Firstly, before you read this post, make sure you’ve seen my previous post, Tips For New Writers BEFORE You Begin A Project. If you’ve implemented those tips, you’ve now set the stage for your novel. You know the point of view you’ll be writing in, your approximate number of characters, your genre… In short, you know what kind of book you’ll be writing. The following steps go beyond that. They will get you to the point where you can finally sit down and put your words on paper.
Come Up With A Working Title
At this point, you likely only know, generally, what your book is about. It might seem like, at this stage, it’s a little early to come up with a title. It’s not. There are several reasons why I recommend you find one right away.
- Having a title makes your project feel more real.
- It can get you excited about a project, and can provide great motivation!
- It opens up the possibility of “writing into a title.” (If you choose a fantastic title before you begin writing, it may be easier to connect it with your story than trying to force one at the end.)
- It makes your project easier to talk about with friends and agents/publishers.
This is an especially vital step in your planning because many working titles don’t change. If you know what your story is about before you begin it, you may very well find the perfect title before you are over 10,000 words in. I should know. It happened to me with Tiny Instruments.
Write The Back Of Your Book
Okay, I don’t expect that you’ll be able to accurately summarize a book that hasn’t yet been written. Your back cover will undoubtedly change – but not only is this a great teaser to send off to anyone who asks about it. It helps you as a writer pinpoint what the essence of the novel is likely to be about. For some, this brief one or two paragraph future summary is all that is needed to begin a project. While I feel more comfortable making an outline (which I will discuss in the future steps), these paragraphs may be all that you personally need. Many might even ask the question, “Do writers even really need that much?” It’s arguable, but I believe they do. Not every writer has physically written these two paragraphs, but before they begin, they usually have this concept in their heads. If not, the book can be prone to meandering or it can become a string of loosely collected life events that result in a collection of meaningless stories. If that’s not what you want, I recommend spending five to thirty minutes on this little thought exercise. It might be more useful than you think!
List Areas Of Conflict
Conflict and characters are the two single most important parts of any story. Even with the best characters in the world, conflict is an undeniably vital ingredient of any good plot. You need to make sure you have enough.
Let’s say you want to write a story about a painter. She is extremely talented artistically, but is lost in a sea of other painters who have greater access to the connections she needs to succeed. Where is the conflict? The easy answer is the “Man vs. Man” struggle as your young heroin strives to outclass the other painters, and fights with galleries to have her work seen, and the “Man vs. Self” conflict that comes from her own desire to be the best painter that she can be, and her fears that, maybe, she is not as good of an artist as her peers have told her she is… On the surface, this seems like quite a bit of conflict, but don’t be fooled! If you sat down to write this book as is, you might be surprised at how little conflict is in her day-to-day life. Unless she is farcically battling with another painter or working behind the scenes to counteract the rampant sexism of the gallery head, her day to day living is just taken up by painting and praying! When you are deep in the planning stages, you need to make sure your story has daily conflict in some way or another. Ideally, you want it to center around the basic ideas you want to express in your novel. It would be strange if, for example, the leading problem that plagues our painter throughout the book has to do with her stalker ex-boyfriend. Irrelevant subplots can be the death of good fiction! Everything in your book should connect flawlessly with itself. By being honest with yourself about every possible point of conflict, you can make sure that you only start projects that won’t require irrelevant subplots or forced action of any sort.
Bullet Point Action List
I’ve looked over outlines that contained things like, “In this scene, Jason is feeling extremely sad because of the death of his mother. Though he is unaware of it himself, he slowly begins to distance himself from the rest of his family.” Simply put, authors who try to write out their outlines in large paragraphs of emotional description are using a lot of time on something that won’t be useful. You don’t want to be constantly referring to your outline to see where your characters are at emotionally – that just puts a wall between your character’s lives and emotions. If you over-plan emotions, not only can you actually make them harder to write, you will make them seem less natural.
Doing an outline by paragraphs also tempts the author to write out certain exciting scenes before their proper time. Sometimes this works – I think most authors occasionally write scenes out of order – but it’s best to write things with the past behind you and the future ahead of you. If you overdo the description, you might be tempted to copy and paste from your outline when that time comes. This is another reason why I recommend a bullet point action list.
A bullet point action list is a brief summary of action that allows you room to adjust your character’s emotions as you see fit. Hands down, this is the best way to do an outline. It’s simple, and it doesn’t get in the way of your future flowing prose and strong connection with your character. Here’s a look at how a brief sequence of action might translate into a scene.
- Realizing his tires have been slashed, Peter calls his co-worker Kendra for a ride.
- Kendra is in a hurry, but reluctantly agrees.
“God damn it!” Peter shouted, startling poor Ernesto, Rosa’s child, as he waited for the school bus to arrive.
He looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of the culprits. Obviously he didn’t expect one. It was probably done in the dead of night, long prior to Monday’s head-pulsing hangover. Typical. Stupid criminals had to pick today of all days to pull this shit. It was as if they knew…
“Kendra… Did I catch you at a bad time? You sound a little out of breath.”
He was talking into his phone, holding three fingers out over his eyes to block the sun.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that… Listen, I could use a ride… I know, but my car isn’t working… It just isn’t, okay? … Totally fine. I’ll wait… See you soon.”
Looking back at the bullet points, it’s clear that Peter’s personality isn’t factored into this kind of outline – nor is his emotional reaction. You don’t have to do this for every plot point in your book – even I don’t do that! I do, however, recommend doing it for your opening and any time you might get bogged down with writer’s block. Another great thing about action bullets is that you can adjust their scale to fit your needs. For instance, even though the two bullets in the example translated to a fairly decent sized paragraph, it would take quite a long time to do the bullets for an entire book on this scale! If you zoomed out a bit more, you might focus less on how Peter got together with Kendra that fateful day, and more on the lasting consequences of the visit, making it easier to do a complete outline of your book. In that case, your bullets might look more like this--
- The next day, as Kendra takes Peter to work, they get into an accident.
- Once out of the hospital, Peter finds he no longer has his job at the Laundromat.
For those who decide they do want to do a full outline of their book, this is the easiest and most complete way to do it. Remember, the scale of your points depends largely on how much planning you personally need.
With these steps, you should finally be ready to sit down and finish the single most important step in the completion of your novel: the first draft!
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