I’ve been writing seriously for about 10 years now and have completed a total of 7 full-length novels and 2 novellas. Throughout the course of those 10 years, I’ve been approached by many hopeful authors, seeking advice on how to write a book. I’d like to help lay the groundwork for anyone interested in writing a book with no idea how to get started. I’ll do this through a series of 6 #AuthorISH posts that, hopefully, by the end will leave you feeling empowered and adequately prepared to tackle your first full-length novel!
First, let me preface this series with a few details from my own personal experience. Writing a book is hard, yo. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, the easily offended, or those who aren’t willing to work hard and persist—even when you want to hurl your laptop onto the nearest highway (because you’ll definitely have quite a few of those days).
The actual act of writing a first draft can be lonely and solitary, but beyond that, it takes a village to raise a draft up into an actual published novel. You’ll need friends to bounce ideas off and brainstorm with, critique partners and beta readers to help polish your work and bring it up to publishing standard, a great agent who believes in you and your work to champion it to publishers, a publishing editor who will help push your story over that last hurdle to publication, and lastly, readers who will own your words, your characters, and your story and allow their lives to be forever touched by your art and talent. In short, writing is a marathon, not a sprint.
There will be great days and there will be awful days. But in my experience, successful writers know how to persist, take constructive criticism, and learn as much as they can. Also, please keep in mind there are many different methods for writing and revising a novel and there are lots of resources available to help you discover which one is best for you—or you may come up with your own method. So research widely, keep an open mind, and find out what works for you.
So, let’s get started, shall we?
Identifying Writing Prompts
Every good story starts as nothing more than a mere writing prompt. What’s a writing prompt? Just a simple idea that sparks your interest. It could be something as simple as, “female assassins in space,” to something as complex as, “what if scientists figured out how to create dragons, but the dragons broke free and tried to take over the world?” Okay, that last one kinda sucks, but give me a break, I’m coming up with this stuff on the fly.
Besides, I think you get the point. These “writing prompts,” or ideas, can come from anywhere. They’ve dropped into my head while watching movies / movie trailers, reading magazines, playing video games, traveling, etc. You never know when you’re going to get a random idea, so you always have to be ready! I keep a memo open in my Notes app on my phone, labeled “Writing Prompts.” Every time I get an interesting idea, I add it to the list. Some ideas take off and others waste away in literary purgatory. Not all your exciting ideas will make great books, and that’s perfectly fine. It takes a bit of work to filter out the good ideas from the distractions, but lucky for you, I can help with that.
Developing Your Writing Prompt
Now that we understand writing prompts, how do we decide which of those would make a good story? Well, there are three major aspects of a story I like to consider upfront from a high-level: Plot / Conflict, Setting, and Characters.
Plot / Conflict: In a couple sentences, what’s the story about? Let’s provide a bit of structure to how we think about the plot. What’s the inciting incident, climax, and resolution? It’s as simple as that. Let’s trek back to our awful dragon writing prompt and try to turn that into a story, shall we?
The inciting incident may be the moment the scientists figure out how to create a dragon. The climax would occur when the dragons launch a full-scale attack on humans. The resolution is the outcome of the war. Not too shabby, huh? Don’t stress too much about getting these three points perfectly right during this phase. As your book grows and develops, it’s going to become a living, breathing thing and will change quite often. Don’t fret!
Setting: It’s important to understand where your story will take place. Is it on Earth? If so, what country? State? City? What are the unique aspects of the location that support the plot? Let’s say you decide to set your story in your hometown of Denver, Colorado. Do the dragons choose to live in the Rocky Mountains when they escape the scientists? Or do they want to escape the cold and setup base in the Nevada desert? See how the setting can affect the plot of your story?
But what if your story is set in a fantastical world? Then you have considerable more work to do. I won’t get into it much here, but world-building for Science Fiction and Fantasy is very in-depth and can take a while to get just right. Tolkien took years to build the world featured in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It very well may not take you quite as long as Tolkien, but world-building is serious and shouldn’t be rushed. Readers are savvy, no matter the age group, and they can sniff out a shoddily-planned world like weeks-old rotting fish heads—so take the time and plan your new world right!
(For more resources on world-building, check out the list at the end of this post)
Characters: Who’s the star, main character, of your book? Will your book have multiple points of view? Who’s the antagonist, or villain? Who are the supporting characters? Answering these questions is only the start of building your story's cast. I like to think of these folks as the backbone of your story. They breathe life into your world and weave together the plot and conflict, so it's imperative we give them proper attention upfront.
Let’s start with our main character. How about we make him / her one of the scientists at the lab who helps create the dragon? After we give this lucky person a name and jot down some of their physical characteristics (e.g. body type, hair color, eye color, race, etc.), we need to start thinking about them on a deeper level. What are their desire lines? Everyone has something they want in life, something they feel they can’t live without. Even if your character has every single thing they could possibly want in life, they still want something: they don't wish their life to change.
By understanding your character on this level, you can start to see how they fit into the story. As this person navigates your world and your plot, they fight for whatever it is they desire, even if they make horrible decisions every step of the way (and they should make bad decisions, it's only human, right?). Your characters should have something (a goal, ideal, belief, etc.) that continually drives them forward, even when they feel like they physically can't go on. We’ll get more into how to fully flesh that out in one of the later posts, but for now, let’s just try to understand who our main character is and what they want.
In keeping with our example, let’s say our main character is Ruby Jenkins, scientist extraordinaire. She’s 27-years-old, single, sapiosexual, and proud to be a science geek. She feels conflicted about her work, but stays on because it pays well and she thinks the work would go on without her, so why not stay and benefit from it (especially with crushing student loan debt and other adult responsibilities)? She wants to lead a meaningful life, to leave the world better than how she found it, but questions if that’s actually where her life is headed. Seems sufficient for now, right?
Transform the Prompt into a Story
Before I write a single word of a book, I like to start by drafting a rough query, or pitch. For those unfamiliar with the traditional publication process, authors create what’s called a “query letter” that’s used to pitch their ideas to literary agents (among other things like a synopsis and sample pages, more on that later). The purpose of the query is to hook the agent and make him or her want to read your sample pages. It’s great practice to draft a query before you start writing. A solid query will properly setup your story’s setting, main character, inciting incident, and stakes. If you can’t describe your story efficiently in a query, you’ve probably left something important out. For example, perhaps the character's stakes aren’t high enough to make the story interesting, or the story doesn’t have a proper arc (there’s no climax and / or resolution), or the story starts in the wrong place. In the past, I’ve wasted months writing full-length novels, only to spend weeks trying to cram a poorly thought out idea into a query. Without a doubt, doing this exercise beforehand will save you lots of time and heartache.
Alright, so what goes in this draft query? Here’s a super high-level template:
Paragraph 1: Introduce the main character. Who is she? What are her desire lines? What makes her interesting enough to make us want to read an entire book about her?
Paragraph 2: Introduce the setting and the inciting incident. How is the main character involved in all this? How does this change or impact her life?
Paragraph 3: What are the stakes? What choice must the character make? What dilemmas does she face? What does she stand to gain or lose if she succeeds or fails?
Paragraph 4: What is the word count, genre, and comparison titles (similar works, can be television, film, or books, but must have at least one book)?
So, let’s try putting our example into a rough query, shall we?
Five years ago, Ruby Jenkins graduated college with a Biology degree, thinking she’d go out into the world and use science to make it a better place. But crushing student loan debt pushed her career in the opposite direction. Now she develops biological weapons for the United States government.
Since she was young, Ruby loved reading stories about dragons and other mythological creatures. She never thought she’d have the opportunity to see one in real life—or create one in her lab. But when she and her team develop the first living, breathing dragon, overwhelming guilt overshadows her excitement and intrigue. Our government will raise this creature as a tool of death and destruction. After the birth of two more dragons, Ruby, unable to bear the weight of her heavy conscious, steals the young dragons and releases them into the wild of the Rocky Mountains.
Ruby is fired after her team discovers she freed the dragons and her team’s work continues without her. But it’s not long before the dragons resurface, not only fully grown, but extremely intelligent and anxious to wage war on the humans who meant to enslave them. On the cusp of an apocalyptic war between humans and dragons, Ruby may be the only one who can reason with either side, but if she fails, it could spell the end of human life.
AWFUL DRAGON STORY is a XX,000 Adult Science Fiction that can be described as Eragon meets Westworld.
That query certainly is nowhere near ready to put in front of an agent, but can you see how this process can help you structure your story and reveal where you potentially have holes in the plot / structure? This is an excellent starting point and as your story develops, you can tweak the query as well. Even better, when your story is complete, you already have a solid query to revise and are one step closer to being ready to query agents.
But most importantly, we’ve turned your writing prompt into a viable story idea! In my next post, “What the Plot?”, I’ll discuss the process for further developing the plot in detail.
World-building Articles / Blog Posts
General Writing / Publishing Content
Writer's Digest is a great resource with all sorts of information on writing and publishing, some paid, some free. Sign up for their email list and feel free to poke around. You'll always find something good there!
Susan Dennard is the bestselling author of the Witchland books and has graciously created a website chocked full of invaluable writing advice for hopeful writers at all stages of their career. You'd seriously be doing yourself a disservice by not checking out her site: