5 Steps to Take Before Writing a Novel

There are so many tips about how to write a novel. And there are even more tips on what to do with that novel once you’ve finished it. But, what about the things you should do before you start writing a novel?

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Okay, I can already hear some of you out there saying, “Sometimes you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just need to jump in and go. Write, write, write!” Yes, I agree. However, if you’re serious about doing something with your novel after you finish it, then there are some important steps to take before you go full throttle.

5 Steps to Take Before Writing A Novel

1: Fall in love

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It’s not always easy to know if you’re in love with a story until you begin developing it. However, you should be in love with the idea. Novels are no picnic. They take months (or, more often, years) to write, invite criticism, and get rejected–again and again. If you don’t love yours from the very beginning, then you’re probably not going to make it past the first obstacle (which could come as early as the first draft; heck, maybe even the first chapter).

So, before you begin writing a story, ask yourself, “Do I love this idea?” If the answer’s, “No, not really,” then you might want to consider another idea.

2: Sell it!

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You came up with an idea that you love. Excellent! But, wait. Don’t start writing yet. Just because you love an idea doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. To others, it might sound dull, or confusing, or similar to a story they’ve read before. So, swallow your nerves (and pride) and go talk to your most trusted–and honest–friends/family/writing pals. See what they think of the idea. Note their facial expressions, read their body language, and listen to their words. It’s hard for many of us to accept criticism, but if someone finds a flaw with our work, even in its earliest stages, we need to consider it.

Now, if your idea gets a lackluster reaction, don’t automatically throw it in the trash (if you do, you probably didn’t love it as much as you thought you did). Talk to your critics first. Ask them why they don’t like it. Is it because it sounds like another story they’ve read? Is it because they’re not a fan of horror (or whatever genre your story is)? Is it because they started daydreaming in the middle of your pitch? Remember, your friends and family are human. Therefore, they’re subjective.

My best advice: pitch your idea to at least three people (preferably those who will, without a doubt, give you their most honest opinion). Then gauge their reaction before you fully commit yourself to a project that could consume years of your life.

3: Research the market

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Say you have a dream about a world where love is outlawed. You wake up and think, “Hmm, that was weird, but it could be a cool book.” So, you mull it over and decide you love the idea. But, instead of outlawing love, you decide to make love a disease that needs to be cured, and your main character needs to prove to the world it isn’t. It’s a gift!

Ooh, that’s good. Really good.

So, you roll up your sleeves and begin writing your story. You mention the concept to a friend, but they’re not a big reader, so they think it’s great, too. Encouraged by their positive reaction, you write and write and write. Finally, you have a presentable draft to send to your beta readers. Three of the four tell you, “I’d be careful. This story is really similar to Lauren Oliver’s, ‘Delirium.'” You frown and Google “Delirium.” Your jaw drops. The plot is nearly identical to yours.

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Don’t let this scenario happen to you! Before you dive into an idea you love, find out if it’s been done before. Ask Google, talk to your bookworm friends, get input from your trustworthy writing pals, chat with a librarian, etc. If your idea is popular enough, someone is bound to give you a head’s up. And then you can decide to either alter it, drop it, or continue to write it knowing it’s already been done before.

4: Pinpoint your target audience

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You have a cute idea for a romance that you really like, so you pitch it to your friends. They think it’s cute too (yay!). You sit down and begin writing. You don’t really think about what type of romance you’re creating (you don’t really know there are different types of romances out there, each for a specific audience). So, you write in happy bliss until you finish and send the novel off to a handful of beta readers. Their feedback trickles in. Most are positive and think it just needs some tweaking. One, however, is confused. They can’t figure out if your novel fits in rom-com, erotica, or women’s fiction. It has a little of everything. But, you decide to ignore them because they’re the only one who complained, and polish the manuscript up. You send it off to agents, nervous and excited, confident you’ll have a request for your full manuscript within weeks.

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Crickets! Why? Because you had no defined audience. Instead of narrowing your focus, you tried to appeal to three different markets: Women who wanted a lighthearted, funny story. Women who wanted hot, steamy sex. And women who wanted an emotional, soul-searching journey. As tempting as it is to reach far and wide with your story, you have to zero in on a specific group. Not only will that help an agent sell it (or yourself if you’re self-publishing), but it’ll help you put together a stronger, more cohesive story.

Now, I understand figuring out your target audience might be difficult before you start writing a novel. However, you should have a decent idea of who you’re writing for before you type the first word. Children? Young adults? Women? Men? Both men and women? As you write subsequent drafts, narrow your focus to a specific group.

5: Set goals

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“I guess I’ll write today.”

“I’m not really sure what I want to do with this book.”

“I’ll just go with the flow and see where things lead.” 

If you enter a project feeling aimless, then chances are you’ll never finish it. Or you’ll stop and go, stop and go, and it’ll take you years to reach the final chapter. Trust me, I’d know. That’s why I strongly urge you to create goals. They become the backbone of our success. Personally, I like to set three before I begin a novel.

  1. An ultimate goal. AKA, what to do with a story once it’s finished. Get published by one of the Big Five? Self-publish? Or write purely to write? There is no wrong answer.
  2. A deadline goal to help you reach the finish line in a timely manner. Circle a date on your calendar and aim to finish your first draft by it. Or present a copy to your beta readers. Or send your first batch of query letters. Or hire an editor to evaluate the story. Whatever! The type of deadline is up to you. Just try and be as specific about it as possible.
  3. A daily goal to keep you on track to meet your deadline. This should be a quantifiable objective, like word count, timed hours, or completed chapters.

Sometimes when we sit down to write, all we want to do is write. No plan, no concept, no long-term commitment. Just write! And that’s great. However, once we make the decision to commit to a novel, and finish it, and do something with it, we need to consider each of these steps. You might not come up with an exact answer for each one, but you should at least consider each one before embarking on your writing journey.

Good luck with your project!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Why, Why, Why

The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue  that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points out to them.

Jen's Editing Tips

“What’s the point of this story?”

“Your plot feels aimless.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Why is that happening?”

“Why? Why? WHY?”

As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”

“Why am I writing this story?”

“Why does my protagonist exist?”

“Why will readers care?”

You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.

Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?

As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again,  “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.

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Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.

Characters

Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.

Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”

“Why does this character exist?”

“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”

“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”

Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.

Plots

Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.

Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:

“Why does this plot exist?”

“Why is this scene relevant?”

“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”

Words, Words, Words

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I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:

“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”

“Why did I use dialogue here?”

“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”

Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.

The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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How To Write A Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use

Welcome to Twitter Treasure Thursday! This week, I found lots and lots of writing gems on Twitter. The one I finally decided to go with seemed perfect for the majority of us. No matter what point you’re at in your project, this article, via @WritersDigest and @jennifermcmahon, is sure to have at least one useful tip for you to consider:

How To Write A Novel: 7 Tips Everyone Can Use 

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2. Begin with character. Make her flawed and believable. Let her live and breathe and give her the freedom to surprise you and take the story in unexpected directions. If she’s not surprising you, you can bet she’ll seem flat to your readers. One exercise I always do when I’m getting to know a character is ask her to tell me her secrets. Sit down with a pen and paper and start with, “I never told anybody…” and go from there, writing in the voice of your character.

To read the entire article, click here!

And for more useful advice, follow Writer’s Digest and Jennifer McMahon on Twitter!

Photo credit: http://www.professorbeej.com/2010/07/writing-my-novel-keep-on-writing.html