If you ask ten authors what the steps to writing a book are, you are very likely to get ten totally different answers. The fact is that you have to find a system that works for you. Will my system work for you? Who knows! But if there is a book inside you wanting to get out, isn’t it worth a shot?
Here is my story. Back in late 2006 I finished writing my first novel, DragonSight. That book took me years to finish, and I have yet to do anything with it. I still like it, but the truth of the matter is…it probably still needs some polishing. So maybe it isn’t truly finished even now. I wrote that book the way I assumed all good writers wrote–by the seat of their pants, with no real prior planning.
Then in 2010 I wrote my second novel’s first draft complete in one month. That’s right, 30 days. I did this during the annual NanoWrimo competition (more on that later). Of course I had done some planning before hand. And that planning is what saved my bacon and gave me a novel that I’m proud of, even today.
That first NanoWrimo draft was actually pretty good all by itself. Good enough that after only a few months (not years) of editing, tweaking, and participating in critique circles, I released it to the world. No, it isn’t a best seller. Yet. But then I have a couple of more books to go in the series too. So there is still hope.
So, what is my system, you anxiously ask? Well, it’s actually quite simple. It all starts with a plan…
First of all Pantsing or Pantsers are terms you will find if you ever decide to participate in that great and wacky event known as NanoWrimo. Basically it just means writing your story as you come up with it. No prior planning involved.
That was my method of choice with DragonSight. And that was why it took me years to finish what is probably more of a highly edited draft than a completed novel. In other words, this style of writing simply doesn’t work for me.
So what happened? Well, lots of things. For one, my characters starting showing me things about themselves that I didn’t have a clue existed, which included little snippets of their past that really belonged in the story. Things that changed the whole scope of the book, and not just once but many times.
Then I wrote myself into a corner that there was simply no good way out of. So several pages (chapters actually) had to be deleted to get me back to where I could really change things. Frustration mounted and I put the project on hold, sometimes for months at a time before I would start writing again.
I truly admire those who can write this way–and yes, they are out there. But now I know for sure, I am not a Pantser. I’m a planner. And that’s okay too.
How did I go from Pantser to Planner? While getting ready for my first NanoWrimo, I stumbled across a book that totally changed my writing life. The book? First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner.
First of all, if you asked me if I followed this book from start to finish, I would have to say no. I use what is called the grocery cart style. I take what I need from a book and then create my own plan around it. So no, I didn’t follow the full 30 day plan this author outlined.
But I did follow the first week or two, and made full use of some of her templates. Don’t underestimate the power of her templates! They are nothing short of amazing. They make you think, upfront, about what your story is really all about, and just who your characters are and where they are coming from. You know, things you should really know before you get 30,000 or so words into your novel…
One word though (well okay, actually several words): The title of this book is misleading. After following the full 30 day plan, you will not, in fact, have a first draft of your novel. What you will have is an extremely detailed outline that will enable you to write that first draft very quickly…and more easily than you could have ever imagined. If the preparation is already done, the writing part is easy–and fun!
People change as they go through life. And if you really think about it, we are giving our characters life when we write about them. That’s a good thing.
The bad thing is when we know how we want our story to go and we find out some deep dark secret about our character that makes that direction impossible. Believe it or not, it happens. So it pays to know our characters’ life stories before we start.
Case in point, my novel Finders Weepers. My main character Tazlyn was destined from the start to be a werewolf. But I wanted to get to know her first, so I did some basic research on werewolves. Wow. What I found totally changed my entire plot, very much for the better too!
You see, while I was trying to find out what made werewolves tick, I found out about a type of were-creature known as Benandanti. They were wolves, and other creatures too. But they were good. God’s wolves with the power to fight witches and evil in general. Talk about changing the scope of my book! Now if I hadn’t found out that Taz was a Benandanti until a few chapters into the book, well, I would be in for a total rewrite. Not a good thing.
If you’ve purchased the book I suggested above, then you have access to a character sketch template. If you don’t want to go that route, that’s okay. I’ll give you some pointers to help you get to know your characters.
- First of all, you need to know what they look like. What I’ve found works really well for me is to look through magazines until I find someone who looks faintly like my character. Then I snip that picture and add it to my notes notebook. At a minimum, you need to know their height, weight, hair color and style, body type, and eye color. Write it down, don’t trust to your memory.
- What do they do for a living? Are they still a student? Do they work a nine to five job? Are they a bum? And while you’re thinking about it, why? How did they get that job? How do they feel about it? Is it the job of their dreams, or just something to pay the bills. These questions matter. Answer them–before you start their story.
- What is their background? For instance, you will need to consider things like whether or not they have family, if they had a happy childhood, who their friends are and how long they’ve had them. How did they meet? You’ll also need to know their educational background. High school dropout, college graduate, Masters degree…each would mean a lot as to how and why a character might react or live a certain way.
- Internal and External conflicts. This one is a biggie. After all, no one wants to read a book without conflict…because the conflict is the meat of the story. So what is your character facing? How do they feel about it? And why do they feel that way?
Take some time with this. Really get to know your characters inside and out. If you do this right, they well pretty much take over and write the book for you. I know Taz did. I just let her run with it, and it worked.
Location is important to more than just real estate agents. It’s important to us authors, too. The place where our story happens can actually become an integral part of the story itself…if you choose it wisely.
If your story plot takes place in an area near where you live, then you are in great luck! Grab your camera and go on a shooting spree. These pictures will be invaluable to you as you write. Need to describe how the woods looks at night…where’s that picture I took of the quarter moon over the trees?
Or in my instance, I needed to give Tazlyn a bolt hole in the park. (Every werewolf needs one!) This small little cave like indention off the trail staircase fit the bill to a tee. And if anyone who has read my book visits the park…well, there it is for all to see!
Of course, sometimes we write about places far away that we’ve never even visited. That’s where research comes in. Find the pictures you need online or in books and use them to describe your scenes vibrantly and (most importantly if using a real location) accurately.
This is also true with living quarters. Know what the house your people live in looks like, inside and out. It’s important to know what style of furnishings they have and maybe even what you find on their walls. This gives the reader just one more opportunity to get close to your hero or heroine. And trust me, you want them really, really close.
And again, as with the physical descriptions of your characters, write it all down. Don’t trust to memory. Once you get a few thousand words down, it can be really hard to remember just where you put the bathroom…and if you move it, the reader just might question you. (Bathrooms don’t generally move on their own.)
Okay so now you know where your story is going to happen, and who is going to be in it. That’s a great start! But you aren’t ready to start typing up your masterpiece quite yet. You need an outline.
So how do you write an outline and just how detailed do you make it? Well, that’s really entirely up to you. Some people go chapter by chapter and make notes of what part of the story goes where. Others just write as much of the story as they can in brief form and then flesh it out.
But you are really going to have to think about your story line and plot–a lot. One way to go about this is to really study a novel you love. Chances are you will see that the people in the story don’t reach their happy ending quickly. That would make for a fairly boring book! No, they have obstacles and problems they have to overcome, and that’s why we love reading them.
If you aren’t sure where to start with your story line…here is one way to go. Think of the three act play. Act one is the beginning. You introduce your characters and your basic story line and you give the hero/heroine a goal. Maybe it’s to save the world from an alien invasion, or maybe it’s to find the perfect man in this crazy world of ours. There has to be a goal. And obstacles, lots and lots of obstacles. At the first major bump in the road, Act one ends.
Now you are in the murky middle. The hardest part to write. Plan some ups and downs, and most probably things are going to go from bad to worse. Keep this up until you are ready for the big finale.
The ending. Wrap it all up nice and neatly. Show who the the tricky culprit was, solve the murder, save the world, find the perfect mate…you get the drift.
One thing I will say is this: the more detailed your outline, the easier the first draft will be to write. (And the faster it will go.)
Want more a more detailed explanation of how to do an outline? Check out the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson.
Okay by now you’ve probably got a pretty good size stack of papers on your hands. You have character sketches, location pictures and notes, an outline, and maybe even a chapter by chapter scene list. The trick is to keep all this information within reach at all times.
I’ve come up with a pretty nifty system that only requires two simple and easy to find items. A 3-hole punch and a binder. Simply use the punch on your notes and insert them into the binder.
Want to add just a bit more motivation? Use a view binder! Go online and find an image that symbolizes the feel of your story, print it out and write in your working title at the top and your name (or pen name) at the bottom.
If you are serious about becoming a writer and have several ideas for books in that wonderful brain of yours, buy several binders. Then, as you think of things for each story it’s a simple task to write it down and put it in the manual. That way all your notes, research, and outlines are ready and waiting for you to begin writing that great, next, best-selling novel. (Okay, so we can’t promise the best selling part…)
Once you have your basic outline down, you need to take a closer look at it. Find the areas where you need answers to some questions and make a list of all the research you need to do.
For instance, for Finders, I needed to research werewolves. But that was only the beginning. My leading male character is a Native American, and I wanted him to be proud of his heritage…so that took more research. And as my character actually turned into a wolf, not a half-human/half-beast creature–well, I had to research regular wolves too.
I took the easy way out and used the location of my home town area. I live just a few miles from McCormicks Creek State Park and walking those trails I mention in the book is a pastime I greatly enjoy. If you are writing about a real town or city that you aren’t familiar with, you’ll need to do even more research.
So take that list and get cracking! The answers are out there. Find them. Now, before you start writing! (Trust me you don’t want to get a pivotal fact wrong. The re-write would not be pretty.)
Okay, now all the hard work is done, and you get to finally have some fun and write that book! You know who your characters really are and how they will react to any situation, you know where and how they live, and you even know what’s going to happen to them. Shoot, you even know how it’s all going to end!
So what are you waiting for? Write. Write now. And write like there’s no tomorrow. If you need a little extra, added incentive to get started…check out NanoWrimo. It is totally awesome!