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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

Planning a Novel

Despite the actual event occurring over 2,700 years ago, the popular maxim can still be heard uttered throughout modern societies that know precious little of the mythical Romulus and Remus - Rome wasn't built in a day.

Greatness, whether we're discussing eternal cities or works of literature, doesn't happen overnight. This often proves a tough pill for novice writers to swallow. Why spend precious time planning when you're eager to start writing? Why should you map out a city before doling out the shovels and breaking ground, especially when your architects are brimming with ideas?

While plenty of would-be novelists are forced to learn this the hard way, a writer's job goes well beyond simply writing. You're the architect, city planner, the accountant, and the marketing department all rolled into one. This post will be dedicated to what goes into bringing a novel to life before the supposed fun part (the writing) actually begins.

It all starts with an IDEA. That amorphous thing that blossoms somewhere in the annals of the writer's mind before she can ever hope of seeing her name on bestseller lists and bookstore shelves (or Amazon rankings). An idea isn't the most important part of a successful project, but it is always the starting point. Some ideas seemingly come out of nowhere. Others rattle around for weeks, months, or even years before transforming into a workable premise.

No matter where the idea comes from or how long it takes to manifest, there are several questions to ask yourself and answer honestly before starting the first draft (if you have ambitions of selling your book one day).

Is the premise reasonably unique in that I'm not directly copying something that already exists? Is it able to stand on its own without relying on other proprietary ideas that I don't own the rights to? Is it something I sincerely believe others would want to read? And can it be reasonably described in a few sentences?

The answer to all of these internal questions should be a resounding "Yes". If your idea is unique but you're worried that you genre or trope has been done to death, just know that it might make acquisition more difficult, but new vampire and zombie books are still being sold. It's possible.

Now comes the part you'll likely either love or hate - RESEARCH. This could range from skimming a handful of articles to literally consuming dozens of books in preparation. The choice is theoretically entirely up to you. Dan Brown isn't necessarily superior to Suzanne Collins because the former does tons of research on art and Renaissance history that may or may not get subtly manipulated to fit a compelling chase narrative.

The rule of thumb, if there is one (and if there isn't, there should be), is that you should conduct as much research as the story requires. A well-researched novel won't necessarily stand out, but a woefully under-researched one certainly will.

This doesn't begin to explore the demands of various genres. Some subject matter and story types will undoubtedly demand more nuanced knowledge from the author than others. Writing historical fiction or a mystery that flashes back to events in ancient Egypt? You better be an expert on how people dressed, spoke, and conducted themselves as well as how the setting differed from present. Even a thriller or dystopian writer needs background information for describing settings they intend to incorporate.

The more you can get across the authentic feel of a place or period in time the better your finished product will be.

How do you do this? I'll have a more detailed post on research methods in the future, but for now here are some general rules. I like to start by reading other novels dealing with the same setting or similar subject matter as a jumping off point to get a feel for how other authors have conveyed it to the reader.

Start compiling a list of articles pertaining to the most important topics in your work. Keep everything as organized as possible and always document sources. Books are key. You're typically going to get far more relevant information from a good nonfiction book than you will from even the best article. Take your time and read - your work will thank you for it later. Then, organize all the relevant information and you're ready for the last step before the writing begins.

Note: Google Maps and Google Earth can be invaluable for remotely viewing virtually anywhere on earth. These resources, particularly the "street view" feature, have proved invaluable for me.

The OUTLINE. I've employed just about every outline method I could think of and plenty that far smarter people conjured up. Which one is the best to use? Again, it varies. Your literary fiction masterpiece might suffice with just a broad plot overview and a few notes to steer you while still allowing the freedom to create art. Or you might fare better with the hundred-plus-page outlines that Dan Brown utilizes.

Often, the ideal writing aid falls somewhere between the two. The outline's purpose is to act as a guide while you write the novel. It's easier than you might think to get blown off track and end up going in an entirely different direction plot-wise if you don't have one. Some writers prefer that, which is perfectly fine.

Personally, I prefer a little more structure. It helps me avoid getting bogged down in decision making during the first draft. And I like to adhere to the notion that the more intricate the plot the more complex the outline needs to be. For a thriller with many moving parts I'm a proponent of essentially writing a shell of the book to make sure all the details fall into place and everything comes together just right. At the very least, I want some sort of chapter by chapter outline that gives an overview of each and ties them all together. A treatment - a very detailed and lengthier synopsis - is also a good tool to use.

The best exercise is often undertaking a variety of outline methods to give the writer a much better feel for how action ebbs and flow and the novel unfolds. For more complex plots with several moving parts, outline the main plot points and then complete a more detailed chart where the actions and interactions of each character or group are listed in chronological order from start to finish. This can unveil weaknesses or inconsistencies in plot that weren't apparent before. Then break out a full chapter outline where you identify the objective and what must be included in each chapter (events, interactions, relevant foreshadowing and subplots, etc.). This can turn into a full-fledged treatment if you desire. I call my treatments the "Master Script", but to each their own.

Note: Just as important as working out plot is making sure to include character development and how things happening in your story will affect characters on an emotional level.

So, that wraps it up for now. This is merely an overview of the process that happens before the first draft comes to life. And like any art form, it can be changed, deviated from, or eschewed altogether.

If you have a cool outline idea or research method let me know about it in the comments below! As always, thanks for liking and subscribing. We're hoping to do big things in the near future, so be on the lookout for exciting news breaking on this site as well as (hopefully) news of an impending book release.

And if any writers are interested in being interviewed on this blog as a further resource for readers and writers, please email me at

- Charles Harned

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