Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Plot, structure and finishing your novel

First off - all this advice is based on personal experience and what worked for me (bear in mind I haven't actually finished editing my novel yet but I did finish writing the 100,000 word first draft - something I'd failed to do before) and advice I've read in books, found on the internet and been told by other people.

If you don't have a plot yet - or if you're not sure that your plot works - you could do worse than visit this site:


Before I started writing my novel I spent a lot of time reading the above site.

I also spent time thinking about 'The Hero's Journey' which is a classic way of structuring a novel (used most famously in the Star Wars films). It may sound archaic at first but it works perfectly well in a modern setting with a bit of imagination and if you're a bit stuck it's a tried and tested approach and might help you move on. Here's a basic breakdown of the Hero's journey:

1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails
3. Achieving the goal which often results in important self-knowledge
4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail
5. Application of the goal, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world

You can read more about the Hero's journey here:


What I did next was grab a piece of paper and divided it into chapters (I decided on 16 but my novel ended up being 30!). I had no idea how many chapters my novel would have so just guessed. What I did know were what the major events were in the novel - what the beginning was (and how the novel would progress for several chapters), what the end was and what the major climax was. I scribbled these into some of the chapter boxes on the page.

What was left was lots of gaps...

So what next?

I had to work out how my main character would get from A to Z - what trials would she encounter along the way, what would go wrong, how would she develop/change, what were the other characters in the novel doing? I scribbled down as many ideas as I could think of into the boxes.

And I started writing.

Of course, as I started writing the novel, things changed as I pretty much let the character dictate what was going to happen next (within reason) as long as she was pretty much moving towards achieving her goal, overcoming obstacles en route and moving towards the climax and the end of the book. I wrote so many different versions of my chapter outline my notebook is full of them!

If I got stuck (blocked) I'd sit down and sketch out the scenes that were needed within the chapter. That way I knew what was coming next and could continue writing.

I wrote pretty much every day for 3 months and 3 weeks (I think my average word count was about 750 words a day - which isn't that much when you think about it).

The best advice I can give when you want to stop writing or you think the novel is going no where is

"I give myself permission to write crap"

It's your first draft. First drafts are allowed to be crap. In fact I'd bet money on the fact that every author thinks their first draft is crap. When you buy a book in Waterstones or wherever and marvel at the language and the plot I guarantee it didn't just flow out of the writer's pen/fingers in that state. The author revised and revised it. Their agent probably made them revise it again and then their editor suggested several more re-writes before the book was proof-read, corrected and published.

If you don't finish your first draft you won't have anything to edit. So just write it... no one else has to see it. Do it for yourself, do it to prove you can write and finish a novel. Don't think about whether what you're writing is any good. Don't wonder if an agent will like it. Don't try and work out if it will become a bestseller. If you do that you'll become so self-conscious you'll stop writing. So just write it and finish it.

It's bloody hard work and everyone who has every written a first draft of a novel will agree. But how chuffed will you be when you get through to the other side and you've finished it? I drank the best part of a bottle of champagne to myself!

Of course there's still loads to do (and God editing is boring) but don't think about that now. Write.

Okay - this is the world's longest post so I'm just going to end by recommending some books that might help:

See Jane Write - a "how to write chick lit" book. Most of the information in here I'd seen before in other more literary "how to write a novel" books (and covered in more detail) but if you want a light, chatty approach to writing a novel this is the one for you [Edited to add: I've just noticed they're out of stock on Amazon.co.uk but they seem to have plenty left on Amazon.com for about a fiver - See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit so try them instead]

My personal favourite: How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-By-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling

And this one is very, very good and is also recommended by fellow novel racers Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non-fiction

Okay - next time. How long should a synopsis be? How do I write a synopsis? and "Is my novel any good?"


Bernadette said...

How kind and unselfish of you to publish such helpful advice. Something I read, can't remember where I'm afraid, was to ask yourself what your hero/heroine wants more than anything, what is stopping her from getting it and what does she do about it. Also, that nothing beats the 'bum-on-seat, hands-on keyboard' approach! When finishing my first draft I sometimes had to make myself do it with promises of rewards (usually chocolate) after a certain wordcount. Now very fat, but at least I did it. And yes, I celebrated too.
Will look forward to advice on how to find/choose an agent(s) to read the tome after editing. Still have an odd feeling that it will be a bit of a cheek to send it off at all and ask a 'real' publishing person to spend their time on it. But I guess I'd better get over that sharpish!
Bernadette x

A. Writer said...

I think what you've got here is wonderful!

Not only are you trying to edit your novel, enter short story competitions, doing PR for your Boyf's band, do a full time job, you are also helping a load of writers that might not have a clue what to do next.

How the heck do you manage it all!? I take my hat off to you!

Sarah*G* said...

thanks cally for all that info. very helpful and i will check out the link and books you mentioned. as tescos say 'every little helps'!!

Lane said...

Many thanks for this Cally.
I always get a little nervous when I hear writers say their characters take over and dictate where the story is going. I panic and think mine must be weak because they've needed pushing and shoving all the way. You've reminded me here that this is my first draft and the primary concern is to get it all down. I need it hammered home - 'First Draft Not The Finished Article'. Thank you!
Will check out the links and look forward to the synopsis post:))

CTaylor said...

Bernadette - you're absolutely right and I should have added that in. The hero/heroines goal is the same as "what do they want more than anything in the world?" Then throw stones (obstacles) at her to stop her from doing it and see what she does and how she overcomes them.

And yes, you do have to force yourself to write sometimes but treats/rewards can be good. It may be a while until I talk about choosing agents as I need to get my damn editing finished first.

a.writer - Awww - thanks love. I barely manage is the truth! There just aren't enough hours in the day. I've got two friends who are waiting for me to create/edit their websites and I haven't had time (and feel horribly guilty) and I've really let my editing slip recently. One thing that has really suffered with me being so busy is my social life. Must rectify that asap!

Sarah - glad I could help

HelenMH said...

Thanks Cally

This is all really helpful. I've been thinking about writing a novel for such a long time now - and have never got beyond the first few pages! But I think I'm finally beginning to get the motivation to take it further.


Sarah*G* said...

Cally, I have to add on from my previous posts and say how much I agree with a.writer that you keep posting these informative and helpful blog entries about the writing post whilst also working, editing your own work and helping your boyfriends band in their quest to get signed and continue entering writing comps! do you have any spare time at all? i hope that when you do finish editing your book and submit it to agents that they snap it up so you can see the fruits of all your hard work come to a completition and then take a break before starting your next one!

AnnaMW said...

Just wanted to say how much I really enjoy your blog. It's the only one I read actually. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be reading your novel one day soon, or see it in the window of Waterstones. I really enjoyed your description of the taxi queue!

I have a novel (non-chicklit) with a (well-known) agent which she is about to try and sell for me. But I did enter the chicklit competition too. I was very pleased with what I'd written and even thought it better than my 'literary novel' which this agent has enjoyed, but there you go, didn't even get to be a runner up. I showed my chicklit entry to two (very choosey and well-read) readers and they loved it. They have been 'brutal' about my writing in the past, so I knew they weren't just being kind. I can only assume that the competition was extremely strong. Or, perhaps the winner hit on a very topical or fresh theme, perhaps something a little gimicky, and it was this rather than the characters, or humour, of unfolding story that did it. Or perhaps as you say, the judges only got to see what the original two or three readers enjoyed and passed on. Can't wait to see what actually won.

Good luck with editing your novel. I do sympathise. This took me so long. But I did sort of edit as I went along too. I found a sort of system where I'd fresh-write a chapter and then edit the last. By the time the whole novel was actually finished I'd been through the whole thing several times over. Bit like painting the Forth Bridge or whatever the saying is. But it did mean that the beginning was 'new' again by the time I came back to it and I could 'see' all its flaws again.

But the advantage of getting the first draft completed first before editing is that you've got all your material there to work with, like clay you can now sculpt, and you're not too precious about it, about changing things because it's only a first draft. I did find I spent a lot of time tweaking instead of getting on with writing the next chapter. And then later the 'tweaked stuff' seemed rubbish and had to go anyway. I now see that if I'm trying to 'fix' something and spend too long doing this, it probably shouldn't be there anyway.

Bear said...

thanks Cally for taking time out to write such brilliant advice! For someone like me who isn't very confident and isn't completely sure what to do with her novel, you've really helped and given me guidelines which i'm sure i'm going to stick to!

thank you!

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good advice and useful links. Thanks.

I reward myself with a cup of tea every 500 words.