Did you just have an awesome idea for a book? Did it pop in your head like a light bulb falling off an Epiphany Train and shattering glass at your feet? Do you have a character begging to be on paper? Do you have a half-formed concept niggling at your brain? Good! That means you’re a writer, and the urge to write a story is slowly taking over your brain (bad news: there’s no cure; good news: it’s not fatal)
Fear not, plagued writer, for the answer is nigh! If you’re ready to take that first step toward writing a novel, there are some steps you can take to guide you down that treacherous, thrilling path.
If you’ve ever written something before, you know that developing an idea is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand: Yay, awesome writerly things are happening in my brain, and I have this awesome idea/plan! On the other hand: Now I have to make decisions that will ultimately change the way the story will end/exist! Scary!
As much fun as it is to make decisions about where a book is going, how a character develops, and who dies, it is also infinitely frustrating when a decision eludes you.
I know what that feels like. It’s happening to me right now. About a day ago, I had an idea for a book. And since then, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, emerging with half-formed character sketches, and about twenty pages of varying information. It might seem a bit scattered, but here are the methods I used and found helpful.
Here’s what I’ve done to grow that Book Idea from a niggling, nagging thought to more of a fleshed out plan:
Write down your questions. I know that sounds maybe a bit counter-intuitive. You’re thinking, “I want answers, not more questions!” Here’s the reasoning behind this: Questions will guide you toward the heart of what’s lacking. Half of the battle of planning a book is navigating the area between what you KNOW and what you DON’T KNOW. Figuring out what you don’t know will help you identify what areas of planning require more attention. AND! If you write down all of your questions, you will inevitably find a question that you can answer. And once you start answering questions, it will lead you to more answers for other questions. It’s like a web of answers!
Draw a map. If you’re a visual person like me, then art is a good way to
distract inspire you. If your story relies on you creating a new world (fantasy and sci-fi mostly), or sketching out a city (if your character will be travelling about), then a map is a great way to get into the world. Once you start drawing things out, the map will lead you to ideas and decisions. Is the city coastal, does it have a high population, where would people congregate, what places do people avoid? Are there mountains, trade routes, oceans, canyons? Putting a physical location in play allows you to inhabit, experience, and invent it.
Create a book cover. This one is also visual, and maybe a little less important. For me, I like to visualize the title juxtaposed with something essential to the story. It gives me a sense of focus. What creating a cover is really about though, is visualizing your story as an actual book. Creating a cover makes it real, and makes it feel like a book. Even if you are still in the formative moments of creating the book, having a cover makes the end-goal seem a bit more realistic.
Sketch out your characters. This one, despite the name, has nothing to do with art (unless you’re a good artist and also feel like drawing your characters). A character sketch is a description of your character’s attritbutes, both physical and mental. Is your character tall, short, stubby, flimsy? Is your character a good person, witty, annoying, clever, strong, stubborn? What does your character want most in the world? What is your character terrified of? Will your character fall in love, defeat a villain, attain a goal? Answering these questions and fleshing out a character is a good way to push the story along. Once you know what your characters are like, you’ll know how they’ll react once you throw plot elements at them.
Write down quotes. Sometimes a clever one-liner will pop in your head. Or an epic farewell speech, or a rousing battle cry, or a daring challenge. You might know who will say them, or you might have no idea. You might not even know when the line will happen, but—gosh darnit—you know it’ll happen. Write these down! Firstly, you don’t want to forget them by the time they fit into your story. Secondly, even if you don’t use them, it’ll be a way to remind yourself of ideas that you’ve had.
Make a plot flow chart. A lot of times, I’ll be stuck at a crossroads. I won’t know which way I want my story to go. I know that when I was writing The Amateur Witch, I struggled with whether or not the two kingdoms would actually go to battle or not. A couple months must have gone by while I avoided writing because I didn’t know how to answer that question. So what I finally did was make a plot flow chart. I labelled two sides: “Go to war” “Don’t go to war”. Then I tracked each decision as far as I could. I tracked the resulting events for both decisions until I met a plot element that I didn’t like, or until something interesting happened that I suddenly couldn’t wait to write. For my current project, my flow chart only extends through probably the first fifth of the story. I have finally hit a point where I realized there was an important question for me to answer before I could continue.
Talk it out. Find someone who is either enthusiastic to hear your ideas, or who will at least tolerate listening to you (for me, that tolerating soul comes in the form of siblings and a couple friends). Just BE CAREFUL. Sometimes people can be too eager to give you ideas or change your plans. This is all right if you want the active input of others, but the ideas in your head might not always translate perfectly, and their input could end up being harmful. So try to find someone who will work with you, not against you.