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  • Writer's picturePete


Updated: Nov 11, 2021

“The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

—Mark Twain

Hey, writers and dreamers. I'm putting up this post to help a certain friend but it's for anybody, of course, who might feel stuck. It's an excerpt from my new book Hey, Writer.

Getting through the first draft of a novel (or screenplay) can be overwhelming. Heck, starting a novel can be overwhelming. So how to rise to the challenge? I have an idea. Make the process feel manageable—or at least manageable enough to dive into and give it all you’ve got.

Tip: Defining the book on multiple levels can be a huge help.

I’ll arrange the following prompt in steps. Follow these steps and the book’s outline will take form and become a container that will seem fillable.

Step 1: do you have a title? Yes? No? Make up something temporary if you’re not sure. Say, The Tanned-Maiden’s Hail. About a tanned milkmaid who possesses the superpower of creating hail to pummel the patriarchy. That won’t work. Let’s go with…Destiny Calling. Get it? Your destiny. My point? To write that new novel, an evocative title can help shape the story.

My latest novel, a Middle Grade sci-fi/fantasy set 103 years in the future, was first called The Unforgettables. Then Last of the Humans. Now it’s My Last Friends on Earth. I wish I had written it under that name. My Last Friends on Earth leads the story better.

Step 2: name the genre of your proposed novel. I know yours is that rare tome that cannot be defined or contained by a genre, but humour me. Write it down. Epic.

Step 3: an approximate word count? Let’s say, for whatever reason, you love books of a certain length and you could see this one being similar. Say, 80,000 words? Cool. That’s manageable, right? Five hundred words a day will result in an 80,000 word draft in less than six months. I wrote that last sentence like I’m the precocious love child of Stephen King and Agatha Christie. But 500 words a day is 80,000 words in a hundred and sixty-days.

Manageable and enticing.

Step 4: take fifteen minutes to write down the theme of the book—the main idea and the meaning you hope to convey. In general. Don’t feel tied to it. It’s not a contract.

Step 5: jot down the plot in more detail, clarifying the major plot points. Where things change big time. Significant battles, physical or mental, or both. Emotional collapses. Changes of heart. Whatever it is. Use certain plot point formulas for dividing up the story. The opening. A crucial turning point. Try a “and then _______ happened…” “And after that ______ happened.” Do you have danger? Fear? Terror? Heartache? Big love? What kind of tension? Use the describable tension as a marker. The halfway point. We’re using screenwriting terms here which as a form is heavy on structure. A turning point. The resolution even. Divide into sections, if you can. Do you know how you’d like it to end, or at least how you’d like it to feel when it ends? A satisfying ending. A bit vague, but why not? Who lives, who dies, who wins, who loses.

Add extra plot points that occur as you write. Don’t edit yourself, keep putting ideas down, and give yourself half an hour. Cool.

Step 6: if it’s going well, add chapter titles, if you can, along the plot line. Now add key plot twists inside the chapters and emotional or physical cliff-hangers at the end of the chapter.

Give yourself a half hour to get those ideas more detailed. It’s taxing to make big choices but pleasing. Or maybe it’s easy. You’re flowing.

Either way, right before your eyes, you’re starting to see the shape of your novel.



Length. Estimated word count.

Plot points. Sections and even chapter titles.

An ending.

Don’t panic. Nothing is in stone. But there it is. Your novel. Broken into sections and defined.

I hope laying out a few of the different parts of a story helps any readers who are writers to feel they can compartmentalize and control their own big project enough to safely dive into it (or back into it) and keep going. Structure Creates Freedom sounds Orwellian, but with writing, there is freedom in structure. Keep going!

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