Perhaps the biggest mistake anyone can make when going into their first (or second or fiftieth) novel is having no plan. Now, I’m not saying you have to make a step-for-step outline for your entire 110,000-word high fantasy novel. That may not be your style, and that’s completely fine, but you need to plan something, even if it’s just a general map of the beginning, the middle, and the end. Let’s look at some effective planning methods.
Outlines are tricky. Some people are really into them, and some people don’t use them at all, and there’s absolutely no right way. This part of the process is completely up to the writer. If you decide to do an outline, that may be just a skeleton of the big stuff with very little information, or it may be a map that takes you every step of the way. Most of the time, in the year or so that it takes me to prepare to write a book, I’ve been jotting down notes in a bulleted Word doc—notes on characters or plot or even snippets of dialogue that I don’t want to forget—and that’s serving as my outline or general frame of reference. But maybe you’re a big planner, and you want to do something more in depth. Great. I have a friend whose outlines are almost as long as his novels, the most recent outline clocking in at 53 pages. If that’s what works for you, go for it.
For me, research is almost as good as an outline. You may think you don’t have much to research, but trust me, you do. Somewhere down the road, you’re going to need to know how long you can survive in freezing cold water or how long it takes the average person to scale a mountain. There will be something that you’ll have to stop and Google. And for the sake of preparation, you should try to get as much research done on your topic as you can before you start. I once wrote a book about a swimmer. I get asked a lot if I’m a swimmer. I’m not. But I’ve been watching professional swimming since I was thirteen, so I got cocky, thinking I had no research to do. I sat down to write and had to stop pretty quickly and read books on swimming, watch YouTube videos, study high school swim schedules, the works. If you think you want to write an Austen-esque novel about a Victorian woman looking to marry before she becomes a spinster, you’ll have to do research. If you want to write a picture book about a baby whose stuffed elephant comes to life, you’ll have to do research.
Your involvement on this one may vary. Some people need to know every detail of their characters before they get started, while some only need basic motivations and a name. Either way, you need to know something about your characters. The outline of a character is mostly going to stay the same from planning all the way to your final draft, but details will change. You might decide halfway through your story that their relationship to another character needs to change or their backstory. And that’s totally fine. But going into it, you should know how you want a character to move within a story even if that movement shifts as you write. Keep a list of your characters with their background—as much as you need of it—their physical appearance, their relation to your main character, and their overall motivations.
This might seem like an obvious one. You really can’t write without digging in to your own personal experiences, so why are we even discussing it as a step? Because it’s important to evaluate your own histories and feelings before you start a story because you’re going to need those emotions to help you get through the writing itself. If you’re writing about two friends who are going on a road trip, it’s time to spend a few days looking back on your own history with road trips, but not just that. Maybe you need to spend some time looking at your friendships and deciding what elements you want to use in the story, if any. Maybe there’s family involved in the story. Then you need to spend some time examining your own family. Not everyone writes solely based on their own life. It’s probably better that you don’t, unless you’re working on a memoir, but some of your history will end up in the story. There’s no way around it. So, before you dive in, gather those emotions and use them to help you navigate your story.
I would call this the last step before sitting down, and that’s preparing your mind and your space. This is something that is highly overlooked before working. Choose when you’re going to work. Maybe that’s after your day job on weeknights, maybe it’s early in the morning before the kids get up, maybe it’s only on Saturdays. Establish that. Carve out your workspace. Is it that table at the library? Your home office? Your dining room? Once you’ve got a plan for that, get your mind ready. Make a playlist that puts you in the frame of mind. Have mental conversations with your characters that never go on the page. Meditate for ten minutes before you start. It doesn’t matter how you go about it, but creating a bubble where you can exist in your mind with this project is important. Don’t let anything else penetrate it. It’s just you and it.