Starting a new novel is both exhilarating and frustrating. There's the excitement of the fresh idea, the promise of the characters, the snippets of cool scenes popping in and out of your head. Then there's the hard work of actually getting it all down on paper. Figuring out where to start, what to do before you actual begin writing, what process you want to use. Even with three published novels under my belt, I'm no different than any other writer when it comes to first drafts.
I just sent a shiny new manuscript off to my agent (yay!). I took a break for a few weeks to get some things on my very-long To-Do List done, relaxed a little to re-charge the creative batteries, but now it's time to jump into a new book. While the manuscript I just finished might turn into a series, I have an idea for another totally different story I really want to work on before I jump into book two (especially since there's no guarantee there will be a book two since book one hasn't sold yet).
And it's time for me to turn that idea into a novel. Processes vary wildly between writers, but here's there steps I take when starting a new book:
Decide what the story is about. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I've had a lot of great premise ideas that I couldn't tell you what the story was actually about. If I can't write it down in one sentence, I know I'm not ready to write the book. The more vague the sentence, the more work I need to do before I can write it. Unless you're a proven pantser, I highly recommend knowing what your story is about before you start it. This is typically called your logline or pitch line. Think of it like a TV Guide description. It'll capture the bare essence of the story.
Example: A boy who goes to the moon and discovers a lost tribe of Martians. Or a woman who must overcome her mother's death. It might even be a man who works at a meat packing plant.
(More on pitch lines here)
Pick the protagonist. They're the hero (or anti-hero) of the story, and the person the reader will follow throughout the course of the book. This is typically the person who has the most to gain or lose from the experience. The right protagonist is important because the entire book will be tailored to that character (or characters if it's a multiple POV). How they solve their problem will determine the plot. What they have to lose will determine the stakes.
Example: An overly curious 12-year-old boy. A grieving woman. An overworked meat packer.
(More on protagonists here)
Determine what problem the protagonist is facing. This is also where you'll pick the antagonist, be it a person or a situation. All stories need conflict, and that conflict is what will drive your story. I've learned the hard way that my one sentence summary has to include the core conflict or I'll be revising a lot. The books where the idea was more concept than plot always took me twice as many drafts to get right than the ones with a strong and clear core concept from the beginning. If you have no conflict you have no story.
Example: Martians think human boys make great snacks. The woman is contemplating suicide. The man finds a body in the sausage grinder.
(More on goals and conflicts here)
Determine what the stakes are. These are the consequences if the protagonist doesn't solve the problem you've just created for them. Stakes are pretty critical, because if it doesn't matter if the protagonist solves her problem or not, why should we read about it?
Stakes are where a lot of ideas fall flat. You can't answer why the hero would do what they do. Win or lose it doesn't matter to them. If they walk away the story doesn't change. (never a good sign) While big stakes seems like great ideas, too big actually lessons the tension. It's too hard to wrap your head around them and care. It's the personal that tugs at your heart and makes you care.
Example: A boy has to escape the Martians or he'll get eaten. A woman must pull herself together or she'll kill herself. A man must find the killer before he winds up in the grinder himself.
(More on stakes and making readers care here)
Figure out the ending. In the past, I've been vague about my endings and paid the price. (especially is this most recent novel) I knew basically what had to happen, but few of my novels ever had a solid "the protagonist needs to do X to avoid Y." Not only did that require me to rewrite the endings several times, but it made the rest of the novel harder to plot because I was never sure where I was going. I kind of enjoyed not knowing, but after four novels in four years, I realize my life will be so much easier if I spend a little more time on the endings before I start.
If I've done a good job with my conflict and stakes, odds are the ending will be obvious. All of the stakes examples above are pretty good indications of what the endings will be. It won't take much to envision what the protagonist has to do to win, even if the details are still undecided.
Example: A boy faces off against a big bad Martian and escapes off Mars. A woman hits rock bottom and finds a spark of will to live and claws her way out of her dark emotional hole. A man battles against a killer and captures him by outwitting him.
(More on endings here)
Put those three things together in one sentence. The [protagonist] faces [a problem] and they must solve it or [something bad happens]. It doesn't have to sound professional at this point, or even good, just capture the core idea of the book.
On a school field trip, a boy is captured by a lost tribe of Martians who will eat him if he doesn't escape.What makes a sentence like this helpful is that you have the two most important details to begin your first draft. How it starts, and how it ends. The inciting event and the climax. It'll be a lot easier to plan out the steps in between those two events, using as many steps as you'd like. If you're a loose outliner, you might have three of four plot points. A heavy outliner, you might have forty. regardless of your process, this hits the critical elements to start a story. Use as many or as few steps as you want to get from point A to point B.
A woman spirals deeper into depression after the death of her mother, and unless she can find something worth living for, she'll commit suicide.
After finding a body in the sausage grinder, a man must identify the killer before he becomes the next victim.
Novels can take on a life of their own, and it's not uncommon to find yourself 100 pages in and have no clue what to do next. This often happens because you have a general premise for the story (usually a situation a story can happen in), but you don't really know what it's about. The core story sentence is your story compass. It will guide you as you write and help you determine which way to go when you get stuck, because you'll always have a solid reminder of what your story is about at its heart.
And every journey is easier with a good compass to guide you.
How do you plan your novels?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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