Part 2 of my novel writing process is here! Or, part 1b, I suppose… we’re talking about story ideas again today!
In my last post, I went over the big picture things, now we start trying to get into the more nitty gritty. It’s taken a while to write this one, but there’s a good reason.
I’m going through this process with you!
For this series of blog posts, they could be quite far apart (or not) and they may be short or quite long (like this one is). To be honest, it really depends on where I’m at with my work in progress. I need to take the time to develop my ideas, so I can then share the process with you. But, without further ado, here is part 1b!
So, after a few days or weeks or months of brainstorming, you start to crystallise the essence of an idea. You have a rough idea of what you want to write about, a sense of some sort of setting, characters, conflict, theme, plot. Where to from there? Well, here are five places you could go next…
- GO DEEPER IN BRAINSTORMING
Brainstorm in more detail, with more specificity.
For me at least.
I know, I know. It’s so enticing to want to just get stuck into writing, getting a story on paper. But, for me, I really, really need to know where the story is going before I start.
So, what does going deeper in your brainstorming look like?
For me, it’s a mix. On one hand, it looks like general musings, ponderings, and ‘noodling’ around, honing what I want to write and how I want it to feel or what I really want it to be. This is usually just in a notebook, or even in my head while I work on some other task or other.
On the other hand, the process looks a bit more ‘concrete’. For instance, it looks like taking those four key pillars I mentioned in my previous blog post – see The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction by C. S. Lakin – and really digging into them. This book is particularly useful, because at the end of each section Lakin provides some handy questionnaires to get you thinking about your characters, conflict, themes, etc. Taking the time to go through these exercises has paid massive dividends for me – both with Seregn and with the project I’m working on at the moment.
With my next work in progress, I’m starting to go deep in my brainstorming with the characters. One of the best ways to do this is to consider the character’s core ‘need’ and ‘want’.
C.S. Lakin discusses this, as do many other authors in one iteration or another. Note a core ‘need’ and ‘want’ are usually two very different things. I’m sure you’d agree that, in life, what we want and what we need are often not the same thing! This concept works on a physical and spiritual level. For instance, a character may ‘want’ revenge, but what they ‘need’ is to learn forgiveness. A character may ‘want’ to fall in love, but maybe they ‘need’ to learn their own value as an individual. A character may even want to slay the dragon, but what they actually ‘need’ could be relationship, acclaim… the list goes on!
Once I know what the character wants and needs, I can begin to craft the story around them with more clarity, cohesion, and purpose. The themes start to crystallise – (e.g. love, forgiveness, mercy, courage…). The conflict can start to take shape (if someone is our for revenge, the story could be about how they were wronged, what they have to do to get the person back, how they succeed or fail along the way, do they have a crisis of conscience or go through with the act(s) of revenge etc…). I can begin to think about how to make it harder for the character to accomplish both what they ‘want’ to achieve, and grow to attain or become what they truly ‘need’. The struggle, the conflict, is what your readers are there for, after all!
Additionally, you can use this concept of want/need to craft a compelling backstory. For example – why does the character want a relationship? Were they ignored as a child? Unhealthily attached or co-dependent? What is driving them forward?
All of the above focusses on the characters as the start of growing a story, because that’s where I naturally gravitate as I start to take the general idea and grow it. But, not all authors work that way. For other writers, the story world and plot comes first. And that’s just as valid! If you have a cool setting, start to think about who could live there or what could happen in that environment. If you have an awesome plot point, consider where it would happen and who could be involved.
2. GO BITE SIZED
When you’re trying to plan or write a book, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. For me, thinking of potentially trying to plan a series became so frustrating and difficult recently that I said ‘you know what, I’m going to take my two favourite characters, and just write a book about THEM’! I gave myself permission to not try to accomplish something massive, but simply focus on what I was most interested in. It was releasing, and allowed me to play with ideas without having to try to fit them into a larger narrative.
In the end, an idea sparked, then another, and suddenly these two characters who were going to be in a standalone of their own were grafted back into the idea of a series – because without the stress of having to figure out how they fit, I could just write what I wanted for them, and in the end it tied in amazingly well (and I’m so excited to write their storyline!).
So, if the idea of planning a whole novel is a bit much, just pick something small to focus on, and give yourself the time and grace to work on it!
3. GO TO THE IMAGES IN YOUR HEAD
If you’re like me, you might have vague pictures in your head already of scenes, characters, places. But sometimes, if you take a step back from all your attempts at plot and theme and story, you can visualise some amazing image or specific scene in your head without even trying to ‘make it fit’ into what you’ve got already.
Let me encourage you, if you’re struggling, take a step back, and just try to imagine an important, or epic scene. Or a simple one. Doing this gave me some incredible ideas and at least two are now fairly firmly cemented in my idea for my next book. One of those scenes I stumbled upon is even the climax of a storyline!
I truly believe sometimes, we just need to give our imagination space. A break. Let the inspiration of something amazing pop up, even if it makes no sense at first. Don’t be afraid to step back, and just imagine. What looks super amazing in your head?
4. GO TO YOUR PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
Often our own lives can provide some fantastic fodder for the imagination.
For instance, two of my characters are married. When my husband Gabriel and I were engaged, part of our church’s ‘policy’ was to have a session or two of marriage counselling before the wedding. This wasn’t anything big or dramatic, but we chatted with the counsellor and each filled out a questionnaire, which the counsellor then compared and ran through. It meant if we scored very differently in a particular area, we knew we needed to focus on it and ensure we came to a good understanding with each other before we got married.
So, I did that for my characters! I looked at the categories our questionnaire covered – e.g. finances, time with friends and family, how to spend leisure time – to prompt thoughts on where my characters might disagree. If I found something that was interesting enough, I added it into my brainstorming.
Suddenly, I had ideas about where conflict might arise and how each character would have to grow to overcome it. Hooray! In the end, even if those ideas are only hinted at or don’t make it in, it’s helped me understand some of how the characters may interact.
5. GO TO YOUR INTERESTS
Ok, maybe, besides your amazing writerly talent, you have a keen (or even general) interest in science, in outer space, in botany, in knitting, in the history of artillery, in the fashion of the 1860s. Whatever it is, there’s a reason you are drawn to these things. Indulge your curiosity a bit, and explore. You never know what may spark a thought that leads to an idea for your story! Now, be careful not to get stuck in the research loop, but also, don’t be afraid to take the time to learn about things you’re interested in. It sparks new thoughts and creativity that can be expressed in many ways – including your writing.
So, that’s my thoughts at the moment. The planning is still messy, vague, and optional, but I’m slowly starting to find a story I want to tell, and I’m so excited by that – and also a little intimidated!
It’s undoubtedly a long process, but for me, it’s so, so worth it.
How about you? How do you start working on a story idea and making it a little more ‘concrete’?
Let me know!
Seregn‘s first three chapters are still available for free! You can sign up to my email list below and they’ll be on their way (just don’t forget to check you spam folder if it doesn’t appear)!