The Novel-Writing Training Plan
17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing.
So you are ready to write your novel. Excellent. If you write 500 words each day, in 100 days, you’ll have 50,000 words. That’s a book in about 3 months. Totally do-able.
We’ve created a training regimen to help get you ready to write.
Trying to run a marathon without taking the time to prepare your body would be hugely difficult. Maybe not impossible, but certainly harder than if you had spent the time getting your muscles ready. Similarly, it’s not impossible to write a book without spending some time in advance preparing your brain for the task, but thinking through some of the essential elements of your story will make the whole process easier.
Give yourself a couple weeks before you start writing to think through your narrative, plan out your key plot points, flesh out your characters, and begin to build your world. This way, when you begin your writing journey, you will have a map to follow along the way. Let’s get started!
Chapter 1: Start with Your Original Idea
In life, as in writing, there are several questions which continue to defy a single, unified opinion:
Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
Or the question for most writers is:
Which came first: the plot or the characters?
Ask 20 authors how they begin their stories — either by identifying the main character or the plot first — and the only certainty is that you won’t get the same answer 20 times.
Regardless of whether you woke up one morning with an incredible plot twist for your novel, or a fully-formed character started speaking in your mind, everyone needs a starting point for their writing. The key is to realize that, in the best stories that resonate most with readers, plot and character are intrinsically interwoven.
It All Starts With an Idea
The first thing you’ll need is an original idea. What kind of story is it? A romance? Suspenseful thriller? A comedy or tragedy? Think about a movie. You wouldn’t cast parts without knowing what the movie is about, right? Imagine casting Liam Neeson in a Big Momma’s House type film. You would be waiting for his daughter to get kidnapped the whole time!
Some characters just don’t work with the type of novel you’re writing. You need to know a little bit about where your story is going in order to decide what traits you need in a protagonist and an antagonist. If your story culminates in a life-or-death situation, you need someone who can handle the outcome and your reader needs to understand how and why they can.
An adventurous external plot requires a character whose unexpected growth is rewarding and life-altering. You see this in the unlikely heroes of such stories as Lord of the Rings, The Truman Show, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Martian.
But How do You Find That Nugget of an Idea to Start With?
A lot of authors start with a “what if” scenario to form a general idea of the plot. “What if there’s a scrawny little boy with glasses who just found out he’s a wizard capable of magic?” Imagine JK Rowling sitting on a crowded train when the idea of a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard popped into her mind. When he first conceived Lord of the Flies, William Golding must have wondered “What would happen if a group of school boys were stranded on an island with no adult supervision?”
This is where “the plot thickens.” Once you have that initial idea, your brain immediately starts to wonder what kind of person would work best in your “what if” scenario. You start to merge the plot details with the character traits that can generate the most internal conflict for your protagonist.
Imagine a character who would hate being put into the situation you’ve created. And imagine how your plot might twist and turn to escalate the pressure and the tension for your main character.
Or say you’ve thought of this excellent character who’s suddenly fully formed in your mind. You can play the “what if” game with characters, too. Try to imagine what would happen to your character if his or her worst fears were realized?
For example, you have a mental picture of a devoted wife and mother who has structured her life around the needs and wants of her family. You can see her, you know what she sounds like and what her deepest fears and desires are. Now, what if she found out her husband and children were not who she thought they were?
Your characters might end up hijacking your plot, taking it over and making it their own. But that’s OK because you want a story with the characters and plot so finely intertwined that you can’t have one without the other.
Now that You Have Your Great Idea, What’s Next?
It’s all too easy to jump into writing a novel with an excellent storyline, only to have it peter out halfway through because you don’t know where it’s going, or because you’ve dug your characters into a hole without first planning how they were going to get out of it.
Alternatively, you might create incredibly relatable characters who emote beautifully all over the page, but find that you can’t quite figure out what should happen to them. so make a plan.
If you’re already an outliner by nature, this will warm your soul. If the idea of planning ahead makes you nervous, well, stick with us anyway. It’s not that bad — truly.
There are 3 key things you need to know before you start:
1) Draft your characters.
You need to know who your protagonist is and what he or she wants most and fears most. While your character is certainly going to become much more solid as you write, you should still know the basics — likes and dislikes, any quirky little personality traits, backstory, his or her voice, and what motivates him or her. We’ll look in more depth at crafting real-life, fullyformed characters in the next chapter, so keep reading.
2) Draft your story’s world.
You want a dynamic setting as the backdrop to your story. Knowing where (and when) the action takes place drives characters’ decisions. does your story take place in war-torn france during WWII? Or does it take place in an imagined universe very different to our own? The “where and when” help lead your characters in decision-making based on the kind of solutions available to them. You wouldn’t set a novel in the early 1900s only to discover that your protagonist needs new technology to help solve a problem. We’ll talk more about creating your story’s world in Chapter 3.
3) Define your story arc.
You might consider this the map that guides your main character along the path to your desired end. The key is to realize that a map is not set in stone. Sometimes when you start out on a journey, you take some interesting side trips along the way, but your eventual ending point is still known. Your characters can deviate from the map when you come across a great plot twist, but you should have a general idea of where you’re headed and how the individual character threads and supporting subplots tie together in the end. This will give you an idea of where things need to shake out in each chapter to keep the momentum moving forward and your characters evolving. More on story arc in Chapter 4.
You probably feel ready to burst onto the page, but we’ve only just done the equivalent of stretching our muscles. There are 17 chapters in this training regimen, including drafting your plot, creating compelling characters, building your world, using conflict to create tension, choosing your POV, weaving in subplots, introducing backstory, and much more. At the end you will have a roadmap for your novel.
Laying all of this groundwork will help you get through the marathon of writing as easily as possible. And that’s the most important thing. You will never regret the time you spent writing your manuscript, you will only regret not doing it.