PhotobucketFebruary is plotting month here at Writer Unboxed, which is about perfect for me as I plunge into the world of book #2. I have a lot of work ahead of me, and much of it involves heavy-duty plotting of a complicated dual storyline–thinking through every scene to ensure that the plots move forward, that the opening hooks, that the middle doesn’t sag, that the end is satisfying. But I also think it’s important to invest some time into pre-plotting. What’s pre-plotting? This:

Polishing the vision. You have an idea you love, and you’re excited to get started. But wait. Can you answer some basic questions about this new story concept of yours?

* What kind of book will it be? What will be the general flavor of the book? The genre?
* Who will be your audience?
* Will your story have a message, and if so, what will it be? What sort of themes will you tap into?
* How do you envision the book structurally? Will it unfold as a straight tale, or will you interweave story lines and points of view?

These might seem like basic questions–and they are–but I think they’re sometimes overlooked in a writer’s enthusiasm to get writing. Not attending to them early on can cost valuable time later and can even become the crack in your story’s foundation.

Alternatively, being sure about the kind of book you’re about to write and who you’re writing it for can help in dozens of ways. It can help determine what your first few pages, even your first sentence, should relay; it can help by reminding you of established expectations for your genre; and it can help to redirect you whenever you’re stuck.

Casting characters. Characters become the heart and soul of your book, so it’s important to get their fundamental selves right, right from the start. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

* Do you need a large cast of characters or do you prefer a small ensemble?
* Have you established characters who can be in conflict with one another? What types of conflict?
* How will each character change throughout the course of the book?
* Which characters will showcase your theme?
* Maybe most importantly, will you want to spend months (maybe years) of your life perfecting these characters, and do you think readers will ultimately find them intriguing enough to read about?

Hunting for authenticity. I love research. I take great pleasure in finding just the right detail to help twist up a plot or refine a character. Research lovers like me may have to be careful not to overdo it, though, and risk bogging down the story with details readers won’t care about.

Even if you hate research, there’s no denying it can help root your story authentically–whether you’re talking about details of a place or thing or type of person or even an emotion. I hope none of you shuns research entirely, because the unearthing process often holds a surprising amount of story gold. Find a gem and don’t know where to put it? Make a list of interesting details (e.g. Rome has lots of hidden underground chambers, former houses and the like) and maybe later you’ll figure out how best to use them. Here are some of my favorite ways to hunt for authenticity:

* reading books and content on trustworthy websites
* scouring maps
* interviewing experts in various fields–firemen and lawyers and twins, for example
* visiting a place personally (This can be the most valuable, as you can speak to the locals, walk the land, familiarize yourself with customs and more.)

Remembering what you’ve learned. Pre-plotting might mean reading or reviewing a few craft books. Not chapters on polishing your prose–this isn’t the time for that–but definitely chapters on structure and plotting. Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel was probably the most important book on my shelf when it came to plotting my last novel, and you can bet I’ll read through it again.

Once your pre-plotting is finished, it’s time to take a deep breath and begin the challenging and rewarding work of plotting your story.

What steps do you take before beginning a new project?

Write on, all!

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About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in March. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.