How I Prepare to Write a Book
A reader and aspiring writer wrote me to asking if I had any tips for plotting or pre-writing/outlining. And it turned out, I had a lot to say about that. 😀 So I decided to post some of it here, with examples.
I’m not really a plotter or outliner. I’m what they call a “pantser,” someone who writes mostly “by the seat of her pants.” Actually, to be fair, I do a little bit of both. 🙂 To be able to meet contract deadlines, I do more planning than I used to!
But there is no one right way to write a book, so the best thing to do is try things and figure out what pieces of which process work for you.
For me, the characters come first. I keep a writing journal, and in that, I jot down all the bits of information I know about the characters as it comes to me. I write down EVERYTHING. Even things that don’t seem important (a character’s middle name) or some traumatic incident in middle school that won’t even have screen time in the novel.
All of it informs who they are and story comes from character, in my opinion. So, basically, I’m getting to know my characters as deeply as I can while searching for the hints/clues of what the story will be about.
Here are examples from my very earliest notes about Alona Dare and Will Killian from The Ghost and the Goth series. They didn’t even have names yet, nor did I really know them as fully-fleshed-out people yet. This was just the jumping off point, a place to start.
In fact, you’ll see several places where things changed rather dramatically. (Will with glasses? A geek? Uh, no.) And yet others, where I was on target from the beginning–Alona hates to sweat and the line from Will saying, “I thought for sure you were going straight to hell” is there. Also, on the second page, there’s a version of the very first line of the story at the bottom. You’ll also see me asking myself about Alona’s mission (more on that below).
And my general high-concept-y idea for the book is scribbled in the margins. “Clueless meets Groundhog Day for the dead.” (I think in movies most of the time, for whatever reason.)
Generally speaking, a story is about a person trying to overcome a specific problem/accomplish a specific goal (their mission!) and how he or she is changed (or not changed sometimes) by the process.
So, while I’m getting to know my characters, I’m usually also defining the situation (what problem do they have?) and what do they want (out of life, or in terms of a solution to said problem, or both). I also jot down if I “see” particular things happening during the course of the story.
To use Ariane from The Rules as an example: Her problem is that she’s hiding. She’s constantly on edge and trying to remain unnoticed. At any time, GTX could find her. Someone could recognize her. She might mess up and do something that identifies her as “non-human.”
All she really wants is a chance to have some semblance of a normal life where she won’t have to be afraid and worry so much.
I also knew, for example, that I wanted her to have a chance to taste that normal life, to see what she was missing, so she’d have something to fight for in the end.
In all this note-taking, I’m trying to find out what my characters (including my antagonists, like Rachel Jacobs and Dr. Jacobs from The Rules) want, why they want it, and they can’t have it.
I don’t always use those specific questions exactly. But I do need to know that information before I start writing. That’s something I learned from a book called Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. (I highly recommend the book, but don’t buy it from Amazon as it’s crazy expensive there. Buy it from the publisher directly, if you’re interested in it.)
In this instance, Dr. Jacobs and Ariane are in conflict. He wants her to be his obedient creation, his alien/human hybrid spy and assassin. She wants to be a person. 🙂 It’s instant conflict because they both can’t have what they want.
The other thing I do is start looking at the end. The end of your book and the beginning should mirror each other in some way. In the case of the Project Paper Doll series, I’m treating the whole thing as one GIANT story, so the end of book 3 will mirror the beginning of book one.
I make myself a story line. Literally, a line on the page with my beginning state and then my projected end state. Here’s an example from a handout I use when I teach plot:
For me, I need to have a rough idea of the end before I can start writing. And as daunting as that sounds, you usually know more about the end than you realize. You know that most of the time your hero/heroine triumphs (at least temporarily) because the reader needs to feel some satisfaction at the close of the story, even if it’s only the first book of a trilogy. Then if the story continues, you need to give an idea of where future trouble might come from.
The best example of this I can think of is Star Wars: A New Hope. They blow up the Death Star and everyone’s happy, but there goes Darth Vader, spinning off in to space. We know he’s coming back to make trouble at some point.
Whatever you come up with for the projected ending, and it might change, that’s your target, your destination.
So, then, all you’ve got to do is figure out how you get from the beginning of the story to the end.
For that, I’ve found Christopher Vogler’s A Writer’s Journey is a helpful guide. It’s not a formula to write to or anything but more like a resource when I get stuck. He lists out 12 stages that occur in every story. It’s good to know the stages because then when I get stuck I can figure out a) where I’m stuck and b) have a rough idea of what happens next (AKA how to get myself unstuck).
But The Writer’s Journey is a screenwriting technique and not all novelists subscribe to it. It’s just something that I’ve found that works for me.
I don’t know the entire story before I start. I just have a rough idea of the high points and the end, and I know the characters as well as I can…and yet most of the time, they still manage to surprise me.
Then I just start writing. 😉 And I let myself write a crappy first draft, no worries about finding the perfect word or description. Anne Lamott has a fabulous book about writing called Bird by Bird. In it, she talks about how the pressure to be perfect right out of the gate can paralyze you. So, have fun with it. Write a draft and don’t worry about it. You can always fix it later. And that freedom might lead you to discoveries you might not otherwise have found.
The first draft is always mine. Just for me. I put in silly lines that may not make sense to other people, more kissing than is probably strictly necessary, etc. I can always take it back out or change it later. The point is to make writing a first draft fun, not drudgery.
I hope this helps! And it’s not too completely overwhelming. The key is just to try something and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, no big deal. Just keep trying until you find something that does. There are as many different ways to write a book as there are writers. 🙂