Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Novel, Step By Step

Talking about New Year’s Resolutions got me thinking about setting goals, and how the best way to achieve them is to break them down into manageable steps. It’s no good saying you want to lose 10kgs or save 10k. You have to budget or plan how you are going to do it to be successful. Weight, after all, does not lose itself and money doesn’t spontaneously appear in the bank.

With so many people hoping to write a novel in the New Year, I’ve had several conversations about how I break down my novel writing into chunks to make goals more achievable. As writing a novel is a lot of work, there are a lot of break downs and a number of steps, so I thought I’d set up a tutorial.

There are as many ways to write a novel as there are authors (I would say writers, but lots of unpublished writer’s methods don’t seem to work). If you google it, you’ll probably find a dozen other methods. That’s fine. I suggest trying several and settling on the one that works best for you.

But this is how I do it.

Probably the best thing about my method is that generally you can complete at least one step a day. You could complete step one in about a minute, or less, if you didn't have to think about it.

Following this guide completely, one step a day, should get you a novel in about six months. Maybe a little longer for editing. This is a reasonable length of time to complete a novel, but you can go faster or slower as it suits you.


1. Write down the genre, desired word count, desired chapter length and number of chapters you want to write. Mine typically look like this: “Steampunk. 100k % 20 = 5k per chapter.” Which simply means it’s a steampunk novel that I will aim to make 100, 000 words long, with twenty chapters, each around 5000 words.

2. Write a short synopsis or use bullet points that clearly state:
- Who your main character is.
- What they want.
- What is stopping them.
- What the stakes are.
- Who the villain is.
- How the stakes are going to continue to rise.
Those elements are the heart of the plot. Your villain shouldn’t be a faceless evil—it should be a very real thing/person/place. This is not the place for that lecture though. You should also raise the stakes several times in a novel. I usually only have two or three stakes in my early synopsis. I know more will flow with the writing. Don't get too excited here and start plotting your whole novel, scene by scene. That comes later.

3. World building. Depending on your genre and setting, this could take a long time or a short time. Even if you are writing in reality, you should quickly jot down the sets (locations) that are central to the plot. (EG: main character’s house, bar, forest the bodies are found, police station, the moon, etc.) As well as the political climate and the basic cultural elements, such as the degree of sexism, racism, crime and the other basic things that are all around us.

Plotting a fantasy or sci fi world might take you a few weeks—however I stress that you should not get so bogged down in writing the setting that you forget to write the novel. I only write the basics, then keep a file on side that I add details to as they come up in writing the novel.

4. Characters. You’ve already established who your main character and villain are—and what the main character wants. It’s worth fleshing out your cast a little—making a few notes about their personality and appearance—if only to stop their eyes and hair changing every few scenes. Some people go into great depth here. I don’t. I give them an age, hair, eyes, height and some first impressions. I also make note of important things like siblings and if they’re in a wheelchair or missing a limb.

5. Chapter one. Write bullet points for the scenes and events in chapter one—estimating the length so as to end up with your desired word count for the chapter.

6. Chapter one, part 2. Write 1000 words.

7. Chapter one, part 3. Write 1000 words.

8. Chapter one, part 4. Write 1000 words.

9. Chapter one, part 5. Write 1000 words.

10. Chapter one, part 6. Write 1000 words. If your goal was 5k a chapter, you’ve now finished. Obviously, if you only want 4k a chapter, you’ll do four rounds of 1k for chapter one.

11. Repeat steps 5 to 10 for the remaining chapters of your book. You will notice there are no editing steps.

12. You should now have a very rough first draft of your novel. It should be roughly the right length with roughly the right number of chapters. My first drafts are usually of an abysmally poor quality. I am okay with this. Take a day to celebrate. Telling yourself you have done a good job is important.

13. Read the novel through, start to finish. No editing.

14. Edit chapter one.

15. Edit chapter two.

16. Edit chapter three. Add another step for each of your chapters, one at a time.

17. Now the chapters are all edited, take out your diary or calendar and mark a date one month from today. That is when you will begin your real edit.

18. ONE MONTH LATER. Read your novel through, start to finish. No editing.

19. Save a copy of your unedited manuscript somewhere safe.

20. Edit chapter one. As you have a copy of the old draft saved, you can REALLY tear this draft to pieces. Brutalise it. Move everything around. Re-write scenes. Make it into a whole new animal.

21. Edit chapter two as above.

22. Again, add a step for each chapter, one at a time.

23. Re-read the novel again, this time looking for grammatical and spelling errors. Polish.

24. Format the novel. My novels are rarely written in the format they’ll be sent to the publishers. I almost never have appropriate headers, footers, spacing, margins or fonts until this step.

25. Tada! You can celebrate again now. You have a novel.

As an added bonus, here is a complete template for a 100k, 20 chapter novel.

Copyright. Talitha Kalago. 2011

Edited 2012


  1. Awesome little post this. I meet so many people who are in awe of the fact I do nanowrimo- how do you write so many words! Um, one by one?
    They always have a plan to one day write a novel, and I always say- well why dont you start?
    So to see it all cut down into bite sized pieces like this, is very very good.

    1. It's great for me because I tend to overthink things and without a plan like this, i get derailed worrying about things that are not important yet.

      I think the downside for a lot of other people is that it doesn't leave room for excuses. Its all there, step by step, and it doesn't allow people to then go back at the end of chapter five and edit chapter one for a year.