In my opening blog post, I offhandedly mentioned that I had completed my first novel. What I really meant was that my draft and editing passes were finished. While the result is, in my mind, a great novel, I consider the project to now be in the post-production phase. This means cover work, copy-editing, and the like. (As I strategize my launch, please bear with me as I keep the details under wraps for a bit longer.)
While the novel started as a short story with much more humble goals, I quickly hammered down a system to take me to my current stage. I thought it might be interesting if I shared this writing process with you. Not only is what you do after writing the novel important, but so is your initial preparation. I’ll start, as is best, at the beginning.
Before you can actually begin writing a novel, you need to nurture the idea of it. Since pre-production is a nebulous phase that depends on creative sparks, it is smart to overlap it with work on other projects.
This is the seed of the idea, something that interests you deeply. It could be a single concept or situation (“What if the ocean was evaporating?” or, “What if one day we woke up and everybody was purple?”). The most important thing at this stage is to nurture the thought. Like a Big Bang, many worlds and organisms should spring to life relatively quickly. Just write your ideas down immediately. Take notes. Expand on the threads that interest you. Add to your idea over the coming weeks or months as you see fit and as matches your timeline. You don’t need to worry about characters or specifics yet but nothing is out of bounds- if the state of your protagonist’s hangnail is the direction you are compelled to go in, record it.
Many authors will find that they have a folder of text files, each with a separate idea for a story (whether a short, novel, or serial). This is great. This is your idea bank. You may find that you abandon an idea for a year before thinking of something cool to add to it (make sure to write it into the file!). This collection of files is a valuable resource for you that allows you to flesh out your ideas naturally, over time.
You should have a general idea of an initial sequence of events that introduces your concept to readers. Before needing to plan everything out, I find that it helps to draft out a scene. It could be the beginning of the story but it doesn’t need to be; the idea is that this is a small slice that will give you a taste of the finished product. It will also establish a surprising amount of information.
Come up with the major and minor characters you need. Decide what the strengths and weaknesses of your protagonist are. What stands out about the location the scene is in? Focusing on these specific details helps get to the real heart of your story. You may know that you want your protagonist to be a 14 year old girl who will rise up and save the planet from zombies but what makes her self conscious? Why is her relationship with her mother strained? What kinds of clothes does she wear? Believe it or not, working through the process of writing a few scenes will inform on greater plot elements in your story arc and make your work special. You will also test out your voice and need to make technical writing decisions like which tense or perspective to write in. You should feel that the scene slices you write could support the desired length of your project and, if not, make changes accordingly.
You may need to repeat this step and write out more scenes to get a feel of your greater structure, but try tackling the next step in bits after every slice.
This is the first step where you really need to think about the architecture of the story. You need to block out your scenes, decide when important plot elements happen, structure the pacing of the story, and figure out where everything leads. This can be very difficult and I suggest writing multiple scenes (as above) to help flesh your ideas out thoroughly. At some point, however, if you want to have a well-thought out plot, I think it is extremely important that you have a loose sequence of events laid out before you really start writing your novel.
Starting with a 3 act structure can be a natural fit. Or, if you have specific plot twists part of the way through, use those as guide points. Fill out the in-between plot connections and think about arcs for each of your characters. You should start to see a skeleton of a story forming. Try to explain the events of The Matrix movie to yourself in 5 lines, then 10, then 20, and you’ll get an idea of what your story outline should look like. Take note that the level of detail you need is a personal preference. Try different methods and use what works best for you.
When you are finally satisfied that you have an entire plot laid out, from beginning to end, then you can consider yourself finished with pre-production.
That’s more or less all there is to it! It’s okay for the distinction between pre-production and production to be fuzzy; you should ultimately do whatever helps you progress the most efficiently and to the best of your satisfaction, but the more work you do at this phase, the easier the rest should be.
Next post, I’ll talk about Production, the real guts of the writing process.