Just as the question ‘why do you write’ is central to your identity as a writer, so the question ‘what is your story about’ is absolutely crucial to the process of writing your book. Just as you wouldn’t begin building a house with only half a foundation, it’s also difficult to begin a story with a partial foundation.
Inspiration comes to writers in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes the process follows the typical path everyone knows through cliches: you see a picture, hear a song or see a quote. Sometimes it comes in the strangest of ways: a completely unrelated chance comment someone made, seeing a feather on the ground next to a stone, an almost unnoticeable background detail in a picture or scene.
But no matter how it comes, what that first piece of inspiration does is give the writer one stone for the foundation of the story: be it stand-alone novel, series or short story. Other ideas are added to that and the foundation grows. But. Before you start writing, you need to know that you have a complete foundation. You need to be able to answer the question: ‘what is your story about?”.
This principle is true for both plotters and pantsters. Whether you outline your novel in detail or just take your basic idea and characters and start writing, you still need a solid foundation. If you don’t have that, then you probably shouldn’t be writing the book yet because ninety-seven times out of a hundred, you’ll wind up stopping somewhere along the way and the story will languish and possibly die.
There is no right or wrong length of time to take to lay your foundation. You might be the kind who can pull their novel together in a week or you might be the type who takes two years (which is my usual time). Giving yourself enough time to pull it all together properly is essential, and often means overriding the urge to jump headlong into a new idea and just start writing. It’s better to take a little time to do more research, outline a few more arcs or let a story sit and stew for a while than to jump in both feet first and wind up floundering partway through.
FYI: You’re more likely to do well in the writing of a story if you lay a solid foundation but sometimes in spite of all the preparation you do, the story will still flounder in the middle; for a variety of reasons that I’ll cover in another post.
Making sure that you have a full foundation for your writing style varies from person to person, obviously. For myself and other plotters, this means extensive plotting and worldbuilding, making lists of quotes and character models, and sometimes scribbling a few character scenes or sketching costumes. For a pantster writer I know, it means titling her novel, knowing who her main characters are and what her main theme is.
At this stage, you don’t have to have a well written synopsis, blurb (though either or both can help) or a snappy, ten word tagline. All you have to do is be able to describe to yourself the main plot theme, the strongest thread in the story, or the main character’s journey. For example: ‘a girl gets kidnapped and winds up as potential bride in a power struggle on another planet’ or: ‘a baby owl is stolen from its nest and must find the courage to escape his captors and find his family again while alerting the land to the evil in their midst’*.
If you can answer the question ‘what is your story about’ then you’re ready to begin.
One more note: this is a general writing principle. It is not a hard and fast rule. There are exceptions and a few of you may find yourselves needing to write a story without a clear idea of what it is; you just know that you have to do it. (I did this once. Hopefully never again.)
Merry Writing and may all your foundations be solid!
*Jennifer Frietag’s Plenilune, Kathryn Lasky’s The Capture