Plotting a Novel: Resources for Those Starting Out

Throughout 2023 writing instructor and pre-published author Tracey Kathryn (T.K.) Sheffield and I will be offering a blog series on plotting from the beginning developmental stage through the messy middle and all the way to the end, including editing advice on how to fix plot problems in a completed manuscript. So let's begin with Part 1 from Tracey!

Where are you in your writing life? Are you writing a novel—your first, perhaps?

I attended a New Year kick-off seminar with the Wisconsin Writer’s Association called “Butts in Chairs.” Presented by the wonderful Laurie Scheer, the meeting inspired attendees to jump into writing. Don’t procrastinate, she advised, begin.

Attendees asked great questions. Many were ready to tackle that first novel, and they inquired about self-publishing, self-editing, and more. (If you missed the meeting, no worries. Join WWA and re-watch the video.)

Starting a novel is a noble endeavor. Many times Valerie Biel and I have discussed dos and don’ts. Short answer: We’ve both written books the hard way.

Providing tips from A to Z about writing a novel is beyond the scope of this blog. However, a few helpful resources are appropriate; thus, this month’s blog post will provide resources and guidance about using checklists, creating an outline, and selecting writing software.

In addition, I’m giving a shout-out to the Wisconsin Writer’s Association, and featuring a bookstore, a gift idea, and conferences.

Checklists: Ideas and Resource Links

Writers are creative thinkers. So checklists, something restrictive like a pilot would use before a flight, may not be your thing. However, before skipping this section and moving on, wait: A checklist builds plot structure, develops characters, and may eliminate writer’s block, especially for new writers.

A checklist is more than just a string of reminders or easily forgotten mantras like, Write every day! Or make bad stuff happen to characters! A checklist includes actions writers must take to build a strong novel.

The list can be a macro-view of a book. A macro view is a blueprint. It includes big-picture ideas about setting up a writing space, defining a novel, and selecting a genre.

A micro-focused checklist can include story planning, choosing a point-of-view, and even a re-writing checklist.

A list provides guidance, which can overcome inaction or writer’s block. If, while writing, you feel tired or unfocused, a glance at a checklist can provide inspiration. If you can’t write your story, perhaps a character outline or setting description will suffice. As Laurie Scheer says, anything to get the butt in the chair.

Writing a novel does not have to be linear. You don’t have to write from beginning to middle to end. Endings can be written before opening scenes. A list helps writers do that while staying organized.

Plotting: Resource Links

I’ve talked about plot outlines before. I’m a reformed “pantser." I may get pushback for this statement, but I’ll risk it: Brainstorm, then write an outline for your novel.

Write an outline, even if it’s just three bullets with short descriptions underneath. I’ll use my latest manuscript as an example. (I’ll keep it general to not give too much away.)

Beginning (Inciting incident):

→  Cupid, minor god of love, stands outside a cafe in a small town. He’s feeling elated yet fearful. Cupid has fallen in love with the cafe’s proprietor. Once he enters the shop, his life will change. But also, due to his controlling, temperamental aunt, Cupid’s career, his world, and everything he knows, will be in jeopardy.

Middle (two points of no return):

→  Cupid establishes a matchmaking business while courting his love interest. Two things happen: a relative comes to live with him, complicating everything. Then, Cupid’s new romance and business fall apart when a powerful, demanding person arrives and tries to ruin him.

End (climax, then denouement):

→  Cupid, using his wits, outsmarts those threatening him while patching up broken relationships.

I wrote a detailed outline before writing this novel. As a result, I can summarize 340 pages in about eight lines in a minimalist beginning, middle, and end plot structure.

If you want to fight back against the messy middle of a novel, write an outline. If you wish to avoid info-dumping, write an outline. And, if you’re a new writer starting a novel—if you don’t want to be frustrated and quit midway through—write an outline.

Helpful resources for writing an outline:

•   Master Class

•   Novel outline templates

•   Larry Brooks Story Fix

Writing Software: Resources and Links

I write in Scrivener, a software for all types of writing. There’s a learning curve with it, so don’t get frustrated. (It’s not you. It’s the software.) But this site helps navigate the program and offers encouragement. Scrivener also has tutorials on its website.

Many writers use Google docs. I haven’t used it, but this site offers a helpful guide.

Other writing software includes Microsoft Word, Vellum, and if you’re an Apple user, Pages offers pre-designed templates.

If you’re a new writer, perhaps this list will provide guidance.

The most important thing is to not give up. Your novel needs to be on the page. Begin.

Additional Resources for Writers:

I’m sharing ideas about the WWA, bookstores, gifts, and seminars. Read below for more.

Resources from The Wisconsin Writer’s Association: The Wisconsin Writer’s Association has stepped up its game—consider joining! The group celebrates a milestone birthday this year. Watch for news of a stellar conference happening this fall. As a member, you’ll get great resources such as monthly critique seminars, writing tips, and book review connections. Also, consider entering the Jade Ring writing contest.

Resources: Bookstore of the Month

For every blog post this year, I’m including an indie bookstore so writers and readers know what’s nearby. This month, I’m mentioning Reads by the River in Waterford, Wis. Fabulous website that is easy to navigate, plus an event calendar that features a book club with 10% off purchases. Author events, too. Stop by and support a local business and writers. Waterford is a charming little place located in southeast Wisconsin.

Valentine’s Gift (Birthdays, too!) Ideas for Writers

I love gift ideas—if you can’t tell. Valentine’s Day is around the corner. And there’s plenty of 2023 left, too, so there will be birthdays. If you’re searching for something for a writer, here’s a handy list from Love the Shower Thoughts. (Aqua Notes weren’t available on Amazon at press time.) Who’d have thought of writing in the shower?

Upcoming Conferences: Consider Attending this Year

I acquired a literary agent in part by attending conferences. I wrote about it on the Valerie Biel blog here. Writers can’t exist in a vacuum. Like actors, we need feedback and guidance for our creative endeavors. If travel is a problem, consider one of the many excellent online opportunities.

Dates subject to change as events approach. As of press time, some sites hadn’t updated dates for 2023.

Writing Day Workshops, online and in-person, ongoing

March 25-26, Let’s Just Write, Chicago

May 5-6: Lakefly Writer’s Conference, Oshkosh

May 30-June 3, 2023: Thrillerfest, NYC

July 19-22: Midwest Writer’s Workshop, Muncie, Indiana, and online

Aug. 30-Sept. 3: Bouchercon, San Diego, Calif.

October 2023: Wisconsin Writer’s Association Fall Conference, TBA

Aug. 24-27 American Christian Fiction Writers Association Conference, TBA

September 2023: Central Wisconsin Book Festival, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point

October 2023: Door County Writer and Book Fair, Fish Creek

October 2023: Fox Cities Book Festival, Fox Cities area

October 2023: Wisconsin Book Festival, Madison

November 3-4: Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, Waukesha

November 2023: Great Lakes Writers Festival, Sheboygan

If you have recommendations about resources, conferences, or sources for gift ideas, please tell us in the comments.

I hope this list of resources inspires you to write.

Next month, I’ll talk about story inspiration and idea-vetting. Where do writers find ideas for novels? How are those ideas tested?

Happy writing! ~Tracey

T.K. Sheffield, MA

Pre-published author, The Seymour Agency

I write books for readers who want to laugh and escape.

The Backyard Model Cozy Mysteries: A retired fashion model uses her skill at spotting posers to solve murders in her touristy Wisconsin town. (The first book in the series is on submission to publishers.)

The Valentine Lines: Cupid, minor god of love, is upset by the dismal state of romance; he blames dating apps. The god persuades—tricks?—his Aunt Hera, temperamental CEO of Mt. Olympus, Inc., into letting him move from drafty Olympus to a quaint small town. Ironically, the love god is struck by his own arrow and falls for a beautiful cafe owner. The relationship surprises his romance-business clients and angers his aunt. It’s a magical, fun, romantic comedy.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for writing tips, author news, and to share my Wisconsin backyard.


This series is a great way to begin the new year, Val. Lots of helpful information for an author who needs helpful tools to write that novel!

I agree -- it's information I wished I would have had at the beginning of my author journey! And, it's a good review as I tackle a new genre!

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