How To Plan a Novel

Look at that title! As though I’m an expert or something.

Of course, I am not. But this question was raised on Twitter this week and the answers were interesting, so I thought I’d bring it to the blog (the blog which is now TEN YEARS OLD, by the way! A bit like a proud mother I am asking myself, where have the years gone? It’ll be going to secondary school soon and wearing a fancy uniform).

The question ‘How do you plan a novel?’ was posed by a self-confessed ‘pantser’ – i.e.: someone who doesn’t plan at all but writes by the seat of his/her pants and just hopes for the best.

The first couple of times I did NaNoWriMo (which starts on Sunday, btw), I did it in a ‘pantser’ style which Did. Not. Work.

I haven’t read either of the ‘novels’ back since then (and perhaps I should because they might not be *all* bad) but my general feeling, when I reached 30th November and therefore the end of NaNoWriMo, was that I’d written mostly rubbish.

So, my advice – and something I followed last year when I did NaNoWriMo and wrote big chunks of the novel that I’m now trying to finish – is to do some planning, even if it’s rough and you fully expect it to change as you write.

Of course, some very successful novelists claim they don’t plan: they just write the book. Marian Keyes (who writes huge novels. Her latest, Grown-Ups, has so many characters that it needed a family tree printed at the front) and Richard Osman, whose Thursday Murder Club is the fastest selling debut crime novel EVER – have both said they don’t plan. They don’t have spreadsheets or character biographies or Post-It notes. I find that amazing but perhaps that’s just the kind of brain they have: they can hold it all in there.

I am in awe of crime writers who don’t know who committed the murder until they get near the end of the book (they work on the basis that if they don’t know, it’s almost impossible for the reader to know either). But how can they do that?!

Anyway, I digress.

If you are a pantser trying to be a plotter, there is a book called (I love this), “Take Off Your Pants” that might help. I haven’t read it myself so I can’t recommend it but it might be worth a look.

I have compiled some of the answers that were given to the ‘how do you plot a novel?’ question:

Some people swear by the ‘Snowflake’ method of planning. This starts with a one-sentence description of your novel and expands outwards from there. A bit like… you’ve got it. There’s lots of information on line if you want to find out more, for example, here.

Then there’s the ‘3 Act Structure (In very simple terms, that’s: Set-Up, Confrontation, Resolution).

Some people swear by ‘beat sheets

Or if that all sounds a bit too technical/formulaic/screenplay-ish for you, there are of course, trusty Post-It notes (move them around, have different colours for different viewpoints or characters or timelines). I have tried Post-It notes by the way – as you may remember from this post – but I find the whole process a bit too fiddly.

Some writers write a complete novel synopsis before they put pen to paper. Yup, they know the whole novel (or at least, all the important bits and the ending). The synopsis (1 or 2 pages max) by the way, is great for reminding you what the book is supposed to be about, if/when you go off course.

Other writers plan their novels using:

* A pile of scrappy notebooks.
* Index cards.
* Scraps of paper

A nice simple piece of advice was: List the scenes that are going in the novel. Write them. Put them in order later.

Some people swear by the software Scrivener and are evangelical about it (much in the way that I RAVE about my soup maker and lots of people think I’m weird and what’s wrong with a saucepan and a sieve, anyway?)

Scrivener seems to be one of those tools for novel writing that you either swear by or about which you say, “I couldn’t get on with it.”

I suspect, if I delved into it, it would just be another form of procrastination for me. Plus, I hate learning new things, especially new, techie things so I don’t think I have the patience to even start. But if you want to know more, apparently you can get a free 30-day trial.

What have I found works best for me?

After a lot (a lot!) of trial and error, my preferred method seems to be a simple Excel spreadsheet with each scene on a new line, the name of the point of view (POV) character and date in two other columns.

That way I can instantly see if I’ve forgotten a POV character for a while, or if I’ve got my days mixed up. It’s easy to change the order of the scenes and as I write each scene, I ‘colour in’ the cells, which is very motivating.

But that’s what works for me (at the moment, at least) and that’s the most important point to take away from this: everyone’s different.

You have to work out what works best for you (what does work best for you? Tell me if I’ve missed anything out!).

Maybe you’re one of those lucky people that can just keep it all in their head…!

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6 Responses to How To Plan a Novel

  1. My method is probably closest to the snowflake, but it tends to start in several points at once – the moment I have the basic idea, I also have several scenes, or snippets of dialogue, or images, in my head.

    I think of it more as islands: I begin with just a few peaks sticking up above the water, and as I write I bring up more dry ground, and build causeways, and bridges, and eventually I’ve got a whole well-connected archipelago!

  2. Jenny Roman says:

    I used to start a spreadsheet something like yours, and then not use it! 🙄 I’ve just bought Scrivener having heard loads of good things about it – so this will be my first NaNo attempt using it. I suspect I won’t use all the features to begin with, but I’m liking the way you can see loads of bits at once and move stuff around easily. I’ll let you know how it goes! x

    • Yes, I know what you mean, Jenny. I’ve also started (lots of!) spreadsheets and not used them but I have got to the point (not far from the end) when I HAVE to have some way of seeing what I’ve got so far and trying to fit in all the bits that I’ve written or need to write. Someone described a novel as a string of beads, with all the scenes and chapters as the beads. I have some gaps on my necklace! The best way – at least so I can see it all in one view – seems to be the spreadsheet. Yes, I’d be interested to hear how you get on with Scrivener! Good luck!

  3. Linda says:

    Thanks for such a brilliant post. I’m a bit of pantster myself but trying to become a plotter as I have my writing going in all different directions and then having to ditch it all. I will definitely try that book. I’m trying to get into a new novel at the moment and finding it tough going. I’ve tried the snowflake method but I hate being tied down. My new effort is written from three female points of view so I’ve tried to write down as much as I can about each of my characters, what their problems are, what they want to achieve and what’s stopping them. That way I hope to get to know my characters and work out character and plot along with way. Fingers crossed it will work. By the way, I’m with you on the soup maker – I love mine!!!!

    • Thanks for your comment Linda and good luck with your novel! It’s not easy is it? I’ve been beavering away on mine for the last couple of weeks, hence the lack of blog posts but hoping to remedy that later today!

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