How Much Should You Plan Before Starting a Novel?

by Ali on October 16, 2012

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Novel planning - using lined coloured post-it notes.

Thinking of writing a novel (perhaps for National Novel Writing Month)? Pretty much the first decision you’ll need to make is how much planning you’ll do in advance.

Some novelists like to plan out every chapter before they begin. Others pick up a blank page, write the first line, and keep going from there.

Most, though, fall somewhere in between those two extremes. They might have a rough outline that touches on major events in the story. They might plan the first few chapters. They might have detailed notes on characters, but only a hazy idea of the plot.

“Failing to Plan Means Planning to Fail” … Or Does It?

In life in general, I’m a planner.

I write a to-do list at the start of each day. I have detailed outlines for my non-fiction projects, like ebooks. And I’m definitely not the sort of easy-going traveller who likes to set off and see what turns up – I want to get my tickets and accommodation booked well in advance!

But …

When it comes to fiction, I’ve learnt that a plan isn’t necessarily all that helpful for me.

Every time I’ve attempted to plan a whole novel in advance, I’ve deviated wildly from the plan before the first ten chapters are done (often long before). Characters get added and deleted. Scenes morph unrecognisably. Unexpected backstories emerge.

This doesn’t mean that planning isn’t right for you, of course. You might have more patience than I do, so you’ll be happy to spend time thinking through the details in advance. You might be writing in a book that requires intricate plotting – a twisty-turny mystery, for instance.

Letting Your Characters Take the Lead

Some stories are plot-led; others are character-led – and these lend themselves to different types of writing.

Personally, I believe that characters are more important than plot, and that they’re crucial to the success of your book. Of course, a great story matters – but if your characters are poorly-drawn, readers will struggle to engage.

(When you think about some of your favourite books or even TV shows, there’s a good chance that what you love and remember about them is the characters, rather than the plot. Think of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for instance.)

Even if you’re writing in a very plot-driven genre, you still want intriguing characters. For a thriller, for instance, you’ll need a great villain – and a worthy hero.

Instead of planning out your plot in intricate detail, you can get to know your characters instead. Of course, you may find that aspects of their personality or backstory change as you write – but you can begin with a clear idea of who each character is and (crucially) of how they’re likely to relate to and come into conflict with one another.

I’ve used Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) for this; it’s a great repository of questions to get you thinking about who your characters really are. (And this goes far beyond jotting down a physical description, or deciding when their birthday is.)

Some writers talk about a sense that their characters “take over” as they write. This may not happen to you, but you should find that you have a clear sense of what actions fit with a particular character – or not. If part of your planned plot involves characters doing something that doesn’t fit, you’ll either want to rethink the plot, or come up with a good reason why a character acts in an unusually thoughtless / generous / idiotic way at a particular point.

Staying a Few Steps Ahead

Once you have a clear idea of who your characters are, I think it’s wise to plan out the first few scenes or chapters. You might only have a one-line description of each of these … but this is enough to keep you on track.

As you move forward with your writing, you can keep planning ahead slightly – not necessarily very far, but far enough that you know what each scene is aiming for, and how it should link to or contrast with the next.

I always like to know the ending before I begin – though occasionally I’ve had to wait for the right ending to come to me during the writing. When you’ve got the climax for your novel in mind, it’s easier to strike the right tone during the writing. (For instance, if you want to finish with a tragic death, you probably won’t want the first half of your book to seem like light-hearted comedy – you’ll have a lot of upset readers on your hands!)

Planning versus Editing

With any type of writing, there’s a correlation between planning and editing. The more planning you do before you write, the less editing you’ll need to do after you write.

When I write fiction, I like to write fast. I want to get the story down – even though it’s imperfect and littered with tangents and plot holes. I’ll then redraft the whole story from start to end, even if it’s a full novel. Some scenes will stay fairly close to the original; others will get cut, added and merged.

Other writers prefer to get things as right as possible the first time round. They plan further ahead, and have a clearer idea of how their whole novel (or short story) will be shaped. They’ll tidy up after the first draft, of course, but they won’t typically rewrite every word.

Neither approach is “correct” – they just suit different types of writer.

For me, one of the most enjoyable things about writing a first draft is the sense of excitement and possibility. I love watching the story unfold as I write – and there are always moments when I’m surprised and delighted by a new idea, or even a whole new direction for the plot. If that means throwing away three chapters that I’ve previous written, I don’t mind.

You might have a very different take on planning, of course! I’d love to hear about your approach and your experiences in the comments below.

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Adrienne Krogh October 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm

This is so helpful. Like you, I fall somewhere in between. But as a novice, I think this is the best approach for me.

“When I write fiction, I like to write fast. I want to get the story down – even though it’s imperfect and littered with tangents and plot holes. I’ll then redraft the whole story from start to end, even if it’s a full novel. Some scenes will stay fairly close to the original; others will get cut, added and merged.”

The above is how I approached my first novel and it helped a ton. I’m still re-writing and editing.
But I agree that I enjoy the excitement and possibility of a new chapter, a new character, and so on. The stories grow and in turn, so do I.
A
Adrienne Krogh’s last blog post ..New novel idea: THE MISANTHROPES

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Ali October 16, 2012 at 7:17 pm

Thanks, Adrienne, really glad you found this helpful! I think a lot of writers fall somewhere in the middle like we do — just like it is so often in life, a balanced approach is often a good one here. :-)

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Armada Volya October 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I try planing at least a chapter ahead, but very often end up going in a different direction when I get to the chapter. I’d be planing to let the character live and then go ahead on kill him anyway. I can’t plan characters ahead of time in great detail either. I get to know them as I write and once I’m done with the first draft, go back and add more details to each character.

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Ali October 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Like you, Armada, I definitely find that successive drafts add more details to both my plots and my characters — though the characters don’t usually change too much from how I originally conceived them. I think you have it spot-on when you say “I get to know them as I write” — that’s definitely how it feels to me too.

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Anna Warrington October 16, 2012 at 4:53 pm

This is so reassuring! I’m waist-deep in the first draft of my first novel and I can definitely relate to the idea of having planned an overall shape, but not a chapter-by-chapter plan. I think this is partly because I know where I want the novel to go overall, and sometimes a new character or subplot helps enrich my character and drive forward the plot in a way I hadn’t imagined before I began… but as I said, I am a total novice.

I’m going to do a total re-write in the second draft though, and by then I hope to have a much tighter structure. @Armada, I also plan on adding more details to characters in the redraft. It’s good to know other people do these things too.

Thank you all for posting, it was really helpful.

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Ali October 16, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Thanks Anna! Really glad this was reassuring and helpful. :-)

I think that having the sense of where you’re going overall is often all you need … a bit like having a compass pointing north. I’ve often found that new characters or subplots pop up while I’m writing, and I know they’re good choices when they just seem to fit — as though they were there all along but I couldn’t see them at first.

Hope the rest of your first draft goes brilliantly — it’s a wonderful feeling to have a finished first draft of a first novel!

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Joel D Canfield October 16, 2012 at 5:19 pm

My first novel was written for NaNo, and I just started at page one and ended up as surprised as my readers.

I tried that again with my newest mystery and realized that it wasn’t good enough. So I came up with a B story, looked back for a theme I could emphasize, and generally did some vague planning to fill the gaps and make it memorable (as opposed to forgettable, which it was.)

Just last week, ran into a hitch; a bit of story that needed to be more, but wasn’t making sense. Did some research, called in a friend who tore it into little tiny pieces — then changed one piece and handed it back. Now, it makes perfect sense, fits the story better, and has a fun twist I like.

Even when I’m planning, I’m winging it. I have a tendency to leap from airplanes with a silkworm instead of a parachute. So far so good.
Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..On Reading "On Writing"

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Ali October 16, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Joel, thanks for sharing your experiences! My first novel was in my mid-teens, but I remember that I did exactly what you did — started at page one and went on from there. (I think I might even have initially intended it to be a short story.)

It’s brilliant when changing one piece makes everything fall into line; sometimes I feel like the story is there but I’ve just not quite grasped it. I suspect our subconscious does more planning than we realise…

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John Hill October 16, 2012 at 6:08 pm

I taught a course for years at my local university (here in Las Vegas) called HOW TO PLOT (NOVELS, SCREENPLAYS AND PLAYS) after being a full-time Hollywood TV and screenwriter for 25 years. (QUANTUM LEAP, L.A.LAW, where I won an Emmy, QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, etc.) So I have a lot of experience in every aspect of plotting, and now, how to plot is a big part of my present classes, HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, and HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY. My experience and beliefs lead me to be much more of a “planner” than a “pantser” (writing by the seat of one’s pants, no clear outline or plan.) The reason is, unless you’re a very experienced professional writer, most novels or script never get finished by newer writers because, lacking a scene by scene outline, the novice runs out of steam months later on p. 82 or page 167, isn’t sure what to write next, and it becomes another unfinished symphony. I have known hundreds (God help me, maybe thousands) of new writers in the last 40 years and this is what I’ve learned from them: start with a clear outline and definitely know your ending in detail — or the project ends up the Donner Party instead of the wagon train reaching Oregon. It is sometimes not a lot of fun to try to work out too many details and scenes ahead of time – when you’re not in the creative zone – but then you have a clear map, on your lost, confused writing days or days without energy — just write yourself into new good energy. But one can overplan it, and thus, leave your fight in the gym too. It is about balance – but I would stress, opt for a full good outline before starting, if you’re new at this. Otherwise, you’re assuming your first peak of excitement and clarity of vision will last the same each day over the many months of writing, which is not real; the honeymoon phase fades on anything. Get a full plan before writing and stick to it. Lastly, a commercial reason not to wander off into side roads or change your plot. “We come for the plot, but stay for the character.” True! But back on “we come for the plot”? Agents and publishers initially judge, in a letter of query’s paragraph or two, if they want to even read the full manuscript by the plot summary. Potential book buyers read the plot blurb. So come up with a very commercial plot – and stick to it, to increase your chances of selling it as well. John Hill Hillwithit@aol.com

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Ali October 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm

John, thanks so much for stopping by to comment and share your wealth of experience! :-)

Great point that agents, publishers and readers will initially pick up a book based on an intriguing plot rather than a compelling character … and I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that plot isn’t important.

I’ve never attempted a screenplay, but I’ve been to the occasional class, and read a couple of books, on writing them, and my impression has been that screenplays do tend to need to be more tightly plotted than other forms of fiction — partly because they’re quite a condensed form (usually 2 hours or less). I’m sure that if I ever do try one, I’ll probably be moving more towards the plotter than pantser end of the spectrum!

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John Hill October 16, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Ali – thanks for the good words. And as for screenplays being more plot-oriented? Yes. (But no extremes here – ALL good novels or good screenplays obviously have to always have great characters AND a strong good plot, there’s no all-or-nothing involved.) And as for you ever trying to write a screenplay, and how you would then move more to planner than pantser? Ali, I say, you do anything you want to with your pants.
I do appreciate your noticing and agreeing with my point about how we’re not writing & planning these in the abstract (even though some newer writers do!) In fact, there’s always the letter of query looming eventually, which busy agents and publishers scan for the quick plot summary & genre that GRABS them commercially – and they discard some letters of query immediately because the plot & genre combo did NOT grab them. So if one writes much more of a CHARACTER-oriented novel (or theme-driven), that’s a much tougher opening paragraph story-summary to excite agents about in a letter. (This means, essentially, following the logic I’m offering: if TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (published 50 years ago this year, in a very different culture, economy & publishing world) was summarized in a letter or query to agents in 2012 in a paragraph? Sadly, tragically really, it might not be published today. But “DNA-engineered dinosaurs brought back to life on an island park, get loose, eat people” would be a very commercial plot to offer up in a letter , even from a novice (easy for Michael Crichton to have made that sale, or any sale) but I submit, had any of us had that VERY plot-oriented first paragraph in our letter of query to agents? It would get immediate commercial attention. (The actual novel, JURASSIC PARK, had no special characters in it either!) Bottom line, to me, in terms of big plot vs. character-oriented novels and real world letters of query? Imagine Atticus Finch being ripped apart by raptors. Back on the almost elusive balance of how much planning vs. creative freedom as we write/plan a novel? There’s a catch phrase that speaks to me, your mileage may vary, which is: structure + creativity + fun. To me that means have a very thorough, sufficiently detailed outline so you’ll always know what comes next, but NOT so detailed that you aren’t curious each day you write HOW it will happen exactly. So knowing enough to be confident, but not knowing it all so there’s still the act of curioiuosity & discovery = fun. And you have to keep writing a novel fun or you won’t finish it. So find your own balance/ratio of planning vs. whoopee; overplanning OR underplanning, either one, can equally cause many a writer to never type THE END. The end.

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Ali October 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Getting to “the end” is definitely an achievement! I’ve only ever abandoned one novel half-way, though I went through multiple drafts of another two before deciding they just weren’t yet there.

Gosh, Jurassic Park takes me back … I watched it with friends at my 10th birthday party! I agree it’s a wonderfully commercial, gripping story — though I remember being particularly taken with the character of Lex. Your image of Atticus Finch being ripped apart by raptors made me laugh (I’m a horrible person! ;-))

It’s interesting that you bring up To Kill a Mockingbird … that’s one of the books I always think of when I’m considering character and plot. I believe Harper Lee began it as a set of short stories, and I certainly remember that when I first read it, I felt that it had an unusually episodic plot, in parts, for a novel.

I think we’re both firmly agreed that balance is the key — and I hope all the writers reading will be able to find a good balance and get all the way to “the end”. :-)

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Shaquanda Dalton October 17, 2012 at 6:28 am

I love knowing what’s going to happen in my story overall but each scene can get me there in ways I’ve never expected. I give each scene a “goal” but I don’t plan ahead on how the goal of the scene will be achieved. That’s where my creative side steps in.

I love how you embrace characters taking the lead of the story but they should have a general direction or “road” to travel on in the story.

Thanks for sharing, Ali
Shaquanda Dalton’s last blog post ..Should “Slang” Be In Your Novel?

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Ali October 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

Having a goal for each scene sounds like a brilliant way to plan, Shaquanda; I have to confess that sometimes I’ve struggled with or abandoned a scene because I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what was actually going to happen in it!

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Carole Lyden October 17, 2012 at 9:15 am

Ah, the novel. I wanna write a novel but I start and stop and start and stop. I need to put a flexible plan into place and have an idea of where I am going or else I will keep starting and stopping. But what do you do when you do not know where you are going? Fiction writing for me is much more of a write and see type of attitude. I may need to visit my non fiction techniques to succeed. I just have to begin, maybe as you suggest I could start with the characters.
Carole Lyden’s last blog post ..Grow your business blog and community with stories

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Ali October 17, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Carole, I’ve certainly had novels that stopped and started a lot (and probably stopped more than they started, if you see what I mean…) Maybe by getting the characters clear, and having a very rough plot outline, you’ll find that you get a good sense of where you’re going?

Best of luck!

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LycoRogue October 17, 2012 at 1:43 pm

First, quick shout outs to previous posters.
@Joel – “I have a tendency to leap from airplanes with a silkworm instead of a parachute.” HAHA, that is a great way of putting that! Hope the silkworm works fast enough for you! XD
@John – Being someone who wants to break in to “the industry” I found your comments very informative. Having “failed” Script Frenzy two Aprils in a row (i.e. – not hitting that 100pgs in 30days goal) I have to agree about that Honeymoon Phase dying off right around the mid-point of the script if you don’t have everything properly planned out. And although I completely get what you’re trying to stress about plot being an incredibly important selling point, I do also completely agree with Ali that the CHARACTERS are what keep people going. Even when I watch an incredibly cheesy movie/show, I will go “OK, the plot sucks” and yet still watch because the CHARACTERS are so friggen lovable. So there is definitely a balance there too. You have to have a basic plot that is compelling enough that someone will want to buy your story, but the characters have to be believable and lovable enough to prove the purchase was worth while. Either that, or the plot itself better be damn compelling that the reader/viewer doesn’t care about the characters, just the world/plot presented.

Finally, back to Ali:

As soon as I saw Holly Lisle’s name in your post I KNEW I knew that name somehow. After a search through my “research” writing folder I discovered that I have a PDF of her Create Your Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course. http://hollylisle.com/pdf/Lisle-Plot-Outline.pdf
I also have the Character Building Checklist and Writing Checklist Larry Brooks talks about on Storyfix.com (Which I believe I discovered thanks to you, Ali.)
Another thing I tend to do while character building – to help get the character’s voice in my head – is to sit down and interview the character. My one D&D character has a 13page dialogue back and forth between me and her. The whole “interview your characters” trick seems to be working WORLDS better for my one friend I’m beta-reading for, but she’s the type of writer who has her characters “living” in her head and just pop up and talk to her whenever – even if she’s not actively thinking about her story.

As for planning out the actual plot… I’m a TOTAL planner/plotter! I have a notebook specifically assigned to each story I write. The first pages are broad strokes about the main cast of characters. Then there is a page or two where I give a sentence synopsis of each chapter, and then I have each chapter plotted out in detail. If my characters take me on a different journey as I write I don’t move on to the next chapter until I go back to that notebook and plot out the rest of the story based on where the characters take me. I’ve added three new chapters to my one story by doing this… It’s an annoying way to write, but I always need a map before writing. I need to know where I’m going, how I’m getting there, and how to get back on to the “main road” when my characters detour me. I can’t be the type of writer who is “surprised” by the ending. I need to know the ending before I even start writing the first page. Which makes NaNo very interesting since I’m totally “Pantsing” it next month! XD

I’m definitely the type of writer who likes to “get things right” during the first draft. It may be my stumbling block when it comes to my writing rhythm, but even in school I would rarely write more than one draft of anything and I nearly always got an “A” on my work. That’s not to say I will NEVER do revisions when I attempt to “go pro”. I know that my novels will go through 20 revisions. However, I tend to research and plan so intricately that there ARE NO PLOT HOLES as I write. I instantly find something and figure out how to dig myself out of the hole I put myself in. My own beta-reader can tell you that I spent nearly a month struggling with how to fix a plot hole I created when I “wrote from the hip” my first chapter…The story was originally going to be a one-shot fanfic, but I loved it so much I went all Memento on it and started writing follow-up chapters that walked the reader backwards to see how the characters got from Point A to Point B. However, since I didn’t anticipate doing so when I wrote the first chapter – and since I already posted the chapter online and couldn’t go back and edit the plot hole creating elements of the first chapter – I had to work HARD to figure out how to fill said holes!!!! But I did it! :D
This, and my ability to pick up on continuity errors, might be great assets when I eventually break in to film… ^_^
LycoRogue’s last blog post ..TEMPORARY POST

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Ali October 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Thanks for sharing your planning method! And I think that just goes to show that a good first draft requires careful planning. (I’ve decided I prefer the pain of a really shoddy draft to the pain — for me — of trying and failing to stick to a detailed plan… but this is one where we all find a different happy medium as writers!)

The “interview your character” method has never quite worked for me — but I can certainly see the value of it for writers (and perhaps characters) who it suits. I know it’s a technique that Holly Lisle has mentioned.

Best of luck for NaNo!

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Melissa McPhail October 17, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Great article, Ali. I also believe characters should drive the story–your characters should be what the story is about. They help you deepen your plot and conflict as they grow along with the story.

Deep into my third novel, I find most success by writing from scene to scene. Scenes–sometimes merely a snippit of dialogue between characters–come to me at odd hours. My notes are full of scenes and character moments…sometimes just a few lines of dialogue between them. Sometimes the dialogue is a pivotal communication, other times just offering levity.

These scenes have a place in the story, but sometimes they lie far down the road. I use the scenes as milestones, or way stops, helping me anchor the story as I then head out toward the next one. I recently wrote a scene at the end of my second book in the series, which I envisioned over four years ago.

It’s been a very successful approach and seems to fit with the advice you’ve given above.
Melissa McPhail’s last blog post ..This is the space, this is the place

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Ali October 17, 2012 at 6:48 pm

Thanks, Melissa. I think planning individual scenes (even if the connections between them need some time to emerge) works for a lot of writers. I’m not sure if you’ve come across it, but Scrivener is quite a nice piece of writing software if you like to work that way — it lets you create index cards for each scene and juggle them around, which I’ve found helpful.

Best of luck finishing the third novel!

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Monica Carter Tagore October 17, 2012 at 9:18 pm

This is a wonderful reminder. Not everything has to be planned. Like you, whenever I’ve tried to plan out a novel, it’s gone wildly different from that plan. That’s because the characters tell you what they will do and if you allow them to go where they want and do what they want, you will have a different product than you first envisioned. Of course, planning helps when I ghostwrite nonfiction for clients, but when I am writing my own fiction — novels — it’s a totally different experience.

Planning works for some authors. I know authors who do detailed outlines for their novels. It just doesn’t work as well for me. So I guess it depends on the author’s temperament and writing style.
Monica Carter Tagore’s last blog post ..7 Secrets to Breaking Into Ghostwriting

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Ali October 20, 2012 at 8:16 am

Thanks Monica! I agree that temperament and writing style has a lot to do with it — and also, I think, the genre that you’re writing in. I’d probably plan an awful lot more if I wrote heavily plot-focused books!

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John Hill October 18, 2012 at 1:44 am

Carole – you said: <<>> Look, the best writing style for each of us is whatever gets us, individually, to THE END with a novel we really like. But if your ‘write and see’ approach isn’t getting your novels finished, so consider trying this: fill out this ‘pre-flight checklist’ before you start writing – it’s not even a chapter-by-chapter outline, not very detailed, but does offer a good general plan.

<<<>>>
Maybe if more newer novelists, who have trouble finishing, at least had answers to all the above questions, there may be a better chance of completing their novels since they would have a clearer overview, and would know whether they are generally going, and how it ends. I also know even this (small amount) of general planning is more than many novelists may want to do in advance, and how they get their novels written works better for them with their own style. I personally want to have a road map with me for a car trip, even if I do occasionally stop at a reptile jungle, but I want to pace myself and know where I’m going. For those who can’t get to their destination by wandering there? Maybe try first making a plan/map. Or try writing one novel in a looser, feel-your-way manner, then another with a detailed plot outline. And see which novel gets the first draft finished, which one was the most fun to write, which you’re happier with, and which style gets you published. John Hill Hillwithit@aol.com

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John Hill October 18, 2012 at 1:47 am

This is what was, for some reason, cut out of the middle of my above email — the actual ‘pre-flight check list’ I was offering:
FINAL (“Pre-flight”) CHECKLIST Before Writing A NOVEL by John Hill
© 2011 JOHN HILL
1A. Is your novel either a genre novel – where you’ve studied the genre requirements, limits and expectations carefully and matched them with your novel? (Note: a proposed SERIES of novels is more attractive to publishes than a single stand-alone.)

OR

1B. Is, instead, the plot HIGH CONCEPT? (“A “high concept” idea for a mainstream studio feature film can be expressed in (literally!) 25 words or less and sound FANTASTICALLY COMPELLING and MUST-SEE to its target audience and implicitly acknowledges and solves the publisher’s marketing and advertising challenges.) That is, is the story in one sentence BIG, IMAGINATIVE but SIMPLE? (And notice this is the FIRST question, the first hurdle, because, yes, no matter how you rationalize it, THIS WILL BE the first key question or issue agents, editors/publishers will care about.
What agents, producers and studio folk want from novels (first seen in the query letter paragraph plots summaries) are the “book jacket plot blurb” or how the title, some graphic and the 25 words or less plot will look on the paperback cover. What’s the plot in one sentence, and does it blow my socks off? INDECENT PROPOSAL: “A multi-millionaire offers a broke yuppie couple $1 million if they agree for the wife to spend the night with him?” “12-year-old girl is possessed by the Devil; mother tries everything medically then gets:” THE EXORCIST.)

2. Is the tone-GENRE of this story currently $ucce$$ful? (Paddy Chevefsky offered these next 3 as the basics we all need to know:)

3. Who is your HERO? ___________________________.

4. What is his GOAL? ___________________________.

5. Who or what is PREVENTING him from REACHING THAT GOAL? ___________?

6. What is the THEME (i.e., “character arc,” or universal life lesson” or “moral of the story?”) Do you know what you’re trying to “say” as a writer through this story?
_______________________________________________?

7. What gives this story HEART? _________________ ? (What is supposed to touch us emotionally? And since anything creative that is good must be self-revealing, is: what is there of YOU, emotionally, you’re going to honestly put into this novel?)

8. Can you justify your novel’s COMMERCIALITY by naming SIMILAR PROFITABLE PRECEDENTS in the last 3-5 years? (1) ___________ (2) _______________.

9. Have you BRAINSTORMED all possible scenes. ideas and (main) character reveals for this story? ___________ Do this by wildly scribbling down all possible ideas without judging them — the rule is “no negatives” during this creative phase — then switch and use your “critical judgment” to pick the good ones to use, link them up, and choose the BEST scenes for the opening, the ACT BREAKS, and the big finish.

10. Have you written the best possible GRABBER of a first sentence? Then the first paragraph? Then the first page? Then the first scene? Then the first chapter? And in the first chapter, the first 10-20 pages, does it include the following: (a) establish the hero as such? (b) why do we start to LIKE them? (c) establish the genre clearly, the tonal universe the story is set in, and (d) the high concept/big plot hook of main story — or a strong hint of it as the hero’s problem — for the whole rest of the novel? ________________.

11. What is your END OF ACT ONE MAJOR NEW PLOT POINT? (an event that elevates in a BIG way the level of difficulty the protagonist will have solving this overall plot problem of the story? (This should happen around p. 120 of a 360 page novel, or around 30,000 words of a 90,000 word novel?)
____________________________________________.

12. What is your MID-POINT (newly elevated) PROBLEM? (on p. 180 or so) _________.

13. What is your END OF ACT TWO (huge reversal!) MAJOR NEW POINT? (p. 270 or so?) _______________________________________________.

14. What is your BIG FINISH (p. 340-360) where the story builds to a big WIN-LOSE
moment? _____________________________________________. — John Hill © 2011 JOHN HILL

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Ali October 20, 2012 at 8:18 am

John, thanks so much for your generosity in sharing your checklist here — I think these are wonderful points to keep in mind while planning and writing. I particularly like the question about “heart”, which I think is something that authors don’t always consider — but a great novel really does need to be emotionally involving.

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Zac October 18, 2012 at 8:11 pm

what a coincidence that you posted on this topic, Ali!

I was just struggling with this question recently as I have a few ideas for novels that I haven’t started yet because I’m stumped on how to start.

Outlines, drafts, mind-maps, etc…I was getting confused. I even bought a book on how popular authors write novels, and from what I’ve read many just jump right into it and see what happens. Since I’m a planner I think, I’ll do a bit of everything, a loose outline, some character profiles, a good story, and plot twists, and then see where it goes.

Thanks!

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Ali October 20, 2012 at 8:20 am

Zac, that sounds like a great plan for your plan. ;-)

I find that it’s very easy to get caught up in writing advice — and something I’ve learnt over the years is that, with fiction in particular, there are tons of helpful tips and hints you can take from others, but ultimately you need to find your own comfortable way of working.

Best of luck with the novel when you do get going! And if you need a kick-start, don’t forget NaNoWriMo begins in less than two weeks… :-)

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Margaret October 19, 2012 at 3:22 pm

What a great thread of comments! I am excited to be doing my first NaNo this year, after a rough completion of my first novel (took a meandering 18 months), so this will be #2! There are a lot of helpful comments here, and Ali, your emphasis on the key points of planning is helpful too. The first novel was a start-with-a-line-that-won’t-leave-my-head type of NON-planning, so any of the above will be a step in the Planner/Plotter direction! :-)
Margaret’s last blog post ..A Message from Future Margaret

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Ali October 20, 2012 at 8:21 am

Yes, I’ve been delighted that this post brought in so many great comments! Margaret, congratulations on starting your first NaNo — hope it goes brilliantly. And 18 months frankly sounds pretty fast for completing a first novel..! :-)

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Crazy Travel Adventures By Debra October 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm

My “day job” is attorney. I write a lot of contracts. I find that I write my fiction like I write contracts. Much as you mentioned, I get what I want down and then go back and edit to make a first draft. However, I may drastically change aspects of my middle grade novel. In that case, I find myself leaning toward an outline so I can grasp more fully what I want from the story and for my MC. It will be interesting to see if I do create an outline, will I end up following it or going back to my usual way of drafting/writing. Thanks for sharing.
Crazy Travel Adventures By Debra’s last blog post ..Luang Prabang, Laos: Rise Early to Feed the Monks (and Bowl at Night. Really)

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Ali October 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Good luck, whichever way you go! I think that for many of us writers, planning isn’t just a one-time process at the start of a new project — it’s more iterative than that — so perhaps you’ll find that you do some outlining, some drafting/writing, then some more outlining!

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farouk October 24, 2012 at 10:44 am

that’s interesting
just last night i was wondering what it would be like if i wrote a novel, its not that i have any plans yet but i just day dreamed about the idea
very nice one Ali
farouk’s last blog post ..Why do good women fall for bad men

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Ali October 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Thanks Farouk! Have you come across NaNoWriMo? (see my latest post!) It’s a great way to get into novel-writing — though I imagine you’ve got more than enough projects going on right now. :-)

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lynneinpborough November 23, 2012 at 5:47 am

Ali, great post, you’ve definitely hit on a topic that’s got people talking and sharing their knowledge, I’m glad to have *bumped* into this after many comments.
As for me, I’m not even a fledgling, let alone novice. Three nano drafts, two done with little or no planning, that’s probably why they’re still drafts, I’m finding editing them very tough. With this years nano, I did some planning, because it had a more complicated plot.
I seem to write the end of the last chapter a few chapters in, then write towards that. In one of the drafts, I had two versions of the end which gave me more options earlier on.
I’m writing to see if I can, to help with my work/life balance and no, I’m not writing with query letter in mind. When people expect me to have a title for my drafts let alone a sentence I struggle.
Once I started writing, I realised that it’s about how I write, not how others do. I’ve also, finally, worked out how I edit, which is a huge bonus!

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Ali November 24, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Welcome, Lynne! Hope NaNo is treating you well. :-)

I think working towards a pre-written or pre-planned ending is a great way to go — and it sounds like it’s working well for you, and you’re getting a great handle on your process of planning, writing and editing.

Whether or not you write with query letters in mind depends very much on your own goals, and on what stage you’re at as a writer. I think some new authors stress too much about publication — and it’s often better to just enjoy the writing process. Sounds like you have absolutely the right attitude to it all. :-)

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