I used to seek that perfect system to plan a novel, that one method where I could simply input my data and out would pop my outline. It’d be like taking a test and discovering I was an INFJ. I then took it a couple of more times and—what do you know!—I was still an INFJ.
Here’s the thing … planning a novel isn’t an assessment, it’s a creative process the same as drafting or editing. It takes awhile to hone the basic method that works for you, but always, ALWAYS, it’ll be evolving and adapting to the particular book you’re writing and where you are in your own writing evolution.
This is a truth I’ve known for awhile, but I’m sharing it now, and probably not for the first time because it’s that time of year. You know, that time of year. NaNoWriMo.
The best system is the system that works for you for the novel you’re writing at the moment. Period.
But, but, but…
But what’s that system? It’s the system that has organically formed from reading and experimentation, and the one that, quite frankly, is comfortable to you.
Even though what I do works for me I’m always open to ideas. Some don’t plan at all, which I’ve never embraced, and some plan for months. I probably fall into the 3-4 weeks category for a fantasy novel with most of the world building established.
There are those who like charts and graphs. Those who use index cards spread across the carpet or the index cards in Scrivener. I don’t typically use physical index cards, BUT once I did because I sensed my scenes were in the wrong order and I wanted to see them all spread out at once. It worked. I’ve not done it since, but am grateful for that one time and would use it again if necessary.
You see, borrow, borrow, borrow. Learn what everyone else does and then make it your own, stealing a piece here and a piece there, melding and mixing.
My personal system, which you’re welcome to adapt or ignore, is loosely similar to the Snowflake Method. Loosely being the key word. What matters to me is writing narratives at each stage.
In short, it comes down to this. Over time, and long before I become serious about the novel, I write notes everywhere. In a notebook. On a document on my computer. On my phone. You get the idea. Eventually, I bring them together, but instead of transferring them into one document I write them anew, expanding on them as I go. We’re talking about, maybe, 2K words.
Time for a new document.
I expand the notes again, drawing them out to cover most of the novel. There are holes everywhere, but that’s okay. Again, it’s a narrative, but usually written as expanded bullet points. Now we’re talking about 4-5K.
NOW it becomes serious as I repeat the process for the formal outline which goes into a Scrivener file (I know I have a story at that point). This is my full outline, but it’s, again, a narrative, and within that narrative are sometimes bullet points and sometimes chunks of dialog that strike me at the moment (I don’t always use it). This final narrative somehow ends up being about 10K each time.
Still not done.
From there I distill the formal outline down to about 3-4K and break it into the anticipated scenes. That’s my working outline, and I follow it fairly close, tending to deviate from it most often in the later stages. Though I work from the scene outline, I’ll sometimes refer to the formal outline if I’ve forgotten an important point.
You’ll note that this doesn’t include world building or character sketches or any of the other elements required to write a novel.
What matters most to me is flexibility. If I deviate from the outline while drafting I don’t stress about it, but I do modify the remainder of the outline to reflect the new direction.
If the approach you use doesn’t work for you it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you’ve eliminated one approach. The only way to test a method is to try it—and then draft a novel. The best time to start is now.
NaNo approaches. Jump in. See what happens with the system of your choice, or no system, you’ll learn a lot about you, your approach, and, of course, writing a novel.