Two approaches to writing a novel

National Novel Writing Month starts in just 4 days. As the excitement builds, I’ve started to think about how I’m going to approach it this time round.

I believe that there is no right or wrong way to write a novel but there are a couple of approaches I’ve used with varying levels of success.

APPROACH 1. The planning approach
For the first novel I finished writing (note the emphasis on finished), I took a very practical, logical approach. There are three key elements to planning a novel; plot, characters and structure. I thought about each of these in turn before I started writing. I made sure I had a plot summary written up, including what happened to each of the characters and the resolution of any sub-plots. I wrote detailed characters descriptions, which included physical descriptions and character motivations. Then I thought about structure; should the story be in chronological? What dramatic tension could be created by going back and forward in time?

Before I started writing I created a huge Excel spreadsheet. I planned out what key things would happen in each chapter, and colour-coded chapters to show which characters each featured.

Strengths of this approach:

Motivation: By having a structure in place I was able to keep motivated. When I reached a point where I might have got writers’ block, I had the excel to guide on what to write next. This meant I finished the novel.

Structure: I didn’t need to worry about planning at any point, as the structure was already in place. It also meant I didn’t wander off into sub-plots and remained loyal to the key plot.

Consistency: I always had the character descriptions to hand, so none of the characters eyes changed colour mid-way through the book.


Lack of creative flexibility: There were times when I really would have liked to follow those random sub-plots that I thought of while I was writing, instead of sticking rigidly to the plot. In my second and third drafts I ended up writing in extra chapters and plots which I hadn’t let myself write when I was writing the first draft.

Losing interest: The rigidity of the structure meant I sometimes got bored and lost interest. I knew what was going to happen at the end of the story and therefore their were no surprises for me. Sometimes I just wanted to write a brand new story based on another idea. But I kept going and completed the novel.

Heavy editing: You can’t know everything about your book when you write the plot summary. Which means some bits will need to change in the second and third drafts.

APPROACH 2. The winging it approach
Another approach is to just start writing and see where it takes you. This is a much more fun approach. You can play around with the characters and put them in all sorts of situations to see how they react.


Fun: I found this a much more enjoyable way to write a novel. When I got bored of a storyline, I put it aside and focused on another sub-plot or character and came back to it later.

Creative freedom: You can let the characters speak for themselves and decide their own fate. You have the freedom to let them drive the story.


Deleting: I had to be quite gung-ho with the delete button when I came to editing the novel; deleting whole chapters, characters and plots which I had got bored of and hadn’t gone anywhere.

Re-drafting – There were lots of plots that needed redrafting too, as they had changed as I’d had better ideas as I went along. Sometimes, I had to go back and rewrite the beginning of storylines to make them make more sense.

Heavy editing – There was also a lot of inconsistency in character descriptions, so the book needed a heavy copy edit to strike these outs.

So which approach will I use for National Novel Writing Month?

One of the things I’ve learnt from trying the two approaches is that you can never avoid editing. Things change as you write and you have to learn as you go along. Iterations are inevitable. So, with that in mind, I’m not going to worry at all about whether what I’m writing is rubbish, or might be deleted later. I’m just going to write. I’m going to go with the “winging it” approach. I write for fun, and that approach is the one I most enjoy. However, there is no right or wrong way to write a novel, and if you are more of a natural planner, I’d recommend you start working on that Excel spreadsheet now!

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