So, you’re following a bit of the advice we offered last week here at MW, and you’re starting that novel you’ve been thinking about all these years. Good for you. We (Faith’s idea initially) thought it might be helpful for us to follow the novel writing process from beginning to end in our posts over the course of this year. This isn’t to say that every week we’ll be focusing just on this; we’ll touch on a range of topics, as we always do. But this will be a recurring theme to which we’ll return periodically as the year progresses. Many of these posts, this one included, will synthesize information from past posts, gathering information and advice in a single place. No doubt they’ll also offer some new tidbits, as well.
With that in mind, let’s get started.
Chances are, you already have some idea of what you intend to do with your novel. You have characters in mind, a general idea of the plot, some sense of the worldbuilding. That’s good. Now — before you actually start writing the thing — is the time to develop those concepts and plan out your book. Don’t worry, all of you seat-of-the-pantsers out there, I’m not going to insist or even suggest that you outline your book. That’s a personal choice, and you know better than I how much outlining or plotting you need to do ahead of time. But there are others things you should have set ahead of time.
The first thing I would suggest you do, is read in your selected subgenre, not so that you can copy what others have done, or make your work derivative in any way, but so that you familiarize yourself with the tropes of the field, make certain that your work actually fits in the subgenre to which you think it belongs (important later in the process, when you start to pitch your work to agents and editors), and make certain as well that the book you want to write hasn’t already been written by someone else. If you’re writing urban fantasy, you should read Kim Harrison, Rachel Caine, C.E. Murphy, Faith Hunter, and others. If you’re writing mystery/fantasy, you should read Jim Butcher. If you’re writing epic fantasy, you should know the work of Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, John Marco, Guy Gavriel Kay, and perhaps even David B. Coe. YA books with animals as main characters? You’d better know the work of Brian Jacques. New weird? Read China Mieville. And if you’re writing a pirate fantasy, you’d better have read Misty Massey. You wouldn’t try to bake a cake without first knowing what a cake looks and tastes like. Same with writing a fantasy novel.
While you’re reading in the genre, you should also be researching your own book. I use the word “research” a little loosely here, because depending on your book the amount of actual library/reference research you do might vary. If you’re setting your book on a pirate ship, you need to know about pirates. And ships. If you’re setting your work in a world with medieval technology, you should familiarize yourself with medieval food and clothing, construction and weaponry. You might want to learn a bit about castles. If you’re setting is modern and real-world, then learn a bit about whatever city or area you’ve chosen. If you’re writing a historical work, as I am now . . . Well, you get the idea.
During this time, I also identify whatever sources I think I’ll be needing throughout the writing process, and begin to gather them. I buy books, bookmark web sites, draw or collect my maps, etc. Also, if this is your first book, now might be a good time to get certain things you just have to have: An excellent dictionary, a comprehensive thesaurus, a baby name book; stuff like that.
But my idea of research goes beyond what I’ve just described, to also include the creation of your magic system, the drawing of maps for your alternate world, character background, development of religions, histories, lines of royalty, etc. Some of it will demand that you look stuff up; some of it will happen entirely in your imagination. But in my opinion all of it is “research”, and all of it is absolutely necessary for the development of your story.
Now, you’ll notice that I’ve said nothing yet about working out plot points. That’s because, for me at least, the research phase (which usually lasts one or two months; no more than three — the point is to write a novel, not look stuff up. Get what you need to begin the book, and move on) is an incredibly fertile period for developing plot ideas. As I learn more about my characters, my world, my magic system, story ideas come to me. So I wait until after the research is mostly done before I brainstorm the finer points of my plot.
The other things I do in these preparatory stages, is come up with some system for keeping track of the information I’m gathering and the ideas that are coming to me. In the past, I’ve used a notebook, I’ve used index cards, I’ve used spreadsheets, and I’ve used combinations of these thing along with others. Character Keeper, the program developed by Misty’s husband, Todd, might be the perfect computer based tool for you, if you want to keep track of this stuff on your computer. I hear it’s a great program, though it only works for Windows platforms. For Mac users, check out Scrivener.
Finally, if you’re the kind of writer who likes to have an outline, this is the point where you should start working on one. Even if you’re a dedicated seat-of-the-pantser, you should take this opportunity to make certain in some way, shape, or form that you have at least a general idea of where you’re going with your story and how you intend to get there. There is nothing worse than getting half or two thirds of the way into a book and realizing that you have no sense of how to get from where you are to the ending you’ve envisioned. If I had a dime for every book idea that had died for lack of planning . . . well, let’s just say that I’d be a very wealthy man.
All that I’ve written here is all fairly generalized, because every book is so different, every author’s needs so particular, that being more specific wouldn’t have accomplished much. I should also add, that while I described these various stages in sequence, they usually happen for me with a great degree of simultaneity. I read in the subgenre (as I’m doing now for my historical) at the same time I do research. And as I do my research, I develop a system for keeping track of stuff, while also jotting down the plotting ideas that come to me. And while I’m doing all this stuff, I’m thinking about the structure of the book and starting to work on a very general outline. It’s an organic process. None of these things is entirely separate from the others. They’re all ingredients for that one cake, to return to the metaphor from before, and they need to be prepared together so that they can be blended at the appropriate time.
Anyway, this is how I begin. Questions? Additions? Alternatives? Let’s talk about process.David B. Coe http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net