How I Plot and Write Novels

I’m often asked, “How can I get started writing a book?”, so I’ve decided to offer up my process in case it sheds some light. This is by no means THE way to write a short story or novel or script, but it’s a general breakdown of the way I write. Everyone’s process is different. Seeing how others develop their projects, however, is useful. You can see what works, or what doesn’t…for YOU. Then pick and choose which methods you want to try and start experimenting.

Enough setup. Here goes…my process condensed to a blog post.

Initial Concept

My office, where at least one dog and a cup of coffee are a MUST! Note the whiteboard on the wall and the letter sorter filled with “ideas” waiting to be picked over.

A unique situation or character makes itself known. I might jot down a fun line of dialogue and wonder about the character behind the words. Or I may read about a strange incident in the news or on the Net…one that has me asking questions or taps into an interest of mine. I write these little tidbits down in a coil notebook, on a scrap piece of paper, on a paper napkin – whatever I can find – and keep them in my “Ideas” folder on my desk.

I let these concepts simmer. The ones I find myself going back to…jotting more details down on those bits of paper, dreaming up names for the characters, settings…those rise to the top of the folder until one seems to dominate.

That’s the one I move forward with.

Plotting

Once I know what story I’m going to write, it’s time to figure out how best to write it. I could sit down and begin writing a few chapters with no real structure to refer to, but over time I’ve learned this strategy only gets me frustrated with the story, confused about the character motives, and I usually write myself into a corner. After that, I chuck the project in the trash and it never sees the light of day again.

Sooo…I am officially a plotter, planner, list-maker kind of writer. Having structure and a goal for each chapter, each step in the story, keeps me on task and gets the project finished. This may not be the method for you. You might want more freedom when writing or feel this kind of structure would stifle your creativity. But when plotting or creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, I still have loads of room to be creative when I sit down to write. I’ve created a map, with signposts and landmarks I want to visit along the way, but the journey itself is still a great adventure.

Using a blend of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, I come up with a logline (a single sentence that sums up the project including – a hero to root for, what’s at stake, why they might fail), then break the story down into the major points of action that need to occur to take the main character from beginning, middle, end, and hint at beyond. I often work a beatsheet on my whiteboard so I can easily wipe out the stuff I don’t want and for some reason, seeing the story up on a wall helps to show where things are lacking. In Word, I further divide those moments into individual chapters with a few key scenes in each. I highly recommend you read Snyder and Campbell for yourself before just jumping into the beatsheets you’ll find online. They are great tools, but you need the original context their creators provide to get the most benefit from them.

My drafts are usually quite short 30-45,000 words (the average YA novel sits close to 60-70,000 words) so I often end up with a 16-22 chapter breakdown that itself is only about 2000 words.

Then I dive in. My Word document now has a tidy logline at the top to keep me focused on the guts of the story. And each chapter begins with the little summery of events I’ve already outlined. Sometimes I start from Chapter One and move through to the end, but more and more I find myself jumping from chapter to chapter, writing the scenes that call out to me at different times when I am perhaps in different moods. Some days I don’t have the energy for a fight scene and would rather dig into an emotional moment my character is experiencing. This is the benefit of having an outline – I can hop around the story without sacrificing structure.

NOTE: I push through to the end of the project without revising chapters. This stage is all about getting the story down, the razzle-dazzle / polishing comes later.

Revision

When things get down to the wire and I’m on a deadline, my office shifts to the dining room table. It doesn’t matter where you write, only that you DO!

When I have the first draft complete, it’s a bare bones sort of thing. I have used far too many clichés, there will be grammar and spelling errors, there will be too much dialogue and far too little description (probably why I like to write scripts!), but it is a solid starting point.

Now the real work begins.

I do several passes through the entire document. One pass focuses on emotion – am I cranking up the inner life of my character / letting the reader in? One focuses on description – what’s around my character? How does he / she see the world? And the final pass is for cleaning up the grammar, etc as much as I can before sending the file to my wonderful beta readers and critique partners for fresh eyes.

Crit partners and beta readers are invaluable. They will point out plot holes, character issues, and spot typos you have been staring at for months without noticing. They are a writer’s secret weapon, never take them for granted.

Revise based on their notes (keeping and tossing suggestions as they either work for your vision of the story or not).

NOTE: my word count will have grown considerably as I fleshed out the story and I may have added / combined chapters as needed.

If you’ve gotten this far, you will have a project that is polished and ready to pitch to editors or agents.

How long will this process take? That depends entirely on YOU and the amount of time and energy you’re willing to invest in your story.

So…what are you waiting for?

2 thoughts on “How I Plot and Write Novels

  1. It is intriguing to ‘see’ another author’s process, as you say we are all different and whatever process works best for us is the right one.
    I’m a panster and go through several revisions until I am happy with the flow, characterizations and plot. As you say beta-readers are invaluable for all writers.
    Thanks for sharing.

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