People sometimes ask me, “How do you get started writing a novel?” Getting started can be the hardest part of any writing endeavor. You know what you want to write, but how do you launch it? Where do you start the idea, and how do you flesh it out? You may exhaust several false starts only to become stuck almost immediately.
Every writer has their own process, and what works for one may not work for another. Some writers like outlines, others prefer to just dive in with a quirk or a conversation, and see where the story takes them. Some have formulas, or just a premise, and some simply wing it. For me, it starts with an idea, a connection between two things that I hadn’t considered before, and then I make a lot of maps.
There are two map types that I’ll use when developing a story: a mind map, and a story map. The mind map is sort of a brainstorm on paper. I use this to get all the ideas I’m having out in the open. On a blank sheet of A-size printer paper, I’ll use a pen and some highlighters to capture ideas and then draw lines and arrows to connect them. The technique works not only for writing, but for design, engineering, project management, almost any complex undertaking where you need to organize time, resources, and ideas.
My first mind map was actually many pages. I filled a notebook with technology, races, religions, weapons, and characters. I wasn’t sure where the story was, but I spent a good while defining what the world would look like. Some bits of a story started to emerge. During long drives when I had time to think, I started piecing these elements together. Then I drafted the story map.
The story map came as an inspiration when I got frustrated writing an outline. I had tried using the standard outline we were tought in school:
- Chapter 1
- Dante goes on a job
- Rescues someone being tortured
- Stumbles on it by accident
- Shoots his way out
- Stuff happens
- Dante goes on a job
A problem quickly emerged: as ideas would occur to me later in the outline (several chapters down, several pages deeper) I kept scrolling back and forth to try and keep all the important points straight –the characters, the shifting perspectives, who did what where and when, etc. I got frustrated because I couldn’t see all the points in a single picture. I put the outline aside and chewed on the problem for a few days.
Eventually I sat down with a big sheet of banner paper and a fistful of pens. I started mapping out the story. Each character had a colored bubble. Each bubble was a scene. I could map out what each character did from their perspective, in different bubbles, and then see how the bubbles related to one another. By seeing where the bubbles lined up, I could tell when to shift from one character to another and still keep it chronologically straight. In the margins I jotted down additional details, like location names, how the Guild was organized, characters names and traits, etc. The story literally took shape—sort of a blobby bubble cluster, but a shape nonetheless.
A story map doesn’t contain every detail of the novel (and I frequently deviate from it, as most writers do from an outline), but it’s a good reference to know where I want to go, and roughly how I want to get there. After an early lesson learned, I now hang the story map above my desk as a constant reference while I’m writing the first draft.*
I have never actually finished a story map. Every time I’ve done one, I’ve gotten about two-thirds into it and then said, “eh, that’s enough to get started”. As I write each chapter, I’ll create minimaps to spell out more specific details, especially when there are a lot of moving parts. But with maps in hand, I then write the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page, and so on.
If you’re thinking of writing a story, or even a piece of non-fiction, don’t get hung up forever looking at that awkward first line, or wondering where to begin. Try mind maps and story maps. Get it down on paper, and then see where you want to begin. If you happen to try it, let me know how it works out in the comments below.
*During my first novel, I wrote the map and then rolled it up because of space constraints. Several months later, my characters were stuck in a certain spot. I struggled for a couple of weeks, trying to figure their way out. Finally I remembered the map, and when I pulled it out, I realized that I had already solved this problem and just forgotten the solution. In the words of Dr. Henry Jones Sr., “I wrote it down so I wouldn’t have to remember.”