But before you start writing, you need to get organized. You need to put all those wonderful ideas down on paper in a form you can use. Why? Because your memory is fallible, and your creativity has probably left a lot of holes in your story -- holes you need to fill in before you start writing your novel. You need a design document. And you need to produce it using a process that doesn't kill your desire to actually write the story. Here is my ten-step process for writing a design document. I use this process for writing my novels, and I hope it will help you. Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture. When you later write your book proposal, this sentence should appear very early in the proposal. It's the hook that will sell your book to your editor, to your committee, to the sales force, to bookstore owners, and ultimately to readers. So make the best one you can! Some hints on what makes a good sentence:
• Shorter is better. Try for fewer than 15 words.
• No character names, please! Better to say "a handicapped trapeze artist" than "Jane Doe". • Tie together the big picture and the personal picture. Which character has the most to lose in this story? Now tell me what he or she wants to win. • Read the one-line blurbs on the New York Times Bestseller list to learn how to do this. Writing a one-sentence description is an art form. Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. This is the analog of the second stage of the snowflake. I like to structure a story as "three disasters plus an ending". Each of the disasters takes a quarter of the book to develop and the ending takes the final quarter. I don't know if this is the ideal structure, it's just my personal taste. If you believe in the Three-Act structure, then the first disaster corresponds to the end of Act 1. The second disaster is the mid-point of Act 2. The third disaster is the end of Act 2, and forces Act 3 which wraps things up. It is OK to have the first disaster be caused by external circumstances, but I think that the second and third disasters should be caused by the protagonist's attempts to "fix things". Things just get worse and worse. You can also use this paragraph in your proposal. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence to give me the backdrop and story setup. Then one sentence each for your three disasters. Then one more sentence to tell the ending. If this sounds suspiciously like back-cover copy, it's because . . . that's what it is and that's where it's going to appear someday. Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells: • The character's name
• A one-sentence summary of the character's storyline
• The character's motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?) • The character's goal (what does he/she want concretely?) • The character's conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?) • The character's epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change? • A one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline An important point: You may find that you need to go back and revise your one-sentence summary and/or your one-paragraph summary. Go ahead! This is good--it means your characters are teaching you things...
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