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So you want to write a novel? 8 bestselling authors tell you how

Write your next novel or book with these writing tips and advice from Elin Hilderbrand, Lisa Jewell, Kevin Wilson, Terry McMillan and other bestselling authors.
Woman with laptop computer and files at home
One of the most common questions I get asked by friends, family and readers is, “What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a novel?” My first answer is always to just do it.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

It’s true: Writing a book is challenging, but it’s also extremely exciting and rewarding. And if you’ve always wanted to write one, I’m here today to encourage you to go for it.

What started out as a childhood dream led to a couple of failed attempts (or as I like to call them, “learning drafts”) until I eventually, finally published two novels: “The Young Wives Club” and my latest, “Louisiana Lucky,” which is about three sisters who win the lottery (another dream, right?).

Julie Pennell books
Left: The first time I spotted my book for sale at my local grocery store; Right: Holding my second novel for the first time.Julie Pennell

The feeling of holding the final book in your hand for the first time is truly surreal, but I can honestly say that my proudest moment was finishing the first draft. There are still traces of my blood, sweat and tears scattered among the 100,000 words, but I can gladly say it’s worth it in the end.

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One of the most common questions I get asked by friends, family and readers is, “What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a novel?”

My first answer is always to just do it. I believe everyone has at least one story to tell so if you have the desire to write a book, you should absolutely go for it. After all, it can never be published if it’s not written first!

I know what you’re thinking, though: “Easier said than done.” Well, that’s where the next part of this story comes in. I asked some of today’s most well-known authors to share their advice for aspiring writers. Below, find out how Lisa Jewell, Elin Hilderbrand, Terry McMillan and other bestsellers create the magic they do — and steal their tricks to turn your own dream into reality.

1. Tell people you’re doing it. - Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell
Lisa JewellAndrew Whitton

Little did Lisa Jewell know that a bet with a friend when she was 27 years old would lead to her first book draft and a hugely successful career as an author. “It was only ever meant to be a bit of fun,” said the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Family Upstairs” and ”Then She Was Gone,” among other novels.

The year she was writing the draft for her first book, “Ralph’s Party” — which was ultimately published four years later — she committed herself to finishing it. And what kept her going? Telling other people about the project.

“I told everyone I knew, which meant that whenever I went out, everyone I met would say, ‘How’s the book going?’ and I’d have felt an idiot if I’d had to tell them I hadn’t actually written anything,” she said.

"Then She Was Gone: A Novel," by Lisa Jewell

2. Need an idea? Make a list. - Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson
Kevin WilsonLeigh Anne Couch

If you know you want to write a book, but don’t have an idea yet, Kevin Wilson, author of numerous New York Times bestselling novels including “Nothing to See Here” (a former Read With Jenna book club pick) suggests making a list of your obsessions — a trick he says he learned from writer Kelly Link.

“I think I have the same obsessions that I keep returning to, trying to figure them out,” he said. “My own list looks like: spontaneous combustion, strange children, rural communities, magical tools, parents and children, etc.”

Wilson, who is also an associate professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, said he has his students do this exercise as well. “When I ask them to make this list, they have all these great and amazing obsessions, things they never thought to actually write about, and what we then figure out is how to use those obsessions as a starting point for the actual story that you want to tell,” he said. “If the idea has been living inside of you, something you think about every single day, how could you not want to write about it?”

"Nothing to See Here," by Kevin Wilson

3. Enlist friends to help you stay on track. - Kristy Woodson Harvey

Kristy Woodson Harvey
Kristy Woodson HarveyJay Ackerman

Kristy Woodson Harvey, author of popular Southern fiction novels, including her latest, “Feels Like Falling,” starts her mornings at 6:45 a.m. with author friends Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe (the quintet make up the popular “Friends and Fiction” Facebook Live weekly show for readers and writers). “Someone sends out a text to make sure we’re all there, we text out our (writing) goals and we report back when we’ve met them,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to start the day on the right track.”

While we all may not have a support system of bestselling authors, anyone can do this with friends who are interested in writing. Or, if you don’t have anyone in mind, you can always join the #5amwritersclub on Twitter where strangers cheer each other on and give accountability to one another.

"Feels Like Falling," by Kristy Woodson Harvey

4. Spend time with your characters. - Robinne Lee

Robinne Lee
Robinne LeeTheo & Juliet

“Character development is the most important part of the writing process to me,” said Robinne Lee, author of the hit novel “The Idea of You.” In fact, she can spend a whole year thinking about her individual characters, contemplating aspects of their lives: what the person's family tree looks like, what relationships they've had and the moments in their life that have made them who they are.

“I need to know how they speak, how they move, how they dress, how they behave in every situation possible,” she explained. “I need to know my characters like I know my own family. It’s only then that I can really begin to write.”

"The Idea of You: A Novel," by Robinne Lee

5. Show, don’t tell. - Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand
Elin HilderbrandNina Subin

While you’re drafting your novel, look for ways to engage readers. Elin Hilderbrand, No. 1 New York Times bestseller, uses the word “dramatize” to describe this important step.

“This was a buzzword at (the University of Iowa Writers Workshop where I started writing my first book), and what it meant, essentially, was ‘show, don’t tell,’” the author of “28 Summers” and numerous other novels said. “Put your characters in a scene — develop setting, dialogue and create conflict. What’s at stake?”

She added, “I’m reading a beautifully written book now by an acclaimed writer … and it’s slow going because this author is giving a lot of background and reflection and not enough present-moment drama. But this is the reason why I read: So I can see how other people succeed — or fail, as the case may be — and then I learn from it.”

"28 Summers," by Elin Hilderbrand

6. Write as if no one’s going to read it. - Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan
Terry McMillanMatthew Jordan Smith

“Writer’s block happens when a writer is trying too hard to be perfect,” said Terry McMillan, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” as well as her latest, “It’s Not All Downhill from Here.”

Giving yourself permission to write badly will also help in the beginning. In fact, one of McMillan’s tips is to not let anyone else read your draft until you’ve finished it. “Stop looking over your shoulder when you write because you will be supercritical and feel insecure, and some newcomers often lose faith in their work,” she said, adding that there will be many opportunities to go back and fix what you’ve written until you’re happy.

"It's Not All Downhill From Here," by Terry McMillan

7. Revise, revise, revise. - Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon
Nicola YoonSonya Sones

“I don’t have a writing career because I’m good at first drafts,” said No. 1 New York Times bestseller Nicola Yoon, who wrote, “Everything, Everything” and “The Sun is Also a Star.” “I have a career because I’m good at revising.”

Yoon suggests getting a critique partner or group to give you honest and thoughtful feedback. “Give yourself the time to internalize their feedback and then make the changes you agree with,” she said. “Repeat this process until you have something that says what you want it to say and that you’re proud of.”

"This Sun Is Also A Star," by Nicola Yoon

8. Know that it’s never too late to start. - Fiona Davis

Fiona Davis
Fiona DavisDeborah Feingold Photography

If you’ve always dreamed of writing a novel, but wonder if it’s too late, don’t let that stop you. Just ask Fiona Davis, author of popular historical fiction books, including her latest, “The Lions of Fifth Avenue.”

“I was in my mid-forties when I started writing my first book, and ‘The Dollhouse’ was published when I was 49,” she said. “Don’t feel that because you haven’t written a book by the time you’re 30 or 40 or 50 that there’s no chance. It wasn’t until I had an idea for a book that I wanted to read, but couldn’t find, that I even considered writing fiction.”

"The Lions of Fifth Avenue," by Fiona Davis