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15 questions to guide your novel

Sometimes you just gotta get methodical. Novels are big and unruly, but chaos does not need to reign. Here are 15 framing questions that can help you discover and define what you what to write. I’ll use one of my books to give examples.

Questions 1-4. The main “handles” readers will use to discover your book.

1. What genre? Some aspiring writers are surprisingly conflicted about what type of story to write. My only advice is to read in likely genres. Read a lot. Learn what stories you adore.

For my book, the answer to the genre question was Fantasy. But there are so many types of fantasy, and some form popular subgenres such as gaslamp, sword and sorcery, grimdark, folkloric. So we drill down. (For examples of types of fantasy, see my post Landscapes of Fantasy.)

2. What kind of fantasy? In the case of the book I had in mind, it was historical fantasy with psi-powers.

3. What makes it stand out? Set in inter-war 1930s Britain. Let the story have something fresh, even unique. But not so unique that you’ll never be able to sell it.

4. Multi-book or stand alone? Multi-book, let’s say. I thought the concept had legs for several books. After all, I reasoned, The Entire and The Rose didn’t kill me. Right, let’s do a series. (Wait, TEATR did kill me, but I’m over that now.) I called the series The Dark Talents Novels.

Questions 5-10. The shape of the story.

5. What is the milieu, what is the magic about? In 1936, psi-powers have come into the world as a result of the suffering of World War I.

6. What is the story problem? A Nazi plot against Great Britain based on cold and ice.

7. What is the title? Some writers save this question for after they’ve written the novel, but I have to have it early. At the Table of Wolves.

8. Who is the major character (MC)? Kim Tavistock, a determined woman whose hard gift it is to hear from people secrets they most wish to hide — whether she want to know or would very much prefer not to know.

9. Who is the primary character standing against the MC? (To avoid spoilers, I’ll skip my answers to the rest of the questions, but the considerations are still ones I use every book.)

10. Who else is in the story and how will they add to the tension or depth? 

Questions 11-15. Going deep.

11. MC backstory. What makes him or her tick?

12. Who gets a point of view or even a subplot? This decision often will change as I begin to write. Actually,  answers to several of these questions will often change as I write. My first answers just give me default direction.

13. What am I trying to say? What is the point, the theme that all aspects serve in a subtle, yet fundamental way?

14. In what inevitable but surprising way does the story end?

15. What secrets can I lay in to fuel mysteries and major turning points?

That’s it! Give these 15 points some thought, and you will, in Robert Ray’s terms, frontload your subconscious, and in doing so, discover your true story.


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