Before you jump in the deep end and start writing a novel, there are a few things you should know.
1. The Premise
This one seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many authors launch straight into writing before knowing the basics. The premise of your story, is the core of it – the skeleton that runs throughout the whole thing. When someone asks you what your book is about, the premise is what you’ll give them. More often than not, if you begin writing without a premise, chances are that your story will have trouble going anywhere.
For example, this author began writing a novel, knowing the character and his physical journey, but unsure as to what the basic concept of her book was. In 9 months, she struggled to write a measly 13,200 words. By contrast, she then began writing a new novel which had originally been a short story. Knowing the premise this time, in 4 months she wrote 60,000 words and finished the first draft.
“With my first book, I had known the main character inside out, known his travels… But I found it increasingly difficult to write. The scenes were random and didn’t build to anything. I couldn’t have told you what the climax of the novel was. If you compare the progress of my second novel to the first, which remains unfinished, it’s pretty incredible. I’m not saying you should know everything about your story before you start, because it does develop and change drastically as you work. But knowing the premise the second time around changed the way I write for the better.” – Novelist/Creative Writer, Darlinghurst
2. Research Basics
Again, this sounds like an obvious one. Some writers find it easier to set their fiction in a real place, have a character with a similar occupation or family situation… things they’re familiar with. If this is you, that’s great. What I will say is: be careful you don’t omit details accidentally. When you know a setting, a job or a person very well, it’s easy to forget that your reader doesn’t.
To those who are creating from scratch, that’s great too. Is your main character a doctor? An air-hostess? Is your novel set in South Africa? Italy? Russia? Whatever your main character does and wherever they are, know the facts, at least the basics. What does their job entail? Long hours? Mundane tasks? Risk? Who do they work with? How long have they been in their position? Are they happy there? Do they earn a lot? These things won’t necessarily make it onto the actual page, but these factors affect a person’s nature, how they behave, how they live… The same goes for the setting you place them in… Do they have electricity? Do they live above a nightclub? Is their living space small or spacious?
“What I found incredibly useful, was mapping out the settings that my characters spent a lot of time in. Whether it was a room, a house or a village, it was a relief to keep coming back to a reference point and know where things were. I also kept ‘Research Profiles’ for want of a better term, so I could constantly layer my work with authentic touches, whether it was for the environment, political climate or a character.”
Try and learn everything you can about your characters before you start writing. Naturally, once you get your story going, you’ll learn more and more about them, however it’s always super helpful to know the basics of who they are, what they do, etc., beforehand. Jot down a profile about each of your main characters including details about their: name, physical appearance, age, which characters they get along with and their relationship, where they live, do they have children? A partner? Do they have any particular mannerisms or quirks? Decide where you want to draw the line with how much you need to know before you start, and how much you learn along the way.
“One of the things I wish I had of known before I started my book was a few extra details about the background of my characters, things that make them distinctive from the rest of my cast. I’m now on my second draft and I’m having to redo character profiles and slot these details in second time around – it would have been a lot less hassle to have done it from the beginning.”
There are plenty of character profile templates available online for free that can be a great help. Click here to see one such example of a useful profile. Although it’s quite long and detailed, it does prompt you to think outside the box.
In conclusion, starting a novel is a huge undertaking and a massive achievement in itself, but sometimes, it helps to have something small, pointing you in the right direction. I hope this little checklist has done that.