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Take what you will from this process and build upon it in a way that best suits you. You may wish to use all of the steps, or you may wish to use only some, but the key is to work in a way that is best suited to you and your writing style.
Reasons to plan
Some people feel an overwhelming sense of fear when they stare at a blank page. Planning is one way to help you get started by ensuring you have a clear idea of what needs to happen and when.
Similarly, planning can help you write a clearly structured story faster than you might otherwise be able to; something I would argue is particularly important if you wish to be a prolific or full-time novelist.
Finally, planning is a way of reducing the feeling of uncertainty as new options and plot lines make themselves known during the writing process. By knowing exactly where you want your story to go, you can quickly determine which new sub-plots or endings have merit, and which should be abandoned.
When planning, DO NOT…
Spend more than a week of consecutive days planning. Every hour you spend planning is an hour you are not writing. Beware of over-planning and recognise when it is time to move on to the actual writing stage.
Spend time (or money!) on character designs, setting paintings etc. Fantasy and sci-fi writers I’m looking at you here. I am one of you, and I know the temptation, but publishers don’t care about it, and it distracts from the actual writing stages. Spend the money on an editor instead and if you really must have artwork, hire an artist after you’ve got your publishing contract.
Get distracted by other potential stories. If you come up with another idea that doesn’t fit within the current plan, write down a brief paragraph in a separate notebook or file and keep it handy for when you’ve finished this novel. Don’t start planning multiple stories at once.
The steps of planning a novel
Step 1: List the basics
List names of characters, aspects/traits of the setting(s), basic info on the storyline like the main conflict or any snippets of conversation or random scenes you might already have. This is your starting point.
Step 2: The main plot
There are several ways to approach this but, personally, I start with the end because I almost always know how I want it to conclude. Then, I go back to how it starts and then I figure out the middle. If it’s part of series, this stage is going to take a bit longer because each book will need to have a driving plot different to the overall series plot, e.g. for a trilogy, you’ll need four plots—one overarching and one for each book.
Step 3: Who are your characters?
There are various types of characters: main characters/protagonists, antagonists, mentors, power players, and minor characters. What roles do each of your characters play and how do they progress the story? Do they occupy more than one role? There’s no need to detail complex backgrounds yet—you just need to know how they fit in.
Step 4: Genre and Voice
Identify what genre you are writing in and what the stylistic elements are that readers will expect. Know your target audience and cater to them where you can. This will help you identify the right language, tone and voice you want to use.
Step 5: Character Profiles
It’s time to get to know each of your characters inside and out. Remember that each character is the main character of their own story so each of them should have beginnings, middles and ends of their own. They need to have their own motivations and goals, their own struggles and personalities. They should each play a unique role in the story. If during this process, you discover they don’t, then they may not be necessary, and you should consider cutting them altogether.
Step 6: Fill in the gaps
You’ve got your start, middle and end from step 3 but what about the rest? What happens in between? This is when you start looking at subplots which should be a bit easier now that you’ve started fleshing out your characters. You probably learnt a lot about them that you didn’t realise, and these can be weaved into subplots—love stories, friendships, secrets etc. These are where your supporting cast (power players, minor characters, mentors) all help, and sub-plots are a good way to progress the story as your characters get from A to B in the main plot. Ask yourself, how will these subplots help reveal character or propel the overall story?
Step 7: Worldbuilding
This part will take longer and be particularly important if you’re writing fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian but can be equally as important in any other fiction. Where are your characters? How does their world work? How is it different to or similar to our own world? But also, will the setting impact on the plot? How might the setting put a particular set of actions in motion? Map out your world to learn about its terrain and how vast it is. Are the timings you’ve got for characters moving around realistic? History can also be relevant: how has the land changed and how has use of the land changed?
Step 8: Build a timeline
Create a timeline of events in chronological order; even if you’re not going to write a linear story. Make sure that timing all works out (e.g. many authors have realised upon editing that their pregnant female character hasn’t yet given birth long after nine months!).
Step 9: Create a scene-list
Next to your timeline, start listing scenes and how they play out in one or two short sentences. What needs to happen and who is involved?
Step 10: Start sorting scenes into chapters
This will help you figure out how long your chapters need to be and what the pace of your novel will be like. Short, sharp scenes make for faster pacing while longer more descriptive passages will result in slower paces. This should help you address any pacing issues early on. It’s also where you can start moving scenes around and playing with timing if you want to do flashbacks or coinciding timelines.
Step 11: Look for plot holes
Now that you’ve got it all in front of you, what’s missing? What doesn’t make sense? Is there something you’ve mentioned in a later chapter that maybe needs to be mentioned earlier to avoid confusion?
Step 12: Write
You’ve done the planning, you’ve got the details, now it’s time to put it all down in wonderful words and start writing.
A final word
Don’t be afraid if not all goes to plan while you’re writing. Many authors talk about how the story changed from their original ideas so don’t be afraid to go off-script, but it may be worth doing a mini-replan if you start going on a big tangent to ensure you’re not wasting time on a plot that has no clear resolution.
If all of the above seems like way more work than you think is necessary, I also highly recommend this Evernote post on 12 Creative Writing Templates for Planning Your Novel, which are exceedingly helpful especially if having an existing file to work from helps you order your thoughts.
Good luck and happy writing!