Alright, alright. I know. This blog post has been done time and time again, but you should definitely listen to me because I’m right… Or, I mean… I don’t know. You’re here anyway. Plus, it’s always good to explore different perspectives and approaches. Okay, so I’m not great at selling blog posts. But here’s the 1st of 5 steps to novel writing. The remaining 4 steps will be their own posts.
You Do You
This is not a step, this is just the best writing advice I have. If you don’t listen to me about anything else, at least listen to me here. You need to figure out what works for you. No one can actually tell you how to write a novel. People can give you advice that works for them, and that’s it. Some of that advice will work for you too and some won’t. The only way to discover how to write a novel is to sit down and write one.
Be open minded. Try different things. Explore. Know yourself. Don’t be ashamed if something other people swear by isn’t your thing. Chances are (and, sorry, this is a hard truth) your book isn’t going to make you much money, so you might as well enjoy the process. If you’re writing for riches, you’re kidding yourself. That said, if you enjoy researching the market and writing what you think will sell, then do it! The point is to write what you want to write the way you want to write it. If everyone did everything the exact same way, the world of literature would be boring!
In the words of Scott McCloud, “There are no rules. And here they are:”
Outline… or Don’t
The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to write about. Maybe you already know, or maybe you need to brainstorm a bit. Take your time developing your ideas. Once your desire to write begins to form into an idea for a story, there are a few essential questions you need to answer:
- Who is your protagonist?
- What is your protagonist’s goal?
- What’s preventing them from achieving it?
- What happens if they don’t achieve it? What happens if they do? (What are the stakes?)
Once you have this basic information, you can start outlining. Or don’t. Believe it or not, lots of writers (even successful writers like Stephen King) have dabbled in the noble art of “pantsing.” This term comes from the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants.” What it means, as you might imagine, is writing without a formal outline.
A few reasons why some people don’t outline:
- They believe it “takes the life” out of their work, making it formulaic and stiff.
- They end up not sticking to their outline anyway.
- They are motivated by having to figure out what happens next in a book, and figuring it all out ahead of time depletes that motivation.
- It feels more natural to get to know the characters and their world through the writing process.
And there are plenty of other valid reasons. On the other hand, pantsing can cause you more work in the long run. You’ll likely have a lot on your plate in the revision stage. After all, without a plan, you could end up taking the story in a totally different direction than you meant to. But this isn’t always the case. Some pantsers are able to see the book clearly in their mind even without an outline. And of course, everyone, whether they outline or not, will need to revise.
So, if pantsing is a legitimate method and you have to revise anyway, why outline? Here’s some great reasons for an outline:
- It keeps your writing on track.
- It helps you see the big picture.
- It ensures your book has all the required plot elements for your genre.
- It can prevent you from getting stuck.
- If you have to stop writing for an extended period of time, you can easily get back on track by checking your outline rather than relying on memory or starting over.
So how do you make an outline? The truth is, there is no “right” way. An outline can look however you want. Everyone can, does, and should outline in ways that work for them. Here are some common outlining methods you might want to try.
(I’ve made up these terms.)
This is exactly what it sounds like: simply jotting down little notes about what will happen in the book. It can be as simple as a list of keywords and phrases, to specific lines, to general concepts. You might keep these notes in a notebook or a document or even a napkin.
Whether you plan on eventually doing a full outline or if you want to try your luck at pantsing, noting is a great way to start. Getting your thoughts down can help you flesh out the story and provide a sense of direction.
You can also use a snowflake method, brainstorming tree, or other charts, scribbles, or doodles. As long as your thoughts end up on screen or paper, you’re doing it right.
This is a method of outlining that involves plotting specific elements of the story such as the inciting incident, turning points, and climax, then pantsing your way to those points. This is the method I use. I like knowing about specific points that will occur in the story, but not the details. I simply fill in the blanks as I go.
An effective way to use this method is to take a bare-bones plot template and write in the major elements. A good resource for templates is The Novel Factory. While you must pay for their full service, that link will take you to some of their free templates. They are basic but great for waypointing.
Some general waypoints all stories should have are (these go by many names):
- The inciting incident – This distinct moment is what thrusts your main character into the plot.
- Turning point one – This is when you character fully commits themselves to whatever it is the inciting incident pushed them to do.
- Midpoint – The center point of the story where things take a turn either for the better or worse. The stakes are raised and the main character is sent hurtling toward the climax.
- Turning point two – The main character realizes what they must do to resolve the story.
- Climax – The story is resolved.
Another common outlining method is to write what will happen chapter by chapter. This can be as detailed or as vague as you want, even being so vague as to also fall under “noting.” When using this method, you should try and remain aware of where basic plot elements fall in the book. The above templates can help you with that.
Once you’re done, you’ll want to review and revise your chapters to make sure they all work together and that you have included everything you intended/need.
There are tons of different questionnaires out there to help you craft your outline. Here’s one example. These questionnaires can help guide you through your plot. They work especially well if you’re not really sure how to get started. Keep in mind that these questionnaires are rarely an exhaustive list of everything you will need to know about your book, and many will have irrelevant questions for what you personally are trying to write.
Most commonly, I have seen writers utilizing these kinds of questionnaires when planning their characters. Character interviewing is a great way to get to know your characters before you start writing. Here is a character interview/profile of mine.
This is a method of breaking up your book into sections by word count. This might seem silly at first glance, but actually, it’s easy to do with a little basic math. Perhaps you are writing an adult sci-fi novel and your word count goal is 110,000 words. You can then estimate your mid-point to fall at around 55,000 words, and based off that, you might estimate Act 1 ending somewhere around 22,500 words. If you want each of your chapters to be around 3,500 words long, you can plan on writing at least 30 chapters. And so on and so forth.
Once you know your estimated word counts, you can plan your scenes and estimate the number of words it would take to write them. Many writers like to know scene-for-scene what is going to happen before they get started, even planning specific actions or lines of dialogue. Using word-counting can help you figure out where those scenes will go. It can also give you very clear goals to work toward and help keep everything in order, but it can be frustrating if you over or underestimate your count.
There are tons of other methods out there, and you don’t have to settle on just one. You might try lots of different types, or a combination of them, or make up your own. It all comes down to what works best for you. You can always use the magic google box for more ideas. You can also invest in outlining software such as Scrivener.
A few things you might think about in the outlining phase:
- Consider your audience. Who are you writing for? Children? Teens? Adults? Who specifically in those age ranges and why? Who will want to read your book?
- Even if you’re not a word-counter, you should still keep word count in mind. Here is a basic guide.
- Try condensing your book idea into a single sentence or log line. This will help you get a handle on exactly what’s important in your book.
- If you’re planning on querying your book to agents and publishers, you might consider writing a query letter at this point. It likely won’t be the one you use in the end, but it’s good practice, and it might help you wrap your head around your story. Here’s a blog on query writing advice written by an agent.
- Even if you’re a pantser, your book must have a plot. Your book cannot just be a bunch of events happening. There needs to be something your protagonist is working toward, a central conflict, and something at stake. Refer back to the questions I asked at the beginning.
- Additionally, you must have character arcs. In other words, your characters must grow/change as the story progresses. They cannot stay the same. Here is some basic info on character arcs.
- The outlining phase is a good time to do any research you need for your book. However, it is equally common to do your research while writing or during the revising/editing phase, especially if you’re already knowledgeable in the subject matter you’re tackling.
Stay tuned for pt.2: DRAFTING, coming in October!