Saturday, January 19, 2013

Starting a Novel from Scratch

I'm so pleased to share a guest post from author, Toni Kerr. Toni's young adult novel, Descendant, will be making its Debut, November of 2013!

Starting a Novel from Scratch
A blank slate can be just as overwhelming as a landscape of laundry and clutter on every surface. But instead of shielding my eyes and pretending it's not there, I'll explore the empty space with baby steps!

Why am I suddenly faced with a blank slate? Because I've invested 100% into one series—one set of characters with a fascinating set of circumstances that I absolutely love. I can't stand walking away from that, but right now, while I wait for the editor's letter, I have nothing to edit, nothing to revise, and nothing waiting in a file somewhere.  

I've accepted the fact (to some degree anyway) that I need to start something new, even if what I write never sees the light of day. I need to because I'll go insane if I don't (and certain writing friends would smack me upside the head).

But planning a novel from nothing is a new concept for me. My first novel ran without boundaries or guidelines. Not that I'm complaining about that, but I'm sure some pre-planning will save me countless hours and many many rounds of editing.  

And so, as with anything that seems overly daunting, I've broken my task into itsy-bitsy baby steps to help me get started. I haven't written that first line yet, but now I know my genre. I have five strong characters and know exactly what makes them tick, how they relate with each other, and I know where they need to start and finish emotionally. I sort of know my theme, but I'm leaving wiggle room for change  as the story reveals itself.   

I'm sure there are as many ways to start a novel as there are writers, but from what I know now, that I didn't know then... here's what I've done to break it down.

Baby Step #1
Research Genres—to refresh your memory on definitions and basic word count expectations. It'll save you from having a novel that doesn't fit in a defined category, and from having to cut 40k because it's way beyond a healthy range.

Baby Step #2
Theme—this might come later, but think about it now. There are many blogs and writing sites listing popular themes—some fit certain genres better than others, and they do spark a few ideas. Having a theme will keep the story on track.

Baby Step #3
Basic Plot—Sadly, most novels can be boiled down to these: overcoming the monster (be it society, some sort of evil, or another person); rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Even romance falls into these topics...

Baby Step #4
Brainstorm for Ideas! I didn't love Nathan B's query formula when I was trying to write my query, but I was amazed by how simple the plot should be (according to his formula). I swore that for my next novel, I'd write the query blurb first, just to keep my plot THAT simple (I'll of course let it grow from there). So here's his formula:

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].

Keep playing until one or two actually sound workable. (feel free to skip to Baby Step #5 if you're in a hurry :-) )

Some examples:
Shredder is a beta fish living in a handful of water. When he is transferred to a nearby pond, Shredder must live up to his name and fight bigger fish in order to establish a new territory.  
(yes, goofing around, but have a little fun to get yourself started!)

Lori is a 3rd grade immigrant from Earth living on Mars. When the Martians decide they've had enough invading, Lori must convince her classmates and teachers to be peaceful, contributing citizens in Martian society and prove themselves worthy to the Council in order to survive the night.
(eh-not feeling it)

Oak is the last tree living in a middleclass neighborhood. When the city threatens to widen the road, Oak must reach out to a little girl and remember the ways of his ancestors in order to convince the city to let him live.
(definitely not feeling it. At this point, I'd probably go tackle a 10-minute project and see what else I can think of. I'm finding the formula is a hindrance, but by now, I definitely have the idea of keeping it simple.)

Natalie is a hotshot surfer living on the beaches of Australia. When a group of cute college boys hire her as their surfing guide for spring break, and one gets killed at every location she takes them to, Natalie must solve the wave of mysterious deaths before authorities arrested her for murder.

Wow! There's some decent potential there. And it came a little more naturally when I gave myself permission to wander from the formula. Too bad it's not the genre I was going for!

Next, we need characters for whatever the great idea is.

Baby Step #5
Character's Photo ID

I love sifting through Google images for characters. If I know the sex and age of my character, I usually start by searching hairstyles. For example: teen girl hairstyles

A search like this generates nice headshots, which I find most useful when I don't know exactly what I'm looking for—a spark in the eye, maybe some attitude. I save images for every character as I find them, even though I might find something better later. If nothing jumps, I'll alter the search. Such as 'Emo girl hairstyles', or, if I have more information, such as wanting red hair, I might try 'Irish girl'.  

Baby Step #6
Give the characters a life.  
Start a new .doc for all your characters. I like to keep them all in ONE document, separated by section breaks. That way, when you need a very specific detail that you swear you wrote somewhere, you won't have to search through multiple files to find it. (Been there!)

Insert each character's image and fill in the personals. Age.. goals.. interests... biggest regret.. and what's keeping from reaching their biggest goal? The information will depend on the genre/age of the character. There are character sheets and interview forms available all over the place (gotta love Google!). I usually combine what works for me.

I also like to add a few paragraphs about how each character relates to all the other (main) characters. Interesting facts come out of these relationships, whether they are used in the story or not. For example, if character #1 and #3 were a hot item long before #1 and #2 start dating, it might explain why there is such a bitter tension between them. What if they belong together? I'll bet that would make an interesting thread...    

Speaking of threads....

Baby Step #7
Outline! My first novel was not outlined. I had no idea where the characters were taking me, but I went along like a good little typist and didn't get in the way. Maybe that's why it took me so long to get it streamlined?

This time, I'm trying Martha Alderson's plotting system, and so far, I think it'll work great. My scenes are not fully formed yet, but I know where I want to start, the point of no return (end of the beginning), and the final climax. I'll let the characters work out the rest. The good news is, I should be able to keep them heading in the right direction.

How much planning went into your novel before you let the characters speak for themselves? 


Angela Townsend said...

Thanks for the post Toni. And I love Martha Alderson's plot program! Her plotting system is wonderful.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

For creating my current book, K.M. Weiland's Outlining YOur Novel: Mapping Your Way to Success helped save me a lot of work. I initially thought an outline might be stifling, but all it really did was move that creative brainstorming into a different stage of the writing process.

I used Martha Alderson's system to check that I'd hit all the right points in the finished draft. It was tedious to chart the entire book, but once I'd done it the unnecessary scenes and dropped timelines really stuck out.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Hi Toni! Love this post! Thank you for the baby steps, and good luck on your own journey to starting a brave new world. :)

Michelle McLean said...

awesome post :D And yes, certain writer friends have their smacking hands all primed and ready ;D

Toni Kerr said...

Thanks, guys! (gals) So far, the journey is, um, limping along. Slowly. Michelle, I depend on your virtual smacks! I probably deserve a few for all the work I didn't do today.

Reminds me of that bumper sticker... The beatings will continue until moral improves. LOL

Toni Kerr said...

Thanks for the info! And yeah, I think having an actual draft would help when analyzing scene worthiness for plot. Still, it helps to understand the bigger picture before I get started. :-)