Nothing wrong with jumping into a novel head first, without preparation or research or even character ideas. However, it helps to be organized. Writing a novel—especially a first novel—is messy by nature. Here are some methods that you may find useful.
- Outline. Had to get this out of the way, even though I’ve never finished a novel from an outline. Some writers need a road map, and that’s fine. Just don’t be afraid to toss the map out the window when the novel takes an unexpected turn. Outlines can also be a great way to practice story structure, and play with ideas you may or may not want to utilize in your novel.
- Outline as you go. This is different from #1, and a technique I actually do use. When I finish a chapter, I write down all the relevant information: viewpoint character, setting, what the character wore, and what happened. For example: Chapter 1, John, pinstripe suit and green tie with black oxfords, Gruffy’s Bar, plays billiards with Judy, loses.
Jotting this stuff down helps me remember what I’ve done. If what John is wearing becomes important later, I can glance at my notes, and I’ll have a record of what John did without having to backtrack to find that information.
- Create a story bible. This is a list of all your characters, what chapters they appear in, what they wear, and other relevant information: eye color, hair style, etc. Doesn’t have to be detail heavy, just enough to jog your memory. Also helpful bits to write down: magic rules in a fantasy world, space ship names in a science fiction, the name of the characters’ favorite bar in Boston, or other relevant setting details.
Having all this written, again, will help you remember stuff. Some people prefer to have a story bible written up before diving into the novel, doesn’t matter. Be prepared to add new information as your novel takes shape, or cross out older ideas that no longer apply to the story.
- Make your research notes a separate file from your novel. Research is NOT writing. A lot of times, research is an excuse to not write. You don’t even want to look at your notes when writing. So put the research somewhere else, maybe even on a different device or handwrite your notes.
And point #4 applies to story bibles and outlines, too. I prefer to handwrite my notes on loose-leaf paper, which gets set to the left of my laptop. That way, when I pass by my desk, I can glance at my notes and think about my story, without having to open up my computer.
Organize your novel your way, and don’t be afraid to get it wrong. There is no wrong way to write a novel, only your way. It may even take you a few stories to figure out how to do this.
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