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02 April 2020

Six tips to help you plot and plan your novel

Writing a scene
by Nikki Smith From Our Students, Writing Tips

Nikki Smith is a former student who took two of our six-week online ‘How to Write a Novel’ courses before securing a place on our three-month online novel-writing course in 2017. Nikki initially ‘met’ her agent – C&W’s Sophie Lambert  during an online agent feedback session on this longer course and decided to send her completed manuscript to Sophie after the course ended. Nikki’s debut novel All in Her Head is out now from Orion.

Here Nikki shares some of the tools and techniques she used to plot and plan her psychological thriller …

I would love to confidently be able to say I know what I’m doing in this regard, but to be honest, I can only tell you a bit about the process I use. It won’t work for everyone but I hope that something in here might prove useful.

Split it up

A novel consists (in the psychological suspense genre I write in) of around 80-90,000 words. Which is a lot of words. When I first started writing, I did wonder if I’d ever be able to get to the point where I could say I’d finished a novel. I read several authors whose advice was to ‘Finish the book,’ and I agree with them. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of going over and over the words you have written trying to make them perfect, when they may well end up scrapped further along in the editing process. So, to make this task seem a little less daunting, I found the best way to get to the end was to split up the book into small pieces that seem easier to deal with.


Before I got a book deal, I worked in finance so I’m pretty familiar with a spreadsheet. I’m quite an organised person (as my friends, agent and editor would all attest!) and they appeal to this side of me! When I write, I use a spreadsheet to plan out the book. I start with four headings across the page in different columns – Chapter number, Planned words, Description, Actual Written.

Chapter number & planned words

I divide the book up into chapters, of say, around 1,500 words (54 chapters) and write the numbers 1-54 in the cells of one column down the page. I put the 1,500 word count of each chapter in the column next to it, so the total at the bottom of the page would be 81,000.


I then write a brief description of what is going to be in each chapter in the cell next to it. I don’t necessarily fill this in chronologically from start to finish – sometimes I might know the end before the beginning (and there is often a rather large hole somewhere in the middle which needs the most thought). I can then easily see at a glance where the critical points in the book, like my mid-point, is going to be. This part can take a while if I do it properly – but I have learned through trial and error that it is necessary and will save a considerable amount of time (and false starts) in the long run!!


When I write, I set myself a daily goal (which is now 2,000 words) and stick to it, even if this means having to catch up at weekends or write late. When I started All In Her Head and was working full-time, my wordcount was much less than this – around 500 words. But even 500 words a day for six months will result in a first draft. I need a goal because I find if I am away from the manuscript for too long then I’ll have to spend more time getting to know my characters all over again.

I have an ‘Actual Written’ column next to the ‘Description’ column where I fill in my daily total wordcount and keep a running total at the bottom of the page. I reward myself every 10,000 words with a treat – one author I know suggested the purchase of a new book which is a lovely idea, but more often than not, I have to admit I tend to consume large amounts of dark chocolate! I will also check that once I’ve finished the chapter, what I’ve written in the ‘Description’ column is the same as what I thought I was going to write. If it needs changing, I’ll do this, and will then look ahead to see what the impact is on other chapters – and whether anything else needs to change.

Thinking ahead

I work more productively in the morning if I start out knowing what I’m going to write. Sometimes it’s better to have a lower word count goal to leave some headspace to plan the next day’s writing – or at least the first part of it, before I stop for the day. I also find that if I’ve at least had a think about what I’m going to write next, my brain has time to subconsciously process it overnight which for me, seems to help. It took me a long time to realise this – I used to reach my word goal and then start completely fresh the following day, but would often find myself drawn to twitter or ‘research’ on the internet and then wonder where a couple of hours had gone!

Happy writing everyone – get those words down and finish that book.

Nikki is our special guest for our Twitter competition (#WriteCBC) this month, find out more.

For a limited time we’re offering £50 off our six-week online courses with code WRITEFROMHOME50

The discount can be applied to our online Writing Short Stories, Writing a Memoir, Starting to Write Your Novel,  Write to the End of Your Novel , Edit & Pitch Your Novel and Picture Book courses.

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