13 Questions to Ask Before You Write a Novel

QuestionsA week or so ago, I posted some information I learned at a local seminar about Crafting a Pitch. I provided some information in that post specifically about the pitch process and thought I’d share a bit more of the information that was provided. While this was given in relation to crafting your pitch, I felt it was just general all-around good information and would be just as important when starting a novel as when crafting a pitch, so decided to share it in a separate post.

Everyone has their own process and perhaps formulating this much information about a novel might work against people who are more free-form and extemporaneous with their work. For myself, I’m more of a ‘Plotter’ with my writing, becoming a ‘Pantser’ when I’m in the heat of filling in the gaps. As such, I found these questions to be very much in line with how I crafted my current novel and very much how I’ll most likely continue to create.

Its important to understand as you read these that I was only given the questions; all of the explanations I added. They might sound like ‘experienced-writer-imparting-knowledge’ but I approached this post like I’m interpreting these questions and sharing my view of them. I’m expanding my craft by sharing my answers with others. Anyways, here they are:

  1. What is the genre of your book? Even if you are trying to create a cross-genre book, like Vampire Romance or Steampunk Horror, it is important that you can easily articulate what genre it could most closely be grouped with. Your publisher will want to know because it will define your audience.
  2. What is the audience of your book? Knowing your audience informs you what kind of writing you’ll use and what kind of content you have in the book, plus informs the publisher as to how they can market your work. A story of a pre-teen wizarding school that has light bondage undertones might have appeal in some very niche markets, but it most definitely will not be a YA book. Or legal.  KNow your audience and market and write accordingly.
  3. What is your setting? This differs from your genre as it gives you a framework and an environment for the story, especially when your genre is broad. Steampunk Horror could be a Victorian setting with Cthulhuian elements or WWI space aces fighting brain-eating alien slugs from Venus. It’s also the difference between Dracula and Twilight.  Both are Vampire Romance, but they differ in their settings.
  4. What is the book’s theme? This helps you define the overarching purpose of the story in contrast to the plot. The plot of my book(s) is a steampunk political tale detailing betrayal and revolution but the theme is the loss of innocence and the path to adulthood and self-discovery.
  5. Why is your story special? What will make your book stand out amongst other books of its kind? This is important as it defines how your story will stand out amongst the crowd. Is your book about an awkward and un-relatable teenage girl who finds herself in a dangerous relationship with a century-old vampiric man-child-slash-child predator? A precocious adolescent who learns his parents were wizards and he’s being hunted by the most evil wizard in existence? How about a tactically brilliant boy duped through so called ‘games’ into leading an armada to fight an extraterrestrial enemy? Yes? Then find out why your book is different from those other stories sharing the same basic plot. You will be compared to them -usually unfavorably- if you do not.
  6. Who is your protagonist and why are they interesting? What will make people remember them? Why should people care about your hero? What will make the reader want to keep reading to find out what happens to them? Your protagonist should draw people in. There must be something about them that makes people excited and intrigued. They are the proxy for your audience, both as an agent to take action and to drive the narrative forward as well as a lens through which to see the world around them and to filter that world for your readers. A fifty-something methamphetamine cook is not really that interesting of a character but Walter White was one of the most iconic characters of contemporary storytelling and he lent a very peculiar for impactful viewpoint for Breaking Bad‘s viewers. His simultaneous downward spiral and rise-to-power was unique and memorable. We could not help but watch his descent and thrill at it as much as we winced.
  7. Who is your antagonist and how or why are they in opposition to your protagonist? Crafting a convincing antagonist is very difficult; I speak from my own experience. They must be believable and stand in opposition to the protagonist in some respect. That is not to say they must be inherently evil. They might simply represent a voice of authority that the hero must struggle against or view the world in a different light and choose an option your protagonist will not or cannot choose.  Or, they could simply want to watch the world burn. No matter where they fall on the villany scale, it’s important that they are internally consistent. Make them too evil or pointlessly evil and they risk becoming a caricature. The best advice I’ve read is that even if the antagonist is a ‘Hitler’ to the rest of the world, make them a ‘Jesus’ in their own mind. A truly evil antagonist who thinks that his actions are just and necessary is more interesting (usually) than someone who just wants to hurt, maim and destroy.  Consider The Joker in The Dark Knight; he is unmistakably evil and psychopathic, but he is that way because he thinks it is necessary.  he is an agent for chaos whose reason for being is to show the world that order is an illusion.  He seeks to ‘wake up people’.
  8. What conflict, dilemna or choice does the protagonist face? These can be conflicts that are either insignificant or world-shattering. They don’t have to be ‘I must save this world’ moments either. Some can be more subtle, yet equally paradigm-shifting. For instance, my hero eventually faces a moment where he can either flee danger and responsibility or rise and become the hero. Yet I feel his more impactful decision is to face a harsh reality that tests his faith in the world he was convinced he knew and either accept that painful realization or turn away and ignore the larger implications. Anyone can be a hero on a moments notice; accepting you were wrong and that the world is must different than you’d like to believe can be far more difficult at times.
  9. What are the stakes? What are the consequences of the protagonist’s actions or decisions? Again, this can be obvious or more subtle. The stakes don’t have to be enormous, they can be quite intimate. Or the protagonist could be the only individual who can save the world. Your choice. using my own example from above: my protagonist have the opportunity to save a world leader and possibly a nation; if he fails, the world at large changes, definitely for the worse. Yet he also holds his own fate in his hands, to reinvent himself and face all of the difficulties that often entails or to remain the same, ignoring the truth, yet avoiding negative consequences.
  10. What is the main event that gets the story started? This can be a tricky one to articulate. In some cases, the catalyst event is seemingly simple to identify: Luke’s uncle and aunt are killed by the Galactic Empire, Gandalf urges Frodo and Samwise to flee the Shire, Harry arrives in Hogwarts. However, not all stories have clearly defined moments. If could even be said that these examples are not the true ‘main events’. Perhaps it was when Luke saw the Princess’ holographic plea or when he met Obi-Wan and learned his father was a Jedi? Maybe the true event in the Lord of the Rings was when the Fellowship was joined? Maybe the catalyst event in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was when Harry first learned he was a wizard? Every story varies, but it’s important to be able to identify some sort of defining moment.
  11. What are the main points of action that drive the narrative? This is perhaps my favorite part of the writing process. I am a Plotter to the core. I wrote a thorough chapter by chapter synopsis that has allowed me to see the course of my novel and make additions and subtractions as needed. It lets me see where I’ve been, where I’m going and how I’ll get there. Not everyone works like that though. Some people like their story to form itself, free-form and unrestricted. That’s perfect too. However, no matter how your book is written, there must be some milestones you establish to make sure that not only you know the course of the journey, but so do your readers.
  12. What is the backstory or motivations that drive or affect your characters? Your characters are more than chess pieces for you to move around. A good story has characters that have a reason for acting and behaving in the way they do. A noble man is not likely to shoot someone dead unless there is an overriding reason to do so. A miser is not charitable unless there is a reason -say a trio of ghosts- to make him see the error of his way. Every character needs a motivation and history that defines and influences the actions they take. Remove that and your character is boring and hard to relate to.
  13. Will this be a standalone novel or part of a larger series? Will your tale be told within a single novel or will there be a greater story told within a series of novel? Each represents their own challenges and knowing the scale of your entire story is important to bother yourself and your agent or editor. For yourself, it determines whether your book must be more compact and your words carefully selected or whether you have more freedom to be descriptive, as well as whether you must tell two stories in your book: the main story arc of the book in addition to the greater series story arc. For the agent, this will tell them whether the book they are publishing will require more books to finish the story or if it’s a ‘one & done’ book.

So , yeah, wow. That’s a veritable wall of text of me yammering on. And on. And on.
Again, I apologize if I come off as a ‘know-it-all’, but for me explaining how I view these questions and how they relate to my own writing helps me internalize the information I was given. Perhaps it might be helpful to you. It most definitely was helpful to me. Next time: something less professorial and more personal.


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