How do you prepare to write a new book? Many authors have a system they follow to plan, plot, and prepare before they sit down to write–myself included. While there are no real rules for how to write a book, I find that I prefer to have a loosely structured system that works for my storytelling style.
I’ve written a little over 30 novels–maybe around 40. I don’t count. (I don’t count words either, but that’s a post for another day). Now that I have a few stories behind me, I’ve started asking myself the same six questions each time I start a new project.
Want to know what they are and how they help me prepare to write? Read on.
1. Where did the seed of this idea come from? What’s at the heart of this story?
Considering the seed and the heart of our story idea helps us to remember the passion we had when the idea first sparked. Write your answer down, because you’re going to want to revisit it from time to time throughout your writing process.
Knowing the heart of a story keeps us going when we’re feeling unmotivated. It helps us fall back in love with our characters when we’ve had enough of dealing with them, or love the story again when we hate the plot. (Because at some point in the process, we WILL hate the story or get sick of our characters.)
On days when you’re feeling awful about what you’re working on, go back to this answer. Take some time to refocus on the heart, and you’ll be on your way again in no time.
2. What is the book about?
Writing up a short pitch of our story, even if it’s just mediocre, can help us keep our story focused as we write. Sketch out your basic characters, a bit of setting and genre, what’s at stake, and an obstacle or two.
I fall somewhere between a plotter and pantser/discovery writer. I go back to that blurb again and again. This also helps me know if my idea will be easy to sell or pitch, since I know my endgame is to sell the book. This blurb isn’t set in stone, but I’ll often go back to it and tweak as I write. If you want to feel confident in moving forward with your idea, create a pitch that makes your friends/agent/editor say, “I NEED THIS IN MY LIFE.”
3. What is a topic or sensation or feeling I want to explore?
This goes back to the heart of the story, or theme. What do we want to say about the world through our newest project? Are we exploring a particular emotion or sensation? An observation on society or politics? If we had to summarize our WIP in one word, what would that word be?
All of these details help to keep the EMOTIONAL focus on the book on track. And, the emotions we spark in and through our characters will translate into what you want your readers to feel.
4. How do I want my reader to feel when they finish the book?
Asking ourselves how we want our readers to feel when they put our book down will help us to know if we’re upholding the promises we made to the reader with the beginning of the novel, as well as the blurb. Knowing how we want our readers to feel ignites our awareness and helps us keep the emotional stakes where they need to be throughout the storytelling journey.
5. What happened to my protagonist/world before the novel starts, that has shaped who they are?
Our protagonist’s past experiences inform their actions, reactions, and choices throughout the story. The past follows protagonists throughout their arc, and will have varying degrees of influence on everything they do.
The Hunger Games is a great example. Because it’s a post-apocalyptic story, one might say that the big thing that happened before the novel’s beginning is the revolution that resulted in the forming of the districts, which in turn resulted in the formation of the Hunger Games. After all, the games wouldn’t have happened without the war, right?
But take a deeper dive and look at Katniss Everdeen’s past. The poor living conditions in District 12 contributed to her father’s death, which then forces her to hunt for food to help her family survive. Her grit, determination, and wilderness survival skills set her up to win the Hunger Games.
So in this case, both the world’s past and the character’s past shape the story’s events going forward.
6. What lie does my character believe, and how do the events of the novel play into, or help destroy that lie?
This may take a while to sort out, and that’s okay! But something in your character’s past has led them to believe something about themselves–and/or the world–that is false. Their discovery that this thing they’ve believed to be true, isn’t true, is what drives your story forward.
Your character’s misbelief can be anything, including:
- I am the chosen one
- I’m not worthy of love
- I will never be enough
- I can never go back (to home, an old life, to doing good, etc.)
- I must do it all alone (everyone is depending on me)
How your character navigates that lie is what keeps the reader turning pages.
These questions are the things that I write up longhand before I start my novel. They’re what I talk to my critique partners about, and how I shape my characters and my story.
If you’re feeling lost, or unsure about how to navigate these questions–either with a new project, or with a novel you’re revising–Allie and I love to talk these details through with writers. Schedule your chat here.