How to write a novel


07 May 2020
Novelist Kate Lord Brown, whose debut novel The Beauty Chorus has been reissued to tie in with VE Day, outlines six simple steps
How to write a novel Images

How many times have you read a book and thought that you could do better? Or perhaps you have always wanted to write a novel, but ‘never had the time’?

81% of people would like to write a book. Only 10% of them actually do – an achievement in itself. If you aspire to be the next J K Rowling or John Grisham, however, 98% of these manuscripts submitted to publishers and agents are rejected. If you dream of seeing your novel in print, there are simple steps you can take to give you the best shot at being in the 2% of novels that are published.


Inspiration is all around you. The idea for a novel can come from a newspaper story, a conversation overhead in a café, or a long-hidden family secret. You are looking for an idea, a conflict that resonates – something you have to write about. To brainstorm an idea, try using mind maps. Once you have some ideas roughed out, it is time to summarise your story.

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Perfect your 'elevator pitch'

Before you start writing, summarise your idea in under fifteen words. Imagine you have your dream publisher cornered in an elevator and you have a few seconds to sell your idea. For example, with The Beauty Chorus it could be: ‘Top Gun with women pilots’.


Develop this sentence into a paragraph, then a page. Flesh out the details, the key characters, the conflict. At this early stage your novel can go anywhere – what you want is a page turning plot, strong characters and a rich sense of setting and time. Let’s look at each of these in turn:


Plot is the organisation of a story. Plot plays with causality and mystery, it needs tension on every page. It’s always a good idea to start your novel in the middle of the action, when your main character, (the protagonist), has to do something. Plot the book so the opening is so gripping, the reader has to buy the book. You can always go back in time and fill in back-story later.

A novel is a crisis from beginning to end – you are catching your protagonist at a key moment in their life. But you need to vary the pace and tension of the story or you will exhaust your reader. You’re aiming for your story arc to resemble a rollercoaster ride. When you are writing your first novel, it’s hard to go wrong with this simple formula for plotting the ‘acts’ of the story:
One:  contains 25% of the action, ends with a surprise/shock
Two:  contains 50% of the action – at the midpoint of the book (say 50,000 words for a 100,000 word novel) there is another surprise, and a further change or confrontation that builds the tension at the end of this act at 75%
Three:  contains the final 25% of the story – the final challenges, confrontation and resolution.


Once you have an idea of your story and plot, it’s time to get to know your characters better than your family and friends. I write a profile for each character before starting out. Your protagonist is the character changed most by the story. Devise an antagonist, (the protagonist’s nemesis), who is their equal, but in opposition to them.

A great story needs a protagonist who is emotionally deep, and has coherent reactions. Unlike real life, where every person is infinitely complex, fictional characters have only a few driving traits and flaws. Give your protagonist a clear goal. Goals spark action. And action = drama = emotion. For your reader to invest in the protagonist, they need to ride the rollercoaster alongside them – to understand their goals.


What makes a story unique is your perception. Give two writers the same setting to describe and they will notice different things. When researching settings it’s always good to ask: what would your senses tell you? What do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? Do your research so that you know your imaginary world as well as the world you live in now. When you are first writing, it is perhaps safer to go with ‘writing what you know’, but in time I’d say ‘write about what you would like to know’. One of the great joys is that you keep learning, keep exploring, keep travelling.

A commercial novel is anything from 80,000 words upwards. So if you write a 1,000 words a day for three months, you will have a first draft. This is not the point to send it to a publisher or agent. Let it cool off for a few weeks, and go back to it with fresh eyes. Someone said ‘writing is rewriting’. This is where you take your rough manuscript, and cut out anything that doesn’t help the story. Be your own copy editor - recheck your facts, spelling, grammar. Be your own actor – read it aloud to check if the dialogue sounds natural.

Write what you love and love what you write is the best advice anyone ever gave me. Discover that story which you have to write. Then edit it until it’s the very best it can be. This final push will give you the best chance to get into the 2% of manuscripts accepted for publication. Another tip is to make sure you send it to an agent or publisher who deals with books like yours. Don’t send crime to a romance publisher, or sci-fi to an agent who specialises in non-fiction. Try looking at the acknowledgements in the back of a novel you’ve loved for the writer’s agent, or check the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for publishers.

Let me share a final secret – the biggest difference between the people who dream of writing a novel, and those that are published is not only talent. It’s discipline, and determination. You don’t have time to write? Think again – get up an hour early before work, or write when your children are napping (I’ve done both, they work). The thought of writing a whole novel is daunting, but if you write a little every day, it adds up. If you really want to write a book, you can do it.

Five top writing tips

• Write every day – keep a notebook on you to catch ideas before they fly away

• Read every day – books that inspire you, genres you love. Learn what works

• Join a writers’ group – at home or online

• Make a playlist for your story – music is a catalyst for ideas and emotions

• Write from the heart - not what you think the market wants

Three of the best books on writing

On Writing, Stephen King

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

Kate grew up in the wild and beautiful Devon countryside. After studying philosophy at Durham University and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, she worked as an international art consultant, curating collections for embassies and palaces in Europe and the Middle East. She is married to a pilot, and lives with her family in Qatar. Her debut novel The Beauty Chorus was inspired by the many hours she spent on airfields in the UK, and the experiences of pilots in her family during WW2. It has just been released as a tenth anniversary ebook to raise funds for the NHS.


An ebook of Kate Lord-Brown’s debut novel The Beauty Chorus has been reissued to tie in with VE day, with 50% of the profits going to the NHS, available on Smashwords

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