You have an idea for a novel, but what do you do next? How do you begin?
Let’s Start With the Basics:
- What is your idea?
- Write it down. Seriously. Many people say they have an idea for a book and never write it down.
- What is story?
- Story is simply a character (the protagonist) who has a goal, and someone or something (the antagonist) is trying to stop that character from achieving that goal.
- Protagonist – Who is your protagonist? What makes them interesting and/or unique? Why would someone want to read about them? Your protagonist should have strengths that can get them out of tough situations, weaknesses that make them sympathetic and human, and a fatal flaw that could lead to their downfall.
- Protagonists also have wants/desires and a need that they might not realize they have until the middle or the end of the story.
- While your protagonist will have many small goals to overcome throughout your story, they should have one main goal that spans the entire book.
- Antagonist is the person or thing stopping your protagonist from achieving their goal. Your antagonist should also be unique and have strengths, weaknesses, flaws, wants, and a central goal that directly conflicts with the protagonist’s goal.
Fiction, Nonfiction, Memoir, Poetry, Screenplay?
All stories have a protagonist, antagonist, and goals. Choosing the genre is next.
Most writers tend to write within one path, one genre; however, it is not unheard of for a writer to crossover from fiction to nonfiction, or nonfiction to screenplay writing, or fiction to poetry, and so on, with all combinations in between.
That said, how do you choose your genre? First, let’s start with pure formatting elements.
- If your story is filled with facts, it would stand alone and would make a good feature article.
- If you have a journal from a specific experience and you find yourself wanting to make up important parts of the story, you would be writing fiction or short story fiction.
- If you want to interject your personal observations regarding a place or issue, then you are writing creative nonfiction. Here you are adding your unique reflections of the situation and/or responding to or elevating a cultural event.
- If you have a personal story to tell about yourself, someone else who is close to you, or an organization or local community, you would be writing a memoir.
- If you want to write about another individual, you could write a biography.
- If you find yourself wanting to reflect upon nature applying an economical use of words, then express yourself via poetry.
- Whatever genre you choose, you can also then take those essays/material and compose an anthology.
All these options are open to you. Sometimes you start a project as a novel, switch to adapting that project as a memoir, and then finally decide to return to a novel format. This is not uncommon. Many memoirists fictionalize their stories to protect their families/real people involved in their stories. Fictionalizing memoirs gives you more freedom. This is a decision each writer must make, especially with memoir writing.
Where to Begin
Generally, stories open with trouble in the protagonist’s world. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s dog Toto is in danger of being destroyed. The trouble you put your character in is the hook that will get the reader to buy and read your book.
This causes your protagonist to act. Their action could be a physical action or a decision they make or decide not to make. Once they’ve acted, their journey beings.
Describe the setting as the characters interact with it. Keep in mind that descriptive passages should not be long and overly wordy and should relate to what is happening in the story.
A Bit About Dialogue
Good dialogue is a power struggle between characters. It illustrates the personality of the characters and their goals, needs, and desires. Great dialogue includes subtext. When writing dialogue, avoid dumping information you think the reader needs to know. Think instead of the conflict between your characters.
Plotting, Pantsing, Plantsing
Plotting – involves diagramming your story arc, your character arcs, your chapters, and perhaps even your scenes. This doesn’t mean that whatever you’ve plotted can’t be changed; you certainly can be flexible. The main benefit of this method is that it saves time.
Pantsing – when you write the story as it comes to you, you’re writing it from the seat of your pants. Some people also call it “discovery writing.” It’s an organic process full of surprises. The problem with pantsing is it takes longer to write the story.
Plantsing – involves both plotting and pantsing. Kristin started as a pantser and was frustrated when it took her four to six years to write a book. She then came across Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel and has used it successfully for her new series—writing four books in six years.
The 90-Day Novel incorporates pantsing through brain-storming activities and prompts. It includes a loose three-act structure to help form those brain-storming sessions. It’s the perfect combination of plotting and pantsing.
There’s no right or wrong way to write. Choose the method that works best for you and that inspires you to write. If something isn’t working, then try the other method or use some combination of both.
Procrastination – Also Known as “Life Gets in the Way.”
Make writing a priority:
- Set goals to get that first draft done. Examples: write for an hour a day or a thousand words a day, finish a chapter a month, or write your first draft in a year.
- Always finish a first draft, yes. DO NOT fall into the trap of “First Act Energy,” as it is the worst action you can take, no matter what genre/format you are writing. Resist the urge to write your first act/first 25-50 pages and before continuing onward with the rest of your story, go back and revise those pages. Do. Not. Do. This. This is a waste of time as you do not even know what to revise until you have finished your completed first draft. A good writing mentor will not allow you to revise your pages as you write forward.
- Have rituals – write the same time every day, make a pot of coffee before you write, or play inspiring music. And get your “butt in your seat.” Sit at your desk with your ritual(s), and even if you do not write a substantial amount that day, that is fine. Just write what you are able to write – a word, a sentence, five pages – but have the ritual of being at your desk/computer and write. Even if you do not produce a tremendous amount of writing, you will be consistent and continue to think about your writing.
- Leave the house and go to the library or a coffee shop. Libraries don’t have dirty dishes or piles of laundry calling your name.
- Join a critique group or enlist a writing partner. Having to submit something give you a deadline.
- Join NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing in a Month (http://nanowrimo.org/)
- Submit to contests, magazines, and journals.
- Fight the urge to edit as you go—finish that first draft. Don’t worry that it’s not perfect; no one but you will see it.
Cures for Writer’s Block:
- Read, read, read
- Keep track of story ideas, conversations you’ve overheard, and unusual situations and settings.
- Do writing exercises – for example:
- Interview your protagonist
- Write the same scene from a different character’s point of view
- If the scene is in third person, write it in first person and vice versa.
- Remember that people in other professions generally do not share in the experience of having Writer’s Block. A plumber is called, they arrive to fix the leaking pipes. A medical professional is on call/at their shift, and they treat the needy children. A fireman gets in the truck and answers the alarm – no matter what. They do their work. Sure, they may have days when they don’t feel like working, but they still show up and do the work. Writers tend to be the only professionals that experience this thing called Writer’s Block. Next time you feel this way, keep writing. Do the work.
- For inspiration, read how-to books, take workshops and classes, and attend conferences like CWA’s Just Write! An Uncommon Conference March 25-26, 2023.
- But don’t use a cure to put off writing!
Please note: This article was originally published on the January 10, 2023 Chicago Writers Association’s blog and was written by Kristin Oakley and Laurie Scheer.