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From Idea to Manuscript

When people find out that I’m an author, I often hear comments about their own writing aspirations. “I’ve got this great idea for a novel,” one would say. “My life story would make a compelling book,” another would comment. Whenever I would ask why they don’t write their stories, their answers were consistently self-deprecating. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” one would defend. “I’m not a writer,” another would attest. “I could never do what you do,” some would say. In this article, I am going to provide a road map for anyone who wants to translate an idea into a manuscript.

Writing is not rocket science. We all write in one fashion or another every single day – emails, reports, reviews, social media posts, memorandums, etc. Creative writing is not a far stretch from what you are already doing. In fact, regardless of profession, you probably already have all the tools you need to become an author.

Starting at the beginning, let’s talk about the difference between an interesting thought and a novel idea. Gone are the days when an author feeds a sheet of paper into a typewriter and plucks out “Once upon a time” or “In the beginning…” to get the juices flowing. There are still a handful of authors out there who can wing it from the start, but most require a foundation – a solid idea to build upon.

An interesting thought is just that, an interesting thought. Although it is not enough of a foundation to write a book, an interesting thought may lead to a novel idea. I’ve mentioned before that, since childhood, I have been keeping a “Novel Ideas” document that I add to regularly and refer to when I want to start writing a new story. To illustrate the concept of a good foundation for a novel, I will describe how I document my novel ideas.

A novel idea encompasses the concept and provides a basic structure by answering a few simple questions – what, when, how, who, where, and why. These are the building blocks of any story. If you have a good idea for a book, then run through these questions and jot down the answers. Your answers should be informative, not basic.

Basic (bad)

What: Alien Apocalypse

When: 2029

How: Mass Invasion

Who: One man who fights back

Where: Idaho

Why: Farmer saves the world

Informative (good)

What: An alien civilization in search of a new planet after the destruction of their homeworld arrives on Earth to colonize. Humanity is the only thing that stands in the way. Considering themselves to have superior intelligence and technologies, they see humanity as a nuisance to be exterminated.

When: Global invasion begins on August 14th, 2029 in countries all around the world. Initially, the ships just hover over the locations as spectators ponder their intentions. News broadcasters speculate 24/7 as experts from the military and space industries offer their opinions on what the arrival might mean. Two days later, once the aliens have assessed the situation, they attack. The military response is futile.

How: High-tech weapons from the mother ships obliterate scrambling humans and destroy buildings. Smaller ships emerge from the mother ships for more precise strikes. Finally, drones in the thousands are released to search out and destroy any remaining humans.

Who: Carter Prescott, a potato farmer with a family to protect, fights back. With no mother ship overhead, he evades the smaller ships and drones as he seeks shelter. His family, the town Sheriff, and a local delicatessen owner all play pivotal roles.

Why: There have been many books written and movies made about alien invasion, but I cannot recall one where a potato farmer saves the world. In short, he discovers that the aliens have a severe reaction to pesticides that don’t harm humans. When he realizes he can kill the aliens on the ground by dropping pesticides from his twin-engine crop duster, he spreads the news. With the mother ships now on the ground, it becomes an all-out war for who will be able to call Earth home.

The first version was more of a thought than a novel idea. In the section version, we have the basic foundation to begin writing a story. What we need now is an ending. Before you begin writing, you must have at least a rudimentary idea of how your story is going to end. Look through your notes and contemplate the options. Are we able to weaponize pesticides? Do the surviving aliens retreat to their mother ships? How do we deal with their drones? Do we annihilate the aliens or do some escape or remain behind? What has the experience done for Carter and society at large? How have things changed?

The next step is to start developing your characters. These days, readers expect character-driven novels. The story is important, but the characters make it shine. Once you have a basic premise, it is time to work on your characters. I like to do this by creating character sketches. Ask yourself more questions about each of your main characters and write down your answers. How old are they? What do they look like? What is their background? What is their role in the story? Will they live or die? Every basic detail you can conceive.

When you are done with the basics for each character, go back through them to fine-tune the details – personality, quirks, education level, interests, style of speech, etc.

Once you know your characters, you are ready to move on to the plot. At this point, you might want to create an outline or at least jot down some notes. As your story progresses, your readers will want to see it begin to unfold. Most readers are turned off by knowing how a book is going to end after reading the first few chapters. As you outline the plot, think of it like peeling an onion – one layer leads to the next.

Remember, you are not yet writing the story, you are just sketching out the flow. You can use short phrases to accomplish this goal. For example:

Carter working on the farm in the summer sun before settling down for dinner with his family…

News reports of multiple objects heading toward Earth…

Mother ships hover over major cities around the world…

Speculation begins…

Continue the process until you reach your intended climax. Go back through your list and see if you have enough entries for a novel. You want to have somewhere around 30 to 40 entries as you can consider these potential chapters. This quick plot sketch will also give you the ability to manage your revelations in a way that will keep your readers engaged. Tweak it until it is where you want it to be.

There is one last thing you should do before writing your story – make it unique. Since there have been many alien invasion stories told, decide now what will make yours unique from the others. Having a potato farmer as the hero is not enough to set it apart from the rest. Perhaps you can come up with a type of alien that we have never read about in books or seen in the movies. Maybe the colonization effort is unique with some form of terraforming in addition to the extermination of the human species. Whatever details are going to make your story unique, you want to have them in mind before you begin to write.

Keep in mind that all of this information you have written down is simply serving as a roadmap. As you’re writing, you may opt to take a different path to get to your destination. For instance, as you get deeper into the story, you might decide it would be interesting to add in the perspective of one of the aliens. In the alien minds. the extermination of the human species might seem no different than humans exterminating snakes, rats, spiders, and cockroaches from a potential dwelling. Maybe that perspective shifts when an alien realizes the value of human life. In fact. you could even have this alien eventually team up with Carter to end the invasion or become an outcast for sympathizing with humanity.

Now, you are finally ready to transform your idea into a manuscript. All that remains is writing your story. I’m making that sound simpler than it really is because I want to encourage people to write. You may not yet have the skills to employ perfect grammar and evocative vocabulary, but that comes with time and practice. The key is to get started writing. You can always go back through and edit.

Some authors might ask why I am encouraging others to write when the market is already saturated. In the United States alone, more than one million books are written every year and, with self-publication options, the number is rising. In some ways, it would make more sense to discourage competition.

I prefer to encourage anyone who believes they have a great idea for a book to write it. Some stories just need to be told regardless of the author’s educational background or experience in writing. Imagine the loss if Frank McCourt hadn’t written Angela’s Ashes or if J.K. Rowling hadn’t written Harry Potter. Most stories won’t have anywhere near that sort of success, but yours might.

On a final note, there are many software applications on the market that can help you write your book – Scrivener, Grammarly, etc. You can find links for these tools and more on The Resource Room tab of this blog. Use them to your advantage.

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