This is the second post in the Confessions of a New Author series. This series chronicles my adventures of becoming a self-published author, from the very moment I woke up and decided to be an author to when I finally published my debut novel and beyond.
So you’ve decided you want to be an author. Now what?
Before you take your pen to paper (or your fingertips to the keyboard), you might want to do a little bit of planning. How much planning? That is entirely up to you. Some authors wing it: they have an idea and roll with the punches as they type (I tried this approach). Other authors plan out every little detail from the color of the protagonist’s shirt on the first page to the weather on page 49 (I tried this approach too). Every author is different, meaning there is no right or wrong way to approach writing your first novel. As long as you write!
The first time I sat down to write “Novel A” (which is still work in progress), I made a very sparse outline. I planned out the general direction of the plot, my main character first names, and where I wanted my story to take place. My outline was less than 2 pages long. I figured having a very non-detailed outline meant that I could get as creative as I wanted to without limitations. But I soon discovered that the seat-of-my-pants approach didn’t work well for me. While I could write whatever I wanted without bounds, my plot ended up taking turns that didn’t contribute to the overall plot. I had written about six chapters before I realized that my novel was dragging on longer than a bad sitcom. My characters were very one-dimensional, and the intimate scenes were ill-placed.
I ended up going back to the drawing board, deciding that I needed to plan out my novel to a tee. I should’ve known that, seeing as I planned out all of my papers in college in a very careful, meticulous manner. While it took longer to properly plan out my first novel, by the end of the planning process (which took a few days), I not only knew my plot line and the exact direction it was going to take, but I also felt like I knew exactly who my characters were. I became more than excited to write my first novel. (That book ended up taking a backseat to Finding Paradise, which was an idea that came to me about three chapters into rewriting Novel A and would not be ignored.)
If you decide that planning out your first novel (as opposed to writing by the seat of your pants with little to no planning) is right for you, creating an outline is the first place to start. Many writers take different approaches to how their outlines are structured so it may be a process of trial and error to find what works best for you.
My generic outline included key factors that are quite essential to any plot:
- Title (or working title)
- Main problem
- Event that sets the story in motion (catalyst)
- Obstacle(s) & how they are overcome
- Final showdown (biggest conflict)
- Triumph (or cliffhanger)
Let’s examine each of these elements.
TITLE: Every novel/novella has a title. However, just because you choose a title now doesn’t mean you have to stick with that title. Once your plot develops, you may find that your original title choice no longer fits the story, or you stumble across something that would make an even better title. I chose to use a “working title,” meaning that I can change it at any time. I tried to not get attached to my title and keep an open mind about it. “Finding Paradise” was also named “Lost in Your Paradise” and “Finding Your Paradise” before I decided on “Finding Paradise” after the first draft was finished.
HOOK: This is an excellent way to really hone in on what you want your novel to focus on. Think of it as a 1-3 sentence quick description that you would give someone when they ask “what’s your book about?” (because you will get that question a lot once you announce you’re writing a novel). It’s much shorter than a novel description that you’ll need to write once you get ready to publish. For example, the hook or blurb I created for “Finding Paradise”:
After discovering her longtime boyfriend is having a baby with another woman, a heartbroken college woman escapes to Hawaii for the summer and becomes enchanted by both the island life and a local, who is hiding a secret that could crush her all over again.
MAIN PROBLEM: No one wants to read a book where there is no struggle or issue to be dealt with. Chances are, you already know what your main problem or conflict is. It’s probably already written in your hook, and it could be more than one conflict intertwined in another. In “Finding Paradise,” the main conflict is that my main character was heartbroken because her boyfriend is having a baby with another woman. One problem (heartbreak) intertwined with another (boyfriend is having a baby with another woman).
CATALYST: The catalyst is the event that sets your story in motion. This is where you want to drop your reader – right in the middle of the action. What sets your character on his/her journey through your novel? That might even be written in your hook too (see how important the hook is?). In “Finding Paradise,” the event that set the story in motion was the baby confession by the main character’s boyfriend.
OBSTACLE(S)/CONFLICT(S): So you have your main problem – why would you need more conflicts? Because life is hard and when it rains, it pours, especially in the fiction world. Nothing should be easy for your characters, whether it be a simple misunderstanding or an embarrassing moment in public or catastrophic loss. I know it sounds terrible, you want your character to suffer to make them stronger (more about that in a later post about character arc and development). You don’t necessarily have to let your character find a way to overcome their obstacle, but giving them a break once in a while might lift the heaviness from your story (it all, of course, depends on how you want to shape your plot)
FINAL SHOWDOWN: Much like an old Western flick, the final showdown is the highest conflict of the entire plot. Here is where you see what your character is made of, how they’ve developed, and the crossroads they must face. This conflict should be the strongest of the entire story – a make-or-break moment, if you will.
TRIUMPH/CLIFFHANGER: Here is where your story will end – or not end. That’s entirely up to you. Do you want a happily ever after? Or a shocking conclusion? Or maybe a cliffhanger that leaves your reader begging for more?
I took the generic outline I had previously made with the above elements and expanded it quite a bit to include details of my plot chapter by chapter. This is really where it took time to create my outline because I really thought about the different paths I wanted my novel to take and the scenes I wanted my characters in. However, while it did take more time upfront, I felt that it helped me in the long run after I started to write my first draft because I was able to stay on track and focus on events that would come into play later in the plot.
How (and if) you plan your novel is entirely up to you – the author is in full control of their work. Take a stab at the generic planning and if that works for you, there’s no need to plan out your novel chapter by chapter. If you find yourself wanting to plan your plot out to a tee, meticulously planning each chapter might be the way for you. Whatever you choose to do, remember: you are in control of your novel, your characters, your plot. This story is yours to write, so have fun, get creative, and write it for yourself, not for anyone else.
Thank you for reading, and keep writing your heart out.