Preplanning your novel

Okay, so you’re ready to start your novel …

Aren’t you?

I started one on January 2nd, with the goal of writing around 5,000 words a week and having the first draft finished by spring. But I’ve been planning that start for weeks. Let’s take a look at planning that might – or might not – work for you.

Which comes first, character or the plot? Well, you can’t go far without figuring that out, but the answer is a matter of opinion. I start with a plot idea:

“What would happen if a photographer from California arrived in rural Indiana predicting an oncoming storm, only to lock horns with a cop who hates photographers – and Californians?”

That one sentence began a yearlong project that eventually turned into my first published novel, Storm Chaser. For the sequel, I started out with another basic question:

“What if the photographer’s infamous ne’er-do-well brother heard about his sister’s new relationship and determined to be her wedding planner as a way of making up with her, despite having absolutely no experience in wedding planning?”

(Oh, come on – Storm Chaser is a romantic comedy: Surely it’s not a spoiler to say the story ended with a new relationship?)

In the end, plot based stories often begin with “What if?” followed by “What then?”

Character based stories, on the other hand, often begin – wait for it – with a strong character:

“Fran Mendoza-Vargas is a no-nonsense cop who worked her way past sexism and racism to become a young Indiana State Police detective. A third generation Mexican-American, she’s become popular around town for her cheeriness and optimism, but has sacrificed her personal life in favor of her job.”

Okay, we have the basics of our character. What then? Maybe the next step will be to ask, “What would happen if the straitlaced Fran encountered legendary bad boy Ian Grant, who seems determined to screw up the life of her new friend, the photographer?”

There, in two sentences, you have the base of my entire Storm Chaser sequel, despite the fact that I then fill it out with a three page long (single spaced) outline.

Oh, yeah … the outline.

To outline or not to outline? There’s a question that could cause fist fights at writer’s conferences. “Pantsers” are loud and clear: Outlines constrict them. These writers simple start out, and see where the path leads them.

I tried that approach. If you want proof, I give you an entire box full of half-completed manuscripts.

However, for some people it does work, and more power to them. If you decide to outline, how should you do it?

Any way you want. I don’t have roman numerals, capital letters, and so on. I just jot down the events of the story in order, sometimes throwing in specific scenes and even quotes, sometimes leaving it very spare and basic. You don’t have to use some specific format; this isn’t going to be turned in to your English teacher – it’s just for you. If a page of scribbling works, fine. If you like a detailed, numbered, scene by scene breakdown, that’s fine too.

It’s just a guideline, and my stories frequently stray from it as the characters come alive and new ideas pop up. (Where the heck did that horse come from, anyway? No idea.) But even if I decide to choose a different path entirely, the finish line is there to guide me on my way.

Speaking of characters coming alive, I like to fully create my characters before I start on the outline, in case they grab me by the short hairs and tell me they’re not going the direction I planned. Some writers say they have complete control over their characters at all time; but if I do my job right they come alive for me, and sometimes they’ll tell me they just wouldn’t do what was in my original plan. Thus the fight at the end of chapter one, which surprised me as much as them.

What do I know about my characters before I start? Their looks, all their family and friend relationships, their job, past jobs, past loves, pets, desires, dreams, fears, favorite and least favorite seasons, foods, cars, books, TV shows, movies, hobbies …

Well, the list goes on and on. Do a search for “creating characters”, or get a good book on characterization, and you’ll find all sorts of good lists. By the time you’re done, you should know not only what they look like and how they’d react in any situation, but every little thing about them, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Most of which your reader will never learn about. Research should be like an iceberg, with most of it never seen. Just the same, research the heck out of each and every person in your story unless they’re a very minor character, and sometimes even then.

So, you’ve got your plot idea, your characters, and your outline. What else? That’s the big stuff, other than stocking up on caffeinated drinks. For Storm Damage most of my characters were already created, but I went back and looked through their files. I also had to keep a timeline and a separate page of clues, because there’s a bit of a mystery involved in this one.

Since it’s set in my home area I don’t have to do a lot of location research, but be prepared to have a file (computer, print, or both) to keep any information you need to have on hand. When I set my novel Radio Red in northern lower Michigan – a six hour drive away – I collected all the information I could on the area, up to and including maps, tourist flyers, photos, and even video, as well as making several trips up there.

Research has to include your characters’ jobs too, of course. I immersed myself in studying weather for Storm Chaser, and used my experience as a part time radio personality to create a main character in Radio Red.

This is far from a complete list. There are issues of naming your characters, for instance – that could make for a whole piece by itself. But planning ahead a little, even if you don’t want a complete outline, can make the writing itself go a lot faster.

Remember, though: Your rough draft is allowed to stink. If you miss something along the way, or decide you’re writing in the wrong tense, or the story goes off the rails, just take a step back (or go for a long walk, or scream into a pillow), then come back and fix things. That’s what rough drafts are for.

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This entry was posted in Advice, Writing and tagged , , by markrhunter. Bookmark the permalink.

About markrhunter

My debut novel, Storm Chaser, a contemporary romantic comedy set in rural Indiana, was released by Whiskey Creek Press in June, 2011. Since then I've also published its sequel, "The Notorious Ian Grant"; a related collection of short stories, "Storm Chaser Shorts"; a YA humor-adventure, "The No-Campfire Girls"; and two local history books, "Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights" and "Images of America: Albion and Noble County". My humor column, “Slightly Off the Mark,” has been published for over twenty years. I live in a small northeast Indiana town with my wife, our dog Bae, and a cowardly ball python named Lucius. I have two daughters and twin two-year-old grandsons, and I'm employed as a dispatcher for the Noble County Sheriff’s Department—a day job that I ironically work at night. I'm safety officer, instructor, and public information officer for the Albion Volunteer Fire Department, and when not writing I laugh hysterically at the notion of having spare time.

16 thoughts on “Preplanning your novel

  1. I find out-lining any more than the basic premise to be constricting. My writing has often taken new and exciting turns purely because I have not restricted myself to my original idea. Conversely, I have often lost weeks of working time because I didn’t stick to my original idea. I find that it’s better, for me, to be flexible and see what happens.

    • I agree, and even though I do a relatively long outline I don’t restrict myself, either; the only solid events I put in are the beginning and the end, and even those can be changed if something between warrants it. I suspect the important thing with an outline isn’t so much the journey as it is keeping the destination and maybe a few key stops in mind — and the road less traveled often ends up being the more interesting one.

      Now I have to figure out who just tried to run my main characters down with a car!

  2. Great post. I like to plan. I need to know enough about what is going to happen before I start writing. I’ve tried the other way and, like you, end up with a few chapters but no clue where it might lead.

    Having more direction helps and whilst your characters can change path during the story, I have a general direction where we’re all heading.

    • I love what if stories; tales that start with a character tend to be a bit unfocused for me, if the writer hasn’t drawn a plot up around them. And I’m all about flexibility — Ian Grant is about to get into a comic car chase that I didn’t see coming until a page earlier.

  3. Quite honestly, I need the outline to keep things straight. Plus, I write things down, sort of in point form, and add from there. That way, if I need to go back and look at something, I can…

  4. One of the things that I’ve loved late in the game is discovering that a character among my antagonists- who I thought would end up being the unstable, irrational one- ended up being the one member of the group with clarity and understanding.

    If you’re too rigid with your plot, characters will never surprise you.

  5. Thanks Mark for sharing some good advice. I keep a basic outline, usually. However, my last book didn’t have much of an outline because it just came alive out of my experiences and I knew where it was going. It just depends. But an outline is often helpful. I tend to start with plot and then build characters. Characters are very important to make people care about the story. I like the way you are thorough in resesarch with maps and location as well as likes and dislikes of the characters. And all of this shows in your novels! Take care and good writing!

    • Thanks, Lena! You’re absolutely right — whether you start with the plot or the characters, it’s the characters in the end who make people care.

  6. Ah! Good post. I had a plan, in which I would write and publish a novel in two months. All went well through the first three drafts, and then the last one, the detailed editing part of it, threw me for a loop. I’ve since given up any hopes of publishing “soon” as I am eternally bogged down in my own mess.

    I outline for the second draft, rarely the first, but I do have a general idea of where I’m going with it and I’ll write down any ideas that pop to mind whether concerning character or story. I think this method works well for me. It’s a bit of both an intuitive method and a mechanical one.

    • I’m with you — I do some editing as I go and couldn’t hope to finish a first draft in less than three months, on my schedule. Then, after I polish, I put the manuscript away for at least a month until it’s cooled down; when I pick it up again, I invariably find numerous problems I have to address. After fixing those I give the manuscript to my first reader — and *she* finds numerous problems I missed! Publishing soon is a mistake for most of us.

      I do agree a combination of methods is best; my characters have thrown me numerous surprises this time around, and I’m only 30,000 words into the first draft.

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