A Quick-Start Guide to Writing a Novel
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Most of my advice posts center on short stories and flash fiction, but for many people these are just the first step. Everyone wants to publish a novel, or at least finish one for the bragging rights. It's not such an easy task. The 80,000 words or so that comprise a typical novel can take a long time to write, and it's easy to get tangled up in the plot or simply lose motivation.
I can't help you on the publishing front, but if you're stalled out while writing one, perhaps I can offer a bit of assistance. The nine full manuscripts I've written to date demonstrate that, at the very least, I'm good at finishing them, and even better at starting them.
When people struggle to finish a manuscript, it often comes down to a failure of planning. Underplanning, of course - many people think they can wing it and discover that they're wrong after ten thousand words - but also overplanning, from those people who have every chapter set in stone and have no exit strategy when they run into a plot problem.
Good planning for a manuscript should include a little flexibility. There are many guides out there that offer prompt-based planning models, and those can be very effective. I'm going to offer up a simple alternative, though, and a free one. Whereas most models start by planning the plot, we're going to start with the characters and build the plot around them. Don't worry about the fine details, you can mess around with things like worldbuilding later.
We'll be using this:
As I said, very simple. If you plan on printing this out, you can find a PDF by clicking here or clicking on the image. Alternately, you can just write these down in a notebook or text file as we proceed.
You can have several of these, but start with just one, for the character in your story who drives the plot the most. Naturally, this will often be the protagonist, but in many stories it may be an antagonist that the protagonist needs to stop.
I'll go ahead and do this myself, just to demonstrate how it's done. And why not use the latest addition to the site?
Did I mention that Nerd World is now available as a free download? Well, now I have. Ahem.
The main character in Nerd World is Paul Liston, but he's a pretty reactive character whose motivations for much of the story are just "don't crack up." Instead, I'll go with the much more proactive Aaron Bellamy, chief antagonist for most of the narrative. He should be a little more interesting.
How to Start Writing a Novel
As you can see, the model is based on a series of goals, with "obstacles" and "intervening characters" in between. For our purposes:
Obstacles are anything that stops this character from reaching the next goal. These can be physical, economic, social, political, or even psychological goals. They need not be actual obstacles, either, but can also encompass a character's beliefs. An imagined obstacle that stops someone from taking action counts just as much as an obstacle that's actually there.
Intervening characters are any people (or other beings/entities, depending on the story) that will help, hinder, or otherwise influence the character's actions at this stage. They don't need to be named characters. If you don't have a full cast yet, you can always insert archetypes here and work out the details later.
These are the parts we'll focus on, but if you printed this out then don't be afraid to add your own notes in the margins. A good planning sheet should be a mess by the end.
This brings us to our three levels of goals. We're going to start with the top - the goal farthest from the character and farthest in the future - and work our way down.
At the top, we have the big picture - this character's grand scheme. Depending on the nature of the story, this goal may be too big to realize in the course of one novel. It might be something far off in the future - years, even generations down the line. This is the big picture.
Being a grandiose narcissist, Aaron's end goal is bound to sound like something out of a supervillain's speech - "World domination" or "Make the fools pay" - but we'll stick with "Prove my superiority." Whatever his plan of the moment may be, Aaron is always seeking the supplication of others.
Obstacles: Aaron faces few tangible obstacles here - his problems are more abstract. He spends a lot of time complaining about the idiocy of modern culture, and this has to be his main obstacle, at least from his perspective.
Intervening characters: This could be a long list, encompassing anyone with reach or power whom Aaron views as undeserving. We're not going to deal with any of these people in the book, so I won't spent too much time coming up with names.
The intermediate goal is in the character's near-term, something he or she wants to accomplish soon because it will support those efforts to reach the end goal. In many stories, this will be the character's goal for the novel, while in epic pieces it may be more of a midpoint. Many novel series may be thought of as a series of intermediate goals, with the end goal realized in the final book. Additionally, a character may have more than one intermediate goal, in which case you should write them all down.
Aaron's intermediate goal is obvious - win Trivia Master. On several occasions, he remarks on how a televised victory over his rivals would prove his superiority to the whole world, a definite step in the right direction. I would add "Get revenge on Paul Liston" as another intermediate goal, but it's not as central to Aaron's grand scheme.
Obstacles: Here's where I remind you that obstacles need not be rational as long as they make sense to the character. Aaron is deeply paranoid - since he views himself as smarter than everyone, no failure is his fault and must be attributable to some conspiracy. His list of obstacles is his rivals, not just in the competition but in their presumed intrigues - everything from rumors to sabotage.
Intervening characters: Again, this is everyone, but a few names stand out. On the plus side are his own teammates (especially Brian Booker, his tactician). On the minus side are the other POV characters - Paul Liston, Ken Greevey and Jane Anders - who are his stiffest competition.
The immediate goal is what the character can do right now to support the intermediate goal. This is what the character is doing (or trying to do) as soon as the story begins, so this will define the novel's opening chapters. As with the intermediate goal, you may have several entries here.
Since Nerd World opens in a planning period, Aaron has a lot to do in the early chapters. I'd give him two immediate goals - form a team, and sabotage everyone else (not that this is how he'd frame it).
Obstacles: Since so many of his immediate goals are underhanded, Aaron's main obstacle is the rules and, by extension, teachers and administrators. His other obstacle is in other students, specifically the team captains who are trying to poach his chosen teammates (something that Aaron takes personally).
Intervening characters: This will be a subset of the above list. His only ally is Brian, though he has a few contacts (Read: People he's bribing and/or blackmailing) that would make this list. The rest of his list (and he does have one) are targets of his "justice," especially Paul Liston. He showed up an awful lot, didn't he? Well, there's a reason.
Using the Model
By now, you've filled out my model for at least one character. So how do you use this to plan and write? You already have a starting point - your character's immediate goal. If you filled it out for the protagonist, then this will be the content of your opening chapters. If you filled it out for the antagonist, then you have the inciting event and complications for those opening chapters - the plot that the protagonist needs to survive and/or stop.
As you proceed through the story, follow each character's goals. Have the characters address their immediate goals one by one, deal with other characters with contrary goals, and proceed until someone reaches a conclusion. If you get stuck, try to fill out a model for another character.
Remember, this is just a guide, not a formula. The only shortcuts to narrative tend to result in boring stories. Sometimes, the best thing is to get stuck for a while and let the solution find you.