Where to Begin Writing a Novel (or a Series)

Where to Begin ImageLast summer, I remembered an old screenplay I’d written while at Chapman University a decade ago, and I realized it would be a great YA book. In fact, the initial idea expanded into a vision of seven books in the Warriors and Watchers Saga currently in the making. As I write Book One, I will describe the writing process—starting with this article that answers the questions, “Where does one begin with any book, let alone a series?”

I’ve finally spent enough time cracking the code of writing (both in and out of school), that I knew exactly where to begin. Of course every author works differently—I’ve ascertained this through long authorial discussions with my good friend Karen Dowdall, author of Delphi Altair: Strange Beginnings and other author friends as well). But, there are also basic consistencies in our processes. I hope this article, and others to follow, will entertain readers who are curious about the writing process and also help other writers by sharing methods and techniques.

My process also stems from a decade of teaching Creative Writing to middle school students—who have no fear of trying new things, even if they fail at first (there are always a few who do fear—and it is my job to turn them around). In a Montessori setting, I am also aware that each of my students learns or assimilates knowledge in various ways and that I must teach the information their way (utilizing several methods), which has helped me develop as a writer. In fact, if you want to see what kind of a learner you are, I recently came across a wonderful website (Vark: A Guide to Learning Styles) that provides a simple test, and then calculates your strengths or weakness in assimilating information through Visual, Aural, Kinesthetic, or Read/Write methods.  It also then suggests techniques that will allow you to optimize your learning style. Guess what? I’m mostly Read/Write (what a surprise).

http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire

 

Step 1: Know your Main Characters

It all starts with character development. Why? Because—in my opinion—the best plots are “character driven.” Before I explain what that means, let me tell you the opposite: “situational plots.” I call this “Marionette plots.” You create a character and attach strings (the author pulls the strings) and you drop him or her onto a set and then you make him or her dance. You can drop two or three Marionettes onto the stage and watch them dance or fight—exciting? No. We’ve all seen movies with superficial, two-sided, flat, unbelievable people, saying goofy lines that do not fit them at all. Know your characters—know their personalities. I am currently writing a separate article about character development, as it cannot be explained in a few lines here. This particular article is intended to outline the “how to begin” process, in general. Then I will add details of each step as I construct the Warriors and Watchers Saga and share the journey with you.

 

Step 2: Let the Characters Drive the Plot

Once you know the main characters so well that you see them as real people (the proof of this is when they turn on you and cut the strings and go off in their own directions), then you’re on your way. But don’t start writing. Let the characters carry you forward, scene to scene, moment to moment, and your job is to write down where they take you. I usually know the beginning, a high point or two, and the ending, but now, I develop the idea into a storyline. Never mind plot structure. At this point, you’re simply looking to escalate the tension at every possible moment. How do these characters get from A to B (and in the most difficult way possible).

To do this, I create a table with three columns: Column 1: Chapter; Column 2: Day/Time; Chapter 3: Scenes.  That simple.  In the Chapter column, I have numbers 1 to 32 (I may end up with more or less—but it’s a start). Typically, there will be 3 or more scenes (events) for each chapter—but at this point, just make notes of what takes place, scene to scene, and you can divide them into chapters later—but you should be conscious of ending a chapter at a dramatic moment. The main focus is to lay down the story lines (main and secondary).

For a 3-act plot, Act One is ¼ of the novel, Act Two is the next ½ of the novel, and Act Three is the last ¼. For more information, I highly, highly recommend a super simple, super well-written, nuts and bolts book by an author known as “The Plot Whisperer”: Martha Alderson, MA. I’ve attended her lectures, and I’ve read many of her books, but the one I keep on my writing desk is “Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple.” She nails it on the cover with a gold medal filled with three words: Character, Action, Theme. In general, you should know if you’re writing a story about  bravery, cowardice, love, hate, good, evil, loyalty, friendship, or other themes.

As I complete the 3-column chapter/scene description table, I am reshuffling, adding, cutting, stopping to work out kinks, changing characters, and revising . You will find what works and what does not. I changed out two leading characters and invented two new ones in the Warriors and Watchers Saga at this stage. Believe me, it’s much easier to revise a table of notes (even gut it) than it is to gut a 300-page novel and start over (I’ve done that too—never again!) I have authors who argue with me, saying, “I don’t use an outline. I write organically.” Yes, good. So do I. But I have a structure to follow. Some authors tape paper to the wall and write on it; others use sticky notes that they can move around. It’s still an attempt to maximize the dramatic tension and identify conflicts and plot points prior to writing.

When you want to build a house—what do you do? Grab boards and start nailing them together? What a mess! Then, when you make a mistake, you tear it down and start over? A waste of time. Start with a basic design (in writing terms, that’s genre): is the house Tudor or Tuscan, Modern or Rustic—same with a novel. Is it Science Fiction, Romance, Mystery or Fantasy? Next, craft a plan for the house, a blueprint (that’s the table I’m talking about above). It can take a lot of time to perfect the blueprint—but then the writing is easy. You’ve nailed the plot points and can just enjoy the free flow of writing (and trust me, those living, breathing characters will still take you where you had not predicted—that’s what I love about them!)

 

Step 3: Now Write—Scene to Scene, Chapter to Chapter

Once the blueprint is perfected, you begin to build the house (write the book). As the characters begin to live and breathe on the page, or throw hissy fits and tantrums, or make mistakes they will regret later, you will make adjustments. A friend recently rebuilt his house. Even with the blueprints, he changed the location of a door, altered a roof height, etc. But the floor plan stayed the same. This pre-writing also helps me to visualize the various story lines that are tangential to the main story line, and I can make a note of those events for future books.

Summary:

  1. Develop the main characters and if some periphery characters come to mind, jot them down too.
  2. Draft the outline, letting the characters drive the plot.
  3. Write scene to scene, chapter to chapter to the end.
  4. Revise

 

I’ll add more articles about this wonderful process as the  Warriors and Watchers Saga unfolds.

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