So, you’ve woken up after dreaming about a dragon who convinces a witch to transform them into a human, and you think wow, what a great idea for a novel. You leap out of bed and dart towards your laptop, eager to put the story forming in your head onto paper. But you need to STOP and take a deep breath because writing without any pre-planning rarely ends well.
Writing a novel is like running a marathon. If you don’t bother training for the marathon and simply show up on the day expecting your enthusiasm to push you through to the finish line, you’ll probably collapse after four kilometres and crawl away in defeat. Or, in your novel’s case, move it permanently into your Unfinished Folder after running out of things to write 10,000 words in.
But don’t worry, with a little pre-planning you can avoid your novel turning into a short story. Just follow these five steps:
Step 1. Establish the foundation of your story
A story is made up of three basic components: a protagonist, a conflict, and a setting. Everything else in your story—theme, other characters, climax etc—is built around these three things. So before you start working on a story outline, you need to answer the following questions:
1. Who is my protagonist and what is their primary goal?
2. What or who is preventing my protagonist from achieving their primary goal?
3. Where and when is my story set?
As an example, let’s apply these questions to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The answers would look something like this:
1. Harry Potter, an eleven-year-old wizard, wants to find and protect the Philosopher’s Stone.
2. Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard, who wants to steal the Philosopher’s Stone for himself.
3. Contemporary Surrey, England, and Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Yes, it’s that simple, so grab a pen and start scribbling answers.
Step 2. Research
If you’re like me and have been traumatised by writing 50,000 essays over the years, the word ‘research’ probably makes you want to lock yourself in a dark cupboard and start rocking back and forth while muttering never again. But it’s okay, doing research for your novel is a lot more fun than reading fifty textbooks on Ancient Greek politics.
So how do you research? Well, it depends what you’re researching. If your novel is set in Medieval England, then I’d start with history books. If your novel is set in contemporary times, then you should visit the locations you plan to set scenes in, or look up pictures. If one of your characters is a teenager, then go somewhere that teenagers hang out and observe the way they talk and act—but try not to be creepy. No one likes a stalker.
Now maybe you’re reading this step with a smug smile planted on your face because you’re writing a fantasy novel set in a world created purely from your imagination. No research required. Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’ve probably got more research to do than anyone because you have to build your world from scratch. This means you have to work out everything from the different types of trees that grow (if any) to how the world’s inhabitants greet each other, which means doing research for inspiration. Some things to think about include: vegetation, customs, clothing, transportation, dialect, weather, calculation of time, technology, food, building materials etc.
Step 3. Write an outline
All you need to do here is write a basic story arc—map out the main points in your plot. Now some writers like to write detailed chapter outlines, but I find when I’m writing that sub plots form, and characters develop a life of their own, veering away from my original plot. So I recommend keeping it simple: work out the key points in your plot and let your fingers fill in the rest.
Step 4. Allocate time
This step is crucial; you need to set aside time to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. Now some of you might be shaking your heads and thinking I’ll write when I feel like it. And it is possible to write a novel this way, but it’s also a lot harder. Writing every day helps you connect with your story and allows your story to flow more freely. Where as if you’re only writing once a week, you’ll find it harder to become absorbed in your fictional world.
Think of writing like this: the world you created has a wrought iron fence around it, and the only way to get through is to unlock the gate with the key your imagination has created for you. If you walk up to that gate every day, the key will slip into the lock and the gate will click open. But if you only show up from time to time, the key will work at first, but as more time passes between each visit, the lock will rust and your key won’t turn as smoothly as it once did. And then one day, the lock will snap your key, forcing you to walk away and never look back.
So if you want to maintain access to your world, allocate a daily time to write, and don’t worry about reaching a word goal. When I tried writing to a daily word goal, I started dreading writing because instead of letting the story flow through me at its own pace, I was forcing the words out, dragging them kicking and screaming from the back of my mind before they were ready to come out. And it honestly doesn’t matter if you write 2000 words a day or 200, as long as you’re writing.
Step 5. Write. Write. Write
Okay, so now you can dart to your laptop and start writing down your brilliant story. The first draft is all about writing with abandon. Don’t worry about perfect sentence structure or spelling at this point. Just focus on transferring your story from your imagination to paper. Once you’ve finished your first draft, it’s time to start your second draft, which is all about revising: correcting grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and ensuring the story flows smoothly. For your third draft, focus on addressing any problems with big picture things such as plot pacing, character development, and overall structure. And for your final draft, perform a proofread, paying close attention to any inconsistencies.
And that’s it. You’re finished. Congratulations, you just wrote your first novel.