Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare


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.

In the Beginning: Finding the Flow

So, I’d been jotting down notes on the new steampunk novel for some time now: world notes, character notes, plot notes, etc. All in one long, jumbled document. The process was feeling rather grand. But there came a point when I begin to wonder among the growing complexities, how was this all fitting together? At this point, I had about 15,000 words, all notes, completely disorganized.

I decided that I needed a tangible way of dealing with organizing the mess. I remember reaching this point with the last novel. Then, I reacted by sticking post-it notes all over the closet door. This time though, I printed out all of my notes and cut them up, sorted them all out on the dining room table, adding notes as they occurred to me and taping the whole thing together in a long strip. It was something of a painstaking process, but gloriously rewarding. I’m starting to find that, when searching for the right story flow, there’s a lot to be said for a) working with your hands and b) working it out on a big surface (instead of that tiny computer screen we stare out for too many hours a day).

What I would like to have honestly is a wall-sized touch computer screen that I can grab little notes and slide them around, make connections, write new notes, etc. (Guess what, when I’m the next Kurt Vonnegut, that’s exactly what I’ll have.)

Tying the Knots: Visualizing Plot

As I reached the middle point in the novel, I began to worry about having all my characters enter and exit the final climax with meaningful story arcs. I worried about having everything come together and “feel right” and give the reader that sense of “everything paid off.”

So I entered my second phase of frantic story plotting. I struggled for awhile with a way to represent the story visually. I toyed with the program XMind (which satisfied some of my needs but not all). In the end, I couldn’t get it to present the elements I needed to see all at once in the format I needed. Primarily, I wanted to lay out character motivations and plot events, and be able to easily move things around, draw and erase associations, and so on. Plus, and this is the shortcoming of most programs like this, it needs to have a flexible and free-wheeling approach. I would also like the visualization to have some depth to it, so I can bring forward and push back certain element types. Color coding and icons are also critical to highlight story arcs and similar threads. Someday, perhaps, I may collaborate with a developer to design such a tool. For now, however, in the heat of artistic creation, I was too impatient to slow down for such a project. So I did the visualizations in my head. Still, I think there’s a better way.

Although I would still love to have the tool I describe above, I am fairly satisfied with the resulting outline. Having a plot line I’m comfortable with, makes writing the prose relatively smooth sailing. I love not having to worry how I’m getting to the next scene. Knowing that, I can just play with the language and the characters and the scene and just make the prose come alive more.

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!

That Poor Guy

So, as I’m writing the second chapter, I come to a section where the heroes are surprised by a deadly force, and I realize that I need one of the heroes to die here. But I’m in a bind because I realize that I need all of those characters later. What to do?

And then it occurs to me in the most obvious fashion: Red shirt. I’m looking forward to going back through the first chapter and adding this new character…so I can kill him in the following chapter. Muahahaha.

Wherefore Author Go Thou?

I have the plot, almost intricately so. I have the 15+ characters. I find myself looking for the why. Why am I writing this? Why would someone care? And perhaps, how will this be different than what’s gone before? And finally, are any of these questions I should be bothering with?

My instinct is to answer the last of those questions in the affirmative. Not that you can’t write a valid work without worrying about those questions. But I’m not sure I, personally, am the kind of person to do that.

I feel really positive about what I have so far, but I feel I need to throw a monumental monkey wrench in there, and my conscious mind still has no idea what that is. “What if the villain is really the hero?” “What if the main character turns out be an artificial intelligence, and we learn this near the end of the story?” That sort of thing.

When I first started wondering about these questions, I took a look at the protagonist. But he revealed nothing. I know who he is, and he seems to have depth. But he doesn’t seem to demand any more story.

Back to staring out the window.

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