It's been almost five years since I started a brand-new story, and despite coaching dozens of clients through my prewriting process during that time, I felt a little rusty when I arrived at retreat with only an elevator pitch and the vaguest idea of my two main characters.
If you're looking for some prewriting inspiration, here's a little look under the hood at the tools and resources I used to flesh out my idea.
Map Out the Big Picture
I was lucky enough to learn the ins and outs of book coaching from my friend and mentor Jennie Nash. And her Blueprint for a Book is still step one in prewriting for myself and my clients.
Her method is all about identifying comparable titles as a way both to understand the current publishing landscape and to know what type of book you want to write and where it will eventually sit on the shelf. By the end of her process, you'll know more than your comp titles, though. You'll have an elevator pitch, a genre and age category, and a solid answer to the question: Why must I write this book?
Dig Into Your Main Characters
Once I have an elevator pitch and some comp titles, I spend a little time brainstorming what else I know about the story. That list will eventually become the messy synopsis I use later in my planning process. But first I need to know more about my main characters.
Lisa Cron's Story Genius is invaluable for this important character work. She takes you through a series of exercises to determine your character's backstory and how it necessarily impacts the story arc because it is the basis of the character's motivation. Although I am not able to answer every question about my main characters at this early stage, her exercises are a great first step.
If you're struggling to flesh out those main characters or are just looking for a fun exercise to spur your creativity, I really love these Archetype Cards (Tarot cards work too). You can pull three random cards and see how they might apply to a character in your story or you can do some of the more structured readings where individual cards define a particular aspect of a character.
I just like to flip through them and put together three cards that feel like each of my main characters and then jot down some notes. Sometimes that alone is enough to get the character to start talking to me, which is the ultimate goal of my prewriting process.
I'm not a heavy plotter/outliner, especially at this early stage. I tend to do the bulk of my structural work after my first draft is done, instead focusing my initial draft on getting the character emotion and dynamics right on the page. But I do think about structure, both in terms of what some of the key turning point moments are and in terms of whether multiple timelines, POVs, or other nontraditional structures will be part of the project.
I use classic fairytale structure (think "Once Upon a Time") to start a high-level Tent Pole Scenes Outline. This, in addition to the bulleted list of "things I know about the story thus far" come together to form that messy synopsis I was talking about. But not until I've done a little exploratory writing to start to define the main characters' voices.
I'll be posting more about my planning process on social media in the coming days since National Novel Writing Month will soon be upon us. Pop on over to Instagram, Bluesky, or Facebook and tell me your favorite novel planning tools or ask any planning-related questions you might have.
Hope to see you there!
PS - Yes, it's true, the writing community seems to have finally solidified around Bluesky as our replacement for that bird-shaped thing now called, ominously, X. If you've been wanting to check it out, but need a code, I have a couple up for grabs. Just hit reply and I'll send you one (first come, first served and I only have a couple for now).