Starting a new novel scares writers, even authors who’ve been at this writing game for years. In this post I’m going to give you three simple worksheets to help you firm up the novel that’s trapped in your head. Once you’ve put words on the page, you’ll have taken the first step in writing the book only you can write.
To write a new novel–or to tell a story of any kind–you need three things: a person, a place, and a problem. But the writing doesn’t become real until you put words on the page. For that reason, most writers begin with worksheets. I keep mine in an online binder and add information as I discover more about the people in my book.
The Person In Your New Novel
Let’s start with your main person. (I actually favor the word “person” because, right from the start, using that word will encourage you to make this person as real to you as your siblings, spouse, and children are real.)
To me there’s a subtle difference between “character” and “person.” The word “character” is pretty close to “caricature,” and I don’t want the people in your new novel to come off as “types.”
When you’re filling out the worksheet, pay special attention to the habits and mannerisms of your person. Speech patterns or a particular way of walking or dressing can differentiate one person from another.
As you begin to imagine how this person might look, flip through magazines or troll the internet to find some images of real people. You’re not going to use their actual names, but you will want to begin assembling a rogues’ gallery that you can refer to again and again.
|Role in Story|
|Name and Nickname|
Now, why is place important? Again, to keep it simple, every story happens in a particular time and place. Even if you’re working on a new novel, you may have a pretty clear idea of where some of the events of the novel take place. If you begin making those places concrete, you’ll have a much easier time envisioning your characters’ movements.
When you’re filling out the place worksheet, pay special attention to sensory details. Use all five senses. It’s easy to forget what a powerful impact smell, sound, and touch can have on a reader. Even in the beginning stages of a new writing project, it’s not too early to make these places “real.” That’s true for imaginary worlds as well as for ones that exist in the so-called real world.
What color is the soil, for instance? Do birds appear at dawn? When characters walk past open windows at dinner time, what do they smell?
|Role in Story|
The Plan Worksheet
The Plan Worksheet can help you get a grip on plot. What is plot? It’s writers making plans and seeing those plans foiled (again and again).
Put simply, these plans move our heroine or hero from Point A in the beginning of the book to Point B at the end. By the time an author reaches the book’s climax, some characters will have succeeded and others will have failed. The plans the characters concoct will put them through trials by fire, lead them down paths of internal angst, and give them new coping skills to face down dragons. But when we’re at Point A, we don’t know any of this.
Right from the beginning, however, the main person in your story needs a plan. Maybe it’s a plan to find a cheap lunch spot or a plan to fly a paper airplane. The key thing about the short-term plan is that it only has to set your character in motion, to give him or her something to want.
The long-term plan will be what your person fastens onto, once they’re presented with an opportunity they can’t refuse.
The obstacles are what get in the way. Just put down three or four right now.
Do you have an idea about what kind of big danger they might eventually face? If not, don’t sweat it. Come back to this worksheet later.
You probably have an idea about what could make your person happy. Is there one single thing that would make their life so much better they’d be willing to go through hell to get it? I’m not necessarily talking about winning the lottery. Sometimes, intangibles like redeeming one’s honor can provide forward motion.
|Stops Along the Way|
|Who/What Will Block the Path?|
Next Steps for Your New Novel
If you have trouble with any of the above, don’t worry. Start with what you know. Come up with a name, a simple description, a place, and then give your character a short-term want. If plot has you baffled, read my post about story arc. Chances are you won’t have a good grip on what’s going to happen until you’ve pitted one character against another.
And, speaking of people, after you’ve taken your first crack at the person, place, and plan worksheets, find out who else will figure in your story. Maybe your person has an ally. How about an enemy? What are the enemy’s short- and long-term goals? And if your novel will have more than one setting, fill out a worksheet for the second location. Doing these worksheets will help you maintain consistency over the time it takes to write a novel.
Finally, keep all of these worksheets in a folder, either a physical binder that will allow you to add pages, or a document in Google docs or Microsoft Word. Once you’ve copied and pasted the tables into your favorite word processor, you’re well on your way to writing your new novel.
Now it’s your turn. Do you find worksheets helpful, or are you able to launch into a story without doing preliminary work. Do you begin with people or with an inkling about what’s going happen? Has anyone ever started with place?
Your comments are valuable to other writers, so I’d love to hear from you.