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How to write a novel: A step-by-step planning guide

Learning how to write a novel is democratic yet the odds of completing a novel aren’t encouraging. According to The New York Times, more than 80% of Americans have a book idea in mind but less than 1% start writing. Out of every 100 people who begin, only three complete a book and of course, a very small fraction among them will find a literary agent and get published. So how do you beat the odds? First off, I don’t believe you need a MFA or an expensive writing course. Capturing your thoughts in words is the most basic of human expressions. After you’ve consulted these resources to know some guiding rules, read how to write a novel below and begin writing the moment you are done. This has worked for me each time despite having no formal writing training:

1. Crystallize your Theme
The most memorable novels deliver deep meaning in an entertaining package. Crystallize your theme by knowing how you’ll deliver both. This is what I noted for THE SEEKER before beginning the novel, for instance:

Meaning: Finding the cause of human pain and suffering.
Entertainment: A rugged external adventure through exotic locales—hidden Yoga ashrams, the top of the Himalayas, surreal Indian night markets etc.

For Catcher in the Rye, it might have been:
Meaning: Making sense of adolescence
Entertainment: Recently expelled from school, a kid has a series of strange quintessentially New York experiences.

Typically, these will be ideas that have occupied your thoughts for years so once you define your overall theme, your words will flow.

2. Know your protagonist & key characters.
Put pen to paper on the following aspects of your protagonist & a handful of key characters to fully understand them:

  • Desire: What do they want badly? Make it concrete. Eg, “enlightenment” is too broad but “learning Yogic practices in the Himalayas” maybe a good jumping off point to push deeper.
  • Back Story: Why do they want it so badly? What experiences in childhood, in relationships and career have shaped that overpowering desire?
  • Human complexity and contradictions: A “kindly grandmother” is a type. “A kind but insecure grandmother, afraid of her mortality and hanging on to her busy family” is a fleshed out character.
  • Trajectory of change: Stories captivate when a character is transformed through the journey. Where does your character start? How does he end up? Harry Potter is a great example of this. We see him get more and more comfortable in his skin as the story progresses.
  • Physical: Finally, now that you know your characters emotionally, give them defining physical characteristics—a name that conveys something; unique physical characteristics which may or may not affect their emotional journey eg, Harry Potter’s scar; speech and mannerism quirks eg, Holden Caulfield with his “goddam” and “phonies”; anything which gives a flesh-and-blood sense of the character.

The above requires a fair amount of thinking and will likely evolve tremendously through the course of writing. But doing the exercise at the beginning will make you see fissures within a character, his or her conflicts with other characters, and thrust the story forward with a propulsive force.

Bonus: Click here to get the exact step-by-step writing techniques that got me three book deals with Penguin Random House and two Hollywood movie options in 5 years.

3. Write your log line.
The log line is the one sentence summary of your novel. Knowing this will give you tremendous clarity about your overall story as well as the worthiness of it. A few examples:
TWILIGHT
A young girl falls in love with a vampire who loves her but thirsts for her blood at the same time.
HUNGER GAMES
In a dystopian future, a young woman must fight for life in a death match televised live.
BREAKING BAD
A high school chemistry teacher becomes a drug lord.
THE SEEKER
A Wall Street banker becomes a Yogi in the Indian Himalayas.

As you can see above, an ideal log line has a protagonist, a hint of their conflict and enough curiosity value to make you crack open the pages immediately. Keep refining yours—it will give definition to your story. If you can’t crack a compelling log line, perhaps it’s time to re-think the story.

4. Find your title
This will likely change but forces you to understand the dramatic focus of your story.

5. Set your schedule and begin writing!
As I noted in my creativity post, the trick for an effective writing schedule is to reach a synthesis between the opposing forces of being too rigid and too flexible, working very hard and slacking off and planning your writing vs. letting the story evolve. Here is the schedule that works best for me:
-Mon-Fri: I write for one hour after work three days out of these five.
-Sat & Sun: 4 hours each.
If I write more, my output suffers. If I write less, I don’t get much accomplished.
-Physical Factors: I love writing in a neighborhood coffee shop and disconnecting my Wi-Fi during this time, remembering Jonathan Franzen’s sage advice: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Bonus: Click here to get the exact step-by-step writing techniques that got me three book deals with Penguin Random House and two Hollywood movie options in 5 years.