What do you need before starting a novel?
Some people start novels with absolutely no plan! Those people are very brave, and often do not finish their books very quickly.
You can prepare as much or as little as you’d like. We’re going to go over some items you could plan out in advance.
To learn how to plan a novel, we will cover:
- Prepare your character sheets
- Carry out research and worldbuilding
- Outline your novel
- Choose your educational resources
- Create a timeline and schedule
- Calculate your budget
- Find your writing partner
- Plan your novel series
Planning a Novel #1 – Characters
Having separate profile sheets for your characters is great for plotting character arcs, establishing backstories, and developing unique voices for each character.
They’re also helpful during the drafting process because it’s much easier to forget things than you might think (in my novel’s first draft, I think every single character swapped eye color at least once).
What items might you include in a character sheet?
- Physical descriptions
- Development tracking (how should they change at what points in the story)
- Character story summaries (a paragraph or two about who they are, what they want, where they’ll start and end)
- Background information
Planning a Novel #1 – Carry out research and worldbuilding
Most novels require research and worldbuilding, especially if you’re writing historical, sci-fi, or fantasy.
Getting the big chunk of your worldbuilding out of the way before you begin drafting is helpful, because then you know the elements your characters have to work with/against. Knowing the setting helps to decide things like who your characters would be in that world (based on their upbringing and environment), their motivations and goals, their strengths and weaknesses, etc.
Worldbuilding is also helpful for plot development because things like environmental elements, politics, religion, weather, and magic systems can all contribute to conflict. Throwing characters you know into a world you understand will nearly always generate its own plot points with low effort.
Planning a Novel #3 – Outline
Any project is quicker and easier to finish with a plan! A novel’s plan is its outline.
There are countless ways to structure a story outline. You can also start with the MindMap! It can be as simple or as detailed as you’d like, but in most cases, the more detailed your outline, the easier drafting will be.
You can edit an outline as you write to keep the process flexible and exciting if that’s a writing style you prefer. An outline is simply a writing tool–use it however you’d like.
You might fully flesh your outline into a scene-by-scene summary of your novel, but if you don’t want an outline that detailed, you should at least have an idea of:
- Your story’s POV. Will you write in first, second, third limited, or third omniscient? Will you have multiple POV characters, or just one? If you’re writing in third omniscient: what kind of voice will your narrator have, is the voice a character, are they involved with the story?
- Your main characters. Whose story is it? Who is your protagonist? Who is your antagonist?
- Your setting. When and where does your story take place? Is your world set in realism, magic realism, or magic? What significant worldbuilding elements will come into play?
- At least a few plot points or an idea of what will happen in the story.
Planning a Novel #4 – Research and learn
Besides doing pre-research on your novel itself, you might do some research on the art of writing! Here are some good resources if you don’t know where to start.
Books to read:
If you’re looking to learn the main elements of writing, try these three books:
Plot & Structure deals with, shockingly, plot, and structure in novels. Knowing the technicalities of formulating a novel before you even start outlining makes the writing process much smoother.
If plot and structure are a story skeleton, prosaic style is the flesh. This book breaks down how to take your story idea and write it well.
This book by Mur Lafferty teaches about honing your craft, the creative process, and how to deal with your own self-critic. It also has in-book writing exercises and story prompts!
If you learn better with a teacher, here are a few Skillshare classes that might be helpful! (The links will give you 2 month free trials to Skillshare if you don’t have an account already.)
Novel Writing 101 – This class breaks down the absolute basics of writing a novel.
Story Structure: 8 Essentials for Outlining Your Novel or Script – This class gets into the more specific steps of outlining a story.
Plan Your Novel in 30 Days or Less! – This class holds your hand and guides you through planning each element of your story.
Writing Flash Fiction – This class teaches how to write flash fiction, which is a great way to practice writing prose, which will make your novel better.
Solid handle on prose
A lot of new writers like to jump straight into writing with a novel, but a novel is a massive undertaking! Planning a book, plot beats, developing characters, and building worlds are some of the easier things to figure out.
What takes a while to learn (based on my experience in writing and teaching) is the actual art of prose.
Learning prose is much easier to do in shorter pieces like flash fiction, short stories, poetry, and creative essays. If you learn how to write before you try to write a novel, you will (surprise) write a much stronger novel.
Planning a Novel #5 – Create a timeline and schedule
A common reason books don’t get finished is that they are often side projects for people with careers, families, and other obligations. And often, writers have no one waiting for them to finish the first draft. If you don’t have an agent, a publishing company, and/or an audience demanding a finished product, there isn’t anything holding you accountable to making steady progress on your manuscript. If this sounds like you, you need to master self-motivation!
Whether you have an outside push or not, planning your novel timeline has many benefits–including motivating you to finish.
How to schedule your novel:
- Take a look at your outline (that you wrote, right?) and estimate how many words/pages/chapters you expect it to be.
- With your estimation, decide how soon you’d like to finish your novel. On average, a traditional novelist will publish a new book every 1-3 years. A lot of writers who self-publish tend to “churn,” which means they write lower quality novels with much quicker turnaround–they might produce a few books per year. Consider how much time and effort you’d like to expend, your expectations for your novel’s quality, and your lifestyle when you’re deciding on a timeline.
- Once you know when you want to finish your novel, break that time into sections. How long will you take on your first, second, and third draft? Do you think you might need more drafts than that? How long for beta readers? How long for a self-edit? How long do you need for a professional editor, cover designer, illustrators, and anyone else you might hire? Write out specific deadlines for each piece of production.
- Keep your schedule somewhere accessible and make monthly, weekly, and daily goal lists to be sure you’re staying on track. If you fall significantly behind, adjust your schedule as needed. Editors and other professionals need to be booked ahead of time, and everyone has a different window for how much notice they need and how much time they need to finish a project, so do your research when you’re planning your production timeline.
Sample novel schedule timeline:
Here’s an example timeline for my next short story collection. I’ve input it into a Gannt chart so it’s more visual, but this shows about a year-long process, from drafting to release.
As you can see, most of the processes happen simultaneously. With a timeline, I know everything that should be happening and when. I made this with MS Excel’s default Gannt chart, but there are lots of different formats you can choose, even just within MS Excel, to structure and track your novel timeline.
Sample novel writing schedule:
Like I said, once you know your timeline for project completion and have broken it into specific durations, you can decide what your weekly and daily task lists should look like. My current phase of developing my short collection involves drafting, beta rounds, and self-revisions/edits.
For example, this month my tasks are:
- Turn in a new short story to critique group on the 10th, 20th, and 30th
- Revise (specific stories)
- Review beta feedback and make final edits on (specific stories)
Once I’m done with drafting, workshops, and self-edits, my tasks will shift to promotion and communication with the professionals I’ve hired.
Timelines put you in control of your project.
Planning a Novel #6 – Calculate your budget
Along with a timeline, a crucial planning element on the business side of producing a book is your budget. A budget will look very different between a self-published book and a traditionally published book. If you’re traditionally published, most of the costs will be covered by your publisher.
If you’re self-publishing, the responsibility of services like a professional edit and cover design falls to you.
Here’s an example of a book budget:
Again, I just input my information into a MS Excel budget template for a visual. These items are examples of most things you might want to purchase to produce a book. I’ve over-budgeted in every category, so I’ll spend less than what I’ve estimated, but it’s better to overshoot than underestimate and have to eat unexpected costs.
From publishing my first collection, I have a reference for how much everything costs, but I also know my expected income once it releases. Based on those past numbers, I made this budget. The first time around, I kept costs as low as possible because I wasn’t sure what kind of sales I’d make. Now that I have an idea of how well my books sell, I’m freer to make more assumptions about where I can invest in higher quality production.
NOTE: Producing a novel will incur different costs than producing a short story collection. For example, I am only hiring a copy editor. For a novel, you’d do your best hiring a developmental editor as well. Depending on the type of edits needed, a professional edit on a novel typically runs between $1,000 and $3,000.
Planning a Novel #7 – Find your writing partner
This is probably the most optional thing you need for the early stages of a novel. Some writers prefer to have their first drafts all to themselves, but eventually, you’d benefit from having a writing partner.
How do you find a writing partner?
Make writer friends! A good writing partner is someone you can trust and get along with, so finding a writing partner amongst the friends you already have is a great option.
If you haven’t been able to make writing friends yet, you can reach out to other writers who have a similar skill level to you. Twitter hashtags are a great way to get into the writing community.
Try tags like #WritingCommunity and #AmWriting.
How to plan a novel – series
Some writers “pants” all the way through a series with no idea of how many books they’ll end up with or what will happen in each one. That can sometimes work, but it’s also a good way to confuse yourself into awkwardly stapling plot holes together.
A cleaner way is to have an idea of how many books your series will have and to at least roughly outline each book before your first one is published.
A method you might use to track your series is by creating a series bible. A series bible is a compilation of information about your series.
It might include:
- Character profile sheets
- Plot arcs for the series and individual books
- Backstory and worldbuilding
- Rules about magical, religious, and political systems
- A lexicon of made-up words, creatures, concepts, etc.
As far as timelines, schedules, and budgets for a novel series, it’s essentially the same as what we covered for individual novels–just for multiple.
Writing a novel can be as planned or unplanned as you like, but there are certainly things you can work out beforehand to give yourself a creative and professional edge!