12 steps to creating a great book

Joe’s Post #99

hobbs and writingSo how do you plot out a great book? How do you go from a blank page to 500 pages of awesomeness?

Damned if I know how to create a great book, but I do have a process for starting a book.

I was thinking about the process while I drank a cup of timmies coffee and munched on a chocolate chips muffin. It’s quite the process, really. Writing a book. Like God, we create a world from nothing, a story from the cobwebbed part of our minds, and then we sit somewhere and try to make it all work.

Honestly, it’s amazing to me that anyone wants to do this. But here’s how I look at creating a book. Thanks to Kris and Dean, to Don Maass and a zillion other writers, editors and agents that I’ve listened to.

The 12 Step Program for Writers…

1)    What makes your main character different or unique?  All stories, I believe, start with character. There was a time I thought it started with plot, but what really drives a story?  Who is he?  What strength will your character have that defines how they drive the story? For a detective, it might be an attention to detail or a love of puzzle solving or an ability to into other people’s minds.



2)    What is the setting?  When?  Where?  What is unique or magical? Ah, it’s that last question that really matters. How can you make the setting different and engaging?

3)    When the story opens, what interesting thing is the main character doing?  The moment you write ‘sitting’ or ‘thinking’ or ‘taking a poo,” have a look at redoing that opening. What INTERESTING thing is the main character doing?

Now stop here for a moment. If you’ve spend a good 10 min on this, great! Spend 15 more. A hour. Whatever. Knowing all this stuff for the opening will help make that opening rock. And, you know what, the more time you spend on character, the better the book will be.

Then look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself, how can I make it better, snappier, have more action, have us more engaged, have us locked into your novel more?

4)    What external event will affect the character? What gets the plot going? For a romance novel, that’s meeting the love interest. For a crime novel, that’s, well, the crime.   Is there a problem?  I hope so. There better be something for the main character to overcome. An obstacle. Is there a time limit? Noting like a good deadline to create tension. Does it connect with ‘the interesting thing the main character is doing’? An obstacle to doing that thing, perhaps? What is the character’s strength that will help him solve the problem?  What is the character’s weakness or failure that will hinder him?  I love the weakness thing. I often forget to add great weaknesses to my character.

5)    Which character or force will the main character fights against?  The heart of the conflict. It can be internal or external or, even better, both. Who is the antagonist?

6)    What is the main character’s stated goal? Go deeper. What is the hidden goal, his personal need? This adds depth to the story. Your character wants to be a writer, get that great American novel written (that’s her goal, her ‘want’), but she’s doing it because her father read a lot and valued writers more than anything so, she really wants to please her father, make him proud. (And you can go deeper from here? Ask why? A lot.)

7)    What problems get in the way of that goal? List 3 obstacles. Go on, write them down. Then add a few more. Make thing worse and worse. Make your main character get farther and farther away from the goal. How will the character change or grow due to the problems or obstacles put in his way?

8)    What is at stake if the character fails?  Or why should we care?  What is the personal cost? So what if your main character fails? Make it matter.

luke9)    What is the darkest moment for the character?  What is the best moment for the antagonist?  This is what makes great fiction, that moment of despair or when all hope is lost and yet your main character finds a way to go on. It’s that moment he stands in shock, his hand cut off and finds out his dad is, like, holy crap, Darth Vadar.

10)    What will the hero lose or have to sacrifice? What happens against your character’s will?  It could be external or internal. But something’s got to be lost.

11)   How will the book end?  It doesn’t always have to have a happy ending, but your genre will tell you which way to go. But if the journey isn’t complete, then is it really an ending?

12)   What is the theme?  What is the book about? There are whole books written about this. Even Karalee wrote about theme. It’s a hard one to nail down, sometimes, but so worth the effort.

Now, doing these 12 steps will not create an outline or a book, but more like the basis for either. A foundation for your story. A guiding light.

It’s a cool system for those who write with an outline and those who free-form writers. Outliners can take those ideas and create a series of scenes. Free-formers can use them to help keep the story focused. Either way, a story is born.

Did I miss anything?



4 thoughts on “12 steps to creating a great book

  1. The only other thing I’d add is to make your antagonist rounded as well – what drives him or her or it? What obstacles do they have to overcome in order to reach their goals? What kind of relationship do the protagonist and antagonist have? It’s not always deadly enemies – they can be friends or colleagues who are competing for the same goal – how does that affect their relationship? Or they can be friends who have ended up enemies, which may or may not have something to do with the conflict in the story, but definitely will affect the on page tension.

  2. A very thoughtful, and useful, post Joe! I keep hoping that much of this will eventually become instinctive – and some of it has – but in the meantime I really need to be reminded of some of these basics. ‘Writing a book’ sounds like one task (though a big, hairy, daunting one). Your post tells the real story: that writing a book is a big, tangled, multi-tasking web. Many balls to keep in the air at once. I just hate it when I get to the end of a chapter, read it over, slap my head and mutter, “Oh crap. Goal! Right, what the hell was his goal? Jeez, how could I forget that?”

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