Monday, January 23, 2017

WRITING YOUR NOVEL: Part 1- Forging the Idea

Ideas for writing your novel
You chose to write a novel? You chose pain? Hardship? Agony? Months, maybe years, of thankless hard work almost assuredly doomed to end in heartbreak?

What were you thinking?

Okay, okay. In all seriousness, writing a novel can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your creative life. You get to feel the immense joy of forging a world, filling it with interesting people, and disappearing into it at will. You get to vicariously launch on an adventure that would almost certainly never happen in your normally banal daily existence. You get to feel like almost like a god, channeling a universe so real it's like you are grasping it out of the very ether. And if you are really good, your work, your world, your characters, could very well outlive you.

But there is a dark side. The things those who have never tried to write a novel could never conceive. The sagging social life. The hours writing, erasing, re-writing and erasing again. The torment of oscillating between knowing you are the next Tolkien, then coming to grips with the fact you are not. And then, once you think your hard work, your blood, sweat, and soul, is polished and ready for the world, you hit the rejections. Rejection after rejection like endless waves breaking on a storm-tossed sea. Hundreds of them. Beating you down until you start to wish you had never started this torturous journey in the first place.

Congratulations, writer, your epic journey has begun....

If you are like me, this curse started with an idea. It was powerful! POW! Like a crack of lightning it brought you almost to your knees! Probably in the most unexpected place: standing on the subway, walking to work, sitting on the toilet. Eureka! In a brilliant moment of unbridled inspiration, you suddenly became a novelist. And your idea was so potent, so real, it had to be fate. The tides of the world must surely have shifted to make way for you and your story. It was going to change everything.

That's great! Now what? How do you turn that blinding moment of ecstatic creation into the brilliant, bestseller you are sure it is destined to be? Blindly write on into the darkness with no map? Or like Bilbo Baggins, dragged from his front door towards the Lonely Mountain wishing at every step he'd just brought his damn hat? Perhaps that will work. But probably not.

Stumbling into the void with no guide, no compass, no Gandalf, is probably the quickest way to find yourself into the cook pot of trolls. Then the dream is over. No bestseller. No everlasting masterpiece. There must a better way.

I think there is.

It's called pre-writing. Don't skip it! You need a plan. You need a world. You need people in this world and situations thwarting their every step. It's time for your idea to hatch.

Don't fret. I know you want to get to the writing, the good stuff, but to me this is one of the most fun stages of the whole process. You get to create your world. And you don't yet have to worry about a thing. Not if your sentences flow or if your verbs are sharp or your chapters flowing. Just pure joyous creation!

Here a few suggestions for pre-writing that have worked for me and might also work for you!

Ponder your main characters in depth. Start with the basics. What do they look like? What are their strengths? Weaknesses? What motivates them? In a broad sense, how do you want them to change? It is not a bad idea to think already about your marketing, those future query letters you will one day write to agents and publishers. Readers (and editors by extension) want character-driven fiction. What makes this character interesting? What makes them unique among the thousands and thousands of other characters in the vast canon of literature? How can they stand out above all those others? I suggest writing several pages of description and backstory. Very quickly, especially when you get a few characters deep, ideas will pour in that you had never considered without your pre-writing. You'll discover natural tensions and plot points that seem inevitable when you put your now-complex character in your equally complex world. The deeper you mine, the richer the gold. You should always know more about your characters than you ever reveal to your reader.

Even if you are writing literary realism, conceiving of the world in which your book is set is vital to making your novel textured and believable. Deeply consider your setting. Is it somewhere you know? In contemporary times? If so, take a journal into the heart of it and observe. Notice details you never have seen before. How do the people around you react to them? Sit in a coffee shop and perk your ears to every conversation, one at a time. Be specific. And what if you are writing fantasy or sci-fi? Your task is even more interesting. You have to create a believable system of politics, government, currency, culture. It has to be deep. It has to be specific. If you want the reader to suspend their disbelief, to buy into the lies they know you are about to tell them, you have to sell it and sell it like a pro. You better be good! Draw maps, write a historical timeline going back to the dawn of time. Create emblems for nations, banners for competing Houses, family trees with twisted branches. Make yourself sick with detail until you can't stand it any more.

I suggest doing this last, because once you know your characters and know your world, ideas will pour into your book so fast you will barely be able to contain them. Some people like immensely detailed outlines, claiming it allows a controlled rough draft that will feel more polished when they get to that bone-chilling climax. Others, like Stephen King, prefer to shoot from the hip, hoping  that spontaneity will move their story in directions they could never have imagined otherwise. My advice? Blend the two. Keep your first outline vague, that way you have a map to guide your action so everything, every scene is unified in its aim of bringing your world to its appropriate greatness. Then, as you reach each new scene, a more detailed outline for the next few thousand words will help keep you from writing yourself into a corner.

That's it for this first post. Writing a novel is one of the hardest, yet most gratifying things you will ever do. One person's method will obviously not work for everyone, and you will without a doubt forge your own strategy and hone it with every bit of skill you possess. If you take anything from this essay, which has run far longer than I intended, I hope it is this: write because you love it. Write with passion. And write with inspiration. Even if the book does not become a bestseller, you will be richly rewarded by your wildest dreams.

Sign up for my mailing list for weekly updates on new posts, stories and announcements.

Read Part 2 in the series, Surviving the First Draft.

find us on facebook

Follow Me on Twitter!

Sign up for my Mailing List

All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions


  1. Great post! :)

    My novel writing changed most when I started planning more than just the beginning of the book prior to writing it. I went from running out of steam around 15k words to making it (relatively) easily all the way to the end.

    I don't tend to do as much worldbuilding in advance as you suggest, though. I do some, then go there with my characters, and once I've lived in the world for a while I'm ready to flesh out additional details. Otherwise it's too easy to get bogged down with minor things that will never make it to the story, get bored or discouraged, and give up.

    1. Thanks! I like hearing everyone's differing strategies. I tend to be more a planner than improviser. It works for me. I almost never get bored ;) Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post! World building is such an essential part of writing, and these tips are helpful. Keep it up!