I've got a great idea for a novel... then what?

You've got an idea, and you want to turn it into a novel. How do you begin? First, determine the storyline – is your idea interesting enough to hold a reader’s attention for sixty thousand words and more? Coming up with an idea is the easy part; writing it down convincingly is what takes time and skill.

Next you’ll need to determine what kind of story are you writing? In what genre, or category does your story will fit into – mystery, romance, young adult, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. If you read a particular genre, then you might naturally choose to write your story in that genre since you will already be familiar with its form and elements.  Go through your favorite novels and get a sense of why they are your favorite books.
Then decide where (and when) your story will take place. In the old west? On a distant planet? in the far future? In Boise, last summer? This is your story's “setting”. It helps shape the story and may point out where you need to do research.  For example, women in the 1800s had fewer freedoms and more strictly-defined roles than women today. Setting also lays the background for the reader's imagination with details that make the story seem real.

Next your book must have a beginning, middle, and an end. What’s one good way to do that? You outline. Either in your head or best on paper, map your idea out. This doesn't have to be the formal outline you learned in high school, or even a very detailed map. You're the only one who will ever see it. But if you’re not sure where you’re going having a rough plan will take you far.
There are several reasons why you may want to consider an outline:

·  It gives you a starting point to start writing.
·  You know roughly what you have to write next. Writer’s block isn’t as common.
·  You can avoid writing yourself into a dead end. Your scenes flow better.
·  You can set up your ending because you know what’s coming.

Some writers, called “pantsters” (they write spontaneously by the seat of their pants), resist outlines because they think outlining stifles their creativity. Other writers do make an outline, but only after a lot of freeform brainstorming.  Then, there are some writers who do the outlining and detailed planning and then choose not to look at their notes a lot while they're actually writing. If you outline, it's important to remember that your outline is a guide to help you. There are no format rules. It’s to be followed as long as it serves your story.
So what do you think about while outlining? Decide how you will start your story. Decide what events will take place in the story.  Visualize the scenes that will move your story along Remember, fiction entertains. Even when you're conveying a message, you've got to make it interesting.

What makes a book interesting? Its characters. You have to have a good idea of your character's personality so you can make how he or she responds and acts in scenes seem realistic to readers. Know your characters. Your characters will react to events in the story based on their personality and background. Developing a personality and background for your character is called a character sketch. Also, be able to “see” them. Describe what they look like. One tip you may find helpful is to go through magazines or newspapers and cut out pictures of people who will be your character’s face. This might help keep them real in your mind.

Strong characters start at the beginning and “move” toward the end. If they don't move – emotionally and/or physically -- then you've got a tale, not a story. Conversely, if a writer allows the characters to wander all over the place without keeping an eye on the finish, you’ve got a story that lacks focus.  Outlining is one way to keep you focused.

The most important thing to remember is: don’t be afraid to start.  It doesn't have to be a perfect first draft, or even a second or third draft.
Just write your novel.

R. Franklin James was born and raised in the San Francisco East Bay Area. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and completed the masters program in Public Policy at California State University East Bay. She has also received her paralegal certification.

She and her husband live in northern California with their English Springer Spaniel, Bailey.


  1. I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I enjoyed the opportunity. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    For me, I find that writing is done best by whatever means keeps me in the chair.

    R.Franklin James

  3. Great post, Rae. As you know I've tried outlining but those darn characters keep taking over the story, which is why you and the rest of my critique group are so helpful in pulling them back where they belong!


I love to hear from you. So feel free to comment, but keep in mind the basics of blog etiquette — no spam, no profanity, no slander, etc.

Thanks for being an active part of the Writers and Authors community.