One of the most difficult tasks concerning writing any piece of considerable length is staying organized. Be it a novel, a screenplay, or a stage play, the typical long-form story has multiple characters and story arcs to keep track of at all times. From my experience talking about why they give up on their story before they finish the first draft, many people answer that the story simply "fell out of their hands."
Indeed, I have had my own moments while writing a novel in which I felt the story gets out of control, and this is a terrible place to be. After putting in hours, days, and even months worth of work, to have come to a point in writing where you feel that all of your efforts have boiled down to a story that is full of plot holes, terrible scenes, and unbelievable characters is an extremely difficult and dark place from which to recover. Some people call this place "permanent writer's block," because the author has lost so much confidence in their work that the entire story, no matter how far along it is, gets abandoned entirely.
How do you avoid this pitfall? The only answer, in reality, is to stay focused and never give up. Of course, this is much easier said than done.
Many authors, myself included, have failed to take the time to prepare their story before actually writing it. And while it is true that many great novels have been and will be written by just getting on with it and not looking back, more often times than not, this strategy will most likely end in disaster for your wonderful tale.
A better strategy is to get organized. More great novels than not start out with expert organization, character mapping, worldbuilding, and outlining. Preparing to write a novel can be far less fun than actual composition (it is, because we are writers, not preparers), but getting into the habit of preparation should make the process of writing much easier and more satisfying.
In the lingo of National Novel Writing Month, there are "pantsers" and "planners" (and now they've designated a hybrid "plantser," which is self explanatory). Pantsers are quite brave, in that they sit in front of a blank page, considering it to be the first page of their first draft, and get moving. Their imagination will take the story wherever it may go. I have composed a novel this way, and it is admittedly quite fun. You get to watch your characters, scenes, and story emerge as you type along. It is a thrilling way to write, as long as you are willing to press on no matter what happens in your story.
The drawback to this approach is that it can backfire. The vast majority of people I know of who quit on their story started out as pantsers. Even if their story idea was great, the loss of confidence that came with running their story into a dead end shook their confidence in even starting the story over again. This is a dark place to be.
I want to make the case for being a planner, as I myself have converted to this method (with a little bit of "plantsing" in the mix).
There is no steadfast rule for how to plan a book. Notebooks, dry erase boards, post-it notes, bar napkins, index cards...these are all viable options for book planning, as long as you can keep track of everything as you go. Fantastic apps such as Storyist and Scrivener are available for download (look for my reviews of both applications in the near future), and online tools such as Novlr, LitLift, and Hiveword are also great options to explore.
I have had great success in converting from a pantser to a planner, and I have said as much to people struggling to get their ideas into words. No matter which method you use to outline your masterpiece, here are five great reasons for becoming a planner:
1) It is easier to make adjustments and large changes to your story.
Just about every novel idea starts out with a "eureka moment," and it seems that the entire story will be amazing the moment after it is conceptualized. After diving into actual composition, the reality of composing your concept starts kicking in, and you can realize that there are elements that don't work. If you're already halfway through writing the novel, this can seem like a good time to scrap the entire project in a fit of frustration. A better option is to map the story out in the form of chapter summaries first. This way, if a large problem with the plot arises, making an adjustment to the story is far less work, and your story lives on.
2) It is easier to experiment with your story.
If your novel is mapped out on a series of index cards, for example, you can take your story in different directions without having to scrap anything at all. You can create a virtual roadmap of different routes you could take to get to the finish without the risk of having to abandon thousands of words in the process. The ability to experiment can greatly improve your novel.
3) It is easier to accept constructive criticism.
If all you have done is create an outline of your story (not to say that it is easy to outline, but it is far easier than writing an entire novel), then you can present your idea to other people, and if they see problems with your story, accepting the input is less of a blow if you haven't even started the first draft.
4) You can divide and conquer.
If you make a detailed outline with all of the scenes separated, then when it comes time to compose, you can approach the task scene by scene, creating confidence in your progress. This method even makes it a little easier to schedule writing sessions. You can decide which specific parts of your novel you will draft during various days of the week. Also, if the entire novel is mapped out ahead of time, there is no rule against writing out of order. If writing a particular scene doesn't match your mood on a particular day, then you can choose any other scene in the book to write instead. Outlining ahead of time even makes it possible to write a novel backward.
5) You can defeat writer's block.
If you start each writing session with a clear piece of story to compose, then creating a draft is far easier. Plus, if and when any interruptions to the writing process arise, your creative energy is not severed at the source. You have the whole thing planned, now all you have to do is see the entire book through to the finish!
In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and to help motivate you, here is a video on how to plan your novel: