You don’t need to plan a book: here’s what works better

A confession: I never have a plan when I sit down to write a new book. And that is the most liberating thing, once you get over the fear of not knowing where you’re headed. All you need is one idea for one scene. One idea. Simple right?

How ideas fit into the writing process

Sit down and write your idea into a scene. Aim for around 500 words. A little more or a little less is fine. When you’ve finished that scene, you need an idea for the next scene. It might come to you as you write the first. Or it might not. If it doesn’t, that’s where writing prompts come in and you can read all about how to use prompts in this post. Choose one writing prompt and write your next scene. And then the next.

None of these scenes have to be chronological. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea how the scenes are connected. Your job at this point is to write lots of short scenes. When you get to around the 10,000 word mark, which is about 20 scenes of 500 words (that sounds achievable when we break it down like that, doesn’t it?) then you might begin to see an order or a story or an outline begin to take shape.

If you do, great. You can now work towards your outline or story. If you don’t, write some more scenes until you begin to get a feel for the story. That’s how a book gets written.

You can see how important it is in this process to keep having ideas for scenes. Ideas are crucial if we want to keep moving our word count onwards. But there’s nothing that makes writing time run out faster than using that time to come up with an idea. Writing time is for writing. Ideas happen at all other, often inconvenient, times.

Plan idea

What I do when I have an idea

Here’s what I do. No matter where and when I have an idea, I write it down straight away. This might mean a scribble on a piece of notepaper, or a jotting on the back of a business card, whatever is available. I record my voice on my phone if I’m driving. I have a notebook in my handbag and another one by my bed. I’ve used parking tickets, envelopes, anything that can be written on. I’ve even contemplated using my children! (not really!)

I used to have a master ideas notebook on my desk. Every couple of days, I would gather up all the scraps and notes and re-write them into the master notebook on my desk. When it was my writing time, I would open up the master notebook, look at the list of ideas and pick whichever was most appealing at that time. Then I would write the idea into a scene. It meant that every time I sat down to write, I had something to work on. There was no procrastination, no waiting for the muse to show up, no scouring my mind for ideas.

Collecting ideas using Scrivener

I still do something similar, but I’ve gone techie! No master notebook; instead all of my ideas are popped straight into a Scrivener document. I basically create a new scene (or index card) for each new idea. On the index card, I jot down the idea. When I sit down to write, I run my eye over the index cards and choose which one I want to work with and then I begin to write it into a scene.

Sometimes I get ideas to flesh out an existing scene. I can do that in Scrivener too; Scrivener has a yellow notes section at the bottom right corner of each scene and so I just put my idea into there. Then I colour code the scene using Scrivener’s Label feature so I know it’s a scene I have to come back to and add more to.


A way to manage all of your writing ideas

Other writers use post-it notes on a chart; there are many other variations. It doesn’t matter so much what your method is. The important thing is:

  • to keep having ideas
  • to jot the ideas down when you have them
  • to have a “master list” or some place to collect all of the different ideas together
  • to use that master list as your work plan; choose one idea from the list and sit down to
  • write. Never worry about what order the ideas should be in or working in some kind of chronology. Work on whatever idea strikes you the most at the time.

Take action now – how will you get your ideas process working?

I believe it’s possible for anyone to write a book, they key thing is being inspired and staying motivated.

I’d love to know how you’re going, what progress you’ve made, what problems you’ve faced. What is your method for managing ideas? Do you have one? Have I encouraged you to develop one? Are you a planner? Or do you like the sound of this process?

Natasha LesterNatasha Lester is the award-winning author of four novels. Her latest novel, Her Mother's Secret, is a story of love and ambition set in England and Manhattan between 1918 and 1939 and was released in March 2017 by Hachette Australia. A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, set in the Jazz Age in New York, was released by Hachette Australia in 2016 after a bidding war between publishers. Her previous novels are If I Should Lose You (2012) and What is Left Over, After (2010).

Natasha is also a presenter for the Australian Writers’ Centre. She teaches Creative Writing Stage 1 in Perth and 2 Hours to Scrivener Power as an online, on-demand course.


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