Using a Strategic Plan to organize and plan a novel

Essays by Shalon Sims on education, creative writing and literacy

Using a Strategic Plan to organize and plan a novel

Let’s win together!

Have you been working on a novel or other large creative project for a while, and feeling like organizing and managing the project has become a big challenge? Have a million ideas captured in a million documents or none at all, just free-floating in your head?

In this blog post, I’ll outline a method for organizing a large creative project, like a novel, with a strategic plan. I’ll also give you a free Creative Strategic Plan template to use. This is a document that will capture not just your creative vision, your strategy and timeline for how to achieve that vision, but also a place to store all of those ideas that you have along the way. The ones you dream up in the shower, the ones that come to you when you just wake up, or as you’re falling asleep. The ones that you write down in a file somewhere and promptly forget. A creative strategic plan is a place to capture anything that is related to your large creative project.

Benefits of writing a Creative Strategic Plan

Notice how I wrote Creative Strategic Plan in capitals letters? That’s for a reason. The reason is that there is weight and depth to a document like this. This isn’t a note that you create on your phone, or some random file that gets lost in the millions of other files on your computer. This is a document that will contain not only the mundane details of what you hope to accomplish, such as character ideas and plot issues, but also big picture stuff, such as why you are writing this novel and why it’s important to you. Here are the benefits that I can come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with others once you’re finished.

List of benefits

  • Get in touch with your vision
  • Keep your writing aligned to your values
  • Determine what your unique gift to the world is–why you are writing this story
  • Overcome challenges and leverage your strengths
  • Develop strategies that will help you achieve your goal
  • Find out who your audience is and what they want–how to dance with them
  • Rest in the comfort of a plan, in a space (creativity) that often feels nebulous and unstructured
  • Encourage yourself by developing helpful measures of success

How long will it take?

Creating the backbone of a plan could take as little as a few hours, but it’s important to remember that this is meant to be a living document, so it is not just set it and forget it. The idea is to make this document a repository for your creative ideas related to your project. In that sense, it isn’t done until you’re done with your project.

My Communications Experience

Cute little old me at the branding agency in 2013

In my former life, I worked as a communications strategist for a branding agency where I had to write a lot of strategic plans. I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed writing them. I enjoyed the research that went into them, as well as the feeling of organization they provided. These plans were very valuable. The branding agency charged between $10,000-20,000 for a strategic plan, not just the document, but of course the research and the recommendations that were made.

At the time of creating my first personal Creative Strategic Plan, in 2013, I was working on an epic time travel trilogy with multiple timelines. It was difficult to keep everything in my head. It seemed natural to me to transfer what I was doing at work, to my own creative project. A novel is a project, a business even, and a document outlining your vision and plans for that project seemed like a no-brainer.

Traditional Strategic Plan

So, what does a strategic plan generally include? Here is the outline of an actual strategic plan that I created for an organization in the BC Ministry of Health.

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Organization (Project) overview:
    • Project Goal
    • Vision/Mission
    • Key Messages
  3. Research
    • Audience
    • Market
  4. Strategy:
    • Current Opportunities and Challenges (Resource audit, SWOT)
    • Key Objectives
    • Strategies, tactics and activities
    • Budget and Resources required
  5. Action Plan and Timeline
  6. Evaluation

Creative Strategic Plan

So, I realize that a lot of that might not make sense, but before you dismiss a Strategic Plan for your own creative project, let me explain each section, and remember, I’m giving you a Strategic Plan template that will make things a lot easier.

Executive Summary

The introduction or Executive Summary, as it’s often called, is a place to get very flattering and aspirational. In a creative strategic plan, this is where you would put:

  • What the project is (name, genre, etc.). Think logline or pitch
  • The major goal you’re working towards (publishing, for example)
  • Very brief summary of the audience or market for your project
  • Some high-level opportunities/activities you’re pursuing to achieve your goal
  • Indicators of success

Sometimes you will write this executive summary after you’ve written the plan or after you’re well into it. You want this to be a very inspiring and positive, so put a good spin on it. Make it something that you can read when you feel down.

Project Overview

Here you’ll get into the details of your project in greater depth, especially your WHY. What is your vision for this project? A vision is typically a high-level reason for a company’s existence. A mission is how they do it. So for example, a vision for OXFAM might be, “To eradicate poverty” and their mission (how they do that) could be “To deliver information, resources and eduction to the world’s poor so they can empower themselves.” I literally just made that up, so please don’t hate on me if it sounds stupid. These are the elements of your project overview:


Sum up your project goal in just one sentence. Why are you creating this Strategic Plan? What do you hope, at the very end of the day, to accomplish? Assuming you’re a writer, this might be “To sell my book to a publishing house,” or it could be, if you are an independent publisher, “To publish my book on Kindle and reach #1 in my category.”


What is the vision of your book? It could be something simple, such as “To entertain the reader” but you’ll get more mileage out of your plan if you come up with something aspirational, something that really captures what you hope your reader will experience. You have to put yourself into your audience’s shoes and really think about how you want them to feel while they read your book, and after they’ve read it. Examples:

  • To take my readers on a wild ride through the Amazon rain forest
  • To expose the injustice in our legal system
  • To capture the difficulties of growing up in a ______ family
  • To bring hope to heart-broken people

These are kind of cliche and generic. Come up with your own vision that inspires you.


The mission is how you plan to achieve your vision. You can skip this if you don’t have a clear idea, but for example, here are missions to accompany the generic visions listed above:

  • I will balance my vivid descriptions of the Amazon with an insanely fast action plot
  • I will have a hyper-realistic and accurate court setting and avoid stereotypes at all cost
  • I will be brutally honest and spare no one in my family
  • I will create vibrant, quirky main characters who have real problems

Key Messages

Now the key messages are something you can skip, but a great option for this section could be to include (eventually) the story blurb, log line, one-sentence character lines. This is basically the components of a query letter. Really amp yourself here and try to pull out the very best in what you’re doing. Sell your characters and your story to yourself.


This section can easily get out of hand, and I highly recommend that you create Research Appendices (at the end of the Strategic Plan), and keep only the more high-level aspirational content in this section, a basic outline of the research that you’ve done and what is most exciting to you. This is to keep the document flowing, organized and compact, which will make it more useful to you.

Whatever you write in this research section, ensure that you are really digging deep about what makes each part unique and special. A few sentences to a paragraph about each of the following sections:

  • Your audience and what you know about them
  • The market and what you know about it
  • Characters: list each main character and sell us on them. Really bring out what makes them unique and special. You’re trying to distill their essence
  • Setting: Give us the most interesting information about your setting. What are its real selling features?
  • Plot: you could have a high-level summary here
  • Agents/editors
  • Anything else that is particular to your novel or creative project. Examples


As I mentioned, I do encourage you to create appendices at the end of this strategic plan, and the template will provide space for them. You can have an appendix for each character, for each setting, for your market research, agents, etc. I think it’s great to capture everything in one document, so that way you always know exactly where to go to find or record information.


To make your document as useful as possible, I do recommend capturing the hyperlinks to your online research sources. Scrivener has an awesome feature where you can capture an entire web page (it creates a permanent visual copy of the web page) so that way if the website or page is removed, you still have a copy.


Here is where we get into the real meat and potatoes of the Strategic Plan. This is what clients pay the big bucks for–they want to know what they should DO. Unfortunately, you don’t have someone explaining what to do, but at least you have the methods contained here to make a plan.

Resource Audit

This is a personal fave. This is your opportunity to look at all aspects of your life and the project, and really try to think about anything that could help you accomplish your goals. This could be facets of your personality, such as your tenacity, or it might be to contacts you might have, such as a writing group, or skills, such as surfing, boxing or a degree in biology, or whatnot. This is your opportunity to think about what makes YOU and YOUR life the right person to right this story. This is your opportunity to really shine a loving light into every area of your life.


A SWOT is a technique to outline the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This is not meant to be an emotional experience. This is meant to be a very detached, objective view of the situation. The main thing to keep in mind while doing a SWOT is your goal. Your vision. Your mission.

The strengths will come mainly from your resource audit, but just streamline them.

Weaknesses are just what they sound like, but for every weakness that you come up with, try to find a correlating strength. For example, a weakness is that you have poor grammar skills, which is an issue that a lot of writers struggle with. What is a strength you DO have that counteracts poor grammar? For example, you might have money for an editor. Or you have a tenacity to learn. Or you have Grammarly! The point here is that as writers, as creatives, we often get stuck in what’s not working, our weaknesses, and we don’t want this SWOT activity to be depressing, so YES, you should be honest and list your weaknesses, but also focus on strengths that counteract weakness.

Opportunities and Threats are outwardly focused, rather than inwardly. Think about the market, the audience, the climate, the state of affairs in the industry, etc. Start with listing as many opportunities as you can. These can be things like a writing group or the topic of your novel is timely, or you happen to know an agent.

Once you’re done that, start listing your threats. These are things that are barriers to your success. A common ‘threat’ for traditional publishing is the difficulties in finding an agent. They really are difficult to acquire. So what is an opportunity that counteracts that threat? It could be attending conferences so you can pitch your story, or it could be self-publishing, or… on and on. List at least one opportunity to counteract each threat.

Key Objectives

Here you want to create a tailored list of 3-6 (or so) objectives. These are specific, measurable (you know when you’re done) goals that will help you achieve your larger overall goal. Think about the SWOT and what you uncovered. Examples of Key Objectives:

  • Finish a rough draft (or second)
  • Polish your manuscript
  • Rewrite your manuscript
  • Find an agent
  • Get your MS published
  • Promote your novel

Strategies & Tactics

Strategies are like what they sound–they are boots on the ground ways of making it to your goal. So for example, networking is a strategy for finding an agent. A strategy for finishing a rough draft might be to take a month off work, or perhaps join Nanowrimo. A strategy for polishing your MS might be to enlist your friends and family or hire an editor. A strategy for promoting your creative project might be to start using social media or use online advertising.

Tactics are more pin-pointed. Once you’ve decided to start using social media to promote your work, you should then make some tactical decisions about what that’s going to look like. What social media sites exactly will you sign up for? How will you build a following on them? What tactics will you use to make people want to follow you on Booktok?

The idea is to get creative, be open-minded. Think outside of the box. This is the perfect topic to ask about in a writing group. You tell people your key objective, and then ask them what type of strategies they can recommend to achieve that goal.

For each objective, it would be great if you can come up with a few strategies. Does this mean you need to DO all of those strategies? No, but you should keep them in mind. And review what you’re doing. Sometimes we’re just spinning our wheels, doing things that won’t actually help us reach our goals.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any strategies or tactics for one of your key objectives. This is a living document. It’s meant to be a place to capture what you learn along the way. Say you go to a conference and you learn about social media and you realize THIS is what you want to do–this social media site is the one you want to use. Then you can come back to this document and capture that information here.

You could also make an appendix for this area of the Strategic Plan as well, just so that your document remains compact and easy to use. You could have a social media appendix, for example. Or an agent appendix.

Action Plan & Timeline

In my experience, in a creative project, it doesn’t make too much sense to put a lot of time or effort into creating a timeline. As creatives, we’re often doing something we haven’t done before, and as humans, we commonly underestimate how much time something is going to take. Especially if you might get discouraged, don’t bother putting a lot of detail into your timeline. I’ve included a simple one in the template that you can use.

However, if you are someone who relishes being organized, a detailed schedule or timeline can be great, and it’s a great way to see all of the activities and plans you have in one birds-eye view place. Our clients were always relieved to see our schedule, and you could sense that they were like, “Ahh… okay all this money and work paid off. We have a plan.”

Here is a free Excel timeline/schedule that you can feel free to use or adapt that we used at my work all the time.

Having offered that, I do think it’s best if the timeline you create is structured in a way that it doesn’t become obsolete when one thing falls behind. There are so many great project management timeline templates, apps and etc. out there to choose from, so find what works for you.


How do you know you’ve been successful in achieving your goals? What are some of the ways you can measure success? Obviously, the main way would be that your book is published and being read by others. That is a clear measure of success.

However, there are other measures of success. One of them might be the amount of time you spend writing each day/week, finishing a chapter, a rough draft, or second draft, hiring an editor, shopping your book to agents or editors, sharing your work with a critique group, having 5, or 10, or 100, 1000 or 1 million people read your book. These are quanitative measures of success.

There are quantitative measures of success and qualitative ones. It’s important to have both types of measurements, so that writing is not only externally driven, but internally driven as well. True happiness in life comes from our internal environment; qualitative success is where we will ultimately derive most of our meaning from writing.

Qualitative measures of success could be, for example, your story holding up to your original vision, your satisfaction with your writing-life balance, the way your creative project adds value to your life, such as making connections with other writers, feeling like a creative being, exploring your personal life’s offering to the universe—what you have to give that no one else on this planet has to give. Telling that story, whether you finish it or not, whether you publish it or not, telling that story is valuable.

This section of the Strategic Plan is about planning moments to celebrate. It’s not about being judgy with yourself. Tell that inner critic to take a flying leap! This part of your Strategic Plan is about finding opportunities to celebrate yourself and your accomplishments.


As I mentioned, you want to keep your Creative Strategic Plan useful, and so you don’t want to gum up all the works with an overflood of information. BUT, you also don’t want to have a million documents with information. That’s where appendices come in. For each area that becomes a little bogged down, just copy-paste that writing into an appendix and then keep your Plan concise, flowing and useful.

Types of appendices might include research into:

  • Setting
  • Plot problems (and solutions!)
  • Character
  • Audience
  • Market
  • Resource Audit
  • Agents
  • Technology
  • Social media

Conclusion & Resources

Okie-dokie. That’s all I’ve got on this topic. I hope that the templates that I have provided will be helpful. Here are two versions of that template, as well as the timeline in Excel.

Feel free to use these, but please don’t take my free creations and sell them as your own (this has happened to me in the past!). Good luck making your own Creative Strategic Plan!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *