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To Plan or Not to Plan A Novel? Novel Writing Process.

planning a novel Sep 23, 2018

Are you a plotter or a pantser? I'm both. I rely on the 'divine write' but I also have a cunning plan up my sleeve. Read on!

I have this crazy notion that I used to write novels without planning them overly, that I was guided like some seer, by the character and their predicament and the story unfolded before me as I sat down to write it. 

That's about 10% true.

I probably did write my first two unpublished novels that way; the ones in the drawer.

I was obliged to plan my first novel because I had a few daft runs at it to work from.

My second novel was planned with military oversight, I had the theme of the thing, a key scene, and then I worked out the story, had a pinboard with places and characters and spent close to a year researching and writing to the programme (plot) I'd set myself.

The Classic Course takes you step by step from idea to planning and you leave it with a beautiful plan based on the lessons of all-time bestsellers.

Our novel writing course plans alongside you, for writers who've got started, got stuck, got half an idea, got a bad idea.

Sometimes one of my writers will tell me they're stuck. Usually, as my writers know, this is about 30k in. It so happens I can diagnose the issue quickly.

As you will have read in my previous blogs, the biggest issue is often that the main character is you. But the other issue is usually that the writer isn't working to a plan. They're working to the Divine Right of Writers which they picked up someplace. God knows where. Through admiring other writers I guess and thinking there's a genius to it when there's not. Every book has caused its writer a lot of agonies and work and revision.

This is John Steinbeck writing in his journal at more than halfway through (#entry 52) his 100-day write of The Grapes of Wrath

 ‘My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. The success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.’ (‘Working Days'  John Steinbeck.)

If you're stuck, and your character who is not you, is navel-gazing, then you haven't got a chaptered plan at your side. Whether this is in Scrivener or Word or Pages or in your notebook is fine, but you can't have it in your head because it's going to change daily. Yes, daily.

We make a plan and we don't stick to it. We made decisions that we reverse. We have no divine right but we call ourselves GODS when we're authors. Hell, why not.

So Teddy is going to get knifed, that's the plan. By 30k, Sally is going to get knifed. Fine. The reader won't see it coming because you didn't and the dynamic of constant change is a blessing to the process, but you have to keep accounts.

I write a chapter and revise my plan. I have to see where I've been and keep sight of where I'm going, but I change it when I am seduced by the sight of a prettier destination. 

My accounts are spartan. A few lines for each chapter. I go back and amend them to what I wrote and I look forward and amend them based on what just happened (when Sally slept with Teddy by accident and found out Teddy was impotent, and the phone rang and it was Teddy's mother....)

So you see you can have your divine cake, and eat it, but you must have your plan too. Or you'll be worrying about what Teddy will do next and have a million options ( marry Sally? Go to the clinic? Tell mother to put the kettle on?) and instead of choosing one you'll dither and your novel will die.

But if you have your original plan you'll see Teddy gets knifed, so you'll be working to bridge the gap between the latest developments and your end game in new and interesting ways.

At this point in a novel, I am going back to my first chapter more or less daily to bring more nuance to the characters and situation I've set up based on the developments. I'm also changing personalities. Where I have someone who now seems a bit trite because the other characters are whooping it up with deep conversations and issues a gogo, I'll double back when an old acquaintance pops into my head and take that old pals bad manners, or good habits and graft them on.

It's shabby, you see, this writing business. Grubby. There are fingerprints all over it. But you shine it up real good in the end. And you set fire to your plan.

But you have to have a plan. Either take The Classic Course to make one hell of a plan or make a simple one - even ten points - the things that MUST happen in this story and nail it up, and amend it every day.

I pin my prescription on the wall when I'm writing. It used to be a Hemingway quote which I give my writers at the beginning of the novel writing course as it's a tonic for delivering great prose, but right now I have just one writing quote on my wall and it's this.

‘Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.’

Iris Murdoch.

I hope it helps. I hope you have a chaptered outline and you're ready to change it daily. 

Back and forth, back and forth, with grubby fingers. How do I write a novel? I love it to death. Grubbily.

You never give up, you just keep making it better.


My Maypole Method.

I started this novel on August 23rd. It's some 3 weeks later and I'm looking at 37,858 words.

The book, it works on a few fairly obvious levels but as I'm tying the maypole with ribbons of politics, romance, and doom, in bawdy and garish style, I have to keep working back and forth. I reach from the present scene daily to the early chapters in reverse and I make notes on fast forwards too.

To do this you need:

1. Chapter outline in brief sentences, just a few for each. It helps me to work in big chapter chunks this way, so I can manage them. I may break the chapters later but I based this model on Gatsby

2. A rolling manuscript. Drop your prose into the novel format at the Members Lodge, and scroll up and down daily. Work like Hemingway from the bottom up every day until you have too much material and start your day by going back over the last three chapters. Build up and the base becomes more solid and can accelerate your first draft to a second. (I'm not saying you won't need a third, because it's only at the end of the story you know the best way to begin really, but your prose quality should be good.)

3. A professional approach. Use punctuation and grammar please and treat your work very seriously right from the off. Grammarly is a great tool for checking your prose. Don't be sloppy. It's a bad habit and intrinsically demotivating.

Happy writing! 


"You Get What You Give" was a 1998 song by the New Radicals. It was an international hit, from their album Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too.  

Much of the media attention "You Get What You Give" received centred on the closing lyrics:

"Health insurance, rip-off lying
FDA, big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they're multiplying
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson,
Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson
You're all fakes, run to your mansions
Come around, we'll kick your ass in."

According to lead singer Gregg Alexander, he had written this section for the song as a test to see whether the media would focus on the important political issues of the first few lines, or the petty celebrity-dissing. As suspected, a considerable amount of press began to appear about the name-dropping, and the other political issues were largely ignored.

Marilyn Manson commented that he was "not mad he said he'd kick my ass, I just don't want to be used in the same sentence as Courtney Love.... I'll crack his [Alexander's] skull open if I see him." Beck reported that Alexander personally apologized for the line when they met each other by chance in a supermarket, claiming that it was never meant to be personal.

In a Time interview, U2 lead guitarist The Edge is quoted saying "You Get What You Give" is the song he is "most jealous of. I really would love to have written that." Billboard gave a mixed review, saying that it was a "chugging, Wham!-style pop song with slightly cheesy lyrics" but that the ending lyrics were "interesting".

The lyrics I would like you to hold dear are these:

"Don't let go
You've got the music in you"


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