Starting Your Novel: Prep for Success

You’ve decided you want to write a novel.

You probably have a great idea. A scene that’s played in your head during your commute, a question that bugs you, a character whose voice echoes in your head in the middle of the night.

You find some quiet time one Sunday afternoon or set the alarm for a 5 am wake up call. You brew your coffee or steep your tea. Maybe don a cardigan or light a candle.

You boot up the computer and start writing.

One of two things will probably happen here:

  1. You get stuck. The idea is just an idea. Now what?
  2. The words start flowing and you write and write and follow them until suddenly a character enters from stage left and uh-oh. She might be your actual protagonist (ask me how I know this?) or she kills someone turning your romance into a thriller or you follow her down a dark alley that pulls your story off course and you aren’t sure how to return to the main plot.

There is an easy way to avoid this: Planning.

I hear you pantsers panicking. Deep breaths. A little planning is designed to set your story up for success without stifling your creative freedom. How?

Let’s use a metaphor (my favorite)!

What if I knocked on your door and said: “You have 30 minutes to create something, go!” Ack! I don’t know about you, but I just froze. Create what? Out of what? To do what? And why?

Now, what if I knocked on your door, handed you a cardboard box and said: “You have 30 minutes to create something out of this box, go!” Okay. Now I may still be panicking (because I do not love a ticking clock and unclear expectations), but I may be inspired looking at that box. Maybe I make a race car or flatten it out as a canvas to paint a landscape on or I cut it into long strips and weave a mat or I write a poem about confinement on the inside and a poem about freedom on the exterior or…

We tend to encourage people to “think outside the box,” but I find there is freedom in constraint. My creativity pushes against those boundaries in order to find a way around it. Just like a deadline makes me more productive, a plan can spur my ideas as I bump up against its barriers, like a bumper car, and I can change direction if needed.

Before you start your novel, there are a few key questions you need to know the answers to:

  • Who is your protagonist? You need to know who this person is you plan on spending 80,000+ words with. How do they look at the world? How do they respond to conflict? What scares them? What makes them happy? Who do they love/hate?
  • What do they want? The most important question to know about your protagonist is what do they want? What is their story goal? Something happens in the inciting incident that kicks off your protagonist’s journey and that journey is typically in search of something physical: a new job, the girl/the guy, the solution to a murder; and/or emotional: money, revenge, love, respect. This want may change throughout the story as the character grows, but be clear as you start about what they want and will do anything to get.
  • What do they need? Your protagonist wants something, but chances are they need something else to grow. What ultimate lesson will your protagonist need to learn? Perhaps they need to learn to trust others or accept love or give up a relationship or use their voice. Gaining what they need is more important to the story than whether they get what they want or not.
  • What or who stands in their way? What are the obstacles preventing your protagonist from getting what they want or need? Look at this in two ways: the physical thing standing in their way (the antagonist, the environment, etc) and their own emotional hang-ups preventing their growth (think Lisa Cron’s misbelief).
  • What is at stake if they don’t get what they want? What is driving your protagonist to keep going after the thing they want? What propels them to keep choosing to move in that direction despite all the obstacles standing in their way? The protagonist stands to lose something and it needs to be big enough TO THEM to scare them into perpetual action to get it…until they do, or they don’t.

These are the bare minimum of things to know about your story before you begin. Be clear and intentional about them so that they create the third rail of your story. These questions are the foundation of your story and a strong foundation will give you the freedom to decorate the rooms however you want. The answers to these questions are your box. A box that you can turn into anything you can dream of.

As an Author Accelerator certified book coach, I use the Blueprint for a Book tool to delve deep into several additional questions with writers to help them clarify their story before writing and/or revising. The Blueprint is designed to help you write forward efficiently and intentionally, not stymie your creativity. If anything, the exercises within the Blueprint challenge your creativity in order to make your story stronger.

If you’d like to learn more about working with me on a Blueprint for your story, whether you are starting with a new idea or want to use this tool to structure your revision plan (I use it for this purpose and it has changed my revision process), set up a free discovery call with me and let’s chat about your project.

Featured photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Published by Monica Cox

Monica is a writer and book coach who helps writers get unstuck so they can reach their writing goals.

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