When I was still employed full-time, and dragging myself into the office from Monday to Friday, I used to watch the television series Castle and fantasize about having that kind of life. The freedom to spend your days doing interesting research, having a group of writing buddies to play poker with (backgammon would actually be my game of choice), attending book signings and comic cons – in short, having a really fun day instead of slogging away behind a desk.
Now, slogging away earned me a pension and enough money to do much of the travel that populates my books, so it was a viable means to an end. But it was far from fulfilling. After I took early retirement, I decided it was time to try writing the book series I’d been scribbling notes about for years.
The key word here was ‘try’. I suffered from what most novice writers do: a lack of confidence. Until you’ve completed your first novel (or other form of book), you truly have no idea whether you’re capable of it. And the only way to find out is to try. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.
I’d made fits and starts for many years while still working, but I was always worried about whether I was wasting my time. And it’s difficult to really get into a book while squeezing it in after work and between things like cleaning the house.
That autumn I decided to finally jump on the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) bandwagon. The idea is to write 50,000 words of a new book between the beginning and end of November. It’s a marathon: roughly 1667 words every day for 30 days straight. But I decided a month wasn’t a huge amount of time to have devoted if it didn’t work out, and if I did complete my quota, I’d have the makings of a full novel. And I really liked the event mantra of just getting those words out of your head and onto ‘paper’, not worrying about editing or polishing it. After all, nothing else happens until you write that first draft. The freedom to just write, good or bad, broke through that fear wall I’d been standing on one side of. If I decided it was garbage afterwards, I didn’t have to show it to anyone. And if it was pretty good, well then…
There are hundreds of writing groups that convene, loosely speaking, during NaNoWriMo, for any writing theme or type of writer. There’s also a very active Forum where people toss ideas around, ask questions, or pass the time. What surprised me the most about some of the comments was the number of people who signed up for the writing sprint without any idea of a book to start with.
For me, everything starts with that nugget of an idea. You flesh it out into a story, nurse it along, sweat over it, and hopefully produce something you can work with. But there has to be that idea, that ‘hmm, what if this happened?’ concept.
It’s said there are only seven basic plots, and each of these has been told again and again and again, in different variations. What fascinates me is how many great writers find ways to put a different spin on a time-honoured plot.
So you have your nugget. How do you turn that into a full-fledged novel?
All stories consist of several essential components:
- Your protagonist – the heroine/hero of your story. They must be a fully-developed person (or other creature): strengths, weaknesses, faults. You must know them inside-out – where they came from, what influenced their lives, what they think, how they’ll react in the situations you’re going to put them in. Well, mostly; it’s fun when they surprise you on occasion.
- The “Inciting Incident”. This is the change in your protagonist’s life that sets her/him/them on the path taken in the novel. Maybe it’s a vengeance plot, or a romance, or a quest for a magic sword. And because of this important incident, the protagonist then has:
- A strong goal. This goal drives the protagonist forward to the climax of the plot.
- Antagonist(s). There will be people (or creatures) that get in the way of achieving that goal. They may want to prevent the heroine from achieving her goal for reasons of their own, or they may want to harm the heroine, or they’re just inimical to the heroine’s existence. Whatever the case, the antagonist must be strong enough as a character to keep the ultimate outcome unpredictable (unless the book is a romance, where the outcome is fairly obvious but the journey to get there is the interesting part).
- Challenges. These are the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey that form the plot.
- All of the challenges build until the blockbuster climax of the story. If you’ve done your work well, the climax resonates with your readers on many levels.
- The denouement, where everything wraps up and ties up – unless you’re writing a multi-book series, in which case everything doesn’t tie up, and this section leaves some intriguing questions in your readers’ minds that will make them pant for the next book.
Some authors advocate writing backwards – that is, knowing what the ending of the book is going to be, and then filling in the protagonist’s journey to bring her/him/them to that conclusion. That is the plotting method I used, not on purpose really, but I already knew where my heroine had to end up at the close of each of the first two books in my series in order for her to face the situations she has to face in the final book.
There was a lot of work to get her through the first book. Although my books are a mix of urban fantasy and science fiction, I incorporate real places in the world (although I tweak them a fair bit) and real history (tweaked also 😊). I conducted a great deal of research to get the feel and the details right, to create a level of authenticity in my readers’ minds that would give them the sense that my story might actually have taken place, somewhere in another layer of our world that isn’t seen by most people.
I have files on all my main characters – their backgrounds, where they live, their wardrobes even. I have a fictional town that I’ve mapped out in considerable detail, and a fictional college that lives in full colour in my head.
There’s a lot more that goes into creating a book than will fit into a single blog post, but you can see why I was amazed at people who start the November challenge without even an idea. I think you could bang out a quick book in 30 days, but it would be very superficial, or very short. My favourite kind of book is full of layers and adventure, so that’s what I strived to write. According to my beta readers (my recruits who very kindly volunteered their time to read the second draft and critique it), I succeeded. Now I’m working on the final edit and plan to publish later this year.
That’s been my journey so far. If you have an idea for a book that just won’t leave you alone – that keeps pushing at you enough that you’re frequently jotting notes for a scene, or a plot twist, or a conversation – and you’re willing to see what you can do with it, maybe there’s a complete book somewhere inside you just waiting to see the light of the computer page.