How To Write A Novel: Quick Start
I spent last November writing the first draft of my first novel and since then, I’ve learned so much about the novel writing process that I wanted to share some tips with anyone trying to figure out how to write a novel.
PLANNING YOUR NOVEL
There are many ways to write a novel, but I begin with a solid plan sketched out as far as I can go before I write. I always have an idea for a story, it’s just a matter of shaping it into form and expanding on the details brick by brick.
The month leading up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is NaNo Prep (every October), where writers prepare and outline their plan to execute in November. Think of your novel writing process as a road trip. You do have the option to jump in the car, with no plans and freestyle your drive.
Many people do this, but you have to be certain you won’t run out of gas, get lost or end up broken down on the side of the road. Plan your novel! But how do we go about that? A great start is to create a binder with dividers or a bullet journal that houses each section of your novel plans, some of which we will get into in this post.
Before I begin brainstorming the details of any story, I like to figure out what type of arc my entire story is going to follow. According to Christopher Booker, every story ever created can be broken down into seven basic plots.
Overcoming the Monster: Often due to the threat of the protagonist’s homeland, the protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonist.
Example: Star Wars, Taken
Rags to Riches: A poor protagonist gets wealth, status, power or love interest then loses everything and eventually gets it back.
Example: Aladdin, Limitless
The Quest: The protagonist and a crew of companions travel and face obstacles to find an important object or get to a location.
Example: The Lord of the Rings, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle
Voyage and Return: The protagonist goes to a strange land and then returns back home after overcoming the land’s threats.
Example: Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz
Comedy: A plot that contains a pattern of conflicts that become more and more confusing to the protagonist, who is usually light-hearted and has a happy ending. Does not have to always be “on the nose” humor, moreso a drama with light-hearted mayhem and confusion.
Example: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shallow Hal
Tragedy: The protagonist meets his or her undoing as a result of their fatal character flaw or great mistake.
Example: Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface
Rebirth: Something happens that forces the protagonist to change his or her ways and evolve into a better person.
Example: Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol
I use this theory as a way to organize the overall arc of my story. By knowing what makes up each of these types, you will be able to steer your story to completion with confidence using story structures that are already in place.
For every character in my story so far, I’ve created character profiles listing out their personality type, primary characteristics, weaknesses, biggest fear, fatal flaw, quirk, and their skill or ability. I also have a list of other fictional characters that would be similar in personality type. When I first started mapping out my characters, I gave them birthdays/zodiac signs as well.
You can find anyway to categorize and type your characters in order to get a better sense of who they are. I also figure out their backstories, family, culture and lots of other things. The goal is to mold a person enough to be able to think and react the way they would in any given situation. It is important to mention that not everything you list about your character needs to go into the book.
SCENE OUTLINING | SPREADSHEETS
I use Google Sheets to create a speadsheet to outline each scene. I read a book called Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys For Writing An Outstanding Story by K.M. Weiland. This book taught me how to structure a scene and has been invaluable in my writing process. According Weiland, a scene is comprised of six elements in the following order:
Goal: What your character wants in the scene.
Conflict: An obstacle comes between the character and his or her goal.
Disaster: The moment when your character is pushed off course, no longer in line with goal, change of direction.
Reaction: The character’s thoughts and feelings regarding the disaster. How he or she responds emotionally.
Dilemma: A new set of problems is defined as a result of the disaster. Prompts character to start figuring out his or her next move.
Decision: Character comes to a decision about next move and this creates a new goal leading into the next scene.
The decision leads to a new goal and then the cycle restarts. If you want to know more about the details of each of these elements, read more on How To Deconstruct a Scene like K.M. Weiland on Better Novel Project. I’ve taken these elements and included them in my columns on my spreadsheet.
Across the top of my spreadsheet are the names of each of the categories that I’m using to describe elements of my scene. Going down the bottom is a line numbered for each scene. I track and organize each scene by these categories:
Time of day
Time passed since last scene
Point of view
The goal is to be able to go through and fill in each block until the entire novel is plotted out and organized.
CREATE A SETTING PROFILE
World-building is such a fun and frightening venture when it comes to writing a novel. You’ll want to create a list of setting profiles just like with each character. I incorporate setting details into the drafts after I write the main plot and dialogue. I personally love to work with photographs of places around the world.
I go to Pinterest and save pictures that I will later use to describe as a setting. One key tip that I have learned during the process of writing my novel is that you are better off integrating the description of the setting organically with what is taking place in the scene rather than spew out a list of descriptions. That is one of the techniques that takes creative writing to the next level.
WHERE TO WRITE YOUR NOVEL
You have your normal word processors that can be utilized such as Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or Google Docs. Out of these three, I have used Google Docs to draft up a separate non-fiction book I worked on earlier this year. The benefit of Google Docs is that you can create separate pages for each chapter of the book. When it comes to drafting my fiction novel, I use Scrivener.
Scrivener is a program designed specifically for writing novels, screenplays and other types of large creative works. The features and functions available allow you create and organize a world of information including character profiles, digital index cards, chapters, scenes, acts, and any possible way you can imagine of drafting a story.
CREATE A ROUTINE
You will need to sit down to write every day if you want to complete a novel. Even if it means you only write for 15 minutes, it is important to sit down and allow yourself to warm up and be receptive to inspiration striking. At the very least, plan to write 100 words a day.
If you show up and sit down to work, you will make room for other ideas to grow from the seeds you plant in that first 100 words. The routine that got me to a complete first draft was writing three times a day, around 500 words a session. Some days I’d write more, and others less. This worked for me and it may just work for you.
KEEP AN IDEA JOURNAL
I use various places on my phone to store names that could be used for characters, settings, or titles. I also keep a list of ideas, themes, or dialogue that I can reference when I begin writing sessions if I need some inspiration. The goal is to make any time or any place a possible moment for pulling inspiration out of your environment.
If you are driving and see a name of street that sticks out to you, use that as the name of a village or town your main character visits. It is also a good idea to create a bullet journal to store all of the information and quick glance references to use for your novel. I did this for my first NaNoWriMo. It was so fun to make, and it inspired and motivated me more than I can even describe.
WRITING SURVIVAL KIT
Make a novel writing survival kit! It contains various items and a cultivation of an atmosphere that supports a daily writing regimen. Create playlists that summon the energy of the world that you are creating. I usually write to ambient sounds or instrumental music.
My usual instrumental genres are classical, jazz, various sub-genres of electronic and lo-fi hip hop beats. Movie scores are perfect for novel writing because they allow you to visualize your story in cinematic form which always helps me explore my scenes a little better.
I have a routine of turning on a special lamp on my desk that pulls all of my attention to my work space. I also light a candle (almost) every time I begin to write to trigger my writing energy. Consider stocking up on teas and coffee, easy to prepare snacks and foods.
Find a place in your home or neighborhood that you can dedicate to writing. It’s all up to you how you program your atmosphere, but the goal is to trigger and summon a spirit of writing. I’ve also had to stock up on lots of paper and my favorite pens because I do a lot of story mapping by hand as it’s just easier that way for me.
My last tip for creating a writing survival kit is to plan milestones and rewards. This will help push you to the finish line. The rewards can be as small or great as you desire, especially depending on how big the milestones get. I used all of these tactics heavily.
NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH
NaNoWriMo takes place every November and this will be my second year in attendance. It is a virtually structured writing community that will help guide you through that first draft.
National Novel Writing Month meets virtually (and locally) through live streams on Youtube and Instagram. The global goal is for each participant to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That 50,000 word goal is broken down into 1,667 words a day. On the website, you can track your progress by entering your stats daily. Without NaNoWriMo, I would not have written my novel.
I’ve possessed the ability for a long time, but needed that structure and community to help nurture it and guide me to the finish line. I’d suggest giving NaNaWriMo a shot for your first time writing a novel if you can’t seem to get there yourself. You can set whatever daily writing goal you choose, stay focused and knock it out of the park. I wish the very best to you and your writing adventures!