ROW80 Check-In 2 – Starting a Novel from Scratch by Toni Kerr

Hello gentle reader,

if you’re here to enter my Dreaming of Books Giveaway, click on the image below:

dreaming hop

And if you’re here for my ROW80 Check-In, keep reading!

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So my goal for this round is simply to Write or edit every day.

I have to admit, I was a bit all over the place, this week. Here in southern England we have had a lot of snow, which means this has affected my personal and professional life (cancelled trips & the like). In terms of writing-related activities, I sent out a new batch of queries, beta-read a friend’s manuscript, started working on a new Secret WIP, read one book and handled an inbox full of old emails. So, that was my week.

Now let’s move on to an inspiring story to keep us motivated for the week to come. This week I’m sharing YA author Toni Kerr’s advice on starting a novel from scratch. I read this post on the Operation Awesome blog and I strongly suggest you check this blog out if you haven’t already.

Toni Kerr

“A blank slate can be just as overwhelming as a landscape of laundry and clutter on every surface. But instead of shielding my eyes and pretending it’s not there, I’ll explore the empty space with baby steps!
Why am I suddenly faced with a blank slate? Because I’ve invested 100% into one series—one set of characters with a fascinating set of circumstances that I absolutely love. I can’t stand walking away from that, but right now, while I wait for the editor’s letter, I have nothing to edit, nothing to revise, and nothing waiting in a file somewhere.  
I’ve accepted the fact (to some degree anyway) that I need to start something new, even if what I write never sees the light of day. I need to because I’ll go insane if I don’t (and certain writing friends would smack me upside the head).
But planning a novel from nothing is a new concept for me. My first novel ran without boundaries or guidelines. Not that I’m complaining about that, but I’m sure some pre-planning will save me countless hours and many many rounds of editing.  
And so, as with anything that seems overly daunting, I’ve broken my task into itsy-bitsy baby steps to help me get started. I haven’t written that first line yet, but now I know my genre. I have five strong characters and know exactly what makes them tick, how they relate with each other, and I know where they need to start and finish emotionally. I sort of know my theme, but I’m leaving wiggle room for change  as the story reveals itself.   
I’m sure there are as many ways to start a novel as there are writers, but from what I know now, that I didn’t know then… here’s what I’ve done to break it down.
Baby Step #1
Research Genres—to refresh your memory on definitions and basic word count expectations. It’ll save you from having a novel that doesn’t fit in a defined category, and from having to cut 40k because it’s way beyond a healthy range.
Baby Step #2
Theme—this might come later, but think about it now. There are many blogs and writing sites listing popular themes—some fit certain genres better than others, and they do spark a few ideas. Having a theme will keep the story on track.
Baby Step #3
Basic Plot—Sadly, most novels can be boiled down to these: overcoming the monster (be it society, some sort of evil, or another person); rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth. Even romance falls into these topics…
Baby Step #4
Brainstorm for Ideas! I didn’t love Nathan Bransford’s query formula when I was trying to write my query, but I was amazed by how simple the plot should be (according to his formula). I swore that for my next novel, I’d write the query blurb first, just to keep my plot THAT simple (I’ll of course let it grow from there). So here’s his formula:
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
Keep playing until one or two actually sound workable. Next, we need characters for whatever the great idea is.
Baby Step #5
Character’s Photo ID – I love sifting through Google images for characters. If I know the sex and age of my character, I usually start by searching hairstyles. For example: teen girl hairstyles. A search like this generates nice headshots, which I find most useful when I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for—a spark in the eye, maybe some attitude. I save images for every character as I find them, even though I might find something better later. If nothing jumps, I’ll alter the search. Such as ‘Emo girl hairstyles’, or, if I have more information, such as wanting red hair, I might try ‘Irish girl’.  
Baby Step #6
Give the characters a life – Start a new .doc for all your characters. I like to keep them all in ONE document, separated by section breaks. That way, when you need a very specific detail that you swear you wrote somewhere, you won’t have to search through multiple files to find it. (Been there!) Insert each character’s image and fill in the personals. Age.. goals.. interests… biggest regret.. and what’s keeping from reaching their biggest goal? The information will depend on the genre/age of the character. There are character sheets and interview forms available all over the place (gotta love Google!). I usually combine what works for me. I also like to add a few paragraphs about how each character relates to all the other (main) characters. Interesting facts come out of these relationships, whether they are used in the story or not. For example, if character #1 and #3 were a hot item long before #1 and #2 start dating, it might explain why there is such a bitter tension between them. What if they belong together? I’ll bet that would make an interesting thread…    
Speaking of threads….
Baby Step #7
Outline! My first novel was not outlined. I had no idea where the characters were taking me, but I went along like a good little typist and didn’t get in the way. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to get it streamlined? This time, I’m trying Martha Alderson’s plotting system, and so far, I think it’ll work great. My scenes are not fully formed yet, but I know where I want to start, the point of no return (end of the beginning), and the final climax. I’ll let the characters work out the rest. The good news is, I should be able to keep them heading in the right direction.”
How do you go about starting a brand new manuscript? I’d love to read your tip sin the comments below!
And don’t forget this is a blog hop: visit the other ROWers here.

16 thoughts on “ROW80 Check-In 2 – Starting a Novel from Scratch by Toni Kerr

  1. So far I don’t really have a formula for starting a manuscript… The idea comes to me in some random manner and I start off by writing down the actual ‘scenes’ I can see in my head at the time. Then, when my muse settles down a little, I go back and look at what I have and what can be done with it and try to work out an outline for the whole story (with varying levels of success). Sounds like you managed to be productive in spite of (or because of?) the weather. Good luck for this week 🙂

    • EM Castellan says:

      I used to write things as hey came but now that I’m working on getting published, I find that being a bit organised before starting the first draft does save time. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. Laura says:

    We are so unprepared for snow here in the south aren’t we. Sorry to hear things got cancelled. Looks like you’ve made good progress despite that though. Keep going. 🙂
    I’ve gone back to the beginning with mine and at the moment I am doing a character bio. Through that I decided on an occupation for her and then had an opening scene pop in my head.

  3. Lara says:

    I really like your methodology. Prewriting always helps me, but those visual scenes that I get that define the premise are essential. Without that, I would have nowhere to go.

  4. S. J. Maylee says:

    We’re getting snow today and tomorrow we’ll get a ton more. It sure is pretty coming down, but it’s cold here. brrrrrrr. It sounds like you had a productive week, good for you, hope you keep that ball rolling.
    Each time I start a new WIP I start a little different. The 1st WIP had no plotting what so ever, I just sat and wrote. The story had been in my head for so long that it came out pretty easy. The 2nd WIP I did kind of 1/2 and 1/2 and now I’m finding I am more of a plotter, but I still give myself license to just sit and write what feels right. Sometimes the fingers know the way to go. I guess I’m a WIP too, lol.

  5. I hope life settles down a bit this week – I love the sound of a new super secret WIP… Some great tips from Toni Kerr – it is an inspiring way to start the week!

  6. Karen Rought says:

    This is a really excellent list of steps to take in order to start a new project! As someone who tends to run away screaming when an outline is mentioned, this sounds really manageable. I think I’m going to have to give this a try! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Oh, dude, the snow! It’s the curse of my life … and accordingly to the weather channel, it’s going to snow a lot this week =(
    But you got a LOT done, and that’s great!
    Have an awesome week!

  8. I like these guidelines especially the focus on character. I have to know everything I can about my characters before I get started. Good luck on ROW80 goals.

  9. EM Castellan says:

    I like to know who my characters are before writing too. Have a good writing week!

  10. I’m definitely an outline-first person. But to get a novel out of it, you (or I, at least) also need a spark–something you love that is going to keep you going.

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