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How to Plot Your Book or Novel So That You Actually Finish It – Part 1: Ideas

I am not a famous author. You may never have heard of me or any of my books. But this series of posts isn’t about becoming a successful author. It’s about plotting in a way that makes it easy to finish your book. And finishing a book is one thing at which I am very good.

Since April 2013, I have self-published 2 full-length novels, 1 novella (125-pager), and 3 shorter works at around 50 pages or so each. I am also approximately 70,000 words into my next 150,000 word contemporary epic fantasy novel, The Equilibrium of Magic, and moving along steadily.

There are plenty of techniques and approaches for plotting that exist out there, and for all I know, what I’m about to describe has been proposed by someone else already. That being said, I always finish my book, and I never have writer’s block, and I just want to share what works for me every time, since I used to have problems finishing my stories.  I tend to divide the plotting process into several discernible “chunks,” including idea generation, working out the middle/weaving your story, endings, and techniques for creating and writing from an outline. This will be a multi-post thread, with the first one being about idea generation.

ideaimage

Combine multiple ideas to make a rich story premise

The difference between an interesting idea and a real beginning to your story

I fumbled around with completing a book for a decade before finally figuring out what worked for me. One key component that I now have a handle on is how and when to start outlining and writing a story. I used to come up with a notion…let’s say “what would happen if I wasn’t able to run?” and then start writing immediately. I will use my story, Running Club, as an example of how to develop a fully-fleshed out premise for a story that is able to be completed.

I’m an avid runner, so the thought of not being able to run interested me as a story premise. The first thing I thought of was “why wouldn’t someone be able to run?” The main character could be injured or otherwise physically unable to run. He could have a heart problem. He could lose the use of his legs.

Although those scenarios are plausible, they didn’t interest me as a writer of genre fiction. Ok, what if the main character was forbidden to run? Hmm. How the hell would that come to be?

The first thing that came to mind was skateboarders. There are tons of signs on sidewalks everywhere that forbid skateboarding (not that anyone pays attention to them). And the skateboarding culture can be one of rebellion and disobeying parents, etc., which was good because I’d want some conflict in my story.

Then I thought about how “in” sports are today. Almost everyone I know has become an athlete in their middle/old age. But I know that there was also a time in Europe where having lean muscles and a tan marked you as a servant or one of the working class. It was not seen as sexy or desired at all by society, so I knew that, as far-fetched as it might seem given today’s society, it would be possible for running and other strenuous sports to be at least frowned upon by the general populace.

But what did I have at this point? At best I had a single, unformed premise. And that is where I used to always go wrong in the past. As a younger man, I would have sat down and started writing a story about a guy in the future who was forbidden to run and who ran anyway, cause, dammit, he just loved running that much.

What I have discovered, for myself at least, is that a single premise like this is not enough for me to start and finish a book. Instead, I have the best luck when combining ideas to come up with a single, more unique and rich basis or beginning of a story.

So what happened next with the whole running story idea? I shelved the concept and kept my receptors open for other ideas I could throw into the mix.

That next week, serendipitously, I received a phone call from my health insurance provider. I had just finished some physical therapy for a running overuse injury–something to do with my Achilles tendon, I believe. The insurance company wanted to know if there was anyone else responsible for my accident. I explained that I didn’t actually have an accident–that I was just getting old instead. I laughed. They did not. Unsatisfied, they gave up. Or so I believed.

The next week, I received another phone call from them, asking the same thing.

Immediately, I thought, if any organization would try to outlaw running, it would be health insurance companies. Right now, these companies are happy when their members exercise, because the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks of injury, which means they don’t have to pay out as much money on a physically active member as they do on a non-active member.

Now my premise was getting some teeth to it. What if, in the future, health insurance companies forbid extreme exercise, and they wouldn’t cover you if you ignored their advice? That was a little better, but it still wasn’t complete enough for a story beginning.

And then I remembered that a few weeks prior, I had read about a real thing called a polypill that provides patients with multiple pharmaceutical agents in a single pill. Optimists believe that one day a pill could exist that could be tailored to each individual’s DNA, and that this pill could conceivably even cure many of today’s known diseases. People would look great and would live longer, but they wouldn’t have to exercise to get any of the outward and most of the inward benefits. I imagined a nation of complacent, skinny-fat people.

Oh yeah. Now I had something:

In the future, the polypill eliminates all disease from those who can afford to take it (we’re talking costs akin to taking on a second mortgage). Extreme exercise has now become the primary vector for injuries and is no longer needed to keep people “healthy.” Anyone who can’t afford the polypill or who runs, bikes, etc. is dropped from health insurance company coverage.  These companies are, of course, in bed with the big pharma giants. My story would be about a single guy who decides that “looking” good is not enough for him, and who starts his own underground running club (which is exactly what I would do). The rest of the story and the ideas for the follow-on novel (still in process) unfold from there.

Now, you may not like my premise. You may not think it’s a realistic thing that might happen in our future. I would disagree with you, but either way, it is unquestionably a premise and a beginning that has enough meat on it to sustain a full story.

And why do you need “meat” to finish a book? Because beginnings and even endings are easy. But middles suck and are difficult for most of the authors I know, at least. Having a premise that consists of more than just a single idea opens up lots more threads and dimensions to explore in the dreaded middle (which I will cover in my next post), thus making it easier to complete your book and not get stuck after you exhaust your first couple of set-up chapters.

What’s the basic takeaway? Don’t get an initial premise confused with a real solid basis for a story. Combine ideas that at first don’t seem to even belong together. Look for commonalities between ideas that others wouldn’t at first notice. Once you have some flesh on your premise, then start outlining your book. But hey, even if you’re a pantser, having a good, solid beginning is still a great idea and also will help ensure that you have enough fuel to finish your story.

I hope this has been of some help to any of you struggling to finish your stories. Next post, I will cover working out the middle and weaving your story.

 

2 Comments

  • Georgie on Aug 01, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for putting down your ideas regarding some of the stalemates of writing. This is the information that should be helpful to a budding fictional novelist.
    I have finished one mystery novel with main characters who are potentially entertaining enough for a second novel as criminal solvers. I haven’t also created another group of characters that I plan to use in another series.
    I just finished Trapped In Whittier. I very much enjoyed Trent and his love interest. The whole story had that clever quirkiness with which I am entertained. I look forward to reading more of Trent’s adventures.
    Thank you,

    • Mike on Aug 01, 2015 Reply

      Hi Georgie!

      Very happy to hear that someone is getting some use out of those posts. And, of course, I’m really happy that you enjoyed Trapped in Whittier. I think quirky is a good way to describe it. Seems like folks either hate it or really “get” it. I am getting very close to publishing the last book in his origin trilogy, with Hunted Under Vegas being the second book. Then I get to write some standalone adventures for him, which I am very excited about.

      Congrats on your mystery novel. Is it on published online or are you going the traditional route? BTW, I know you didn’t ask for advice on this, but if I could change one thing two years ago when I started this, it would be to only start one series and get that going before starting another. Going back and forth has really slowed my progress on either one of them. I like both of my series, but I could be on book 4 or 5 of Trent’s adventures, instead of really only having two books in each series right now.

      Good luck on everything and feel free to drop a link to your book if its published online!

      Oh, and thanks for the awesome post comment. It was a good note to get this Saturday night before I start in on my writing. 🙂

      Mike

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