Perhaps it’s a daydream that’s been flitting in and out of your imagination for years. Maybe it’s a character that just won’t go away. Or it could be a world that is so interesting that you just want to pack up and live there. Whatever your starting point is, it makes you want to share it with others. Whatever it is, it makes you want to write a novel. That’s great! But what do you do with it?
If there was a way to pluck ideas straight from your head and display it for others to see—exactly the way you want it to appear—we’d probably all go that route. Instead, we have to deal with the task of taking images from our minds and translating them into words that create images in the minds of other people. Whew! It’s hard work, no joke. So before you put pen to paper (or open that Word file), here are three things you should do.
1. Start with a Problem
Before you start writing, even if you’re not really an outliner, it helps to have a good idea of where you’re going. Every story has a problem. The story comes from solving that problem. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the problem is that there’s an evil ring that needs to be destroyed. The solution is that Frodo will carry the ring to Mount Doom and throw it in. Everything else that happens are off-shoots of that problem and solution.
Most stories have smaller problems that contribute to the bigger problem. In Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, the obvious problem is that Tiana has been turned into a frog, but she also has the problem of being a workaholic, and the prince has the problem of being a lazy bum. As they solve the frog problem, they learn how to solve the other two.
What problem needs to be solved? What is the solution? There, you have a beginning and end to your novel. If you don’t know the solution yet, that’s okay too. But you should definitely know what the problem is.
2. Get to know your characters
Real people have both strengths and flaws. No one likes a Mary Sue (except Batman), but when you’re first starting out, it’s easy to over-power your main character, to make them so good at everything that it really doesn’t make sense that they’re even having a problem. Take Calaena from Throne of Glass. She begins the series already having the reputation of the greatest assassin in the land. That’s a heavy burden to carry! I wonder if Sarah J Maas ever regrets giving her that rep. It limits the kind of problems that can challenge Calaena.
When I wrote my first novel (at 12 years old), my main character was a mind reader who could not only hear people’s thoughts at will, but see through their eyes, turn herself invisible (because she blocked her image from their vision center) and occasionally have visions in her sleep of people whose minds she was reading from a long distance. AND she originally knew how to fight. In a later version of the story, I took away her ability to fight physically. Recently, I’ve returned to this story again (because it really is a good one), and now her mental powers are much more limited.
It’s also very easy to have a cookie-cutter character. Real people are more than their high school clique. They’re not just a jock or nerd or emo kid. They have multiple sides to them. Get to know your characters completely, especially your main characters. How? Write them. Write scenes that will never show up in your story. Get to know where they come from, where they’re going. In one of my WIPs, I have a character who came from an abusive home. My own home was nothing like that, so in order to understand him, I wrote about his past. I learned why he thinks the way he does, but I also learned what he likes. It makes him less of the typical brooding character and more of a person.
3. Don’t just imagine your setting—move there
Setting is one area that I have a pretty difficult time with. I know where my characters are, but it becomes very vague in my writing. Sometimes that’s okay; my readers don’t need to see 100% what I see. But often, my settings become a white room in the middle of nowhere, and that loses readers. Instead of just having a general idea of your setting, get inside it. If you know details of the land and layout, it will come through in your writing, even if all those details don’t get mentioned. Think about Hogwarts. We all know Hogwarts. We can feel it. We know about the lake and the forbidden forest and Hagrid’s hut. We know about the moving staircases, secret passages and talking portraits. We are familiar with the common rooms and the dorms. If we paid attention, we know there are 7 floors and 142 staircases (No, I did not have to look that up). How many of those details that we’ve assimilated helped Hogwarts feel real? How many did JKR come up with on the fly and how many do you think she sat down and painstakingly figured out before she ever wrote a book? I imagine far more of them were planned than not.
My short story “Gypsy of the Sea” takes place in an inn. It’s a small location, so I was able to plan out every detail. Because of this, it has a grounded sense of place. If you’ve “moved in” to your setting, you’ll have better descriptions, and your readers will feel like they’re there too.
Once you’ve done these three things, things will flow more smoothly. You may still get blocked from time to time, but you can get through it.