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Rules of Writing Part 2: How to Plan a Novel

» Posted by on Nov 8, 2011 in Blog | 1 comment

Having got over the introduction phase of my new Rules of Writing I thought I could just get right into part 2 without any preamble on my part. I was wrong. Something was brought to my attention while reading an article online and it would be remiss of me not to mention this up front. So here it is:

Don’t arbitrarily agree and apply everything I say, or imagine that my own Rules of Writing are THE rules of writing. Of course they’re not, and perhaps it was pretentious of me to even label these posts in such a definitive way. They’re not rules on how to write –adverbs, sentence structure, comma use, pronouns, paragraphs, capitalisation… – there are plenty of places to go to for that and I’m not officially qualified enough to teach it. These posts are about things that I’ve learnt (or learned if you’re that way inclined) about methods that work for me when it comes to the actual crafting of stories, the little idiosyncrasies I’ve developed over the years to hone this strange business of writing fiction. I hope some of this resounds with someone, maybe one or two things will help you and when you read them you’ll think, “Oh hey, yeah, that’s quite a good idea, I’m going to try that.” Please don’t think for a moment you have to utilize all of these points and that if you do you’ll be successful. You won’t be. It’ll take a lot more than knowing how to write and knowing a few tricks. In many ways what works for me might not work for you.

With that said, I’m not going to change the title. These are my rules for writing the fiction I write to help me to finish what I start and make each project as good as I can make it. So, that said, let’s get onto part 2!

Rules of Writing Part 2: How to Plan a Novel

Like George Lucas, I’m going to do a prequel here. (I hope this turns out better than his did!) Last time I talked about how to get on with writing, but now I want to backtrack to how I, personally, plan and work on a novel before I begin writing the first draft.

The Idea:

I’m not sure what there is to say about this. Other than having the desire, the time and the ability to write, this one’s the most important. At least for most types of novel. It’s never been something I’ve struggled with myself, I quite literally have hundreds of rough ideas for stories both large and small tucked away in notepads and on my laptop. Most will probably never see the light of day or at best will be incorporated into another story. I have far too many ideas and nowhere near enough time to form them all into stories. Perhaps the ease with which someone can come up with an idea is dependent on the type of stories they enjoy writing, but I also think there’s not much I can tell you for tips on how to get story ideas, it’s a very personal, esoteric thing. All I can say is keep your eyes and ears open; plenty of my ideas are gleaned from everyday events, news items or simply letting my mind wonder.

Refining the basic premise:

Now comes some real work. You’ve got the basic idea, how do you form it into something you can develop into a structured, coherent, logically developed story? It’s true some extremely lucky or extremely talented writers just run with a basic idea and begin writing with barely any framework at all,  hoping that their subconscious fills in the gaps and subplots and leaves the story fairly free of holes in the first draft. It might even be true that in some genres (literary novels and romance especially I presume) which focus more on the prose and simple character interactions this is a fine way to start. But for me personally, a writer who values plot as highly as any other aspect of my novels, I need to plan, to outline where I am heading in a story and all the main plot-points and even some minor ones. This isn’t to say I stuck methodically to this structure, it unfailingly changes as the story progresses, but I couldn’t imagine writing a complex full length novel without this initial structure.

So how do I go about creating the framework from the basic idea? Essentially in three ways.

Short Synopsis:

Firstly, I write a short synopsis, outlining the major themes of the novel (this also becomes handy when writing the final synopsis once the book is done.) This initial synopsis is for my eyes only and just helps me flesh out the idea and get the old grey matter working, get me firmly rooted in the novel’s setting. It needn’t be too long, for a pre-novel synopsis mine are usually somewhere between one paragraph and half a page at most. When writing this, just stick to the absolute main plot and overall theme. Quite often while doing this I begin to come up with all sorts of smaller points I’d like to incorporate into the novel and I’ll note these down in my Notes page…


For every novel I write I have a Notes page for it. Just a simple word document within which I throw all manner of ideas in no real order. The notes page always becomes a mess, a hodgepodge of random ideas and points and even sometimes historical or factual references if needed. I could organise it, I could alphabetise it, I could somehow make it easier to navigate, but I never do. By the end of the novel it takes a good while to search my notes page for a specific point I wanted, but I’ve never bothered about turning it into something more organised. The most organised thing I do with it is cut/paste points I’m going to incorporate from the notes page into the Scene By Scene document (coming next), just to keep it from getting too cluttered. Think of the Notes page as a bits box you might use if you’re into some sort of hobby (electronics, Lego, plastic models…), it’s somewhere you put stuff that might come in handy later. For novels with a great deal of research (historical/scientific in particular) I sometimes have more than one notes page for different topics, but that’s as far as I get in organisation.

Scene by Scene document:

For me, this part is both the most time consuming of the preparatory stage and the most useful. I also seem to do it a slightly different way each time I write a novel. What this is not is a chapter by chapter breakdown. I’ve only ever done one of those once for a specific submission and I hated it. If you’ve ever written a full length novel you’ll know full well just how much it changes, evolves and grows in the writing, so having something as rigid as a chapter by chapter outline doesn’t make sense to me at all; but scene by scene is great, it allows for development, it’s slightly more dynamic.

Each scene doesn’t have to be too long, but doing this will help immensely in seeing the big picture of the plot. Here’s a brief run-down of the types of scene outlines I’ve done for my novels (sometimes combining them!)

- Simple single paragraph per scene – This is a great way of visualising the entire main plot, but doesn’t leave room for any details, so if I use this method I’ll usually use it alongside a more in-depth one. The key here is to keep things crisp and to the point, just the facts, it’s like a longer version of the Short Synopsis.

- Detailed scene by scene outline – This is the best way of insuring you incorporate everything you want to in a particular section of your novel. Each scene will incorporate subplots and little details. For these I usually scour my Notes for all the points I want to include for a specific section and cut/paste into the relevant scene. This is the most comprehensive, but also not so great at getting  a feel for the overall picture. Fantastic when it comes to writing your chapters though.

- scene map/plot arc – This is the best idea I’ve come up with for being able to scope out and connect all the plots of my novel. I’ve never used a plot arc on its own, but I consider it a great tool. Basically I have a collection of text boxes running from the top of a page downwards. In the centre and in bold is my main plot, to either side are subplots and important notes. Again just the basic facts. They all interconnect and do get quite complex towards the latter parts of the novel, but for myself it’s just such a great way to get a good overview. You can do this on paper, in word, in a drawing program or, for best results, use an excel sheet. Check out the picture below for an idea of what I’m talking about. I may even decide to show one of my real ones one day if I get enough requests.

- flash cards – some people love using these, writing a chapter/scene on each card and keeping them in a box. I understand why they’re a good idea; it’s easy to add or takeaway or edit a scene while still keeping them in good order and having something physical to refer to. You can also number them and lay them out like my plot arc (see above). Personally I found doing it this way quite time consuming and not for me, but give it a go.

And that’s pretty much it. With all of the above done at this point I’m usually more than ready  to get into the actual writing of my novel. Having done this level of preparation really starts you off on the right foot though, so keep these thoughts in mind. And if you have any tips that I haven’t covered in here by all means leave a comment or get in touch and I’ll add them.


Final thought on ideas and notes.

When you’re truly in the zone ideas can come to you at any time, so be ready to write them down or I guarantee you’ll forget them when you get back to your computer. A great many writers swear by those little notepads. I’ve tried to use them, but I find they’re just one more thing to carry around with me and I’ve never been able to stick to them. These days mobile phones are practically handheld computers anyway so I have a notepad program on mine for those flashes of inspiration while I’m out. I’ve even used a Dictaphone (voice recorder) app on occasion. Whatever way you decide to go, make sure you have something with you to record your ideas wherever you happen to be.

That’ll do for episode two, next time we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of actual story writing.

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