A Novel Plan for 2021: Five steps for getting your novel written this year

When starting to write a novel you generally start with an idea or a character. Maybe you start with a topic or a glimmer of a theme, begin your research and then work on plot and characters later once you have gotten your research together. All are valid options and all are methods I’ve used before.

This isn’t that type of plan.

The sort of plan I am talking about is a writing plan.

If you work with an outline, then you’ll need to create an outline before you begin. If you heavily research, then you will need to heavily research before you begin. If you need to download photos of people who look sort of like the characters you want populating your story you will need to seek them out, download them and maybe pin them to the wall and make paper dresses for them before you begin.

But whatever your process, at some point you have to begin writing.

Otherwise it remains an idea for a book, a thought, a glimmer, a theme or topic you want to write about instead of something you write.

So lets look at creating a writing plan shall we? There are just five steps in this plan.

Step 1: Determine a schedule.

I know, that sounds a bit scary, however we aren’t talking about deadlines here. We are talking about schedule. You know what your daily life is like. You know what you have to get done in a day, a week or a weekend. To set a writing schedule you need to look at your schedule and designate a time to write. It can be short bursts throughout the week, it can be an hour long block on Tuesday when the house is miraculously silent. Just find what works for you and claim it as your writing time. Mark it down on your schedule and keep it as your writing time.

Yes, keep it as your writing time not your ‘writing time unless something else comes up’.

While something sometimes does come up, choose a time that you can stick to, that no one else usually wants to claim.

Step 2: Get in the habit of using the scheduled time for writing.

Maybe you aren’t ready to start off on your novel just yet. Maybe you need to do a bit more research or find just the right paper doll dress for your character cut outs. Fine. Do your research. And outlining. And paper crafts. Just don’t do it on the time you have scheduled for writing.

During that time, you write. Pick a sentence starter from my list of writing prompts (or someone else’s list, there are lots out there) and write on it for fifteen minutes, or longer if you want. Pick a previously written sentence starter that you liked and start expanding it. Whatever you do, during that time you need to write.

Getting into the habit of writing during the time that you have marked on your schedule for writing will help keep you focused when you are ready to work on your novel. It trains your mind to think that the time is for writing. It lessens the possibility of you veering off into research or wondering if your character is wearing a blue oxford shirt or if he stuck with the standard white.

Thoughts like that do happen and they can trip you up. They can, if you let them become quagmires that can swallow you whole. I like to keep a notebook open beside me while I’m working and then just take a second to jot a note down. I tend to use cheap spiral notebooks bought in a pack when they go on sale after everyone is stocked for the new school year. I use a different one for each project. My outlining and research notes go in there, but also my notes while writing. If something that comes up needs to be addressed, I mark it down.

  • John – more clothing details – shirt blue or white? – page 26 third paragraph

And then I go back to the writing. I can think about his shirt color later. I can decide if it is going to matter or not. It could not matter or it could end up being very relevant. John could be a murderer and my detective might need to notice John changed his shirt. If so then I will figure out the clothing, as well as who notices it and the repercussions later and then add them in on my next scheduled writing time. I’ll also draw a line through my note letting me know I’ve already added it in where I wanted it.

The point of this step is to train yourself to focus on writing during the time you marked for writing. if you need to schedule time for research or outlining, then do so, just not on the writing time.

Step 3: Be realistic with your expectations.

I know this is a creative endeavor where your mind floats freely through worlds of your own creation. Feel free to wander. But be realistic with your expectations.

I know that when I do a fifteen minute timed writing I will generally get between 500 and 700 words down on the page. Some mornings it is in the 490s and some days I get close to eight hundred if I am really on a roll, but generally my range is 500-700 words.

I can not reasonably expect to sit down and knock out 2000 words in fifteen minutes. That is just never going to happen for me. Therefore if I can only write fifteen minutes a day,five days a week, I shouldn’t expect to have anywhere close to 10K new words at the end of the week. If I do then I am doomed to disappointment.

It is very easy to feel like you aren’t getting anywhere and it is very easy to get discouraged if you believe that you need to get a certain word count each day or you need to finish your 100K word first draft in two months.

Look at the schedule you created and be realistic with what you can accomplish in that time. As long as you are writing, it will eventually get you there. You will start to see progress. Your time line may be six months or a year instead of the two months you dream of, but you will get there. Just don’t get discouraged and don’t give up.

Step 4: Understand this is a first draft.

Editing is one of life’s little necessities. Whether it is following Coco Chanel’s advice of removing one item from your outfit before leaving the house or writing, editing is often necessary. It is however not something you need to do here.

Yes, I will occasionally go back while writing to add something that was missed and is necessary for the story. That isn’t the sort of editing I mean.

The editing you need to avoid doing here is the sort that bogs you down. That refuses to let you move on to the next scene, next chapter next page until the one you have just written is perfect, polished and gleaming, every word a triumph of literature and a shining example of humanity’s mastery of language.

This is not the time for polishing. This is a time for getting the words down. Later you can go back and replace tree with elm and car with a 1972 Cadillac in a beige so shiny it seemed pearly in certain lights. Right now is about getting the story down.

This is the draft where it is okay if a section of your story doesn’t come out quite as you intended. It is okay if you have a paragraph where you repeat the word Often five times or if your descriptions aren’t sounding quite right, or if you realize you have no idea what it would actually look like if a knitted scarf flew into an industrial fan. Would it be chopped to colorful bits or would it wrap around the blades locking them in place? If it is a fun detail mark it down in your notebook and come back to it later. If it is integral to the story, mark it down in your notebook and research it when you have finished writing for the day and once you know, return to the scene.

I’m going to say this to whoever needs to hear this, because I often need to hear it myself.

Right now, it is okay to write something that sucks.

It is perfectly fine. Once you have your story out of your head and onto the page, you can go back and fix the clunky writing, smoothing it out and polishing it. You can change out some of the most repeated words. You can realize that the fan has a guard on it and that the scarf would just be sucked against the covering of the fan instead of slipping inside and decorating your villain with rainbow colored wool confetti. And then as much as you enjoy the scene, you can cut it out.

But right now – It is okay to write something that sucks.

Finally, Step Five: Take a breather.

Once you have finished your manuscript, set it aside for a few weeks. Take a rest from it. Work on something else, step away from writing all together and become your neighborhood disc golf champion.

Just leave the manuscript alone.

You need a mental break so you can actually see the story again. If you edit right away, you may miss something important. You may take out something you end up wanting to keep. When you first finish a manuscript, you are story blind. You know what you meant to say, you know what you think is on the page.

Some people think that their manuscript, once complete, is the most fabulous thing in the world. Others may look at their manuscript and think they have just written the world’s worst piece of literature and will soon have to run from irate readers bearing pitchforks.

I’ve done both. Sometimes with the same manuscript.

You need time away from the manuscript before you can see it again, before your editing will do anything of value. So give yourself that time. Then go back and edit with a vengeance.

But that is a post for another time.

Here we have five simple steps for creating a plan to complete a novel. They aren’t rocket science. It isn’t a shocking revelation. In fact, all five steps are simple and plain. They are however still effective all the same. If your goal is you complete a novel this year, these are the basic steps that can help you do that. Sure there are other things you will need to do, but taking a little while to create a basic plan will really help you achieve your goal. We’ll work on some of the other details each week throughout the year. Just remember, a little plan can really take you a long way.

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