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Paula Wynne

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5 Rules Every First-Time Author Needs To Know About Planning A Novel

Writing a novel is something that many writers (amateur or professional) dream of doing, but most never actually achieve. It’s a long and arduous process, and a journey of self-discovery — if you’re confident that you’re talented, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Nothing makes you as keenly aware of your shortcomings as a writer than drafting an entire book.

Even so, it’s absolutely worth doing, because it’s a transformative experience. You could even call it a rite of passage. Make it through, and you’ll always know that you have the discipline and willpower to endure a challenge of that magnitude.

But what’s the best way to begin your journey? You could wing it, starting to spool out content in a stream of consciousness, but that tack doesn’t make for a coherent structure. No — you need to plan your novel before you start writing it. Lay the groundwork, and your path will be clearer. You’ll also have a much easier time selling your book when it’s done.

To that end, here are 5 rules for planning a novel that every first-time author should know:

Start with a simple premise

Perhaps you’re planning to leave your mark on the literary world, and you intend to do it with something truly revolutionary: a hybrid nihilistic black comedy romance written in trochaic pentameter and set in a fictionalized version of Kentucky where a mystical curse kills everyone at 45, also featuring a secondary plot about the ethical implications of cloning.

Instead of doing that, don’t even attempt it. There’s running before you can walk, then there’s trying to compete with Olympic-level marathon champions when you’ve barely left your couch. Your first novel should have a simple plot structure — Jericho Writers offers some great tips and templates that will help new writers develop a story, including how to build a blistering plot.

To mix things up, you could take the classic buddy cop format of two unlikely companions forming a bond while pursuing an enemy, but add the twist that one of the two is the enemy, sneakily trying to manipulate the other. Everything else can (and should) be fairly basic. Once you’re a few books in, you can start getting ornate.

Don’t overload on protagonists

Almost every story offers a heroic perspective. You follow a character (or characters), and get to see the world through their eyes — but how should you choose that perspective? Think of the reader first by only having between one and three protagonists — no more than that.

Why no more than that? Because that makes things messy. It takes a very deft hand to juggle several protagonists (let alone four or more) without making any of them forgettable or leaving important people out of the action at strange times. I’d say you should have just the one protagonist to start the story and carry it through to i

ts conclusion. It’s easier to write, and it’s definitely easier to read.

Be an architect, not a gardener

George R.R. Martin (noted scribe of the series of epic fantasies known as “A Song of Ice and Fire”) has said that he breaks writers into two groups: architects and gardeners. Architects, he contends, lay the frameworks for their stories, then add to them until construction is finished. Gardeners, on the other hand, plant narrative seeds and see where they go.

Martin notes that he’s a gardener, a contention that’s confirmed by the scope (and exhausting delays) of his main series. He adds elements to his stories, then follows them as they expand. It might sound like a fun way to work, but you have to be an architect for your first novel. If you indulge your creativity and keep getting distracted from the task at hand, you’ll never be done.

Lay out productivity terms

Writing a novel takes a lot of time and effort, and it might sound like a good idea now, but you might reconsider when you’re actually trying to do it. Instead of viewing it as a passion project, you must view it as a professional task like any other — something that you need to do, even when you don’t really feel like it.

Your productivity terms must set out deadlines you’re eager to meet, writing hours you want to hit every week, and even where you’ll write. In your kitchen? In an office? While commuting? Schedule the time you’ll need to get your novel done, and give it the priority and urgency it warrants. You’ll feel so much better when it’s done, so be prepared to sacrifice.

Seek valuable criticism

The secrets of your plot aren’t so vital that you must shield them from view until your first draft is done, especially since they’re likely to change as you work. In fact, you should seek out feedback very early on — as soon as you think you’ve settled upon a premise, run it past some people you know and trust to get their opinions.

Can’t you just trust your own thoughts? Think back to all the terrible ideas you’ve had over the course of your life. You didn’t think they were terrible when you were getting excited about their creative potential, just as you don’t think your current ideas are terrible — but they might be. External perspectives from people who can be vaguely objective will help you avoid committing to bad ideas and spending months or even years trying to make them work.

Obey these 5 rules, and you should have a much easier time writing your first novel. Get that out of the way, and your second attempt should go even more smoothly.

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