Writing a manuscript is a complicated process, and while it’s tempting to just go for it when you feel like you have the beginnings of something great, you will probably find yourself in a great big mess unless you sort out some fundamental elements first. Here are a few things you should have a firm grasp on before getting started:
Know Your Characters
This holds for fiction and non-fiction: even if you are writing your own memoir, make sure you know who will feature, how prominently, and in what role. The characters are the driving force behind any story, mainly because they are the reliable touchstones your reader will identify with and keep returning to. In short, your characters must stay consistent. A good editor can help you iron out inconsistencies in your plot, but if the issues start at the character level, you’ll have a much bigger problem on your hands. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your characters can’t adapt and change as the story develops — and they should certainly arc — but a solid foundation for each and every one is important.
Know Where Your Characters are Going
Where will the plot take your characters? How will they develop over the course of the story? You should have a good sense of where the characters begin, how they will react to the elements of your story, and where they will end up. All of this requires first fulfilling the above task. You need to know your characters well to have a sense of how things will affect them. This of course also includes having some sense of the plot.
Know What Happens
This doesn’t mean you need to plan every detail from the word go, nor does it mean that you have to meticulously stick to your plan while you write, but you should have some sense of where the story is headed and where it will end up, as well as a few key scenes in between. This will help you stay on track as you go, and will provide you with something to refer back to when you are up to your eyeballs in details.
Know Your Editor
This might sound flippant, but it is important to meet with your editor in the early stages of the writing process to make sure that you’re on the same page from the beginning. Your editor will be an important component of the finished product that will become your book, so you should find out as soon as possible how they will fit into the process. An early working relationship will also allow them to become familiar with your plans for the manuscript so they can help keep you on track later if you begin to get lost in your own story.
Robin Field holds a BA in English and Linguistics from the University of Cape Town where she is currently working toward her Master’s degree in Linguistics with a focus on gender and game studies.