of the cover and title, I read the description. If it sounds like my kind of thing, I download a sample. If you’re not an ebook reader, then a sample is a certain number of pages from the beginning of the book. The length of the sample is determined by the length of the book, so it might only be a few chapters. If I already know that I like the author’s books, I might buy immediately, but 95 percent of the time, I download a sample. I have several hundred samples on my Kindle at any one time. If the book is not available on Kindle, I might add it to my Wishlist and revisit in a few months’ time to see if it’s out in ebook yet. When I want to read a novel, I go through my samples and start reading one of them. If I’m not engaged in the first few pages, I delete the sample. If I read to the end, I buy the book and continue reading.”

    6. Blocking out writing time

    “Schedule time blocks for writing —and only write in that time Scheduling your writing time really is the secret to completing a novel. If you get your butt in the chair, or stand and dictate, for consistent periods of time, you will finish a draft. Get out your calendar and schedule time for writing, as you would for any other important commitment. If you can’t block out hours of free time, schedule smaller chunks, or postpone other commitments until you’re finished. Turn up for that meeting with yourself and write.”

    7. Dictating your story

    “Since most people carry a phone anyway, it makes sense to use it for dictation . There are many apps . Some are free, some have subscriptions, and most sync with the cloud so you don’t have to worry about losing your recordings. Options include Dragon Anywhere, Dictation, Dictate Pro, and apps like, which use artificial intelligence to transcribe. I also have a handheld Sony ICD-PX333 MP3 recording device which I sometimes use when out walking and dictating to conserve my phone battery. The quality of your recordings on the move will be better if you use a microphone or headset. There are some with wind and noise-cancellation settings, with options improving all the time.”

    8. Developmental or structural edits are important for new authors

    “An editor reads your manuscript and gives feedback on specific aspects, character, plot, story structure, and anything else pertinent to improving the novel. It is sometimes described as a manuscript critique. You will receive a report, usually ten to fifteen pages, with notes on your novel, which you can then use in another round of self-editing. While this is not always necessary, it can be a valuable step and something I appreciated particularly for my first novel when I had so much to learn.”

    9. Beta readers, specialist readers, and/ or sensitivity readers

    “Some authors use different types of readers as part of their editing process. Beta readers are often part of the author’s community and are certainly fans of the genre. They read to help the author pick up any issues pre-publication. Specialist readers are those with knowledge about a topic included in the story. For example, a vulcanologist read specific chapters of Risen Gods to check that the details about volcanic eruptions were correct. Sensitivity readers check for stereotypes, biases, problematic language, and other diversity issues. You will usually receive comments or an email with page numbers or chapter numbers, or sometimes an MS Word document with Track Changes, which you then use to make revisions. Many readers provide services for the love of helping their favorite author with a novel and a mention in the acknowledgments, but there are some paid services for specialist and sensitivity readers.”

    10. Finding the right editor

    “finding an editor is like dating. You have to do it for yourself, and it’s likely that you will try a few before you find your perfect match. You may also change editors over your writing life as your craft develops and your needs shift, and that’s completely normal too. Make sure the editor has experience in and enjoys your genre . You don’t want a literary historical fiction editor working on your YA paranormal romance or your hard sci-fi adventure. Ensure that the editor has testimonials from happy clients, and check directly with a named author if you have doubts. Some editors will offer a sample edit for one chapter. This helps both parties decide whether working together is appropriate. The editor can assess what level your manuscript is at, and you can decide whether their editorial style is right for you.”

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