Once I have an idea for a novel, I can't simply start writing my first draft. I know many authors like to take an idea and run with it to see where they get, but I can't write that way. I need structure. Over these next few weeks, I'll show you what I do to get that structure.
My process is a mish-mash of many I've read about throughout the years (in writing books, magazine articles, and Internet sites). I've taken my favorite parts of many of these and mixed them into my own style. I believe this is the best way to go about writing anything--find different sources and use the parts that work best for you.
I begin with story. I know many experts say you should begin with character, but I don't think this is necessary. Don't get me wrong, characters are an extremely important part of the story, but I find I prefer constructing them and fleshing them out after I see what they'll be required to do.
The first thing I do is write a single sentence that summarizes the main idea of the story. This might sound like a huge task at the very beginning--not much of the story is known at this point--but remember it's nothing more than a jumping off point. As I continue through the process, this single sentence might still be the best indicator of what the story is about, or it might be a shadow of what the novel turns into. It doesn't matter. As long as this sentence gets me thinking and plotting, it's done its job. I sometimes take an entire day or more with this step. I find that as I tinker with different wordings and phrases, new and better ideas pop into my brain. Sometimes the first sentence I construct turns out to be the best, but I find the story as a whole is better because I've played around with the sentence for so long.
After I have my single sentence summary, I expand that into a paragraph. I do my best to keep it to four or five sentences: the first for how the story starts, the next two or three for key events in the middle, and the last for how the story ends. This gives me a great starting point for plotting the novel. I may come up with better ideas for all of these points, but I need them to get ideas to flesh out the story. Like with the one sentence summary, I don't take the first idea that pops into my mind, but I play with many different ideas. These first two steps alone could take me a few days to a week, but they lay the groundwork for everything that is to come.
The last step before I move onto characters is to discover the hook of the story. This is what draws readers in, what distinguishes the book from others of the same genre. By this point I usually have a pretty good idea of what the hook for this particular story is, but I like to write it down anyway. This hook should be a strength of the story, so I want to occasionally look back at it to keep it firmly in my mind as I plot and later write.
Now I'm ready to start thinking about who populates this story. Next week I'll show you how much characterization I do at this point of the process. Until then, keep writing and/or reading!