Novel Planning: A Practical Guide
How do you actually plan a novel? That’s a question a lot of writers, even authors with multiple books under their belts, ask themselves. And I can’t blame them—I’ve asked the same question so many times before.
A novel is a big undertaking. Whether you’re writing 75,000 words or 150,000 words, this isn’t a quick weekend project you can just crank out. Even thinking about such a large task can make even the most confident wordsmith a little nervous.
But that’s okay! Because you’ve found a guide to help you plan your novel in the best way that works for you.
See, writing is an art, and we are all artists. There’s no single method of planning that will work with everyone’s creative process. That’s why we’ve put this article together, though. Instead of telling you the way to plan a novel, I’m going to help you find your way to plan a novel.
- Planning your time and schedule
- Planning your writing space
- Planning your plan
- Planning your actual novel
That looks like a lot of planning, but it’s really as much (or little) as you make it. And you’ll notice only one item on the list, albeit the largest item, is planning your novel itself. Trust me, it’s all part of the process.
So let’s get that process started.
Plan Your Time
Up first, we want to create a realistic schedule. To do that, we need to realize how much time we’re going to be spending on this book.
More cynical authors would tell you that most of the time invested comes after you’ve finished your book—and that’s true. You have to revise, rewrite, work with an editor, market, publish, advertise, and then bring it back to life from your backlist of books once you’ve published another dozen stories.
We want to focus on writing your book, though. All that other stuff is important, but we’re here to plan a novel!
Determine how much you need to write
It’s impossible to tell exactly how many words will be in your finished draft, but we can at least use a rough estimate to help us plan our time.
To do this, take a look at similar books in your genre. How long are they? That’s most likely the sweet spot you’re aiming for. Here are some helpful guidelines from my pal, Abi:
- Young Adult (YA): 40,000-70,000 words
- Short Story: 5,000-10,000 words
- Novella: 10,000-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words or more; most novels fit into the 80,000-100,000 range with the exception of:
- Fantasy Novel: Often 90,000-150,000 words
Are these hard and fast rules? No. But they’re guidelines because most books fall within them.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume we’re writing a 90,000-word book.
How long does it take you to write 90,000 words? I doubt it’s a number you know off the top of your head, so let’s figure it out.
Determine your writing speed
Do figure out how quickly you can get those words down, I love Chris Fox’s idea of “words per hour” or WPH. This is the speed at which you write if you were writing nonstop for an hour.
Now, a couple things to keep in mind here:
- Very few people can write for 60 uninterrupted minutes in a row
- Your WPH will vary up and down all the time
- This rate is best used for estimations and recording improvement.
But how do we determine our WPH? Either once you’re done reading this article or right now, open Dabble or go to wordsprints.org and write for a couple fifteen-minute blocks. Four would be preferable, but at least two is fine.
Write for fifteen minutes, record how many words you wrote, take a five-minute break, then repeat.
Once you’ve done that, use this formula to determine your wph rate:
Total words written / (Total minutes writing / 60)
Let’s say you wrote 1,500 words in 30 minutes. Your formula would look like:
1,000/(30/60) = 2,000 words per hour
So you can assume that, for every hour you spend writing (even if it’s broken into four 15-minute chunks), you’ll spit out about 2,000 words.
Note: Don’t stress about your unique wph rate. I’ve been in situations where 400 words in an hour was awesome and others where 3,000 words were flying out every 60 minutes. There’s no bad rate, and you will find you write faster with consistent effort.
If we write approximately 2,000 words per hour, it will take around 45 hours of pure, blissful writing to get our first draft done. There will be days when you don’t write that quickly (or at all). There will be days when you write faster than your wph. That’s fine, we’re just using an average for now.
Determine how long your book will take
So we are going to need about 45 hours to write our first draft. Great! If we were full-time authors with literally nothing but writing to do (which isn’t even the case for full-time authors) and unlimited creativity, we could be done in a working week.
Unfortunately for most of us, we need to balance work, family, groceries, health, Netflix, and everything else that uses the precious minutes we have in a day.
To truly determine how long it will take to write your draft, think about how much time you can spend writing per day. If it’s only fifteen minutes from Monday to Friday, that’s fine!That means it’s going to take 180 days or 36 weeks to get your draft done.
I want to be clear, I’m not saying this to make you sad or lower your morale, but part of planning a novel means understanding how long it’s going to take you to write. To make that possible, the last part of planning your time is to…
Determine your writing schedule
I’m not going to take too long here, because creating a writing schedule is worthy of its own article. Which is why we wrote one. Check it out here. It even accounts for breaks, burnout, and writer’s block.
What I will say is that forming and sticking to a writing schedule is one of the best things you can do to get your book done. So many writers, myself included, took years to finish their first book because they didn’t commit to a schedule or habit.
Do yourself a favor and make a schedule.
Plan your Space
Part of planning a novel is also planning where you’re going to write it.
You technically can only write in a coffee shop or a jazz club or something, but that’s not really doing you any favors. You can also write on your couch or in bed, but that’s terrible for your body.
When planning your novel, plan a space where you can write it. You want to think of:
Comfort and ergonomics: You’re going to be spending many hours in this spot. Make sure it’s comfortable and ergonomic.
Distractions: Distractions are the bane of your creativity and come in many forms: social media, emails, family, pets, chores, literally anything you can use as an excuse to not write. If you can find a writing space with a door, that is preferable, but choose somewhere that is as free from distractions as possible and ask your family to respect your time there.
Inspiration: The more you write, the more you’ll find your creativity doesn’t need inspiration. It’s always there on tap. But it doesn’t hurt to have books, artwork, quotes, pictures, or even a vision board to help keep you inspired when that tap isn’t flowing as much as normal.
Cleanliness: Sure, some writers thrive in messy, cluttered spaces. Most don’t. Keep your writing space clean, because anything making the clutter can just be another distraction.
Your writing tool: Before you plan your novel, you need something to write with! And while you’re at it, why not try something that helps you plan your novel, too. Dabble offers a 14-day free trial, no credit card required, and you get access to awesome tools like the Plot Grid that can be instrumental in plotting your book.
Plan your Plans
Now we’re getting into the good stuff. From here on out, we’re getting our hands dirty with actual planning. But before we can figure out what your first chapter is going to look like, we need to figure out what kind of planning we’re doing.
Sounds a little existential. Bear with me, though, because this is important.
What novel do you want to plan?
Arguably the most important part of planning is planning what you plan to plan. Clear as mud, right?
But you need to know some basics about your book before you dive too far into the planning process. This includes:
- Genre and subgenre
- Style and tone
- POV and if you’re using multiple perspectives
- Approximately how long you want it to be
Are you planning on writing a 150,000-word gritty, epic fantasy told from your anti-hero’s perspective? Or a 70,000-word romcom filled with witty banter told from the perspective of both love interests?
Figure out what you want to plan before we move on.
What style of planning works best for you?
Remember a bunch of words ago when I said there was no best method of planning a novel? This is where we really drive that point home.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different methods to outline your novel out there. I’m not here to introduce you to a brand new system, but to help you find a plan of attack that works best for you. In the next section, we will cover a tried-and-true method of planning your novel, but I wanted to introduce you to a few you could draw elements or inspiration from.
Why? Because all writers fall somewhere along the “plotter-pantser spectrum.” At one end, you have plotters, who live and die by their outlines, usually frontloading their writing workload by creating a perfect plan to see their first draft to the end.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have pantsers, who “write by the seat of their pants” and just let the words take them where they want to go. They spend more time on the other side of the first draft, revising their discovery writing.
In between, you have plantsers, who fall somewhere in between, skewing more towards plotting or pantsing, but incorporating the best of both worlds. This is where you find most writers.
For plotters: Check out the Snowflake Method. This is an extensive, multi-day outlining plan that gives you quite possibly the best roadmap for your story and the characters within it.
For pantsers: Here’s an easy five-step plan (where step five is just writing) that won’t revoke your pantser card but will give you a decent guide to help your discovery writing stay on track.
For plantsers: Check out the next section.
Plan your Novel
For a flexible way to plan your novel (without spending weeks on the outline), we’re going to be referencing the three-act structure. The three-act structure is a near-universal storytelling framework. It’s the beginning, middle, and end we’re all used to and expect.
Yes, other structures exist (and you can read about them here), but most can boil down to three-acts.
By combining this structure with the characters who will be experiencing or suffering through your story, we get a flexible, easy framework to plan a novel.
Here’s what that looks like:
Step One: Who Are Your Characters?
Right off the bat, we’re more interested in characters than plot. Why? Because your characters’ arcs and goals should be intrinsically tied to the plot.
Why does your hero do what they do? How come the villain wants to stand in their way? Who needs to be standing at the protagonist’s side for them to be successful?
You can start planning your novel without knowing about your main cast of characters, but doing a little bit of thinking ahead of time will save you more time on the other side and help you make a stronger, more cohesive plot.
- Who is your protagonist? What do they look like? What is their goal? Why do they want to achieve that goal? What flaw makes their journey difficult?
- Who or what is your antagonist? How are they related to your protagonist? What is their goal? What motivates them?
For the Plotter-Oriented:
- Let the previous questions inspire you to come up with important secondary/supporting characters you know will be in your book.
- Use this character template with more than 100 traits to fill in to really bring your characters to life.
- Interview your characters to get to know them better.
For the Panster-Oriented:
- Fill out at least one or two words for the following for your main characters:
- Physical mannerisms:
- Background (ethnic, economic, religious, etc.):
Step Two: The Story Beats
Now, armed with a bit more information about our main characters, we’re going to summarize the nine story beats of the three act structure.
Story beats are those moments, scenes, or sequence of events that all stories have. They’re essential for driving the plot forward and ensuring you don’t wander off too far that you risk alienating your readers.
Though basically all stories have these nine elements, your beats and mine will look completely different.
The following questions are meant to prompt you into thinking about the nine beats, thus generating a cohesive outline. Feel free to answer with as much detail as you’d like. I’ve also included the name of the story beat in parentheses after each question.
- What does normal look like for your protagonist? (Ordinary world/exposition)
- What single event interrupts their normal? Who causes it? Why can’t they return to normal? (Inciting incident)
- What does the protagonist need to push them away from their normal life towards their larger goal? Is it an internal or external force? Is this realistic? (First plot point)
- What obstacles does your protagonist face during their journey? Which ones do they overcome and which do they fail to conquer? Who helps or hinders them? How are things made progressively worse, despite apparent victories? How does your antagonist fall into all this? (Rising action)
- What is an event that is so devastating to your protagonist that it makes their goal more important than ever? How is this event more dangerous or threatening than anything that’s come before? What are the stakes? (Midpoint)
- How does your protagonist prepare to achieve their goal? Are they truly prepared? Who is helping them? What experiences are they drawing on? (Second plot point)
- Your protagonist is close to accomplishing their goal, but what happens to make it feel like all hope is lost? This should be one final obstacle that seems insurmountable unless the protagonist uses everything they’ve learned throughout the book. (Pre-climax)
- How does your protagonist finally conquer that obstacle and finally achieve their goal? Who is impacted by this immediately in the scene? What’s the impact on your antagonist? (Climax)
- What happens to your characters after the climax? How has the world changed? How have you wrapped up all your subplots? Are you setting up for a sequel? (Falling action/denouement)
For the Plotter-Oriented:
- Go deeper! Write a paragraph or five for each chapter. Most of these beats can be split up over multiple scenes, especially the inciting incident.
- Set an outline deadline. Hardcore plotters can get lost in planning a novel, so give yourself a schedule to work with, including the day you’re going to start actually writing.
For the Panster-Oriented:
- Get feedback. Let a writing friend look at your outline and offer suggestions on potential plot holes or weak ideas. This could save you from extensive reviews later.
- Revisit and expand. Feel free to add to your basic outline as you write. This might seem like an exercise in tedium, but it allows you all the benefits of plotting—being able to view your story at a glance, notice inconsistencies and plot holes, see where you can shuffle scenes around—without spending days or weeks planning your book. You’ll thank yourself after your draft is done.
Some Post-Planning Tips
Is this a complete, immutable guide to planning a novel? No. But it gives you more than you need to start writing.
The purpose of this plan is to make sure the foundations are there for most writers: solid characters and a cohesive plot.
Books have more than that, though. So, if you’re looking for other elements of your craft you can plan or just learn more about, become a better author by understanding:
Conflict - I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again many times: a book without conflict is a textbook. You need to understand both external and internal conflict to make your book a favorite among your readers.
Worldbuilding - While it’s most important for fantasy and sci-fi writers, worldbuilding applies to all forms of fiction, even romcoms taking place at a tech startup in California. Become a worldbuilding expert here (and check out this fantasy-specific one).
Themes - Themes are the messages behind your novel, the things that turn your words from a recounting of a tale to a memorable story. Learn about themes in this article.
Point of view - Finally, the perspective you tell your story from can have a huge impact on its quality. Does a character share just their journey and thoughts? Is an omniscient narrator relaying the tale to your readers? Figure out your best POV here.
And more info is being added multiple times a week here at DabbleU, so do yourself a favor and sign up for our newsletter. We don’t spam you or sell your information, and we usually make a joke or two in the newsletter, so I personally don’t see any downsides.
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