Questions to ask before starting your novel

 OK, so you’ve got a novel to write. Maybe 50,000 words in a month, for National Novel Writing Month. Maybe that novel you’ve been burning to write since forever.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdBlank screen’s waiting. Cursor’s blinking. There is a school of thought that says ‘pants it’ – just start writing, seat-of-the-pants style.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it these days. Sure, you might get something out to the right scale for NaNoWriMo, where the pressure is on to produce. But will it be any good? Will it be properly structured as a story?

Even professional writers are daunted by 50,000 words in a month (1,666.6 words a day, seven days a week). Bear in mind that 50,000 finished words are a very different proposition from 50,000 words blurted out in a first draft.

The NaNo line is ‘well, it’ll be bad’. But I disagree. I think the onus is on writers to be the best they can – always.

I also think that writers can do 50,000 words in 30 days – and properly structure them. Certainly I’m keen to help anybody that wants to try. Writing is good.

So how to tackle a novel? My advice – ‘pantsing’ and ‘planning’ are not either-or. You need both. And it starts with planning.

What does a novel comprise? Basically it’s:

1. Characters – who must have an ‘arc’; a clear path during which they develop and change as characters. The novel will always be about that development.

2. Storyline – the ‘plot’, which provides the specific narrative story within which the character arc unfolds.

I think a lot of writers begin with an idea for a story involving events – narrative – and the characters follow. Often the fit isn’t that great; and I often hear stories of writers ending up struggling, repeatedly re-writing in order to wedge the character arcs into a story that has unfolded for them in a series of movie-like scenes.

Actually, it’s better to let the plot suit the characters. So to begin with I think these questions work:

1. Where does the arc of your lead character begin? And end? Those are your start and finish points.

2. What events/experiences enable your character arc to progress? These are start points for the narrative.

3. Can you then devise a logline – a single sentence description – in which (1) and (2) are encapsulated. Loglines typically take the form ‘[Character] has to [achieve insight] in order to [achieve plot goal] and so [resolve character conflict].’

Are these useful? How do you approach plotting? More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Sixty second writing tips, ‘Write it now’, and more.


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