From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Monday, September 17

Start Me Up: Planning and Writing a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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:

Step One 

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)

Step Two 

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)

Step Three 

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)

Step Four 

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)

Step Five 

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)

Step Six 

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.

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.
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.

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? 

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is my problem! Too many conflicts and I don't know which is most important...seems like the biggest gets solved early on. Back to revisions - thanks for this!

  2. Hello! Kristin Nelson posted your query letter on her blog, and it piqued my curiosity so much that I decided to hunt down your blog! :) And also wait anxiously for the release of your book this fall!

    I didn't see an email address anywhere, but I am wondering if I can feature you on my blog (interview, guest post) when it is closer to your release date?

    Thank you! And congratulations on being published :D


    P.S. I wish they had kept the original title - it certainly would have caught my eye!

  3. Hi Janice! So how did you come up with your book's conflict? I'm just wondering how a book that sounds so layered and fresh was born (can't wait for the release!).

  4. Hello everyone, thanks for stopping by! (And for all the nice comments). Anon, that's a great topic for a post, so I'll talk about that tomorrow! (which is probably today now)

  5. Where have you been my whole life? I've always been a writer, in my heart at least. I've always known that I have books in me, but fell into that trap of, only a few ever really make it, and can I really make a living this way, early on and it's made me waste about 16 years of my life not writing. Well now I'm ready and yours is the first advice that actually got me off my non-writing butt and back on the keyboard, beginning with this comment. Thanks in advance for being there with me through this process. I can not believe you don't have thousands of followers.

  6. Aw, thanks! I'm glad I was able to get those fingers to the keys. Good luck on your writing.

  7. I'm giving my manuscript one final pass before sending it to my editor. I've had readers request another Blackthorne, Inc. book, so my planning right now is "whose book will it be?"

    At a recent Mystery Writers University seminar, Jess Lourey gave us her 7 steps to planning a novel. I found them intriguing, although I'm not sure I could follow all of them. They're very much like yours.

    (If anyone's interested, the recap I did of her session is here:

  8. Thanks Janice! I'm actually working on a couple loglines and this is great to help me pare down to the essentials. :)

  9. Thanks for breaking down something as complex as novel planning into a bite sized chunk. This goes in my favorites.

  10. I'm a pantser who writes anything from 5 pages to 50 before determining whether I have an actual plot. I think I need to use this formula...Thank you!!

  11. Terry, good luck on the last pass and the new book :) Nice that you have a jumping off point for it. Thanks for the link. Interesting steps and not too far from what I do. The setting one I'd probably skip, though I do a lot of world building, so maybe I just do it in a different way.

    Amelia, oh good! Hope you nail it.

    Eva, most welcome. Bite sizes have always made it easier for me to do anything. I can't be the only one!

    Rachel6, you're welcome. 50 pages? Wow. I know some great pantser writers, but I don't know how you guys do it. :)

  12. Hi Janice:
    Every one of your posts are laid out in such a way that it's easy to understand and follow. Now to implement them. :)

  13. Tracy, thanks so much. :) Sometimes they're my own templates with extra notes on them to flesh them into a post. Maybe that's why? I DO actually use them.

  14. Hi! Im new to your site and just have to say I'm in love with it! Also was wanting to know if it is easier to dictate a novel instead of actually typing or writing one out? Has anyone had any success with dictating? I have just bout the new dragon program and I am wanting to use it for that purpose. Thanks in advance:-)!

  15. Misty, welcome to the blog! Good to have you :) I've never dictated a novel before, but I have heard folks who do it and love it. That's a good topic for a post though. I'll have to see if I can find anyone who's doing this.

  16. Thanks for the welcome,and I look forward to that topic. Typing is not a strong suit for me so I was hoping dictating would be a better route for me.

  17. Misty, it's probably will. Do they have anything where it types out what you say? Kinda like the iphones and Suri? Speech to text, that's it! Something like that might be useful.

  18. Yes I just bought the program Dragon that types speech to text.I'm looking forward to using it for my novel writing as soon as Im done with the tutorials. You have to train the program to your voice recognition and dialect. Its very easy and simple to use.

  19. Could you keep me posted on the topic if you decide to do a blog on it? Thanks :-)

  20. Misty, will do. I may have just found someone to do a post, and they use Dragon as well.

  21. Oh my goodness...I have been trying to write my first draft for months and in one day, after reading several of your posts, my idea is no longer just a 'premise novel'! Thank you so very much.

  22. Nicole, awesome! I'm so happy for you and glad I was able to help :) Good luck!

  23. God Bless you, Janice Hardy. This post may be a couple of years old, but it's new to me and saved my novel and the day. Thank you!

    1. Most welcome! Glad you found it useful ;)

  24. I wanted to thank you. I had a BEAUTIFUL world that was calling my name, characters were only whispering. They wouldn't tell me about themselves or their concerns. Until this. Thank you so much.

    1. Most welcome! I'm glad it helped you find your story :)