You’re standing on the threshold of a long, trying journey, and this first step may seem daunting. You may already have a detailed outline, a plot idea and a few scenes, or just a genre you enjoy.
First of all, understand that while getting to ‘published’ will take hard work, dedication, and practice, it’s do-able. Thousands of writers achieve this dream every year (with the help of writing communities, mentors, editors, agents, etc.). Here are resources and truths we’ve uncovered in over a decade of assisting writers.
Coming Up With Ideas
One of the very first steps is to figure out what kind of story you enjoy reading. This is part genre (you might gravitate to vampire romance, or hard science fiction, crime drama, etc.) and part tone (do you prefer light comedy or violent drama, or something in between?). If you’re ‘not much of a reader’, try reading a wide variety of books (the ‘new releases’ and ‘librarian picks’ sections at the library are great for this, as well as Amazon’s Best Sellers and Hot New Releases), and you’ll quickly eliminate genres and tones you don’t like.
When you hit upon a genre/tone you enjoy, do a search on Amazon for your chosen terms and read a few of the books that come up. Familiarize yourself with what’s already been done and what readers like. (You can also ask friends and librarians for recommendations.) Keep an eye out for plot points and character types that keep reappearing (for example, in fantasy, the ‘young village boy who turns out to be the son of the old king and must go on a quest to reclaim his ancestral throne‘). Some are valuable tools, while others are clichés to be avoided or played with.
Another way to come up with a fun idea is to combine two genres you like (sci-fi western, fantasy horror, crime romance, etc.). You can also invert and play with clichés to make them new again, but keep in mind, some clichés have already been parodied to the point that the parodies are now cliché.
In any case, once you’ve been reading for a while, ideas will naturally start to pop up in your head. You’ll find yourself thinking,
- “The ending to this book was stupid. I would have written the whole thing differently.”
- “Why aren’t there more characters like X in these books?”
- “What if I turned this book’s setup on its head?”
These early ideas won’t necessarily turn into novels, but think of them like compost, getting richer and richer as you turn them over and add nutrients.
When you think you have a great idea blooming, run it past a few close friends and family and gauge how excited they get. If they’re well-read (especially in that same genre), they’ll be able to point out books with similar concepts, and brainstorm more detail and twists. A few such sessions may even flesh out the story’s progression from beginning to middle to end.
Outlining the Story
Now, some authors prefer to start at the beginning and write without any pre-planning beyond the idea and some brainstorming. If this is your preference, skip to the next section.
However, having coached writers for over a decade, our experience is that having an outline will result in a better book in the vast majority of cases, especially for novice writers. An outline allows you to check for common issues before they become problems — foreshadowing, pacing, plot holes, and so on. Plus, it lowers the chances of getting partway through the draft and realizing that you don’t know what happens next — commonly referred to as ‘writer’s block’.
Keep in mind that you can’t rush this part of the process. You might have a nice neat document or software into which you plug plot info and chapter ideas, but if there’s a big hole in the middle of your story, it might take time to fill it. You can try brainstorming with friends who agree to ask probing questions and don’t mind hearing spoilers. You might listen to some appropriate music to get your creativity flowing. And never be afraid to put an outline down and let it sit in your mind for a few days. Ideas can crash in at inopportune moments.
First, consider a few important elements:
- Length. Word count (not page or chapter count, as these can vary due to format and style) is used to determine a book’s length. A book is usually considered a ‘novel’ when it is 40,000 words or more. For most genre fiction, 80-90,000 is a safe range. Decide if this will be a series, and if so, how long.
- Target audience. Who among your friends and family will enjoy reading this work, and who wouldn’t? If you’re trying to write a story your sweet, religious coworker could read, keep that in mind during the process; same goes for if you’re writing for teenagers who enjoy violent, defiant stories.
- Tone. Speaking of which, will this story be comedic or dramatic? What’s your policy on profanity, violence and gore, sex, disturbing concepts, etc.? Will this story have a moral or message — will it deal with a subject you care about?
- Research. If you’re writing a story with any issues of historical accuracy, now is the time to do some reading on the subject. In general, you should familiarize yourself with the period in question by reading fiction and non-fiction about that time. If particular topics feature heavily in the story (medical care, politics, etc.), be sure to do additional reading. If you have a friend who’s an expert or hobbyist in that topic, be sure to get their input throughout the process.
- Pace. Will this be a fast-paced action story, or a simmering drama? Either will require different techniques to keep the reader’s attention.
- Structure. If you’re a fan of charts and checklists, look into classics like the three-act structure.
At some point, as you research and brainstorm and learn more about your own preferences, your story’s central concept will crystallize. Before you move on, you should be able to hook others in with a simple pitch:
- “A quirky young girl falls down a hole into a mind-bending dream world.” (Alice in Wonderland)
- “A brilliant detective and his layman assistant solve crimes in Victorian England.” (Sherlock Holmes)
- “A man is shipwrecked on an island and has to survive for years alone, with only what he can find and build.” (Robinson Crusoe)
Note the use of roles instead of names (‘brilliant detective’ instead of ‘Sherlock’) and of exciting verbs (‘falls down’, ‘solve crimes’, ‘shipwrecked’ and ‘survive’ and ‘build’). The goal here is to paint a mental picture and create intrigue.
Keep this pitch handy (at the top of your outline or posted at your writing desk) so you can refer back to it when you’re stuck. Keep your writing on-point, so you don’t stray from that hook partway through and leave readers feeling betrayed.
Only you know how many characters you’ll have and what you want them to be like. When they start to take shape in your head, flesh them out — you can sketch their appearance, write a biography (or autobiography), interview them, and ask yourself questions about them.
While your main character should get the full treatment and your most prominent characters should get as much detail as possible, don’t neglect your antagonists and minor characters. A well-crafted story can be brought down by a lazily-written minor character you didn’t put enough thought into.
The amount of world-building you’ll need to do varies by genre and personal taste. The most famous guide is Patricia C. Wrede’s fantasy worldbuilding questions, which can be adapted to any genre. Google can also find you more generic or genre-specific guides. Real-world research can help, too.
Now that you have your concept and a lot of setup, it’s time to flesh out your scene-by-scene outline. This is a three-step process:
- Prepare your outline document. You can use an Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet, a document with bullet lists of plot points, or software like Scrivener or yWriter.
- Pour in existing notes and ideas. Slot what you have into your document, and don’t be afraid to leave empty spaces and notes to ‘come up with scene later’. As the outline begins to grow, so will your confidence; you’ll also gain a clearer idea of what still needs to be done before you can start writing.
- Fill in holes and placeholders. Go through the outline several times, and have at least one or two brainstorming partners review the outline and ask questions. Be patient at this step; not all plot problems can be solved in five minutes of thinking. Be glad you’re doing this now, instead of halfway through the writing process.
When you’re done, you’ll have a scene outline that summarizes the entire book and evokes images and scenes in your head. At this point, you must be itching to start writing!