Okay, so you’re ready to start your novel …
I started one on January 2nd, with the goal of writing around 5,000 words a week and having the first draft finished by spring. But I’ve been planning that start for weeks. Let’s take a look at planning that might – or might not – work for you.
Which comes first, character or the plot? Well, you can’t go far without figuring that out, but the answer is a matter of opinion. I start with a plot idea:
“What would happen if a photographer from California arrived in rural Indiana predicting an oncoming storm, only to lock horns with a cop who hates photographers – and Californians?”
That one sentence began a yearlong project that eventually turned into my first published novel, Storm Chaser. For the sequel, I started out with another basic question:
“What if the photographer’s infamous ne’er-do-well brother heard about his sister’s new relationship and determined to be her wedding planner as a way of making up with her, despite having absolutely no experience in wedding planning?”
(Oh, come on – Storm Chaser is a romantic comedy: Surely it’s not a spoiler to say the story ended with a new relationship?)
In the end, plot based stories often begin with “What if?” followed by “What then?”
Character based stories, on the other hand, often begin – wait for it – with a strong character:
“Fran Mendoza-Vargas is a no-nonsense cop who worked her way past sexism and racism to become a young Indiana State Police detective. A third generation Mexican-American, she’s become popular around town for her cheeriness and optimism, but has sacrificed her personal life in favor of her job.”
Okay, we have the basics of our character. What then? Maybe the next step will be to ask, “What would happen if the straitlaced Fran encountered legendary bad boy Ian Grant, who seems determined to screw up the life of her new friend, the photographer?”
There, in two sentences, you have the base of my entire Storm Chaser sequel, despite the fact that I then fill it out with a three page long (single spaced) outline.
Oh, yeah … the outline.
To outline or not to outline? There’s a question that could cause fist fights at writer’s conferences. “Pantsers” are loud and clear: Outlines constrict them. These writers simple start out, and see where the path leads them.
I tried that approach. If you want proof, I give you an entire box full of half-completed manuscripts.
However, for some people it does work, and more power to them. If you decide to outline, how should you do it?
Any way you want. I don’t have roman numerals, capital letters, and so on. I just jot down the events of the story in order, sometimes throwing in specific scenes and even quotes, sometimes leaving it very spare and basic. You don’t have to use some specific format; this isn’t going to be turned in to your English teacher – it’s just for you. If a page of scribbling works, fine. If you like a detailed, numbered, scene by scene breakdown, that’s fine too.
It’s just a guideline, and my stories frequently stray from it as the characters come alive and new ideas pop up. (Where the heck did that horse come from, anyway? No idea.) But even if I decide to choose a different path entirely, the finish line is there to guide me on my way.
Speaking of characters coming alive, I like to fully create my characters before I start on the outline, in case they grab me by the short hairs and tell me they’re not going the direction I planned. Some writers say they have complete control over their characters at all time; but if I do my job right they come alive for me, and sometimes they’ll tell me they just wouldn’t do what was in my original plan. Thus the fight at the end of chapter one, which surprised me as much as them.
What do I know about my characters before I start? Their looks, all their family and friend relationships, their job, past jobs, past loves, pets, desires, dreams, fears, favorite and least favorite seasons, foods, cars, books, TV shows, movies, hobbies …
Well, the list goes on and on. Do a search for “creating characters”, or get a good book on characterization, and you’ll find all sorts of good lists. By the time you’re done, you should know not only what they look like and how they’d react in any situation, but every little thing about them, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
Most of which your reader will never learn about. Research should be like an iceberg, with most of it never seen. Just the same, research the heck out of each and every person in your story unless they’re a very minor character, and sometimes even then.
So, you’ve got your plot idea, your characters, and your outline. What else? That’s the big stuff, other than stocking up on caffeinated drinks. For Storm Damage most of my characters were already created, but I went back and looked through their files. I also had to keep a timeline and a separate page of clues, because there’s a bit of a mystery involved in this one.
Since it’s set in my home area I don’t have to do a lot of location research, but be prepared to have a file (computer, print, or both) to keep any information you need to have on hand. When I set my novel Radio Red in northern lower Michigan – a six hour drive away – I collected all the information I could on the area, up to and including maps, tourist flyers, photos, and even video, as well as making several trips up there.
Research has to include your characters’ jobs too, of course. I immersed myself in studying weather for Storm Chaser, and used my experience as a part time radio personality to create a main character in Radio Red.
This is far from a complete list. There are issues of naming your characters, for instance – that could make for a whole piece by itself. But planning ahead a little, even if you don’t want a complete outline, can make the writing itself go a lot faster.
Remember, though: Your rough draft is allowed to stink. If you miss something along the way, or decide you’re writing in the wrong tense, or the story goes off the rails, just take a step back (or go for a long walk, or scream into a pillow), then come back and fix things. That’s what rough drafts are for.