I’m just diving into the serious rubber-meets-the road work of my new novel. I don’t have a title yet, just a cast of characters, an idea I want to explore, and a vague shape of the story I want to tell. I’ve spent the past few weeks noodling ideas, jotting in notebooks, and reading research materials; now it’s time to write.
Here are some of the tools I use to get my novel from idea to words on a page.
1. Basic Research
Research is important to a novel, but it can be a deep, dark rabbit hole that gets in the way of the actual writing. As I’m assembling a novel in my mind, I try to do the bare minimum research I need to get the story moving. I don’t yet need to know what kind of shoes my character wears, but I do need to know what is happening in the world around her (in the case of my new book, a war) and some details about her life at that time. I need a basic timeline of the real world and enough facts about events that I can make sure I’m writing a story that could actually happen in that time and place.
For Dora’s story, I’ve read a few works of fiction, including some children’s books (thanks to author Pamela Toler for that tip.) I’ve read a couple for memoirs and some historical non-fiction. Supplemented by internet research and a browse through some news, film, and radio archives, I have enough to know that the story in my head will fit the real-world events of that time and place. Later, once I have a first draft done, I’ll do more detailed research to make sure I get everything right.
2. Find the Emotional Core
YA author, Nina LaCour shares her methods for getting to the emotional core of a story in her Slow Novel Lab course. When I write, I usually start with a character and build a plot around her. For this new book, I’m interested in where Dora is emotionally at the beginning of the book, and what she needs to discover about herself as she goes through this story. I don’t yet know exactly what happens in the second half of the book, or how it ends (although this is slowly starting to take shape.) I doknow what Dora (and the reader) need to understand about the world when the book is over.
That said, I’ll be writing with my fingers crossed that the rest of the story reveals itself as I move forward.
3. Uncover the Story
Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is a great tool for getting to the real meat of the story. Her exercises help me dig into my characters to really understand them and their stories. I use Lisa’s methods to get to the heart of the story, to understand why what happens in the plot will matter to my character, and why readers will care about any of it.
4. Get into the Character’s Skin
A few years ago I took a brilliant workshop at UCLA with actor/writer Leon Martell. Leon taught us how to use acting techniques to get into the heads of our characters. Dora came out of a series of exercises in that workshop. She was originally a supporting character, but she came to life for me in that class. When other class members began asking questions about her, I realized that it was her story I needed to tell. As I start to get Dora onto the page, I’ll go back to the exercises from this class to bring Dora to life.
5. Capture the Ideas
Index cards are my BFF. I’ll have hundreds of them by the time this book is done. I use them to capture ideas, to jot down scenes I know need to be in the story, and ultimately to bring a shape to the story I’m telling. I write my early drafts in a program called Scrivener, which has a digital index card system, but I still prefer to handwrite notes. That way I can spread my cards out on the floor, move them around, and get a clear visual image of how the story will hang together.
6. Map out the Plot
When it’s time to commit to an order for my cards, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel is my go-to guide for building a compelling plot. Save the Cat! is a method of plotting out a story and developing key scenes that can be used as milestones in the long writing process. I use it to create a Beat Sheet of scenes I know must be included.
I keep my plot loose for the first draft and give myself permission to circle back and change things as the story unfolds. Save the Cat! gives me a road map while I write.
7. Place Butt in Chair
Finally, we come to the most valuable tool in my arsenal for getting a novel started. No matter what tools I use to get my story going, at some point, I need to deposit my posterior in my chair and get the writing done.
And that’s what I’m doing this week.
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