And so today we come to the nuts and bolts of prepping for a novel, the third in a series. (And probably the last, but I feel my brain reaching for more, so maybe not, stay tuned.) You can read the first two posts here and here, and I've also got them listed at the end of this post.
On Wednesday, I wrote about some things you need to write a novel: tools and habits and space. Today I'm going to talk about figuring out the things you need to know before jumping in. Much as I love to promote choosing a topic and just writing, I'm also a huge proponent of advance planning when it comes to writing novels. I speak from hard experience here. With the first novel I wrote, I had an idea and just jumped in. It would have been much, much easier if I had done some advance planning. At the same time, I also like to leave room for the magic that happens in the writing process–when a character walks onto the stage, or one you thought was a minor character suddenly becomes a major one. So the information presented here is somewhat of a middle-of-the-road approach. I do enough so that I don't meander and run the risk of getting lost, and I leave enough open to keep myself interested (because that's one thing I've learned about myself as a writer, if I know too much about every aspect of the story, I'll get bored).
Here we go:
CHARACTER. All story starts with character. Period. Characters are why we read novels and watch movies–because we want that thrill of connection. And for me, all my fiction ideas begin with the idea for a character. More often than not, he or she walks into my brain and won't stay quiet. Some people will tell you that you need to know your characters as well as you know your spouse or BFF, but I take issue with this. I think you need to know them really, really well–and I think that you'll get to know them even better as you write. Here's what you do need to know at the very least:
Physical Description: Height, weight, hair color, eye color, etc.
Backstory: What is your character's past and how does it affect him? (know this at least broadly, specific incidents probably will come as you write)
Occupation: What does your character do for a living?
Current Situation: Is she married with children or single and dating? Is he just out of school or a man at the end of his life?
Dreams: As in, the practical kind and the night kind. Writing a character's dreams can be a powerful way into their psyche. The dream world is mysterious and laden with symbols and by writing a dream of your character's, you can tap into these symbols which may lead you to ideas about theme.
Conflict: Internal and external. An external conflict might be the character looking through a closet for something to wear, while the internal conflict would be her not feeling good enough because she thinks she's too heavy.
Conflict is the engine that drives the story! You need to figure out one of the following, or better yet both:
What she desires or fears. Kurt Vonnegut famously said to have the character want something, even if its a glass of water. Desire rules the world. Have your character want something and then deny her. Or, you can have the character fear something and then have him have to deal with it. Entire movies are built on this premise. Remember Arachnaphobia?
SETTING. I'm a place person. It is really important to me, both in real life and in fiction. I can't live someplace that doesn't inspire me in some way (even negatively) and I can't write about it, either. I find it really helpful to have locations figured out ahead of time, both:
Broad: What city or cities or rural area does the story take place in?
Specific: What are the settings that your character inhabits on a day to day basis. What does his house or her apartment look like? What's the outside? The neighborhood? How is it decorated on the inside? Where's his office and what is it like? School? Car? And so on. Maybe its a lack of imagination on my part, but I tend to visualize locations based on places I've been, houses I've loved, and so on.
PLOT. The big bugaboo. Lots of things have to happen in novels. More importantly, those things have to fit together in a logical sequence of cause and effect. Yikes. Again, plot is something that gets illuminated as you go along, AND it behooves you to at least have a rough idea of what's going to happen before you set off on the journey. You know, like a road map.
Goal: This can be the desire or the anti-desire, or fear. An example of a desire would be a woman desperately wanting to have a baby. An anti-desire, or fear, would be a woman who wants to avoid pregnancy at all costs.
Tension and release: Thinking in terms of tension and release can help you design a reader-pleasing plot. Your character wants something, and you keep throwing obstacles at her so she can't get it. Things get harder and harder for her, and then perhaps there's a temporary or partical release. Part of the problem is solved…or is it? Maybe it just looks like it is solved, but in truth, this solution leads to only more problems. We humans are hard-wired to respond to the tension and release pattern. Its how we came into this world.
The list: I find it useful to make a list of things that happen. This can serve as a broad outline for your story. Really? This is about as much as I do. It seems to be enough to keep me on track.
The synopsis: Not a believer in writing one until after the novel is written and you are marketing it. To me, writing a synopsis first sucks the life out of the project. You may feel differently, and if so, go for it.
THEME. Some novelists are very much concerned with illustrating certain ideas or themes in their work. Me, not so much. My fictional themes tend to grow from my characters and their concerns. And, I'll be the first to admit that it sometimes takes me a draft or two or three to figure out what the hell my themes are. So I don't really worry about it much at the outset.
So, there you have it, the basic prep work I do before setting off on the journey of writing a novel. If you have other things you do, please leave a comment and let us all know.
Post #1: Prepping to Write a Novel
Post #2: How to Prep to Write a Novel