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Prologue: Understand what you’re in for

Trying to crank out the first draft of a novel in a month is an intense undertaking.

Although NaNoWriMo’s ideal first draft word count of 50,000 words is less than the generally accepted industry average of 80,000-100,000 words, it can still feel overwhelming.

While you should always be passionate about your novel’s concept, if you’ve never tried to write an entire book before, strategizing and planning are key.

Our first word to the wise is that you should be prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

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1. Outline your story

Before you start hammering out chapter after chapter, it’s important to create an outline that sketches out the main plot points and character arcs.

Your outline doesn’t need to be an exhaustive play-by-play of the entire novel, but it will be extremely helpful to map out your story in broad strokes..

Set down some basics about your setting, your characters, and your plot, and feel free to sketch out important scenes or include snippets of dialogue.

Once you’ve got a solid outline and know the general structure of your story, you’re ready to knock out a first draft.

2. Write the first draft

Many authors with a few books under their belt do recommend writing your draft as quickly as possible.

Stephen King famously said that writers should bang out their first draft in three months, but that works out to a finger-blistering output of 10 pages a day.

If you commit to writing 500 words a day, seven days a week, the online education platform Masterclass says writing your first draft would take five and a half months.

Here are three suggestions that might help you to complete your first draft.

  • First: Stick to a game plan.
  • Second: Save editing and polishing for later.
  • Third: Seek out feedback from a person whose opinion you trust.

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3. Edit, workshop and revise

older man sitting in front of a typewriter, holding his head in his hands
Stock-Asso / Shutterstock

Once you finish writing your first draft, pat yourself on the back and set it aside for a week or two. Once you’re confident that you can pick it up with fresh eyes, do an initial edit yourself.

It may be helpful to think of your second draft as the learning phase of novel-writing.

Masterclass suggests tackling your second draft in sections: First, fix all the character arcs; then plot holes; then remove plot points that don’t contribute to the overall narrative arc.

Remember: Although a novel can be a few hundred pages long, each word in it should have a purpose.

Once your second draft is done, it’s time to workshop it with a writer’s group.

Joining a local writer’s group is a valuable step, because it will put you in contact with other writers who are willing to exchange feedback for free.

You may also want to pony up some cash and hire a developmental editor — someone who will help you with the big picture.

Using a professional editor can potentially give you an advantage when you’re shopping your book to agents, since they’ve seen hundreds of manuscripts and will be able to give you objective feedback.

According to the rate sheet published by the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, the average price for a developmental editor is between $46-$50 an hour for a work of fiction or memoir.

After you have taken your editor’s suggestions into consideration and made the necessary changes to your manuscript, you should theoretically have something that is on par with what the industry is publishing. Now it’s time to shop it around.

4. Look for an agent

Our article assumes that you’ve written a novel-length work of fiction or nonfiction, approximately 360 double-spaced pages.

Conventional wisdom is that, to get your book “in the door,” you’ll need an agent.

According to publishing insider Jane Friedman, over 80% of books sold to publishing houses have been sold by agents.

Agents know how to negotiate contracts and advances, and they vouch for you in those initial meetings with the publishing houses.

There are many vetted lists of agents who are actively looking for new authors, such as this one, maintained by Reedsy.

In order to seal the deal with a literary agent, you first need to write a query letter — basically, a one-page elevator pitch for your book.

A query letter should contain:

  • The broad details, including the title of your book, the word count and its genre
  • The hook — what makes your book so special?
  • Your target audience (the more specific the better)
  • A short bio, including your platform and previous publishing credentials
  • A professional and polite closing

For fiction and memoir, it is recommended that you have a polished, full-length manuscript before you send out your query, so when an agent commits, you’re ready.

5. Prepare a book proposal

In order to get your agent actively shopping around your manuscript, you’ll also want to put a book proposal and some sample chapters together.

Your book proposal is a more intensive version of your query letter.

In general, your book proposal should include:

  • A general overview of your book
  • Your “about the author” paragraph
  • One or two sample chapters (not exceeding 10,000 words in length)
  • An analysis of other titles in your genre and where your book would “stand” in that company (this is where your previous genre research comes in handy)
  • Your target audience
  • A marketing plan

In terms of the sample chapters, your agent will typically request the first few chapters, which will show the publisher how enticing your book will be to a potential reader.

After your agent has taken your book proposal and sample chapters, your book is quite literally out of your hands — all you can do now is wait for a publisher to say yes.

Epilogue: You've got this

Writing a book is definitely a journey, full of highs (the excitement at your original idea), and lows (the seemingly never-ending rounds of edits).

But if it’s been a lifelong goal of yours, it doesn’t need to stay a pipe dream.

Even if you just write a little every day, when you string enough of those days together, eventually you’ll get to the last page.


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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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