Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 6, 2017

4 Questions to Jumpstart Your Novel

Janice Hardy

For some writers, a blank page is a scary thing to face. Others see all that white space as an opportunity, and can't wait to dive in and tell their story. The vast majority of us probably fall somewhere in between, with some ideas making us eager to write, and some fighting us every for word.

I've discovered through (often painful) trial and error, that my novels go smoothest when I spend some time planning them. I don't have to figure everything out, but knowing what my core conflict is, what my character arc will cover, and who my antagonist is makes it a lot easier to write the novel. I struggle less, my plot comes together more easily, and the first draft turns out much cleaner.

Since October is the planning month for writers gearing up for National Novel Writing Month in November (where you write 50,000 words in 30 days for those who haven't discovered this yet), let's look at some ways to help you jumpstart your next novel idea.

1. Know what your book is really about.

Not truly knowing what I was writing has caused me more writing frustration than anything else I've ever encountered. I've written hundreds of pages I later threw away because I had no idea what I wanted to do. Now, I take the time to figure out my story before I do anything else.

This doesn't mean I need to know every detail, or even have an outline (though I do prefer outlining), but I do need to know what the major problem of the novel is. If I can't clearly identify what my protagonist is struggling with, and what problem has to be solved by the end of the book, then I'm not ready to write the novel.

The best tool I've found for clarifying my idea is to write a one- or two-sentence pitchline for it. Capturing the essence of my story in a few sentences forces me to really know what story I'm writing. If that sentence is vague with nothing to plot from, that's a big red flag I don't have a story to tell yet.

2. Know what your protagonist(s) is going to do.

Many a premise novel has stalled around page one hundred, because a great idea was set up, and then the writer realized the protagonist had nothing to do once that idea was established. The idea was driving the story, not the protagonist--no goal, no motivation to act, no stakes, no conflict. The book was nothing more than the description and explanation of an idea the writer loved.

An idea you love is a great start, but strong stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems interesting ways (many of you have heard me say this plenty of times). I've written entire novels with multiple points of view and dozens of characters where not a dang one of them wanted to do a darn thing. Sure, they went where I told them to, recited their lines like good little actors, but it was all make believe. Nothing about the story felt like real people trying to solve real problems that readers would care about. And this holds true if the problem is saving the world from zombies, or finding love when you've given up on it.

Being clear on what your interesting protagonist needs to do makes it easier for you to have her do it, which creates the plot and gives you things to write about. But that's only half the battle. The other half is...

3. Know who your antagonist is and what he (or she) is up to.

The other half of writing a strong story is putting solid conflict in the way of your protagonist's goals. Once you know what she needs to do, clarify why the antagonist is making it hard for her to do it. Even if the antagonist isn't seen until the climax, his actions will have consequences to what the protagonist is doing, often from page one.

The easiest drafts I've ever written have been ones where I knew going in who my antagonist was and what he was up to. His plan was solid, his motives clear, and I knew how he was going to mess things up for my intrepid hero. So much of what the protagonist does is due to what the antagonist has done, so this is a partnership you want fully fleshed out. It's the back and forth of trying and failing, winning and losing, that keeps readers glued to the page.

4. Know why it all matters.

One of the harder bits of feedback to receive is, "why should I care?" but it's some of the most valuable feedback you'll ever get. If readers don't care, they won't read, and it won't matter how well written a story is, or how cool the idea is.

Whatever your protagonist is doing, give her a reason why doing it matters. Understand your characters' motivations and what's at stake for them if they fail. You don't need to know every detail at the start of the novel, but a general sense of why this is important will help you know what conflicts to use and where the story might go.

A question I like to ask is, "Why can't the protagonist just walk away?" If you can't answer this, or the answer is, "they can but then the plot won't work," that's a red flag that your stakes aren't where they need to be yet.

If you feel confident about the answers to all four of these questions, odds are that your first draft will go more smoothly and you'll run into fewer issues. There will still be things to work out, of course, that's the nature of writing, but you should have a lot fewer writing sessions where you stare at the screen in frustrations and have no idea what to do next.

Plotters or pansters, a little thinking about your story before you start writing it can make a huge difference in how easily that story makes its way to the page.

How much thought and/or planning do you do before you start a novel?

If you're looking for some motivation (and a lot more guidance than these four tips) for your newest novel idea, I'm running a free at-home workshop on my site, Fiction University, all October long. Come on over and check out Idea to Novel in 31 Days. It's also perfect for anyone planning to do NaNoWriMo next month.

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About Janice

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. Her newest release is Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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More Help On Writing Your Novel  

Do you have a great story idea? Do you want to turn it into a novel?

Janice Hardy takes you step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel with her book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. She'll show you how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration to a complete story, develop the right characters, setting, plot, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Each workshop builds upon the other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to start writing (useful for both plotters and pantsers). You'll find multiple options that allow you to find the right process that works for you.

For those who like a hands-on approach with easy-to-use worksheets, a companion guide, Planning Your Novel Workbook is also available in paperback.

28 comments on “4 Questions to Jumpstart Your Novel”

  1. Janice, I'm finally working through the notes you gave me on my first twenty-five pages back in June. At first your comments were difficult to read but given a little space and some deep thought on my part I realize they are inspired! Thank you! Also, I'm printing this article to discuss with the Continuing Education class I'm teaching at the University of Utah. A nice concise way to think about plot, conflict...and so on.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you've found them useful and helpful 🙂 Sending good writing vibes for your revision!

  2. Love this - AND your book, Janice! As a pantser, I don't know as much as I should going in, but this my current WIP, I only knew #3! Won't be doing that again.

    Pantsters (plotters have tons of books) THIS book is for you!

    1. Thanks so much! Pantsers are a different type of writer, and if you can dive in and write strong without knowing a lot about the story, and that works for you, keep doing it. But if you find yourself struggling, or you get stuck in the same places every book, it's worth trying a few small planning steps to see if it helps. You can still let your story grow organically, but it can be very helpful to have a clearer sense of it going in.

  3. Excellent blog and an important reminder for me. I have great characters, but I'm having an uneasy feeling about them already. Now I know why! I know what the protagonists want, but the motives of the antagonists are too vague. It's time for a clear outline before I end up with a mess:)

    1. I'm so glad this helped you find the next step in your story 🙂 Good luck with your antagonist!

  4. Janice, I'm somewhere in between. I pants the hell out of the writing, but I have to have a general idea of story, characters, theme and turning points to really get in the zone. This book looks awesome!

    1. Thanks! That's similar to my process as well, though I really pants my characters. My first drafts are trial by fire 🙂

  5. I like to start with an outline, but the problem I have is that my characters ignore it. I may plan for a particular action to happen in chapter 12, and my characters decide they want to do it in chapter 3. (I swear they talk to me.) In my current work, I kind of knew the character and issues of the antagonist, but he developed and got deeper as I went, and of course the same is true of the protagonist. I'm not even sure I can answer the first question. When I started, the intention was for it to be a romance, but that aspect is becoming secondary. I guess I'll have to wait until it's finished to know what it's about. So far it has only a passing resemblance to the outline and blurb I wrote at the beginning.

    1. If that's your process and it works for you, there's nothing wrong with that. It sounds like you might just do a lot of brainstorming in the outline, and then it naturally makes its way to the page as you write.

      Maybe your process means you write two outlines? The first is to get the general ideas out, then you write it and see how those ideas actually work, then you do an editorial map and re-outline once you see the first draft. That outline you can use to revise and polish the story. I know plenty of pantsers who use outlines during revision instead of planning.

      I update my outlines as I write. Mine also change as new idea hit me or things shift as I write the scene. Often I have a detailed outline for a chunk of chapters, but only a loose outline past that. As I write, the later chapters get fleshed out and I keep developing the outline all during the first draft.

      There is no right way to write, so go with what best gets your story down 🙂

  6. Hi Janice, I'm a pantser but as I read your post I find I do this but is occurs in my mind and usually I know what the idea I have for the story. I'm not too good at outlines or plotting. If I do either when I finish I know all that the story has to offer and I'm thru. I can never add enough to what I have to make a book. I've tried but when I try to redo the line and put more in it it doesn't work. I'm glad those who are plotters love it and wish them luck but I love my way of working the story. I've gotten much better over the years at finding what I need to do to keep the reader interested. But you are so very right no matter how your process works it is a better story if you know where your going and what the hero needs to do to have his/her world like he/she wants it. Thanks for finding all this in the back of my mind. It's something you need to do when the thought first starts.

    1. Nothing wrong with that if it works for you. I've heard lots of pantsers say they don't use outlines for that very reason, so you're not alone. The whole point for you guys is to write the story to find out what happens 🙂

      These might be questions you just think about as the idea forms, or maybe it's something you consider when you get stuck and aren't sure where to go. They might be more useful as prompts than outlines. Not every tool will work for every writer, but it's nice having them in the toolbox if we ever do need them.

  7. After spending twelve months revising three books, I am definitely going to do a little planning before I start my new project. I'm not turning into a plotter, but I'm going to know more about both character's arcs and the turning points.

    1. Yikes, you've had a busy year. Kudos for getting so much done. On the upside, it sounds like you figured out exactly what you need to do before you start a project to be the most effective. That should make the next book a lot easier to write 🙂

  8. AND, this is the perfect place to let you know - WITS is having a 'Plot Up a Storm' event, Oct. 18 - to get you ready for NaNoWriMo! Come hang with us, and bring your nasty plot conundrum - we'll solve it together!

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