Monday, October 15, 2012

How to Prepare Before Starting a Book

Last year right before NaNoWriMo, I wrote a series of posts on How to Prepare Before Starting a Book. As an avid planner, I wanted to show the techniques I use to  get ready for that daunting first draft. 

Trust me, it works. I finished my novel in only 18 days!

Click on the link below to see the articles I posted. I'm going to make it a tradition to repose them every year in October. Enjoy!

How to Prepare Before Starting a Book

There are two kinds of writers: plotters – people who plan their novel before starting them, and pantsers – people who just type and let the book develop how it wants.

As a plotter, I’m curious how pantsing a book would even work. I think plotting makes the writing easier, faster, and better… and if I’m going to write 50,000 in 30 days this November for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), I need my writing to be all three of those things.

Beginning a book can be daunting, but preparing can make it much easier. I’m doing many things to prepare for Fierce before the clock strikes 12:01 am on November 1st.  Some things worked with my other books, some I didn't do but wish I had done, and some I've never tried before. 

Between writing Sacred Fire and Hunger, I’ve learned a few tricks, and I’m going to share my methods. After I start working on Fierce, I’ll talk about what helped, what I couldn’t live without, and what didn’t make that big of a difference.

I hope you enjoy this series and that this information will be helpful to you!

Step 1: Purpose

 You know that light bulb moment when you first have an idea? It feels like swallowing sunshine. Life is happier, food tastes better, there’s a skip in your step, and that idea is the only thing you can think about.

Somewhere along the line, we lose that feeling, don’t we? It’s easy to forget why we love our books.

Behind all books is a goal. It can be to inform, to inspire, or to entertain. As the writing develops, the goal can change along with the story. Sometimes it gets better. Sometimes it gets lost, and then you get lost.

Before I start a book, I like to write what I want it to accomplish. I’ll just type and type about my book without thinking until I have nothing more to say. Doing this helps me focus on my idea before I begin, and reading it later keeps me focused throughout the process.

You can change your purpose sheet as your book evolves, since your book will surely take different directions than what you intended originally, which is a good thing. Just be sure to keep your original draft; it’ll be fun to read once the book is done.

Step 2: Research

 Every book needs some research. Even fantasies and sci-fis have facts, only those facts aren’t real. I highly, highly, highly recommend finishing the research before starting to write, if you can. You want your story to mold to the facts, not the facts to mold to the story. That’s how you get inaccuracies.

When I wrote Sacred Fire, I made one big document where I kept all my research. Whenever I found a fact, quote, or a paragraph of useful information, I pasted it in the document along with the source (web page, book title, whatever). Then I made a table of contents so everything would be easy to find.

I made a lot of mistakes while writing my book. The way I did my research is by far my greatest regret. It was so disorganized and incomplete, and it wasted more time than I care to think about.

I’m going to try something drastically different for my Nano novel:

1.      Save Everything

While researching Sacred Fire, occasionally I would need to look up one quick little fact. When I didn’t think I would need the fact again, I wouldn’t save the information. I am shocked at how many “little facts” I needed over and over. Since I didn’t save the link, I’d have to search for it all over again.

 I’ve looked at a website about the structure of Roman homes a million times. I never save the link because I always think it would be the last time I’d need it. Come to think of it, I still haven’t saved that darn information because I don’t think I’ll need it again.

When you open a web page, you can click on File > Save and save the page to a folder. Do it for every single page you ever open. It’s not like it takes up any space, and you never know whether or not you’ll need it. My guess is, you will.

2.     Save Everything in Its Entirety

The biggest problem with my one-document research method was I would only save the specific information I thought I needed. Later, I’d need information that I already read but didn’t save. I’d have to search all over the internet for it, trying to remember what page it came from.

If I have to look up Livvy’s history of the Second Punic War one more time, I’m going to tear my hair out.

Instead of only saving what you think you’ll need, save it all and highlight what you think you’ll need. This is easy in a word document. Then you can skim through it again and highlight information you didn’t think you’d need at the time.

3.     Own All Your Books

My college had an amazing library that owned five books on the Vestal Virgins and several books about Roman religion in general. I read through them and took notes.
Just like the web pages, I often needed to see the books again and I had to go to the library.

Now I live on the other side of the country and don’t have access to those books anymore. I realized how badly I still needed them and bought a few.

Beyond looking up facts, it’s also wonderful to read through those books again to get in “the zone” before you write. My research books refresh me. They help me hear the voice of the Romans, visualize their world, get inside their heads.

Research books are also important for sentimental value. They were so much a part of my novel – they’re a part of me now – that reading them brings back memories.

4.     Print it Out

It’s easier to handle material when you have a hard copy. You can flip through to find what you need instead of opening files willy-nilly. Also, I’ve told you to save a ton of information you might not need. If you highlight sections on printed material, the important information is easy to find.

It might also be helpful to photocopy pages from books.

If you’re writing historical fiction you might need to a dozen 3-ring binders, but trust me, it’s worth it.

5.     Organize Your Folders

This goes without saying. Don’t just put all your papers in a single three-ring binder with no page dividers, don’t save your files in one folder on your desktop. Make folders for everything, even if there’s only one document in it.

6.     Use Your Research for More than Research

When I lose sight of the purpose of the book, or the voice, or it loses its flavor, flipping through my research puts me back on track. Reading over my Purpose Sheet helps with that, too.

Step 3: Outline

 I keep this outline simple. Boy meets girl, boy can’t be with girl, boy sacrifices everything to get girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. The more thorough you can make it, the better. The outline for Hunger became ten pages.

If your outline makes you feel too restricted, make it simpler. Take out the details so you have blanks to fill in. Allow yourself to make changes. I make many changes to the outline as I write, but no matter how flexible you make it, it will always be an important foundation.

One thing I love about an outline is when I get ideas faster than I can write the chapters, I can scribble them down. I’ll add quotes, dialogue, or themes to this document just to remember them.  

I also write in where there’s a gap in the story and highlight it in red so I know to get back to it later.

Eventually, you will have to make a chapter outline anyway.  At some point in a novel you have to look at all your scenes objectively and decide what to keep, what to cut, what to add, and how to arrange it all. If you’re a pantser, you do this after writing your chapters. If you’re a plotter, you do it before. Personally, I'd rather do it before.

I didn’t make an outline for Sacred Fire and I made one for Hunger, and I can’t tell you what a difference it makes. It was awful being half-way through my book and then asking myself, “So… where am I going with this?” Having an outline beforehand helped keep the book structured and fluid.

Seriously, I swear by outlines. 

Step 4: Chapter Outline

 This isn’t the same thing as the Step 3 outline. The Plot Outline was the bare-bones of the story: boy gets bit by spider, boy discovers super powers, boy saves the world.

A chapter outline is a more thorough description of how the events unfold. Example: boy wakes up. Boy goes to school and gets made fun of. Boy goes on field trip and gets bit by a spider.

This kind of outline lists each and every step in the book. If there’s a moment when your character looks at a tree and thinks about life, you write it down.

It’s pretty time consuming, of course. You have to really know your book before doing this, but that’s the whole point.

I’ve never done this before, but I’m halfway finished with the one for Fierce, and I love it. I can see my book in my head so clearly. Now when I sit down to write in November, I can look at my list and say, “Today I’m going to write about my MC looking at a tree,” instead of wondering what I should do next.

It’s helpful to make a chapter outline on cards. Since I have three POV characters, I need to do a lot of scene shifting, so I lay my cards out on my desk and move them around until everything looks right.

Once I’m pretty sure where I want a certain scene to be, I go into a word document and write everything that’s in my head about the scene (quotes, imagery, etc.) so I don’t forget anything.

Step 5: Character Sketches

 A character sketch is when you write out all you can about your character: his dreams, his childhood, his favorite food, everything. There are hundreds of character worksheets online that are helpful for this, and I recommend trying a bunch of them to see what works best for you.

Character worksheets are fabulous – especially in the beginning stages – but they’re never enough for me. It’s good to know a character’s greatest phobia and her relationship with her parents, but a worksheet can’t predict everything you will include in your novel.

Example: I need to know how Tuccia will feel when her best friend goes on trial for a crime she didn’t commit. How will this change her? Will she lose faith in the gods? No worksheet is going to ask that.

After I do my fun worksheets and get a good idea of the plot and how the characters fit into it, I open a word document. I write everything I can think of until the character takes shape. I’ll make a list of questions and try to answer them. I’ll include all the relationships she has with the other characters. I’ll have a page of her talking in the first person about what she thinks of the world. Whatever comes to mind.

I would give anything to go back in time and make character sketches for Sacred Fire. I thought I knew my characters because I wrote down their age and hair color, but my beta readers kept asking me about their motivations and I couldn’t answer their questions. I had to make sketches, then go back and integrate the new information. It was such a pain!

Step 6: Visualize

 Let’s say it’s October 31 and I already have my plot, my research, and my character sketches. Typically at this point, I start typing feverishly. When I’m done, I realize I didn’t say anything about the surroundings, the character’s faces, how things looked and smelt. I go back and add it in.

I wonder how my writing would change if before I wrote a scene, I took a moment to close my eyes and visualize as many details as I could. My guess is this would not only make the writing faster; it would also make it richer.

I’ve never tried this before. Should be fun.

One of my dear readers left a comment that’s a great example:

"One thing I've done that's been helpful is to write up little "setting profiles." Kind of like character profiles, but centralizing all my research about a particular place in one document. 

"I don't do it for every location in the story, just major ones, like the towns the characters live in. They include maps I've found, who lived where and what their homes looked/felt/sounded/smelled like, major rivers/mountains, distances from one point to another, flora and fauna, daily life/customs, etc."

My book takes place in Africa, so it’ll be good for me to look at pictures, read descriptions, and get an over-all feel for the place. But your setting doesn’t have to be foreign for this step to be helpful. My last Nano book took place where I grew up, but I still had to think back on my memories to get a good picture of them.

Step 7: Query and Pitch

Last year, I had so much trouble writing a query for Sacred Fire that just remembering it makes me want to scream. People kept asking me, "What's your book's focus? What is your book about?"

It was so frustrating! I came to realize that my book wasn't as focused as it needed to be to fit onto one page. It was about so many things that it wasn't about anything. Writing my query helped me revise my book because it showed me what was really important and what needed to take a backseat.

To save myself a lot of heart ache, I wrote the query for Fierce before I even started the book.

A pitch is like a one-sentence query. (And you thought summarizing your book in one page was hard!) It’s a challenge, but recommend making one. It'll be like a stake when storms rage and your tent is flapping in the wind.

Step 8: Putting it All Together

 You've come up with a brilliant idea for a book. You wrote down everything you want the book to accomplish. You've done the research. You've made a brief outline and a detailed outline. You've made sketches of your characters. You've developed the setting. You’ve written your query and pitch.  The next step: put it all in a notebook.

I've only just started on my notebook for Fierce, but I already love it so much that I'm seriously considering making one for Sacred Fire, even though I've already finished it.

My cover has a picture of my three main characters, and the other pages have pictures pasted on. I have my highlighters and note cards tucked into a sleeve, and there's a nice stack of blank paper in the back for me to scribble down notes.

Already I love that I can read my research in bed instead of having to get on the computer whenever I need to write something down. I can't tell you how much I love having everything printed out and in my hand; it makes finding things so much easier. I will definitely do this from now on.

This will be more than just a valuable resource. I'm going to keep this notebook for the rest of my life. Ten years from now I'm going to flip through the pages and the pictures to see where my inspirations came from and how my precious book developed, and that will be really special. 

How All This Helped Me

 I’ve said before that I hate to brag. I still do, though it’s a lot easier when all my dear readers congratulate me. Regardless of how special you all make me feel, I try to only demonstrate my awesomeness when it’s useful to my readers. Ergo, even though this is going to sound conceited, there is a point. I promise.

On November 1 from midnight to midnight the next day, I wrote 10,000 words.

I started to wonder how high my word count was when my fingers started to hurt at 6,500 words. After that, I kept typing and thinking to myself, “Holy cow, am I really still writing? Do I still have stuff to say?” I basically stared in amazement at my furiously typing fingers.

How on earth did I go from working on Sacred Fire for five years to writing 10,000 words in one day?

I came up with the idea for Fierce ten months ago and have been stewing on it ever since. Two months ago, I started to prep for the book. At one point it got boring and I started to wonder if writing 18,000 words of notes would be worth my time.

It was totally worth it. I’ve never had an outline so thorough, and I’ve never typed faster in my life. I wouldn’t take back a single minute of it.

Some books don't lend themselves to this pace, and some authors just have a different style. That's okay.  However, if you can do the prep work, I highly recommend giving it a try. I’m going to do this from now on.

 Last year, I struggled to get in my 50,000 words for Nanowrimo. I ended up writing almost exactly the right amount, and getting in those last words felt like wringing out a rag.

I would look at people on the Nano forums who had 100,000 words and wonder how it was even possible, and then feel like trash. It was silly; as if writing 50k in a month makes me such a failure!

If you write at all, you're doing something amazing. If you even attempt Nano, it will help your writing. If you win, you will have achieved a great feat that a hundred thousand writers lust after and only a third of them reach. If you feel you're able to push yourself harder...

...go for it.


  1. 18 days is pretty impressive. I plan things out as much as possible, and then start abandoning things as I go.

    Moody Writing

  2. Fantastic post. I try to plan out, I don't usually stick to my outlines, but I like to know where I'm heading and what's going to happen.

  3. Have you ever considered using a program such as Evernote or OneNote? It seems that all the organizing would be so much simpler with those programs or something similar. Instead of saving a webpage to a file, which means you may have to open (and get distracted by) several files to find what you're looking for, you just print to OneNote. Then all you need to do is search for a keyword and it will find all the files that contain that keyword. I know OneNote saves me hours of work when I need to find information that I've already collected. I haven't written a book yet, but as a university instructor, I'm constantly doing research.

    1. I tried Evernote for writing and wasn't a huge fan, but it never occurred to me to use it for research. I'll look into OneNote and see what I think. Thank you so much for the advice.!

    2. No, thank you for all the writing advice. I'd love to try my hand at writing, but I get overwhelmed with getting the entire story down the way I want. Breaking it into smaller pieces and planning, planning, planning might just work. I really appreciate all the ideas!

  4. I LOVE this post! Thank you so much! I'm stuck in the middle of a draft, and I know if I'd planned better before I started writing, I might not be. I've taken the time to stop and plan and outline NOW, but I wish I'd done it sooner. I know i'll have to rewrite the first 25,000 words because I just jumped in, excited about my idea. Then I wrote myself into a corner and couldn't get out.

    Best of luck during NaNo!

  5. I have been writing Hillary Hermes: Vampires vs Witches for little over a year. I planned to publish it in November. I'm in graduate school and have a break at Christmas so I decided to allow myself that time to look over the book. I was going to do an audio version first, then when I was researching I saw that Createaspace has an audio version after the ebook.
    I have met my deadline the book is finished. I'm just editing.

  6. This is a brilliant post and I have listed it here on my blog as a post worth reading. Thank you!

  7. This was comforting to read. Almost word for word, this is how I started. I'm 2 weeks into my first novel. I have yet to print anything out, and I dont have the notebook, but I think I will try that.

    I usually write short stories. When I jumped into the novel idea, my detail-oriented nature took over, but I feared I wasn't going about it properly. I guess there really is no proper way. It's up to the writer. At least I know I'm not overworking.

    Thanks for the writeup. It's quite helpful.


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