9 Things to Do Before Starting on a Novel Project

If you’ve been following me on Instagram lately, you’ll know that I’m currently planning for my next novel project.

It’s a long time coming project, since the last time I published a novel was at the end of 2017—I couldn’t even remember how many times readers and my editor had asked me if I was working on my next book.

novel project
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Writing a novel is always hard. It doesn’t matter if I’ve done it in a short amount of time; I still shudder in fear whenever I think of the days I’ll spend getting stuck on a nasty writer’s block, trying my best to finish just one last scene before grabbing dinner to-go.

Scared as I was, I kept on trodding the uncertainty of “starting a brand new novel project”. And although it took me quite a while to gather my ideas and build up excitement for the project, I currently feel like I’m ready to start writing it.

“How do you do that?” one of my followers had asked me on an Instagram direct message. “How do you prepare yourself for a big project? Writing a novel must be really hard, so you must have a trick or two up your sleeves, right?”

novel writing to do
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In all honesty—I don’t know if I have one. But not knowing the foolproof tricks to write a novel doesn’t mean that I’m not preparing myself for the journey. It’s a bit like hiking, actually. You can read all about the trek up on Google, but it’s never going to be the same hiking experience for everyone; all we can do is to prepare ourselves for the trip, and hope that the worst doesn’t happen.

So without further ado, here are the 9 things I personally do before I feel confident about starting this novel project (or any of my previous projects!).


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1. Decide on a theme

I think that deciding the theme of a project is crucial, especially during the initial phase of the project’s development.

Defining the “theme” could be anything; the overall timbre and atmosphere of the story, the aftertaste, the feeling you want the story to induce on readers, and so on. Some people might want to write an exciting story that keeps their readers on the edge of their seats; others might want to tell a laidback, but heartwarming story.

By knowing what kind of story you want to write, it will help you decide on other things down the road: the PoV you’re gonna use, the writing style, the settings, the characters’ personalities, even to the plot.


2. Flesh out the main character and casts

After knowing what kind of story I want to tell, I always move right into developing the characters. This is why I said theme definition is important; the casts of the story will be directly influenced by the theme.

For instance, in my debut novel, 3 (Tiga), the global theme of the book was “overcoming guilt and grief”, with an underlying sub-theme of friendship, love, and pursuing after dreams.

story main characters
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By knowing the general “direction” I wanted to take the story to, I found it easier to develop and flesh out the main casts; grief-stricken friends who were just trying to feel okay and continue pursuing after their dreams.

I always try to know the main character’s personality inside out; and nail down the majority of the main casts’ character voices before moving to the next step.


3. Outline the whole story

Once I know the story theme and who will be the main casts, creating the story is quite straightforward.

This is especially easier if you can picture the distinct characters’ voices inside your head. (How character A speaks; will they make a good friend with B, etc.)

novel story outline
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I personally feel like with my style of writing, and—perhaps—the genre I’m mostly writing in, the characters are the ones moving the story forward. For me, coming up with scene ideas or the plot is simply a matter of finding different situations / plot devices that would showcase the theme and the characters’ voices best.

Read more about my approach on plotting here.


4. Research, research, research…

A major turnoff for readers is when writers don’t do their research on a topic they’re writing.

And I’m not only referring to writers who attempt to write historical fiction. In fact, I encourage writers to always do their research before attempting to write their books. Trust me; it saves you a lot of hassle during the revision process later on.

project research story
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When I was writing 3 (Tiga), which was set in modern Japan, I had to do research on a lot of things: compulsory education systems in Japan, orphanage system, prices of commodities, the shape and insulation of a house, average temperature and chance of rain during summer, funeral services, etc.

Never skip on your research. You have to do it eventually, so might as well do it as best as you can, as early as possible!


5. Build a writer’s notebook to put everything in

A writer’s notebook is absolutely essential to keep all the information you’ve racked your precious brains off to create. Things like your project theme, character notes, plot outlines, and even your research materials are some things you’ll keep referencing over and over during the writing process—keeping everything in a writer’s notebook just makes it so much easier to look up for information about your project.

project notebook writer
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Of course, you can always opt to create your writer’s notebook digitally using apps like Evernote or OneNote. But I personally use a conventional paper-based notebook to store all information about my project(s). You can read more about that here.


6. Create a writing playlist

It’s hardly a secret that I love writing with music on. The fact that I’ve made writing playlists for 3 (Tiga), Unspoken Words, and Maybe Everything is proof enough. (Click on the separate links above to go see each playlist.)

writing playlist novel
Photo by STIL on Unsplash

Listening to music boosts my focus and concentration exponentially. Also, by creating a writing playlist dedicated to the story, and by listening to it over and over again during the planning phase, I would be able to “trick” my brain into correlating the song(s) with a particular story idea.

This means that there’s a “mental switch” that I can just flip on and off whenever I want. Every time I need to concentrate and be in the zone to write the story, I just play my writing playlist, and type away.


7. Stock up on writing essentials / supplies

No, I don’t mean pens, and papers. We both know that most writers would already have an excessive supply of both. I actually meant supplies that are essential for a writer’s welfare.

writing essentials to do
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This means snacks for when we’ve accomplished our writing goals. Or you know—assorted tea collection to soothe our mind during the hectic drafting period. Sometimes this can also be completely intangible, like a solid plan to decompress after everything is done.

Basically, stock up on everything that you might need during your writing process, so you don’t have to waste your precious time going to the nearest supermarket to get them. We know that we will procrastinate anyway, but I stand my point.


8. Set aside time to fast draft

There are writers who love to simmer their ideas for an extended period of time—drafting the novel slowly, but surely. And then there are writers who love to torture themselves by pouring their hot mess of a soul into their writings in a short period of time. Go guess which one I am.

Fast drafting allows me to inject raw, pure emotion into my manuscript. And while I understand this method might not be for everyone, this is also the only way I could humanely produce a book with how swamped I am by my day job. (Another perk is that the raw emotion goes very well with the genre I’m writing, but I digress.)

time to do project
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But let’s be real. No one would just magically get 9 to 14 days of free time to draft their next great novel. These time offs require sacrifice, mind you. And most of the time, this means sacrificing my annual leave to the devils company so I could produce new books.

No matter how long (or short!) do you need to draft your novel, make sure to do all the necessary preparations beforehand, so when the time comes, all you have to think about is to write.


9. Send notice to friends and family

Writing is a solitary journey. It’s super lonely at times, and you might upset your family and friends who just can’t understand why they are suddenly unable to reach you during your drafting process.

notice to write novel
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I know this might sound like a chore, but nobody likes being ignored. Do the right thing and tell them politely to leave you alone during your drafting process, which I believe will be when you’re at your most vulnerable state. They won’t like you around when you’re stressed out with your project anyway, so make sure they know that you still love them, and write in peace!


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And there you have it! Those are the 9 things I always do before starting on a new novel project. You don’t have to follow everything I do—every writer works differently, after all. But I hope that the list above inspire you to find your own prep methods.

In any case, I will be writing this novel project during the first week of June 2019. Fingers crossed everything will work out well! I promise I’ll keep you updated through my Instagram and Twitter.

For now, though, I’m still working on my research. In fact, I’m going to a library this Saturday to find more reference for the project. Wish me luck, everyone! 🙂


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I post new contents here every Saturday. This includes writing tips, reviews on writing/reading spots, short stories, poems, personal essays, and more. Keep yourself updated by following me on Twitter and Instagram!


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Where to find:
Goodreads | Gramedia | Gramedia Digital

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