I’ve never had trouble coming up with ideas, but I’ve experienced years of pain trying to find a way to corral them into novel form. So, now that I’ve finally found a process that is working for me (and each writer does have to find the process that works for their unique mind and story), I’m sharing in the hope that it may speed up your own “idea-to-first-draft” process:
Before you can organize your ideas, you’ll need to come up with the ideas in the first place. Set aside plenty of writing time each day, and come up with daily word count goals for yourself—then write down whatever ideas come to mind. Keep all these in one document (I made the mistake of scribbling on whatever bit of paper I could find, not expecting it to take ten years for the book to gestate, and then had the devil of a time going through it all to find the bits I needed). I found the largest format ring binder notebook I could find so I could take it everywhere, but separate from a computer at this early stage, as the internet is a time vortex I couldn’t help getting sucked into. Find a calm, distraction-free writing space to brainstorm, such as a coffee shop, library, or even a garden shed (my solution). Treat your writing sessions like a job: Keep consistent hours and try to hit predetermined performance benchmarks. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, you can try to jumpstart your creative process by freewriting, following writing prompts, or using a visual mind map. This brainstorming notebook doesn’t have to make sense, even to you. You’re just dumping down everything you find shiny to do with this story.
By now your notebook is a massive idea train wreck, and you’re likely feeling overwhelmed. Don’t be. You’ve got this. It’s time to transition away from brainstorming and note-taking and begin organizing. Go through the notebook and put the biggest McGuffins, characters, themes, world-building structures, locations, etc on to the biggest whiteboard (or series of whiteboards organized as sections) that you can find. Now you’ll start to see a shape, an “atmosphere” and tone coming together for this novel. If this novel was a cake, you’re beginning to sense what this novel would taste like.
Take all of your ideas—whether they’re scenes, character needs, or plotlines—and write them down on individual index cards or sticky notes. If an idea is too complex to fit on a notecard, reduce it down to keywords to represent the important points. Continue this method until all of your novel’s main points, important scenes, and random ideas are copied onto note cards. I use Scrivener for this, because I can create project “outlines” for everything (a magical artifact, a secret order of warrior monks, a university’s history, etc) with a separate set of notecards for each. It would be unwieldy to carry this around to coffee shops, so having a digital version is helpful, especially with the next step.
Once all of your ideas are on notecards, it’s time to put them in order. Lay all your note cards out on a table (or the floor, depending on how many you have) and start arranging them in chronological order. If certain notecards don’t seem to fit in with the broader scope of the story, place them off to the side for now (you can create a separate outline in Scrivener for “homeless” cards). With all your cards laid out, you should start to get a big picture sense of how your story looks, or at least what kind of story you’re working with. Is it a mystery, an adventure quest, a character in an intriguing world…? What are the genre expections of that kind of story – the essential scenes that every reader expects and looks forward to? Great, now you’ve got the essential scenes, you can flesh things out.
Seeing all your ideas laid out in order will likely make you realize that there’s a lot of work left to do. Don’t worry: That’s part of the process. Based on your notecard outline, ask yourself: Which characters need to be further developed? Which subplots need to be fleshed out? Which storylines need to be reworked? Focus on making sure your characters have strong motivations and that your plot moves are earned. Seeing your novel laid out in notecard form should help you visually identify what still needs to be done in order for your story to track. I write a lot more notes in the brainstorming notebook at this point because I can freestyle more there. If the story has a magical artifact, how does it impact the plot? For this, I ask WHO it impacts, and why. From that often comes more worldbuilding, as an object of power never affects only one person in an entire society/world. Who else is impacted? How does it influence the way society is structured? What conflicts arise? How do those play out? Now you’re humming along on the idea train again, but don’t forget to stop at stations to apply those ideas to your cards in the form of possible plot points.
By now, you should have a bunch of notecards that form the rough outline of your story. Copy the scene ideas back onto paper or a Word document, so that your outline is all in one place (or simply print it off in Scrivener). As you read over your new, condensed outline, you’ll likely have new ideas for scenes and characters. You’ll also likely begin to see the big picture thematic ideas of the novel as a whole. Go back to the brainstorming notebook and jot those down. The process of doing so may help you to see how those thematic ideas can play out in the form of character arcs and actions.
This process can be repeated over and over as you begin writing. Once you start laying down novel words, characters gain minds of their own and random things come to you from the aether. That’s okay. As long as they make sense with your original vision for the story, the original urge to tell it, you won’t get sidetracked too far off course. This is particularly important when you take ten years to write a novel. You’re not the same person you were when you started, so the novel changes, too, and you can get lost. The faster you can get the brainstorming to the point where you can begin writing novel words, the better. And then the faster you get that “vomit draft” on to the page, the better, too. It’s okay to spend ten years editing if that’s what you need to do (dear God!) but don’t be like me. At least get that first draft DONE.