Updated: Jan 17
In this instalment of my series on the writing process, we’re going to zone in on preparation. People often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Well, to be honest, anything can spark an idea—a line from a song on the radio, a headline in a newspaper, a clip on television. I’m not going to go on and on about this because most people who are seriously considering writing a novel have some type of loose idea floating around their head already.
So lets get to expanding on that idea, and plotting it out into an organized plan you can work with. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but I like to give myself about a month to focus on planning before I start writing the first draft. I usually have a few snippets scribbled in different places, so the first thing I do is compile all the ideas I already have for the book into one place. It could be anything—setting inspiration or character’s names… Sometimes I even have brief passages of dialogue between characters that I don’t even really know anything else about yet.
You might have a few ideas for scenes too. Take note of them. Imagine at what stage of the story they might fit. Post-it notes work great for writing scene ideas on and rearranging the order later. There are programs that are designed for this, like Scrivener, but I tend to be more of a pencil and paper kind of girl.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Pantsing a story is when you have no real outline—you just sit down and write. Plotting is self-explanatory. Neither approach is right or wrong. Personally, I like a combination of the two. I usually plot out all the main turning points of the story and let the in-between stuff come a bit more naturally. If you want to outline, there are some great online tools, but honestly, this doesn’t have to be fancy because it’ll change some as you go.
Next I spend some time shaping my main characters, exploring everything from their back-story to their personality traits, to their physical appearance. One of my favourite parts of this process is casting my characters. I always choose actors and actresses to star in my books. It just helps me visualize the characters all the way through. I also create some type of character profile—a list of questions to ask my characters. This is how you achieve getting inside of your character’s heads, what drives them, their strengths and weaknesses, quirks, etc. You can find lots of character profiles on google. I ended up compiling a bunch of different ones I saw online. Not to get too academic here, but I also like to look at various personality profiles to get a sense of my character’s “type”. You can give your characters the Myers-Briggs Test, or figure out what Hogwarts House they belong in. If neither of those are your thing, maybe you can delve into their astrological sign. Think about their goals. What are they lacking in life? What drives them to succeed? What do they need in their life to be whole? I play a lot of “what if” games at this point, which I handwrite in a scribbler to explore possibilities and to try and get ideas flowing. This is how I come up with back-story, their internal wounds, goals and motivations. You need to know what they are like at the beginning of your story vs. how they’ll be in the end, so you can establish a character arc, because most people want to read about a character who experiences some kind of internal growth over the course of the story.
Next I move on to figuring out my basic plot. I use a four act structure because I like the way it works for romance, but three act stories are equally, if not more popular. It’s important to have a good understanding of the main plot points, which are key occurrences that impact what happens next. At the core, every story has a hook, and inciting incident, some rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution. I like to outline these with as much information as I know, leaving room to fill in some of the gaps later. That what-if game comes back in to play here. Sometimes I write pages in my scribbler, just working through ideas and coming up with a sequence of events that I think will work.
There are lots of good books out there for plotting, but there are a lot of blog posts too and there is really no point in me regurgitating the same information that is already out there. This post does a pretty good job of looking at everything as a whole, from outlining to developing characters.
It’s also important to think about the story’s setting. Is it a contemporary story that takes place in present day, or a historical? Is your location going to be fictional or a real place? Is it a city, or a small town? In what season is the story taking place? What kinds of businesses are there in this town? Where do locals work? Is there anything significant about the town’s history, that plays a part in the story? Now think about the main characters. Where in the town do they live? On the outskirts in a big house, or downtown in an apartment? What does their house look like? What kinds of things are lying around on the coffee table? What kind of car do they drive? In my case, I write fictional towns, so it was important to map it out—not only for continuity over multiple books, but to better visualize everything. This is another area where I spend a ton of time researching and saving images of places that inspire me. Street scenes, buildings, rooms, colour palettes—anything that gives me a good visual.
Let yourself have a bit of fun looking for inspiration. Create a playlist of songs that inspire you, search free images on stock photo sites and make aesthetics for your characters and settings. For years I kept a secret or hidden Pinterest board for all my book inspiration. Some other things to consider: What do you envision for a cover? A title? What would be some comp books or movies, similar to your story in genre, setting, etc. Who are the side characters? How do they relate to the main characters? You don’t need to delve into them like you did the main characters, but it’s good to have some idea of their personality, what they look like, etc.
Consider what point of view feels natural to you. First person or third?
Are there any topics you’ll be writing about that are going to require research? It’s a good idea to google some stuff before you begin. You don’t need to go into full-blown research mode here, but take a bit of time to familiarize yourself if you need to.
Once I’ve thoroughly explored my characters, plot, and setting, I try to tie these elements together by writing down my overall story idea as it would appear on the back cover of a book. Then I widdle it down to a short 2-3 line pitch. Have a notebook handy for when ideas strike, because after all this preparation, they will. I use the notepad app on my phone, which is great because it also has a dictate function, so if I want to rattle off some thoughts, it types it up for me. Too easy.
Figure out a rough idea of when you want to write vs. when you’ll have time to write. For me, this was easy, because I had very few options. Through the day doesn’t work because I have a full time job. First thing in the morning would be fabulous, except my kid is up half the night and I’m too tired to set my alarm 2 hours earlier than usual. My only option is the evening, after she’s gone to bed. I treat this time like it’s my second job, because it is. I’ve had to make sacrifices. I don’t socialize after work. I don’t watch TV (unless I’m on a break – more on that later). I lot of times I can’t fit in yoga (this one I struggle with because you need some exercise. It’s good for the mind. I’m hoping to find a way to strike more of a balance with that).
Who knew there was so much work before you even start writing on page 1? In our next instalment, I talk about writing your first draft.