What is a Novel?

Becoming a published novelist is mostly a matter of talent, persistence, and luck. First, you have to write very well—well enough to stand out against the competition—and then you have to send your material until it reaches someone who appreciates it as much as you do. It takes drive and determination, and many years of dedication to the craft. We answer your most common questions about novel writing below along with detailed information to help you write a successful novel.

Table of Contents

What is a novel?
The definition of a novel.

What is a genre novel?
Find out what a genre is and why you need to choose one.

What types of categories are there?
We explore literary and commercial fiction.

How is a novel structured?
We cover the essential elements of a novel.

What kind of planning should I do before writing?
Tips and suggestions on what you should do before you start writing.

How much time will it take to write a novel?
The importance of goal setting and time management.

How do I write a novel?

How to avoid common mistakes, and tools to help improve your writing.

I’ve written a novel. Now what?

How to submit your novel.

How do I get my novel published?

A review of traditional and self-publishing.

What is a novel?

A novel is a piece of long narrative in literary prose. Narrative prose is meant to entertain and tell a story. It is a description of a chain of events which includes a cast of characters, a setting, and an ending. Most publishers prefer novels that are in the 80,000- to 120,000-word range, depending on the genre.

What is a genre novel?

The term genre is generally used to describe fiction that has certain expectations and conventions; some specific genres are romance, mystery, horror, westerns, science fiction, and fantasy.

Genre novels must adhere to the styles, and conventions of their category in order to meet readers’ expectations. For example, readers of mysteries assume any novel in that genre will start with a crime or threat of a crime, provide clues and possible motives throughout the story, and conclude with a resolution of the problem, i.e., the criminal being brought to justice, or the evil plan being thwarted.

Readers of romance expect to encounter a hero and heroine who feel intensely attracted to each other, undergo some sort of conflict that complicates their relationship, and resolve that complication so the romance can flourish (and often result in marriage).

In order to understand the conventions of each genre, you should read several books in that category and note the similar structures, plot devices, and character types within them.

It’s important to choose one genre. While you may be able to find a publisher willing to take a risk on a cross-genre book, most agents and editors look for stories they can easily target to a specific audience. Without a firm categorization, your book is a difficult pitch to store buyers, and it’s a difficult sell to readers. It’s best to push the boundaries of a genre—and stay well within it—rather than struggle to find a publisher for a cross-genre work.

Ask yourself—does my novel appeal mostly to romance readers, mystery readers, sci-fi readers, etc? Use your answer to help identify the one audience that would be most interested in your story. Knowing this can increase your chances of success because you’re aligning your work with one genre that’s at the heart of your story.

What types of categories are there?

In general, fiction is divided into literary fiction and commercial fiction (also called mainstream fiction).

Literary fiction is more concerned with style and characterization than commercial fiction. (Characterization is the author's expression of a character's personality through the use of action, dialogue, thought, or commentary by the narrator or another character.) Literary fiction is also usually paced more slowly. Typically it is centered around a timeless, complex theme, and lacks a happy ending. Some examples of literary fiction are books by Toni Morrison and John Updike.

On the other hand, mainstream fiction is faster paced, with a stronger plot line, such as more events, higher stakes, and more dangerous situations. The theme is usually obvious and the language used isn’t complex. Also, characterization is generally not as central to the story.

The biggest difference between literary and commercial fiction is that editors expect to make a substantial profit from selling a commercial book but not necessarily from selling literary fiction. Audiences for commercial fiction are larger than those for literary fiction. Some examples of commercial fiction authors are Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Stephen King.

How is a novel structured?

The essential elements of a novel include chapters, characters, such as a protagonist and antagonist, dialogue, point of view, theme, setting, and plot.

First, let’s address what a chapter is. Chapter divisions are an author’s means of organizing the major events and developments in your novel and provide easy transitions in time, place, or point of view. Many writers and agents like to have a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter that keeps people reading and on the edge of their seat. What and how much goes into a chapter is up to you.

Changing scenes within a chapter can be accomplished by a simple paragraph change, using a transition phrase like The next morning she … Or it can be accomplished by leaving blank lines between paragraphs, a technique especially helpful when the scene change also involves a change in viewpoint.

Characterization is one of many important elements of fiction. A character is a participant in the story. Some examples of characters are protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the main character of a story, the one the author spends the most time exploring or developing and the one whose conflict moves the plot along. Sometimes the protagonist can also be the story’s first-person narrator. The antagonist is the character who opposes the protagonist, or the hero and provides the story’s conflict.

dialogue is an essential element of fiction and, to some degree, memoir. Dialogue consists of conversations between two or more people, and can be used heavily or sparsely.

A good dialogue positively affects pacing—makes a novel easier to read by relieving the reader from long descriptive passages—it also effectively characterizes and adds to the reality of the speakers. Dialogue can also take the place of long character descriptions because what a character says about himself/herself and how a character speaks about others should give clues to his/her personality, emotions, attitudes, opinions, and desires. In addition to reveling character, good dialogue must also advance the plot by giving information that heightens conflict or by building tension between characters.

Plotting is just storytelling with extra attention to form. The story is a sequence of events; the plot is the larger change that happens through those events.

You can identify a plot by a change: your protagonist’s circumstances change over the course of the novel.

The two dimensions of the plot are the action plot, which is the change in circumstances, and the emotional plot, which is the characterlogical or emotional changes for the protagonist.

A plot matters only if readers are interested in the characters involved. A plot should be designed to take your character to the emotional point, while leading the reader (and likely the characters) to the points of or the questions raised by the thematic point, all while giving the reader the experiences in the experiential point.

Your plot is over when the changes have been completed, and/or when all of the points have been achieved. You want your novel to start as close to the beginning of one of these changes as possible. Once you’ve reached the climax of both kinds of plot, the book should end within three chapters.

A point of view refers to the perspective from which the story is told. There are three additional points of view—first-person narration, third-person omniscient and third-person limited.

Choose one point of view that works best for your plot, characters, and setting. Ask yourself, what would I want my characters to think or say?

In first-person narration, the narrator—often the protagonist—tells the story from his/her perspective, and the information given to the readers is filtered through this character. Some examples of books with first-person narration are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

In third-person omniscient, the story is narrated by an all-knowing voice that does not belong to any one character but instead gives readers access to the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of all characters. The narrator refers to the characters using third-person pronouns. An example of this is in the books The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Finally, a third-person point of view is a story narrated by a removed voice that does not belong to any one character but focuses on a single character and only gives the readers access to the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of that focused character. The narrator refers to the characters using third-person pronouns. An example of this is Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

Another element is the theme, which is the point a writer wishes to make. It poses a question—a human problem.

Lastly, a setting is the time and location in which a story takes place. The location and time frame of your story is more than just a stage for your characters. In some cases, the setting becomes a character itself. And the entire attendant details—societal conventions, seashores, mountains, regional dialects—determine the overall tone. Setting and description become essential in your novel because it has to have a setting rich enough to match the story you intend to tell.

What kind of planning should I do before writing?

Planning methods differ among writers, who often modify their systems as they gain experience and maturity. Some writers are satisfied with a brief summary of the plot, the character’s conflict, and the resolution. Others may put together as many as fifty or a hundred pages of detailed charts of action, character, and environment sketches—also known as outlining.

Writers who advocate outlining say that it cuts down on wasted time and endless revision because you understand your characters at the outset and can produce a logical plot. On the other hand, writers who are against outlining say it inhibits creativity and inspiration, and even prevents them from finding the true line through the story. You’ll have to decide for yourself what makes sense for you. Perhaps it would be useful to begin with an outline but give yourself permission to go off script and revise your original outline if you get new and better ideas once you start writing.

Doing research is also a part of the outlining stage. As you add each scene, make a note of any research required to complete that step. Managing the results of your research requires good note taking and leaving yourself a retraceable path back to the source. For information gleaned from printed sources, make a photocopy of the material itself and be sure to note the source title, publisher, publication date, the page numbers, and where you physically located the source. Keeping this information right on the copy will help you document your work and locate the source if you need it again. If you’re doing research online, print out relevant pages and make sure that the website appears on your printout. Bookmark any sources you think you’ll return to often.

Your research should be carefully woven into the story, not dropped in awkwardly in a way that interrupts the flow. It might helpful to you if you study good novels to see how research is integrated, or read interviews with novelists to see how they approach it.

Remember—the single most important factor determining whether you succeed and get published is the quality of your writing. A good story well written is key. To prepare for writing your novel, consider taking a class from Writers Digest University, which offers workshops, critique services, live webinars, and on-demand tutorials for writers of all experience levels. Need to sharpen your grammar skills? Take Elements of Effective Writing I. Is it your first time writing a novel? Take the 12 Weeks to a First Draft workshop. Could your novel benefit from additional critique? Use our 2nd Draft Critique Service.

How much time will it take to write a novel?

It’s up to you on how long it will take to write a novel. Some writers want to write a novel within 30 days, some in 60 or 90 days, and others can take years. What’s important is that you set a goal, keep yourself motivated, and manage your time wisely.

In order to become a successful author, time management is essential. Make writing the first task in your day. That way you can avoid too many distractions that come on once the day has begun. After all, time management is really self-management.

Focus on your goal and eliminate negativity. Don’t ask for time—make time to write. After all, it is important to you. Make appointments with yourself. When you have concrete plans, it is much easier to say no to others without making up excuses. Appointments also tell your creative brain that writing is important.

Write down a list of your main priorities. This will help you draw the line when requests are made for your time. Lastly, don’t be afraid to say no. Know your wants as well as your don’t-wants. You want to write, so act and plan accordingly.

How do I write a novel?

Once you have prepared an outline, done your research, developed a setting, created characters, wrote a plot, and decided on a theme and point of view, you’re ready to write a novel. Take your time to write and avoid these common beginner mistakes: including too many details of ordinary life that don’t contribute to character or plot; going overboard on the adjectives and adverbs; and including flashbacks, which often prevent the story from moving forward.

I’ve written a novel. Now what?

After you’ve completed a solid, polished novel, you’ll need to create an equally polished fiction proposal to present to an agent or editor. A standard proposal consists of:
  • A query, which is a letter written to an agent or a potential market to elicit interest in a writer’s work.
  • A synopsis or brief summary of your novel.
  • The first three chapters or first 50 pages (commonly called a partial) of the manuscript
The contents of your query letter, synopsis, and partial will play a part in how the editor or agent you submit to responds to your story. Be sure your submission is clean, professional, consistent, and intriguing. Armed with a great story and well-written proposal, you can have editors and agents begging for your manuscript!

How do I get my novel published?

Whether you would like to self-publish or go the traditional route, we cover it all in this article.

Additional Resources