You’re hit with a spark of inspiration. It’s a good one, too, something you can really work with, something with a lot of potential. How do you proceed?
Everyone has different views on the pre-writing process. For some, there is no pre-writing process. You get that spark, you sit down at your keyboard, and you start writing it out. The first draft will be messy, but it serves a purpose: it is the framework for draft two. It gets out a plot structure, the characters to move the plot forward, and any worldbuilding necessary to explain it. There are benefits to this, namely that your initial inspiration can get you through some actual writing instead of filling up a Word document or a composition notebook. But some writers prefer a framework with a bit more… structure.
Planning a novel, too, has a great range of dedication and necessity. Some writers need the fundamentals. A list of character names, a city for the story to be set (in the case of SFF, a bit of basic worldbuilding to establish a setting), and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some writers need everything before they’ve even gotten out their “Once upon a time…”, some even writing entire novels worth of story notes (see: J.R.R. Tolkien). Some writers need a bit of both. SFF writers often do a great deal of worldbuilding, but many don’t address the plot or the characters until they sit down to write.
So, how do you plan a novel? In the end, to each their own. But here are a few tips to keeping everything cohesive, organized, and to getting out of the planning stage.
- Plot, setting, theme, and characters can build upon each other. The greatest inspiration for your story often comes from what you already have written down. Give your characters relationships with one another and build upon how they’ve shaped one another. If you want a darker atmosphere, pick a setting with an physically darker atmosphere. Instead of Starbucks with ten foot high windows and well-lit display cases full of pie, pick a rundown, musty old book store/cafe with just enough light to read, in a city with a lot of rain. In fantasy, one worldbuilding idea often leads to another. If you decide to have dragons, what do they do in the world? Are they sapient, and if so, what was their relationship with humans in the past? If they are plentiful and as dumb as a cow, are they used for meat? As mounts? Are dragonscale boots the fashion of the elite or the equivalent of a pair of cheap sneakers? Build upon what you have to add a cohesiveness to your story, and to keep you from requiring inspiration that may not be out there.
- Organize your notes in a way that allows you to re-organize your notes. I love a good composition notebook as much as the next girl, but it does have one problem. There is a permanency to it. I can’t erase things. I can’t re-order things. If I add a new character, his profile will just be stuck somewhere in the middle of my worldbuilding notes. If I rename him, I have to just scratch it out and add his new name next to it. This can make finding things difficult and lead to a lot of almost unreadable notes in the margin. If you take your notes on the computer, this is a non-issue, but for those of you who prefer to handwrite your notes, consider investing in a cheap three-ring binder.
- Write a bibliography. Part of planning a novel is researching a novel. I’m not saying you should refresh on Chicago style citations, but any time you jot down a note or spark of inspiration, write down where it came from. If it is from a website, create a folder in your favourites menu for your story. If it is from a book, place a marker of some sort on the page - if it’s borrowed, scan the pages into your computer, or use a library copying machine to take the pages with you (and put them in that binder we mentioned earlier). Being able to reference your original sources will help you when the time comes to expand on an idea. Often, I’ll come across some doodle with a keyword next to it in my notes and have to do my research all over again just to figure out what it means.
- If you start to lose interest in the project, stop planning and start writing. The death of many novels comes before they’ve written a single word. The author realizes they’ve got a plot hole, or they find their characters lack that spark they had when they started planning. They feel bogged down in research and just stop caring. If you feel that creeping sensation come over you, stop. Stop planning and put it aside. Go work on something else. Perhaps another story, perhaps a different hobby (cooking, playing an instrument, drawing a picture, whatever makes you happy). Do something productive, take some time, and then look at your notes again. Find something in it that you love. Something that made you spend days, weeks, maybe months writing notes and doing research. Find it, cling to it, and just write. Get those ideas on paper and smooth it out after. Because no matter how many years you spend planning out every line of dialogue and every shade of grey the clouds will be on that dark and stormy night, things change when you put your fingers to the keyboard.
I will leave you with another short Writing Bug list of resources,
- storyfix: story structure series, a great series of articles discussing the structure of the standard storyline; deconstructing it and revealing its essence.
- tiddlywiki, a ‘web notebook’ that allows you to create a wikipedia-style resource. many writers use this to quickly navigate between their different ideas. the wiki you create can be stored on Dropbox or saved to a thumbdrive.
- family echo, a family tree-building website that provides a visual aid for any writer with a lot of genealogy and sibling rivalries to deal with in their story.
- twenty-five ways to plot and plan your novel, a basic overview of every way you could plan a novel, from mind mapping to story bibles. if you don’t know how you want to visualize your story, look through these ideas and try to work with them.