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Writing 101: So You Want to Write a Novel

Part 1: Planning a Novel

By Valerie Comer
Copyright 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved

You've always wanted to write a book.

Ever since you were in school your friends, parents, and teachers have been impressed by your way with words. You've made a few people laugh--and a few others cry. It's obvious you have talent and everyone thinks you should write a novel. Of course they'd read it! You'll be the next great thing, on the shelf beside J. K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, Debbie Macomber, or whoever is the current "great" in your chosen genre. You can see your name on the cover now.

It can be rather overwhelming trying to figure out exactly how one accomplishes this task. In this four-part series So You Want to Write a Novel, I'll give a basic overview of the writing process from spark to submission.


The most common question asked of many published authors is: Where do you get your ideas? The most common answer is that ideas are everywhere.

Every story on the shelves started with a single spark. What this entails is different for each writer and likely each story. But there is always a glimmer of something that makes you think you could write a story about that. Where do these sparks come from?

You might get a spark from an existing book. You might read a novel and think that if you were writing a story like that, you'd do it a bit differently. You might throw in a dragon or two, or the heroine should have a ninja background to spice things up. If you're writing in the existing novel's world, using existing character or place names and parameters, your work is fan-fiction. It can be a lot of fun, but it is almost never saleable. You're better off creating your own world and characters than borrowing someone else's.

A spark might come from a TV documentary, a song, a photograph or a dream. Some people use random story generators to get basic ideas from. You might get a spark from dialogue overheard at the mall or from a person you see strolling by. Or the person might exist only in your mind but is doing something intriguing. I've seen a young woman running through the woods, hiking up her skirt, glancing over her shoulder with a fearful expression. I don't know her story yet, but the running girl is definitely on my list of ideas to play with.

Not every idea can stand on its own. For me, the running girl is waiting for another idea to come along and latch onto it. Sometimes it takes the collision of several sparks to provide enough fuel for a story. These sparks will usually include a character, an idea of the main problem facing him or her, and a location, era, or world.

On the other hand, there are writers who get explosions rather than sparks. The entire shape of the story may burst into their minds in one Boom! and they're ready to roll.


Once you have an idea--or the amalgamation of several--what do you do with them? This depends on your comfort level.


Many folks write SOTP (seat of the pants). They leap straight from that spark into the story. A benefit cited by SOTP writers is that they aren't bored; they're compelled to keep writing in order to find out what happens next. This may work for you, but you should know the method is also responsible for plenty of false starts, where the novel writing peters out for lack of direction. Novels written by this method also tend to require a great deal more revision than ones that are more methodically planned as the writer seeks to discover which parts, exactly, are really driving the story and which are superfluous. However, if this is the method that works best for you, enjoy the ride. The rest of this article will likely make your eyes glaze over.


At the other end of the spectrum are folks with narrative OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). In this context, these writers feel the need to plan out every tiny detail of their story in advance, including the entire history of their characters and their world. OCD writers research or invent everything that has a vague possibility of impacting their story. They can tell you every character's shoe size. Needless to say, this extremity is debilitating and often becomes an excuse for not starting to write the story itself.


Very few writers fall to either extreme listed above, but are somewhere in between. It's a case of trial and error to find out where on the spectrum you will work best. My suggestion is to be as wary of under-planning as over-planning. Here's a reasonable checklist of things you will probably want to have in place before beginning to write:

1. Who is the main character? You may not need a lot of detail other than male/female, young/old, and special characteristics that matter to the story.

2. What does s/he desire most? Everyone has a goal. What does your character want to achieve in the course of this novel?

3. Why is this important to them? If their goal is to save the world, why does this particular person care enough to put their neck on the line? What drives them?

4. Who or what stands in the way of the MC getting what s/he wants? There's no story if the MC (main character) wants something, then goes and gets it without opposition.

5. Why is the antagonist opposed to the MC? Just as the MC needs reasons for what s/he does, so does the bad guy.

6. What general form will their conflict take? Are we talking about arguments, fist fights, exploding helicopters, or medieval battles?

7. How will it be resolved? You don't necessarily need a detailed plan of the climactic scenes, but a general landing pad is a good idea. You need a goal to write toward, whether it's a happy ending with the MC achieving his/her goal or a catastrophic ending where everyone dies.

8. When and where does this story take place? You need to know if your setting is in Seattle, 2009, the Wild West of the 1880s, a planet orbiting some far-off sun, or a fantasy world you're creating.

9. What genre is this? Don't worry too much about the micro-genre at this time. Just knowing whether you're writing contemporary suspense, historical romance, or science fiction is all that matters until much later.


The level of detail in your outline will likely match the level you're comfortable with in worldbuilding. For the SOTP writer, you'll likely want to scrawl out notes for a few scenes you think might show up sooner or later. If your characters and genre lend themselves to sword fights, for instance, jot a note reminding you to add one or more.

If you want a detailed outline, go for it. An oft-recommended method uses one notecard per scene. On the notecard you'll write a sentence describing what happens in the projected scene (what is the conflict?), who the viewpoint character is, and the setting.

As you write your ideas onto notecards, think about whether this scene sounds like a beginning scene, a middle scene, or a climactic scene. Then you can shuffle them around to find the most logical order. You'll likely see that you need scenes that fit in between some of these in order to progress smoothly.

How many do you need? It depends on how long your scenes will be and how long you want the novel to be. And, of course, some writers over-write their rough draft while others write sparsely and require additional description, etc, in final drafts. It's hard to make a good guess on your very first novel, but if you have at least 30-50 scene ideas you should be somewhere in the ballpark.

Once you've completed one novel, you'll have a better idea of the methodology that works for you. For the first one, you make a guess and go for it.


Upcoming articles in the Writing 101: So You Want to Write a Novel series include: Writing a Novel, Revising a Novel, and Submitting a Novel.