Thursday, September 11, 2014

3 Steps Before Starting the Novel

Back in June, I began to talk about where the idea for a novel comes from and how understanding your main character helps develop plot. 

I stand by this. 

Your novel starts with a compelling protagonist. The character doesn't need to be entirely sympathetic, but somebody who we can see humanity in, someone we can feel. And they must have a goal and a desire. (Note that I used and there—not or—I'll get there, eventually.)

I am also a proponent for writing several scenes until you develop an understanding for your character. This makes writing sound magical, though.

Writing is not magic. 
In a way it is, but I still fight this notion. In my MFA program, I felt like I was surrounded by people who were talking about channeling their characters. And there I was, feeling like my work was a puzzle and I was trying to put all the pieces together to find out what the big picture was. 

It turned out that I wasn't the only one to feel this way; it's just that it wasn't talked about. Maybe it was out of style, but I think that when you're trying to get through the first draft of a novel, the puzzle idea helps a bit. It does for me.

So after getting to know my protagonist, Arlie, for many scenes and trying to figure out the different spaces she occupied (home, school, the swap meet), the more difficult and less “dream-like” work came.

Here are the first three pre-writing steps I took after writing several scenes to get to know her a bit. 

Get ready. They aren't easy.

Pre-Writing Step 1

I took some time to ask myself and write down these questions:

What do I want my readers to feel while they read my novel?
What do I want my readers to feel when they reach the end?
For me, novels are_________________.

This gives me an idea of what the completed puzzle is supposed to look like. 

It allows me to set a tone and consider the whole project. It allows me to think about what I expect a novel to do and not depend on some outside plot line. Rather, I take my idea of what story is and tell it in my own way.

It is also helpful to keep and refer to at points in writing when I feel stuck or I feel that I am going astray. I can look back and find a little replenishment for my original thoughts in a simplified formand remind myself what the completed puzzle is intended to be.

    Pre-Writing Step 2

    Next, I got down and dirty with my protagonist. I asked tons of questions of her and, again, I wrote them down and saved them.

I asked:
What about Arlie captures me?
Why do I care about Arlie?
What is her want? (In an abstract sense)
What is her goal? (What she wants in a concrete sense)
In her mind, how does her goal fulfill her want?
What does she desire? (An unnamed yearning that she is barely aware she possesses)
How does the desire influence her actions and decisions?
What obstacles are in her way to keep her from achieving her goal?
Who confronts her to oppose her ability to reach her goal?
Why does that person confront her?
The climax will be breathtaking or mind-boggling (or whatever) when ________________.
What will Arlie understand in the end? How will she change?

Note that I ask why I care about the protagonist and what about her captures me. It's important. The first draft should not bother with your audience. If you are worried about marketing before you even get through your first draft, you've deadened your novel. Write for yourself. Engage you.

Pre-Writing Step 3

After all that, write a one-paragraph storyline for the protagonist.

Result? You've now identified what the whole puzzle is supposed to be and the main puzzle pieces for your novel.

In the meantime, get writing!


  1. This is a great post! I completely agree with the "puzzle" notion. While there is an element of channeling - well, I wouldn't really call it that, but I'll just go with it for now - when I write, I also have to step back and see the bigger picture, fit pieces together and keep them separate when need be, etc. The magic happens, and then the technical work has to happen - and I suppose there needs to be some movement back and forth between the two.
    Of course, I'm speaking theoretically. I haven't actually done it yet. I've just been doing the scenes - but what you described is what I imagine myself doing as soon as I can. Just like schoolwork... only fun.. :)

    1. Thanks for your response, Jennifer--I'm always happy to hear that I make some sort of sense to someone... phew! Maybe you'll be embarking on something soon!

  2. I've self-published (the last about six years ago) and I currently have manuscripts (large and small) in several slush piles. My process is also a combination of "puzzling" and "channeling". However, I do little to no pre-manuscript writing but ask the questions you've outlined as I go. Sometimes this results in unfinished manuscripts. But I'm of the believe that no writing is wasted.
    Thank you for this interesting article, Robin.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leanne. It always seems like a continued process of figuring things out. You write one novel one way and then it doesn't work for the next! I think it's great to hear from others about how they get through.