(in completely unrelated news, I've (finally!) updated my profile pic. click HERE to see the shiny)
Last week I began working on the first draft of a brand new novel (my fifth, if anyone's counting). After working on my last novel for 10 straight months, starting a new one is like standing at the base of a mountain and looking up.
And getting dizzy, wobbly. Wanting to give up before you even take one step.
In a word, overwhelming.
This is normal, and unfortunately, it doesn't go away no matter how many completed novels you have behind you. Creating something out of nothing is a daunting task.
So here is how I, personally, ease myself into a new project.
The first thing I have to have, before I can do anything, is a character and a conflict. Without those two basic things, I have no story to develop. At this point, the character should at least have a name, but the conflict does not have to be anything hugely conceptual. I'll fine tune that later.
Once I have a distinct character in mind and a basic problem they must overcome, then I can test out their voice by writing a bit of story through that character's viewpoint. It takes no more than a single scene, just a few pages, to know whether or not I've got a character I can work with for the length of a novel.
A few things I look for during the initial writing test:
* do I really feel like I'm living the scene through her eyes, not mine?
* is her unique personality clearly discerned by the words coming to my mind to express her?
* does she have a distinct starting view of herself and her situation, and others? (something that is able to change by the end of the story)
* how does she interact with the other characters? is it fluid, or does it feel forced?
If my new character passes this test, then I move on to the tougher issues of building a novel -- the story and structure.
This is when I pull out my handy dandy beat sheet. I seriously don't even know how I wrote a coherent story of any kind before I started using Blake Snyder's beat sheet. It's that vital. (the beat sheet is found on p. 70 of Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, and should be used only after reading the book and coming to an understanding of how all the elements work together)
This early in the game, though, I usually can't fill in much past the midpoint, because a lot of the second half of my story is dependent on what happens in the first half. And the details of that are unknown to me until I start writing it in story form. That's the beauty of letting the majority of your story develop organically.
Using a beat sheet does not confine you to a strict pre-planned plot. It simply helps you focus on those critical beginning elements in a way that results in a story worth writing.
Going back to what I initially started with -- a character and a conflict -- I can start to fill in some of those beginning beats.
Inciting Incident (opening) -- the character's starting point and what change I want to introduce in the opening chapter that sets the plot in motion
Theme -- (blank for now. I don't usually know what this is until I'm nearly done with the first draft)
Set-up (from opening to the catalyst) -- aside from emphasizing the character's starting point, I don't focus on this too much until revisions, when I know exactly what it is I need to set up, and the best way to do it
Catalyst -- STOP
This is where you really need to stop and think about your premise and the strength of your story's hook. Because the catalyst is what will thrust your character into the decision-making that inevitably leads to the premise. You can't come up with an appropriate catalyst if you don't know what you're pushing the character toward.
So now is the time to do a bit of brainstorming and fine tuning of your premise. There are a few ways you can go about this, but in my experience, the most effective is to simply craft a pitch for your idea, half-baked as it is. It's okay. You're the only person who will see it at this point.
Write a one-paragraph description of your idea, then whittle it down to one sentence. By doing so your hook becomes sharper, and you can then see clearly what elements you need to put that concept into action.
This is also the point where I do my best to think up a snappy title, one that fits my premise. And speaking of titles, it's a good idea, once you have a solid premise, to search for what you feel are comp titles to your project. Read the jacket blurbs and compare their story hooks to yours. This, again, will help you pinpoint weak spots, and fine tune until you come up with a stellar premise -- one worth the time and effort it requires to finish a novel-length project.
So. Once you've done all that, you're no doubt feeling a surge of confidence in this new project. Enough so that you email your CP at 3am with the longest, most rambly bunch of garbage ever that basically just says, "I'm excited about this one! here's why!" Except with about ten zillion more exclamation points. And then you refresh your email every hour on the hour until she reassures you with a simple, "sounds good!" and that's enough to keep your mojo going for weeks.
Or is that just me?
Anyway. Back to the beat sheet.
Now that you've come up with TEH BEST PREMISE EVAH you should have a better idea of how to get your character into the meat of that premise by way of the catalyst. At this point, you're still just brainstorming the flow of the story, so don't think that just because you fill in something specific by "catalyst" that it is now set in stone to happen that way.
Nope. Anything on this beat sheet can change, at any moment. All you have to do is think it up.
After the catalyst comes...
Debate -- this beat is peanut butter cup cheesecake once you know your exact premise and your catalyst, because it's basically just a bridge between the two. It's your character's final chance to back out of the forward momentum of the plot, but of course she won't back out (or there'd be no story).
This section ends with the decision to go through with whatever it is that your main premise is made up of. Best example of this is the "red pill or blue pill" decision in The Matrix. Neo has one last chance to back out in that scene. He doesn't. There's no reversing what's been set in motion now.
And so begins the second act... enter the matrix.
It's at this point in my beat-sheeting that I pause and reflect on the beast I've created. Now that I know more details about the story I want to tell, I can get some actual writing done -- with confidence.
It is much easier to write the first act when you know what the major turning points of that act are. I will still have a lot to go back and fill in and/or change during revisions to ensure the set-up is correct, but at least now I have a basic foundation to work with.
And in my experience, once I've written the first draft up to the second act, there is less chance of me NOT sticking with it and finishing the entire novel. Something really major would have to go wrong for me to give up on the story at this point. I'm invested in the characters and I want to see how it all works out for them.
For my current work-in-progress, I'm at the "fine tuning the premise" stage. My main character passed the initial writing test and I've just begun filling out a beat sheet this week. I'm up to that crucial point of the catalyst and I've taken a step back to make sure my idea is as good as it can be (at this stage of development).
I like the title and how it connects to my main story idea and one of the main characters. That's a good start. This may end up being a keeper.