They say everyone has at least one novel inside them. Or maybe it’s at least one book, which is not the same thing. I think it’s true – though whether everyone can write a publishable book is, of course, another matter. (Still working on that one myself.)
For everyone, then, who decides they’re going to sit down and go for it, there must first come several questions. Answering wrongly is why so many of us end up with half-completed chunks of writing that we don’t want to chuck out because there’s some good stuff there, but we can’t really do much else with. For a lot of us more serious writers, there might be a few of those abortive attempts.
So what are these questions?
- Fiction or non-fiction? Probably the easiest question to answer.
- Genre. Genre can be broken down into a number of different categories as well as sub-genres, and a list of these can be found here. Genre is important because it gives your prospective reader some idea of whether or not it’s the type of book they may want to read. Of course, any book can develop in a way the writer did not intend and what might have started out as a vampire fantasy might become a historical romance, or a horror story, or even literary fiction. Starting out with some idea about genre, though, is a good way to help plot and structure a novel before the first word is written.
- Theme. What’s the book about? Theme is the message or moral a book delivers. Of course we’ve all read those books (or played the game, seen the film) where the theme is so corny and clumsily delivered it’s practically sermoning, and we know how we feel about that. So a writer should be careful about how subtly or not their theme is explored. Still, it’s important for them to know the core, nitty-gritty bare-bones the story is exploring, to give it cohesion beyond the plot. Is it good vs evil? Love triumphing over hate? Truth? Deception? There are 101 book themes listed here which give a writer plenty to consider.
- Subject. Now we’re getting more to the point. The questions asked until now have been pretty general, or at least abstract. Now we’re thinking about the meat of the story, what’s it about? This is different from theme, which is more to do with the human condition. Subject is the problem faced, the issues raised, the encroaching threat. Is a virus about to decimate the UK population? Has Dr Dedly invented a hideous new weapon? Is Sarah about to discover her husband in bed with another woman?
- Settings. This is not scene by scene (those come under plot), but more generally, when and where is the book set.
- POV. Before writing your first word, the POV (point of view) must be established. Essentially, first or third person (second person is generally used for recipes, articles and instruction books and is extremely hard to write as fiction e.g., “You will need two eggs and a whisk”.) Check out this link for more details on POV. Third person limited is the easiest POV to use, especially for a relatively inexperienced novelist.
- Tense. Past or present. I do, I did. Decide on this before you start, and maintain it throughout. Most people are comfortable with past tense, as if the point of view character is recounting something that happened to them, but present tense can be very effective.
- Characters. Decide on your characters (or at least the first POV character). Some writers like to develop their characters right down to their education, grandparents and childhood illnesses, while others are happy ‘winging’ it. Any method is good, but remember that for a lot of readers the character is what engages them and makes them carry on, even if the plot is struggling.
- Plot. A book needs more than the seed of an idea to become an entire novel (or non-fiction book). At the very least it’s a good idea for the writer to know more or less how it’s going to end and have a final scenario in their head. How deeply a plot is structured is often down to the individual writer, since there are those who plot out everything from start to finish, and there are those who approach things more organically, letting it write itself. And there are those who do a bit of both. There is no right or wrong, but a book needs plot, or story. It needs to get from A to Z and be as interesting as possible (without being confusing) along the way.
- Write, Dammit! The only way a book ever gets written, really written, is for the writer to sit down and write. The above elements can help get a writer started by sorting out the kind of book they want to write and what it might be about, but only by writing can they turn it from a thought in their head to an actual book.
So if that idea you have for a great book keeps nagging at the back of your skull ‘write me’, you now know how to make a start. There are a load of online tools and tips on plotting, character development, theme and POV. Use them, if you don’t already, and get your idea onto paper. If you start out right, then all that stands between you and finishing your novel is your will and determination.