Two months ago, I started working on a brand new novel. I haven’t been through the novel writing process in years because of writer’s block and other life things. It felt so good to get back on that bike again!

It was strangely familiar territory to revisit. I tried to remember what my novel writing process had been in the past for getting started on a book. Usually I would have an idea already in mind – a character, an event, something that functioned as a starting point. But this time, I had nothing in mind, other than the fact I wanted to start writing a book again.

As I sat down to work on it, I paid more attention to my process and what has worked for me before, and took into account new things I could use when plotting out a novel.

Starting Off With Pen & Paper

When I begin a novel, I prefer to start offline just with pen and paper for three reasons. 

One, it’s less distracting than being on a computer with notifications and the temptations of social media. Of course, I could just turn off the wifi but that doesn’t address my second reason for using pen and paper which is, I prefer to work with material that I can easily flip back and forth between and compare side by side. You can’t easily do that on a flat screen, scrolling within 1 document, only able to see so much of it at any given moment.

The third reason is that, I find with using pen on paper, my thoughts flow more freely because my hand can flow freely and make a mess on the page – notes in the margin, drawing arrows, crossing things out, listing things out, scribbling up the side of a page to fit something in. You can’t really do that in a Word doc; it’s all just typing from left to right in straight lines. Frankly it looks too ‘pretty’ and feels too rigid of a creative process for me! 

Generating Ideas

Once I’ve got my pen, paper and a quiet place to sit, I start thinking about things that currently interest me book-wise. I list out subgenres that intrigue me, character tropes, themes, archetypes, settings, adjectives to describe the mood or atmosphere of a potential story. If I’ve already got a specific idea in mind, I write out what the idea is, the log line. I list out any character or setting details that are stuck in my head.

novel writing process

Once I’ve finished this idea dump, I look at what I have on the page and see what might go well together. It’s usually at this point I’ll start to figure out what the plot might revolve around.

I keep building things up in this way, the narrative, characters and setting, all in messy bullet point form. It’s usually a jumble of stuff, but once I start thinking faster than I can write, I know I’ve got momentum and it’s time to switch to the computer to continue building it out. That’s when I open up a document and name it ‘plot outline’ or something similar, and start creating subheadings for the characters, listing out everything about that character and their place in the story.

Planning Out The Book

When I switch to working on the computer, that’s when I also officially start plotting out the story arc. 

In the past, I would just plot out scene by scene, chapter by chapter, in a chronological fashion. If I had plot holes or gaps, I’d leave them and deal with them later. Most of the time things were loosely strung together without a proper storytelling frame in place. Sometimes this would work out just fine, sometimes not.

Recently though, when I started this new book in February, I decided to try out the Save the Cat Beat Sheet method. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked for me! It really helped give cohesive structure to my story and characters without leaving behind plot holes. 

I highly recommend using some sort of story framework to plot your novel, whether it’s the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, the Hero’s Journey, or the Three Act Structure

Plotter or Pantser?

As a writer, you can probably guess that I’m more of a plotter. I like to have almost the whole story planned out before I start writing, mainly so that I know what I’m aiming for when I’m writing, and to avoid getting stuck on a scene, which can throw off momentum and affect productivity.  

“The first draft never has to be pretty; it just has to be finished.” 

The Holistic Writing Studio

However, that’s not to say I’m completely closed off to the plot changing as I go. On the contrary, if as I’m writing I figure out an even better way to take the story that doesn’t match what I’ve plotted out, then I’ll adjust accordingly. 

And when I do plot out the book, I’m only plotting out the main points; I don’t plot on a detailed scene level so much. So that means when I do start writing, I still have to make things up as I go. In that regard, I am a bit of a pantser. 

Getting to the Writing

Once the book is plotted out and I’m clear on the character arcs, I start writing.

I write chronologically from start to finish. If I run into a scene where I don’t know exactly all the details yet, I’ll just write the bare bones and continue forward, coming back later to fill it in. 

The first draft never has to be pretty; it just has to be finished. 

Personally, I have to be in the mood to write, so scheduling time to write isn’t very effective for me, but finding ways to get into the writing mood is. I work on the book when I feel like it, when I’m inspired, or when I’m in the right headspace. My motivation for writing anything is never money, fame or validation from others; my motivation is purely the need to tell a good story, the satisfaction I get from having completed written projects, and the creative fun that comes with crafting a story (or poem). 

As I write, I don’t think ahead about publishing or how well it will be received – unless it’s to help me make a decision about what I’m writing. For instance, if I plan to publish the book someday, then it is certainly important to consider the intended audience, so that I know how I should write the book. What will my ideal reader expect from the genre I’ve chosen? What would they be pleasantly surprised to see on the page? What are fun ways I could subvert the genre expectations? These types of questions will help with marketing the book and are what publishers and literary agents will also be thinking about when you pitch the book to them. 

That being said, I don’t let concerns about publishing get in the way of finishing the book. Because with a good editor and a good lit agent, you shouldn’t have to worry about those things anyway. I recommend every writer who’s serious about publishing always at the very least hire a professional editor, even if you’re self-publishing. They’ll help mold the book in a way that you’re unable to.

Find Your Building Blocks

This process of starting a novel works so well for me at this point in my life that I can’t imagine any other way of writing a book. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same for other writers. It’s imperative to figure out what works best for you, and then stick to it. A book isn’t just a product. It’s a creative process. 

At the end of the day, it’s important to realize that writing a book means you’re building upon the previous thing that you’ve done. And if the previous thing isn’t well thought out, or you’ve skipped steps to get somewhere, the foundation won’t be strong enough to sustain whatever you do next with the book. There are no shortcuts; there are only linked building blocks. How you choose to link them is up to you.

Share this post