Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare

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As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

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Gotcha: The Twist

I’ve been mapping out my outline to Books 2 and 3 of the novel and having great fun doing it. After I got all the basic plot points down that I felt needed covering, I went back through and looked at:

  • Motivations
  • Plot Twists
  • Flow and Dramatic Sequence

Let me elaborate on these three points (which just so happen to be very much interrelated). After I’ve laid out the basic plot, I like to go back through with each major character to ensure that something is driving them through the story. I don’t want them to just be “along for the ride.” Then, I look for strong “gotcha” moments. In a sense, many of these moments were built in from the beginning; they’re almost the reason for the story. But in many cases, I can find additional moments that, ideally, even surprise me as I write them (and give me that “yes!” feeling). In some cases, these new plot twists derive directly from my work on character motivations. And finally, I go back through looking at the flow of the story and it’s dramatic tension (as a result of sequence). I need to not only ensure that I reveal the right information and resolve the proper issues in the order best for the story, but I need to make sure that the story flows properly from group to group, character to character, giving appropriate time to each.

And now, on to the prose!

Novel & Story Writing: Outline or Freeform

As I begin work on my third novel (all unpublished to date — I’m working on it), I find myself discovering incredible value in the outline. When I first began writing long-form fiction, I embraced the romantic notion that one just began in a flurry of inspired passion, starting with sentence one and rushing to the end. No doubt, there are successful authors who have used this technique. But increasingly, I ask myself, why?

It very well may be the nature of the tale I enjoy spinning, with myriad characters following their own intertwining paths through the story. I suppose if you were writing a simple story of one man with a singular obstacle,  an outline would be less necessary. Even then, there would be value.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of discovery through writing. It’s imperative I think. And there will be always be rewrites, even with the best-planned outlines. But an outline allows you to see the big picture that otherwise would, at least on some levels, elude the writer.

I use the term outline loosely here. My current outline consists of scene descriptions, character stories and even world descriptions. But as I develop my “outline,” I have found the thrill of creative discovery that rivals that found in writing straight pose. And I think that discovery comes from seeing how all these objects interact in my little world — often with delighted surprise.

I am incredibly anxious to start the prose phase, but I also am embracing the joy found in crafting a well-thought-out plot, filled with relevant and intriguing characters.

Words are messy, but they’re the only ones we’ve got.