So, I’ve wanted to write a book for a while now. I have an idea and a basic plot, but I don’t quite know how to start it. Any advice?
Wow… you’re at the Exciting Part. 🙂 …No, seriously: this is the point from which everything flows, from the novelist’s point of view. It’s an exciting place to be, and at the same time SO intimidating, because GOD can anything happen from here onward.
(I’m assuming that we’re talking about fiction, BTW.)
Anyway. After 50+ books I know what I do at this point – pretty much – but that’s not going to do you a lot of good, since many of the opening moves in the game for me are now accordioned together into something that happens very fast and in which the individual movements and sequences can be kind of difficult to tease out for an observer. Let me instead describe to you how I would work this kind of situation out when I first got started selling books to editors.
So. If I was standing where you are right now, the first thing I’d do is make sure that the idea you’re dealing with is actually suitable to be a novel: and the simplest way to find this out is to outline it. (And as I get started with describing this: I know quite well that in the talking-about-writing community, between the outliners and the just-jump-in-and-do-it-by-the-seat-of-your-pantsers there is a great gulf fixed.* For the moment, at the very beginning of this process, outlining is the easiest and most straightforward way to go, and eliminates the chance of you wasting time by running down a lot of blind alleys and getting caught up in choices that you don’t need to be trying to make at this stage of the operation. Later on as you get better at this setup process and more confident about it, you can dump outlining if you find yourself disliking it and are able to produce reliable similar-quality results without it. For now, though? Help yourself out by making yourself a shopping list until you can be more certain you won’t forget the stuff you went to the store for. ) 🙂
Anyway. The specific usefulness of an outline in this situation is that it’ll help you determine whether the idea and the plot you’ve got are sufficiently substantial to support being a novel. There’s some discussion over at this post about the art of making sure that a story is robust and complex enough to survive being novelized.
The simplest form of outlining that I know is the one that C. J. Cherryh put me onto way back when dinosaurs walked the Earth, and which has never failed me. It works like this:
- You make a list of ten things that have to happen in your book in order for the plot you’re imagining to be complete. (At any point you can shuffle these around so that the things that happen do so in the optimum order for maximum dramatic tension.) For the moment, these are your chapters. (You can always break them into smaller pieces later.)
- Under each of these chapter headings, you then make a list of ten things that have to happen to bring about or complete the main “thing that needs to happen” that they’re listed under.
Around here, successful completion of those two stages means I have a novel. Or at least a potential one, with enough complexity in terms of mere circumstance to support a novel’s length. (The post linked to above goes into some detail about how trying to scrape too little story content across too big a format can get you in trouble.) If I can’t make this process work – especially the second one – it means that what I have in hand may be better suited to some shorter format: novella or novelette perhaps. Which is fine. But it’s better to realize this before you start work than when you’re in the middle of it, struggling and swearing.
Once you’ve determined that you’ve got a detailed enough plot to support (and engender) both character and action, then you go forward and start filling in the blanks. Establishing your characters and building their complexity and their interior drama will make it plain over time in what way they’ll interleave satisfyingly with your plot. Your job in these early stages – as you build your characters – is to do so with an eye to making their lives difficult. They must have obstacles to overcome, and ideally these must both intersect uncomfortably with the situations you’ve established in your outline, and be recomplicated by them. You need to make sure that you’re slotting your characters into situations that will force them either to grow and change and become more themselves, or situations they refuse to deal with so that they retreat and fail. (Or both!)
Don’t be afraid to be quite calculated, even analytical, about this. In the actual writing you can splash around in the deep end of the Feels Pool all you want (and/or throw the characters in and make them do the same, poor babies). But you need to first build a story, and characters for it, that will resist the always-present weight of the reader’s (potential) disbelief wherever and whenever tested. In building the starting structure of your book and your characters you have all the leisure you need to hammer out the weak spots – your goal being to make sure that your reader has no choice but to run down the path you’re setting out before them, page after page. That feeling of “inevitability” that great works of art are sometimes accused of having? That’s the goal to strive for. Taking your time over the joint work of the outline and the character building will go a long way toward eliminating the chance of nasty previously-unnoticed plotholes cropping up, or characters acting in unbelievable or irrational ways. (Also, in a more specific sense of the latter, see this post for a brief discussion of how I handle characters who’re showing signs of getting out of hand. I’ve talked about this before at more length, but you’ll get the general idea.)
Finally: as you’re putting your basic outline together and getting your characters sorted out, one broad note about the thematic side of this business – because possibly more important than merely knowing “what happens in this story” is knowing “what this story is about”. Not “the moral” as such. (Any situation that can be summed up in a single sentence starting with “And the moral is…” is probably insufficiently complex to hold the interest of anyone over the age of six.) But theme is important, and being conscious of what yours is (in a given work) is also important. There’s no need for you ever to spell it out. If you’ve done your work properly, your reader will know perfectly well what it is without needing to be smacked over the head with it. Theme is your background lighting, or your landscape: or both. You can turn the spotlight on characters or situations as you please and as the flow of plot events requires, but the background lighting and landscape will provide basis and depth for everything else that’s going on.
So go start making your list. You’ll inevitably be surprised by stuff that happens during this process, but that’s part of the fun. …And let me know how you get on.
Hope this will be of help to you. Thanks for asking!
*I could spend some time deconstructing the idiom and suggesting that the “seat of the pants” metaphor is inherently misleading, because every pilot who ever lived long enough to exhibit and/or exploit the preference for “flying by the seat of the pants” was first taught the basics of flying, in a structured manner, by someone who understood them. In other words: from an outline. Also: the Pilot (and Novelist) Upstairs scornfully describes “seat of the pants flying”, aka operating by VFR or Visual Flight Rules, as “the lower level of competence in flying – the equivalent of looking out the window while doing five hundred knots and hoping you can figure out what’s happening and where you are before it’s already happened and you’re not there any more.” …But I digress. 🙂