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How to organize ideas to start writing a novel?

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Beginner here. So, I have tons of ideas for a novel, and in fact I want to write one (even a series), but I'm struggling a lot in actually starting writing the story. I have ideas for characters and their personalities, conflicts, etc.

But I don't feel very motivated or secure in putting my ideas into the paper and start writing the novel. Do guys have tips to help me about this?

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To quote Margaret Atwood - "You become a writer by writing, there is no other way."

Starting a project is hard, no matter what, and accepting that it's going to be challenging - but ultimately worthwhile is how I always try to frame it for myself.

I would say to begin with some general brain dump writing. It doesn't have to be good; it's better if it's terrible - the point it to get what's in your head out. Get it written onto a page, or post-it notes, or typed into a document. Then you will have a sense of what you have and don't have.

It's tough to organize the information required for composing a novel-length book in your head. So having notes, outlines, and even summaries of characters and settings are useful.

That can all be a basic outline for your story, and from there you will be able to start working out details, and writing the exciting stuff, like what happens, how and why.

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The thing you have to understand about writing a novel is, it's impossible. It can't be done by any method known to science.

Sure, you can try writing an outline. It won't have any heart. Your characters will be flat as cardboard. You can try writing character biographies. Then you novel will be a bunch of resumes going for a walk.

It's not that all the stuff they tell you in the books is wrong (though a lot of it is wrong). It is that the novel is a kind of strange alchemy. A good novel gives the reader the sense that they are having an experience, one that feels as real as a lived experience (only safer and more interesting -- live without the pain and the boring bits). But it does this with nothing more than a flow of words.

Why does one flow of words create the equivalent of an experience and the next just create a bunch of information that isn't actually true. We don't quite know. Compare two books, one that works and one that is just words. What's the difference? You won't be able to put your finger on it. You will see it and feel it, but try to define the difference, try to define the mechanism by which words become experience, and why an almost identical flow of words just stay words, and you won't be able to do it.

A great writer has a sense of drama, a sense of the few very particular details that somehow create the illusion of a real character, a real forest, a real home. It is alchemy. None of this stuff is real. It is a walking dream. It is a mirage, a figure in the corner of they eye, a will-o'-the-wisp.

No one can know if they have that alchemy in them. I have no idea if we all have it or only a tiny few. But you will have to dig it out from under a huge pile of false starts and ignorance and self indulgence. You will have to discover the structures and techniques that build the framework within which the alchemy is contained and released to do its work. And that requires just a whole lot of work. A whole lot of reading -- reading with attention, trying to see both the technique and the alchemy of great authors, how and why they do things -- and then a whole bunch of writing -- deliberate, thoughtful writing.

And your writing is going to suck for a long time. You might not keep at it long enough. You might not try hard enough. You might be lazy or not self-critical enough. You might not listen when people tell you that your works sucks, or try to figure out why it sucks and fix it. But if you persevere through the long hard grind, you might produce something worth reading. Or, more likely I'm afraid, you never will.

Or you might be one of those savant writers who turns out works of genius on their first try. But if you were, chances are you would not have the doubts that lead to your asking this question.

You need the alchemy. Either it is there at your fingertips just waiting for you to start typing, or it isn't there at all and never will be, or it is buried under a huge pile of crap and you will have to dig long and hard to get down to it. But there is no guarantee that there is alchemy buried under every huge pile of crap. Sometimes it is just crap all the way down.

Whichever of those things it is, though, there is only one way to find out, and that is to sit down and start digging.

Or not, because this business is a long slow grind with very little chance of success and still less chance of ever making a living, and, frankly, if you can do anything else with your life without suffering a deep anguish of the soul, you should.

Because we writers are all Prometheus, trying to bring fire from the gods to men, chained to a rock, having our liver eaten by an eagle.

You have been warned.

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My answer to The Psychology of Starting a Piece of Writing is a guide to getting started. Other answers there are good as well. This will explain how to get going on the first line, first scene, first chapter.

Organizing Your Ideas.

I suggest creating four piles, for what I consider the four parts of the story (each about 25% of the book).

Part 1: Ideas about introducing the characters, the setting, and the "Normal World", before the main problem shows up. We need to know them before the main action begins, or we don't care about them. So we introduce them, and probably who or what they love, why they will take risks and suffer hardships. Halfway through this part, you introduce the "inciting incident", and any ideas about dealing with that begin here. Obviously, the inciting incident is the first signs of the main problem driving the story, and in many cases the MC doesn't recognize it as a BIG problem, and fails to address it (or makes matters worse) by trying to deal with the inciting incident as a little problem.

Part 2: New Complications, ideas about how the characters encounter or create new difficulties. The story gets more complex here, perhaps due to failures in their initial attempts to deal with the inciting incident. Or they find out it is worse; the cancer has spread, the corruption is deeper than they thought, the mentor they trusted is a mole, their name and signature has been forged on all the damning contracts, the person they just had a shouting match with, in a public restaurant, has been killed.

Part 3: Unwinding Complications. Your ideas about resolving the problems. Small problems get resolved, then larger ones, and we start finding ways to uncomplicate the story. By reconciliation, negotiation, or violence. The heroes can still make mistakes, but the complications and their resolutions are teaching them about dealing with the problems. By analogy, imagine you are plucked from your normal life and dropped in a jungle. Part 2 is about you frantically trying to survive. People around you die, attacked by wild animals, drinking bad water, eating bad food. But if you don't get killed, these incidents have taught you something, and you move into a new phase (Part 3) of understanding this dangerous new world, and navigating it more safely and expertly. The jungle is becoming more predictable.

Part 4: The "big problem" still exists, but here we have learned enough, we finally discover the key to the resolution. But it will require a big risk, and we have one chance at this. We take it, for the sake of what we loved in Part 1. In my books this is a success, and then the heroes (those still alive) return to their New Normal world, changed for the better. More mature, or in love, or less selfish, more responsible, etc.

Take your ideas and put them in order, how they might contribute to the story. sections that are light need work, and more ideas. To me, the most important section is the beginning, I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters and trying to make them real people in my mind. I also think about the big problem, and how it might be resolved, so I have a "destination" for the story in mind, but it isn't ironclad, as long as I always have some possible ending in mind.

I think if you imagine real people and put them together, and start throwing problems at them, they will react and you will get a story out of it. If you throw something that blows up the story, sends them off on a tangent you don't like, then just undo it, and try something else.

Get your ideas organized by what part of the story they would probably appear in. Keep those ideas as notes, things you could fit into the story, or want to find a place for in the story. You may not use all of them, characters moving through their life may give you new ideas, you should keep them too, as potential scenes.

But that said, I write the book from the beginning and go to the end, I don't skip around. Every chapter depends on the characters up to that point, and they are changing (at least in what they know, perhaps in personal ways as well), so (for me) I can't really write Chapter 10 until I have written Chapters 1-9. My characters are not robots.

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You start by starting. There is no other way.

As to how to organize it, I like JK Rowling's approach.

  1. She broke her series down into 7 books (1 for each year at the magic school).

  2. She mapped out general story arcs for her characters.

  3. She then wrote a lot of scenes as they came to her

  4. Finally she stitched them together to form chapters.

(I read this process from an interview with her)..

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Starting from a blank page is always hard, so don’t beat yourself up. But there are tools that will help you get started:

The first I would recommend is Scapple by Literature and Latte.

Scapple is a virtual corkboard where you can store ideas before you start writing. I start with photographs of my characters and settings. I drop in pieces of dialogue, ideas for scenes, character outlines. Anything that comes to mind goes on my corkboard.

The next tool I use is The Story Grid. Not only has Shawn Coyne written this great book but he also has free outlining tools on his website and does a great podcast with Tim Grahl where he teaches him how to write a novel from beginning to end.

Once I’ve outlined, I use Scrivener. Unlike Word, Scrivener allows you to easily write out of order, which I love to do. I start with the easiest scenes, those I'm inspired to write, and get those down first. I often write the first few chapters, then the last few. Because, once I know the beginning and end, as if they're two places on opposite sides of the map, I only have to figure out how to get from A to B, and which stops I need to make en-route. That helps me figure out the middle.

Read Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It's an excellent book to inspire you to write. She recommends going to the stationery store and buying a crappy, cheap notebook. Crappy notebooks, as opposed to beautiful hardback tomes, free you up to write absolute crap. But out of that dung heap, you can dig for gems. It composts over time (as Natalie puts it) and ideas become rich and refined. Buy a fast pen that moves across the page as quickly as your thoughts, and just write. Write at the bus stop. Write on the train. Write in cafes. Let the words pour out without checking yourself or editing any of them.

Because, if you stare at the blank page waiting for diamonds to spring from your fingertips, you'll never write anything.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” -- Anne Lamott.

How to start? Just write! Let yourself go. Have fun. Spill your soul on the page.

Good luck!

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Something that has helped me is to have a list of the chapters of the novel with a short summary of each one. Don't worry if there are gray spots on it, in fact that is good as it allows the story to develop itself while writing.

Also, don't worry if you need to change it, the important thing is that at any moment, you have a map to know where you come from and where are you heading to in the story.

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