Different ways to write your first novel

I’ve started (several times now) a middle grade fiction, and am pretty much in the thick of trying to work out how to write longer fiction. I found my groove with picture books, and now early readers, but longer fiction of course is a totally different ball game!

Running a writing class the other day, I realised I wasn’t the only one grappling around in the dark. Basically, I don’t think there is any one way to do this. And how you end up tackling longer fiction might be completely different to the way you begin. Here are some different tried and tested strategies people use. Maybe you could try one of these, if you are writing your first novel. Or try a combination. Or maybe something entirely different!

The Kate Forsyth method: research, outline and write

Kate Forsyth writes (a lot) of very successful novels, most recently, historical fiction, like Bitter Greens. I love listening to interviews about Kate’s approach. Kate spends weeks, or is it months? in the thick of research. She’s passionate about research, and of course, writing historical fiction, research is pretty important. During her research, she keeps extensive notes in a handwritten journal, recording page numbers and references as she goes.

Once she’s researched as much as she can, she does a very detailed outline of the plot.

“My chapter outlines are usually very brief,” says Kate,  “and I develop them further just before I write them. However, sometimes I need to plan a whole section of a novel quite carefully before I write it. I generally find that, the more complex the novel, the more I need to plan.”

Kate has the core of the story down before she commences writing. She knows who her protagonist is, what their conflict is and what the obstacles are. She uses a narrative arc, which sounds like this:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

And looks like this:

Once it’s all worked out, Kate spends months writing. She knows her deadline, and knows her approximate word count, so can work backwards from there, and estimate how many words she needs to write per week. In the last interview I listened to, she said she aims to write 5,000 words a week. If she succeeds, she rewards herself.

The James Patterson Method: plan, outline and write

I did a masterclass with bestselling US author James Patterson last year, and was intrigued to learn how much planning goes into each novel.

James starts with a compelling idea, or premise. He knows the story has legs. He then spends literally three or so full time weeks outlining every scene in the story.

He’d start with the significant turning points of the narrative arc, like Kate Forsyth does, and fill in the blanks, by working out every scene.

He maps out every scene in the book. For every scene, he needs to know what actions the character takes, how the plot moves forward, and how the subplots move forward. The map helps him work out how values change between scenes. Good to bad, bad to good etc. He also can see the development of tension and rising action.

I read a James Patterson YA novel last year which was full of twists and turns and was a total page turner. You can see how this method makes that possible. And must be useful to a guy who knows he has to produce a quality text within a certain timeline, to keep up with his epic demand!

The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson

Being a complete pantser myself, I was loathe to look into structuring my novels. But I kept getting stuck. I’d write and write and write, but then I would freeze. My story had no specific direction. One of the tools I found helpful was the Snowflake Method created by Randy Ingermanson.

Randy suggests designing your novel from the core out. Start with a central premise. Randy’s rules are:

• Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words.

• No character names, please! Better to say “a handicapped trapeze artist” than “Jane Doe”.

• Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win.

• Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form.

Expand that sentence to a full paragraph, describing story set up and major turning points for your character. Again, Randy recommends using the narrative arc used by Kate Forsyth (above).

Next, plot the arc for each of your characters. I found this the most helpful thing of all, because part of writing longer fiction is developing subplots which relate to the protagonists’ journey.

Randy recommends working out:

• The character’s name

• A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline

• The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)

• The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)

• The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)

• The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?

• A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline

Randy then recommends expanding each sentence of the summary paragraph.

Once you’ve worked out the narrative arc for each person, Randy suggests using a spreadsheet to organise every scene in the book.

And only when you know exactly where the story is going, start your first draft. For a complete outline of the Snowflake Method of designing a novel, check out Randy’s page here.

The Kate DiCamillo Method: two pages a day

I loved meeting Kate DiCamillo earlier in the year. Her novels are among my favourite things in the world, and she is such a humble and gorgeous person.

One of the things I found interesting to learn, is that unlike the authors described above, Kate has no idea where her novel is heading when she starts writing.

With her recent novel Raymie Nightingale she started with Raymie’s name, and the idea of a baton twirling contest.

Then she thought, ‘where is she, and why is she here?’ Along the way, she meets new characters. It is only when the characters start talking that Kate starts getting to know who they are.

Kate’s discipline is to write two pages a day, every day. By the end of the first draft, she has somewhat of a story. But she drafts and redrafts multiple times before she has a draft ready to send to her publisher. Her method is very organic. As a reader, I feel like the originality and magic of her characters and scenes benefits from this very creative approach.

The Tristan Bancks method: meditate, make Frankenstein and redraft

Much like Kate, Tristan Bancks starts with an idea or premise, and disciplines himself to write a certain word count every day.

Tristan does a lot of free writing and meditating before he sits down to write for the day. It centres him, and helps him tap into the story. He then uses whatever it takes to get that first draft down: a computer, typewriter, or notes on his phone, aiming to write up to 2,000 words a day. His first draft, or zero draft as he calls it, is a Frankenstein made up of scenes he’s written on various devices. He puts the Frankenstein draft away, comes back later, and reads the draft as a reader, rather than a writer. Then he starts on his next draft.

Tristan says he writes four to five drafts of each novel, always leaving time between so they can percolate before the next edit.

The Lee Child method: blank page and day dream

For superstitious reasons, Lee Child starts every bestselling novel on the 1 September, with a blank page. And the blank page is literal. Lee has no idea what will emerge in the story.

He begins to write, and like Kate and Tristan, discovers the story as it unfolds. Lee says he writes as the reader, rather than the writer, which I love. The story is as new and exciting to him as it is to us.

Much of his writing time is spent on his couch, eyes closed, smoking. He is daydreaming. In a state of half-consciousness, the characters and plot come to life, and find their way on to the page.

The A.L. Tait method: a bit of both

Middle grade novelist A.L. Tait, also known as Allison Tait, who hosts So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, was a pantser. That is to say, she wrote her first novel by the seat of her pants. Now with several books under her belt, Allison has worked out that having a rough idea of where you are heading is not a bad thing. She works out the central conflict, character goals and story arc, and allows herself to ‘pants’ her way to the significant points. This makes a lot of sense to me!


I have never officially done NaNoWriMo, but sometimes join in from afar. The goal of National Novel Writing Month in November, is to get 50,000 words of your first draft done, which is approximately 1,600 words a day. Published authors like Allison Tait and Anna Spargo-Ryan have started novels in NaNoWriMo.

Of course, your novel will need work afterwards. But part of the point of NaNoWriMo, from what I can gather, is that you don’t have time to think or be critical. As you write and write and write, you open the channels of your mind, and the novel inevitably pours out of you.

A friend who is a mum of young kids, said that during NaNoWriMo she was snatching moments to write. But the 50,000 word challenge was great for helping her prioritise her novel during November.

Do you have any tips for writing a novel? What’s worked for you?

  • Michelle Lewry

    December 1, 2017 at 12:23 am Reply

    Fantastic round-up of different ways to write a big book, Zanni! I’ve been writing a YA novel by the seat of my pants, a hybrid of the Tristan Bancks/Kate DiCamillo method but got to the point where I needed to sit down and seriously PLOT the novel and it’s crisis points- the Kate Forsyth Plot Graph helped immensely!

    • zanni

      December 4, 2017 at 12:42 am Reply

      Yes, I am in a similar camp Michelle! A combination works very well for getting to the end!

  • Linda Quinn-Jarvis

    December 1, 2017 at 4:02 am Reply

    Thank you so much for this! Great read! I find this information absolutely invaluable! The different methods, and how they are utilized can seem quite overwhelming at times. Your explanation of them really helps put them in perspective! ?

    • zanni

      December 4, 2017 at 12:41 am Reply

      Oh good! Glad it’s useful Linda!

  • Kim Dewar

    December 1, 2017 at 5:31 am Reply

    Thank you Zanni for the very helpful methods, great advice!

    • zanni

      December 4, 2017 at 12:42 am Reply

      Great! Thanks Kim 🙂

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