How To Write A Novel - Part 1

Planning and Preparation

When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can” - Samuel Lover, Handy Andy, 1842

Sitting down and writing a novel is no easy task. It’s extremely time consuming, it’s daunting, difficult and at times frustrating, but it is always very rewarding because by the end of the process, you have a tangible, finished product that not only entertain and thrills, but you will also have become a better writer for it.

But writing a novel isn’t just about sitting down in front of a blank screen and producing words. There is so much more to consider what is, essentially, a mammoth undertaking. If you are starting your first novel, there are lots of things to consider first before you even commit your words to paper or screen – some planning and groundwork is required before you start to lay the foundations of your story, because without it you will find the process overwhelming and you’ll hesitate, so much so that you won’t even be able to write the first line.

Writing a novel is one giant circular structure of planning, researching, writing, editing, polishing, submitting...then the next project of planning, researching, writing, editing, polishing, submitting etc.  The one thing this process demands from you is commitment. No commitment = no success. You will spend months or years planning and researching and then writing your novel, following by a period of editing. This is where around 15% or 20% of your work will be slashed from your pride and joy. This means many scenes may have to be re-written or even cut completely. It is not unusual to lose entire chapters. The ability to do that, and remain focused, is what a committed writer will do see his or her words in print.

Where to start?

The starting point is your idea, not the actual writing, as most people assume. Without your initial idea, there is no novel. You need some sort of idea of what your story will be about, so this is where you start some kind of planning. As I’ve already mentioned in previous posts, writing a novel or short story is entirely subjective in how you approach and execute it. This article is merely for guidance and advice, to hopefully make your job as a writer that much easier. Some authors do little planning, others are meticulous in their approach.

You can choose to do preparation or none at all. How you go about your planning is also entirely up to you. Agatha Christie once said, “The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes”.

My advice for new writers is to at least do some planning and preparation. I fall into the ‘meticulous’ category, because I like to make sure my idea evolves into a concrete, believable story. I have everything planned in as much detail as I can. I don’t have to follow it to the letter, but it serves as a guide. Of course, you will have your own way. It’s whatever feels right for you.

Take the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

Planning is all about knowing what your story is about – the plot – and who the story involves – the characters. The plot is the basic premise of the novel. This is subject to change as the novel evolves, so don’t worry too much about planning it in-depth, just as long as you have a believable plot (nothing too outlandish). You might also think about possible sub-plots to accentuate your main plot.

The one thing you must have is credible and fully rounded characters. It’s wise to invest some time researching and building your characters before you start writing, giving them biographies and backgrounds, otherwise how can you write about someone you don’t know? Characterisation is vital.

You should also know the theme (the core idea, like revenge, fear, hate, greed etc) and a rough direction it will take. Not to be confused with plot, the theme is the undercurrent moving beneath the surface of the story. For instance, if you are writing about greed, then perhaps make some notes on what this is and what it means, and the implications of greed on the way people behave in your story.

Know your genre – don’t write a sci-fi novel if you’re into women’s fiction and love to explore the lives of primarily female characters, or don’t write a bodice ripping Mills & Boon style romance if you love gore and blood and demonic creatures of the night. For most of us, we write the same material as the stuff we like to read because it interests us, we like it and we feel comfortable with it. Write what feels comfortable to you.

With some idea of a plot, a theme, characters and genre, you can put all that against a setting. Where does the story take place? Will the action take place in different states or counties; will it take place in several countries? You might know this from the start, or it might come a little later as you progress through the story, so some of these elements don’t come into play until you actually start writing, and that’s because a novel is a constantly evolving entity.

Another thing you will need to know before you start is to know what viewpoint you want. This is where many novels collapse, because the writer isn’t clear on whose story they are telling. Know whose story it is from the outset, otherwise you might find you will have to change the structure of the novel halfway through when you realise that in fact it’s a peripheral character that becomes the satellite character, not the character you thought it would be.

Another thing to consider in your planning is point of view (or tense). Not to be confused with Viewpoint, this is whether you want to tell your story in first person, third person singular or third person multi-viewpoint. This is very important. I know many writers who start out with one POV and have to change half way through because they discover the POV just isn’t working. That’s because they haven’t thought the process through. Know which POV will work not just for the story, but also for you, because writing an 80,000 – 100,000 word novel in first person is difficult for new novelists to master.

(See Point of View, which one? Aug 2010) for more advice on POV.

Understand that every story is about conflict. Your novel will need conflict because without it, the story won’t be worth reading. Any novel is always about a character being in a situation that needs resolving. Your character will face many problems in order to resolve that situation, which means things get progressively worse before that final moment, when the situation is at its worst, and the character must change and take difficult action to bring about a resolution. The key here is not just about what the character does to achieve this, but how the character evolves with the story and how he or she changes because of it.

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible” - Leo Tolstoy

Try to give your main character not just an external conflict – the main thrust of the story – but also an inner conflict that relates to the story. It could be something like facing a fear, facing a moment in the past or facing past mistakes, (characters aren’t perfect after all).

Finally, have some idea of your beginning. The idea is to start your novel as close to the main action as possible. The best way to do this is have a rough chapter plan. You don’t have to know exactly how many chapters you will need, or the length of them, and you don’t have to meticulously plan every single one, but rather have some rudimentary idea of chapter flow. You will find that the chapters evolve as you write, but having a guide to work through helps to formulate the chronology of the story.

Once all these elements are in place you can start to plan how they will all come together to create your story with use of lists, timelines, mind maps etc. (See the previous article Tools for Short Story and Novel Writing, Jan 2011) for ideas on the tools that could help the process.

How you plan and prepare is as individual as the writing you produce. You are in charge, but it’s wise to start with a solid foundation to your project.

As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall” - Virginia Woolf

Planning & Preparation Summary:

• Idea
• Plot
• Subplots
• Overall theme
• Know your genre
• Characters
• Character Viewpoint
• POV (Tense)
• Conflict
• Rough idea of the beginning and some chapter outlines.

You should have here all the elements in place to start writing.

Then the real work begins...

In Part 2 we’ll look in depth at beginning the novel and translating the idea into words.

PS - As a little aside from all this planning, you might be interested in a fascinating article, "20 Acclaimed Authors and Their Unique Writing Rituals", which details the approach of many famous writers to how they write, everything from standing up and working, being on autopilot, lying in bed or writing while naked...we all have our own way!

Click on the link:

Thanks to Kate Rothwell for sharing this.


  1. So why can't I write a novel that both focuses on women, is women's fiction, and sci-fi? Are you trying to tell me SciFi is only for men and women can't be in it? That's some shit. (Also you write like you're a highschool English teacher instructing kids on a paper.)

    1. You obviously didn't read the article's context correctly. I suggested that if you're into one genre, don't try to write in one that you know noting about or even like, because the writing doesn't work. If, on the other hand, you love sci-fi, love women's fiction and horror, there's no reason why you can't write all of them. It's that simple.

      At no point did I infer that only men can write sci-fi. YOU perceive that, which tells me you didn't read and understand the article correctly. It doesn't matter what gender you are - you write what you want, but you write in the genres you love and understand. Now that IS real shit.

      And thanks, I do write like an English teacher - I teach this stuff, well spotted.


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