So You Want to Write a Novel (Part 1)

Tools of the trade
My favorite writing tools

I don’t want to come off sounding like a know-it-all. There’s about a billion ideas out there on how to write a novel. Most of them will pin down a single issue or try to stuff the entire process into a single pigeon hole. Talking about the process of writing a novel requires a whole wall of pigeon boxes, at least. I’m not yet published, but I feel that I have some insight into the cruel road toward publication (or for some riches and fame). I’ve written two manuscripts, and while the latest is still being editing…. I’ve written, I’ve queried, I’ve been rejected, I’ve been lifted by my beta readers, rewrote the query, shot down again, and started over from scratch. My new MS is nearly done with it’s first round of editing, which means I’ll soon be shelving it to cure, and starting on book 2 for this series. Looking upon a new project presents the perfect time to reflect on all the advice I’ve acquired over the years, and what better time to share that advice with my readers?

This will be the first of a 3 part series, which will be updated here every week on Thursday morning.

I still make adjustments to my method from time to time, but it goes something like this:

  1. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm
  2. Hook: the main story arc
  3. Characters
  4. Plot
  5. Time management
  6. Write, write, write, write, write
  7. The little things
  8. 1st Draft! Throw a party!

This week, we’ll cover 1, 2, and 3. My next WIP is currently in second step of this segment, and I’ve done a little of each of these three things in the past week. Hopefully by next Thursday, if you are just starting a new project, this post will help you on the way to starting your first draft.

Brainstorming:

This can be the best part about writing a story. It can also be the biggest pain in the butt. In my search for good brainstorming ideas, perhaps the best one was to do it constantly. Don’t worry if you are brainstorming for a future story, your present interest, or something off the wall that might never get used. Set aside some time every day, maybe 10 minutes, and start storming away about something. I plan to utilize this method by keeping a brainstorming notebook for all future stories. When it comes time to write another novel, just flip through your notes, find a compelling theme, and start outlining. Everyone brainstorms in different ways though. I know some people who got some premium whiteboard paint to paint on their walls so they could write anything down anywhere and never run out of space.

Scenes in a hat. Index cards can also be used to layout different ideas, shuffle the deck, and draw a couple cards. The other idea is to come up with ideas or idea pieces and toss them in a hat or cup, then pull a couple out and build a story out of what you see. Rinse, repeat. The idea here is to get your brain linking things together that don’t normally fit together, or arranging your ideas until you get something that makes sense to you.

On that same note, “What if’s” are great. What if the sky turned purple? What if the oceans of the world froze solid? What if the sun exploded? You get the idea. Come up with something bonkers and expand on it for a little while, say 20 minutes of free writing.

Web. Ah, the original story web. Start in the middle and work your way out. This one is really good for world building. Create your main theme in the center and off of it draw out every detail of the world you envision. How do different types of characters cope in this new world you’ve created? What problems do they face?

I came up with a new idea that seems to be working well and I’m using it for book 2. I know my backdrop very well. I’ve always been good with backdrops, but finding a story to put in the setting is difficult for me. For the new story idea, I made a list of random people who exist in the world I’ve created on the left side of a page in my notebook. On the right I put what they want, once the shared problem between them is discovered. At first I did this to find the most compelling main character, but then realized I could use all of them in the novel. Characters are listed in generalizations, such as wife and mother, farmer, coffee shop owner, orphan, incarcerated prisoner, antique dealer, legal aid, etc. Each has their own unique situation and their own unique set of problems.

If these don’t work for you, there’s a bazillion brainstorming techniques out there. Here’s a good article on the matter.

Hook:

This, to me, is probably the most important step toward writing a novel. A lesson I learned hard after finishing my previous unpublished work. What started out as a sketch for a graphic novel turned into a long story about a young Norse child falling into the fray with pirates in the 8th century North Sea. I never planned out a major arc for the whole story, so I pretty much just stopped at what seemed like a good spot to lead into the following novel (which was scrapped for the same problem).

The broken story arc problem was solved in my most recent work. I decided, “Why not just start with a Query Letter? I’ll need to write one anyways.” The idea stuck, and quickly turned into “reduce this to one sentence.” That’s right, your story should be able to shave down to a single sentence. Some authors would say less than 15 words! I don’t know about that 15 word part, but plopping your storyline into a single sentence before writing the novel gives you focus. And will make outlining and writing the much easier.

Once you have a hook, you can refer back to it as you lay out your outline, while writing the novel, and at the top of your query letter. It also might end up on the inside dust cover or the back of your finished paperback. It’s such an important thing and most people wait until the story is finished to make it. I say write it now. It’s like a compass for writing your story, and you won’t lose sight of the major conflict or what your character really wants.

This magical line is NOT a short piece of flash fiction. You don’t need your whole ending and all the side plots. Strip out all the junk and what’s left should be the main character and the main conflict. Forget the subplots. Who is your main character? What does he/she want? What do they need to do? If these questions look familiar, it’s because this is the stuff that people want to know when they ask what your book is about. Those people include agents and publishing houses, as well as readers. Why not figure this out first?

My reasoning for this: spending time looking at query letters to trying to make them better. A LOT of writers finish their novel and have no idea what the main story is even about. Think about Star Wars. If someone asks you what that movie is about, you may fuddle with words, blather about light sabers and blasters, talk about the death star, you could rattle on for twenty minutes that should be spent writing. In one sentence, this would be my attempt: “A moisture farmer from a desert world is the only person who can stop the most deadly weapon in the galaxy, if he can learn to trust his instincts.” Not perfect, and kind of heavy at 29 words, but doesn’t that sum it up nicely? No Jedi talk, no Death Star, it doesn’t even mention Vader, but it sounds gripping. There’s one more thing in that sentence that is of prime importance, the climax of every story is right before the end. If I said he was going to rescue a princess, well, that covers about twenty minutes of the movie. How can that be the main conflict? Notice how the movie draws to a fast close after the Death Star blows up? That’s the main conflict.

In short, you know what the main conflict is because it’s resolved about 5 seconds before the story is over. The rest of the last chapter is just fluff. While writing your first draft, knowing your main conflict will help you know when your novel is finished. That’s just a bonus. You need to know what your protagonist wants, and in the end, (s)he will either succeed in getting it or fail (comedy or tragedy).

Characters:

This is becoming my favorite part of writing a novel. I have the main story line in my head, but I’m not sure about who is going to be involved with what. Before I even open up the word processor I bust out my fountain pen and go to work, inventing characters and writing a short chapter about each one. Their everyday life. What they do. How they talk. What drives them. Everyone knows that your MC needs something and the main conflict is usually in the way of her/him getting it, but what about the other characters? Are they just hollow shells? They will look like shells if you don’t make them real.

Take some time to meet the main cast of your story. Walk into their lives and give every one of them a purpose and an agenda. They all have something they want, this is what makes characters seem real. Even the janitor that brushes past while your MC studies endlessly into the night in the engineering building has a story, and that should show. Even if we never learn the janitor’s story, it should be clear that he/she is a real person and has hopes/dreams/desires/emotions. Hollow eggshell characters are worthless. Spend some time thinking about how every person who enters your story feels. Easier said than done, I know. That’s why I’m planning a separate characters edit for my WIP which I will evaluate each person in the story, no matter how small their role, and make sure that their behavior matches who they are.

Another idea for this, is to write a chapter one for each character. None of this will ever go into the novel, but it will make them real to you so you can make them real to your readers, and it’s all about the readers. You should be able to picture every major character in your mind clearly. Daydream about talking to them or working with them. Write them a letter. Take them out to dinner, and try to avoid the awkward stares as you sit there at a table by yourself with a meal and a drink in front of the empty chair across from you. 🙂 Hey, who knows, maybe an attractive someone will show up and ask what happened to you date. 😀

There’s another point about characters that I was going to save for the “Write” section, but I have some space here. The age old question of “write an outline, or let the characters do what they do?” While you are writing, your characters become real, and you can picture them responding to the little plot twists. I would say, throw the question out the window. You already have a story arc, right? How detailed you wish to get with your outline is up to you, but do please give your characters some room to breathe. They need to make their own decisions and their choices sometimes won’t fit perfectly into how you thought the story would go. Cherish that. Let them pursue their own agendas, use it to deepen the plot, and if they get to far out of control, well, kill ’em. 😛

That’s it for today

I hope that helps you get started on your next project. Doing some of the leg-work on your story before you sit down to hammer out a first draft can make the writing process monumentally easier.

Any questions? Comments? Complaints? Leave me a comment. I love comments! If I can’t find an answer for you I’ll look for a direction to point you. You can also follow me on twitter for daily updates on what’s going on with the blog and my stories.

I hope to see you next week with more writing tips and Part 2 of “So You Want to Write a Novel”! I’ll be talking about plot outlining, time management, and the actual writing process.


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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

3 thoughts

  1. Some nice pointers in here, Martin. It’s always interesting to see how other writers go about the whole process, especially if you can steal a little tip here and there to fit into your own way of working 😉

    I liked your advice on making *every* character real even if they only appear briefly. Often it’s the little things like this that make a good story into a great story! Also, your point on giving your characters room to breathe. That’s so important. A shackled character can never grow to their full potential.

    1. Thanks for the response. I fault myself for sometimes not living up to the idea of making every character real, but I’m going to strive harder in the future. One thing this blog is doing for my own writing is forcing me to focus on some of the faults in my own writing, too. In some sense I’ll be coming back to these posts in the future to keep myself in the right direction with my writing and constantly improving.

      1. It’s all a learning curve and with practice things will come easier. At least that’s what I keep telling myself!

        That’s another one of the reasons I created my blog, to have a kind of diary for future projects to look back on, and hopefully to stop me making the same mistake twice.

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