You've got a great idea. The story of the century! It's got class, it's got drama, and you just KNOW it's going to be the next NYT bestseller. You can picture the characters in your head and have even thought up some witty banter for them - it's like they've come alive just for you. This is going to be so fun! You can't wait to get started! You're so pumped!
And then you sit down to write.
Suddenly it feels like all you really have are a few scattered lines and some creative descriptions of your characters' eye colors (his glittering topaz-burnt gold-sunshine yellow eyes glittered glitteringly as he stared at her from across the Golden Corral buffet line...).
Well, great news! That really is all you need to get started. The ghost of an idea, that spark of enthusiasm, those disjointed bits of dialogue and scenery...that's how baby novels are born. But like all new parents, when you get the screaming, pooping mess of a creature home and set it down in your newly painted nursery, it can be a bit...overwhelming. And truthfully, the writing process always will feel overwhelming to some extent. Each new project is unique - maybe even more so than all of those new babies popped out in delivery rooms around the world. They all seem pretty much the same to if you ask me.
Cruising along with the parenthood metaphor, which, as a childless twenty-something year-old with no siblings, I can confidently claim to be an expert on, I have noticed that parents who attempt to prepare for their child seem a bit more...well, prepared. If you bring the kid home but never bothered to buy any diapers, child-safe your sparking electrical outlets, or set up a crib, I feel like it's probably going to be a stressful experience.
Likewise, if you try to jump headfirst into your novel without adequate storyboarding? Good freaking luck. I've heard of those mythical writers who can just go in and "pants" their novel like some kind of stone-cold sociopath, but I'm not one of them. Most of us will likely need some guidance.
Plot the Book, You Fool
Ah, yes, plots. I think I've heard about those before.
When I tried to write my first story without actually sitting down and laying out what was going to happen in it, I realized pretty quickly that yes, actually, stories do require a plot.
Now, this doesn't need to be a play-by-play of every interaction, conversation, or snide remark your characters are involved in. Some writers find that laying out the three main events will suffice - beginning, climax (ha!), and ending. Others need a more detailed list, with plot points spanning the full breadth of the major and minor scenes that form the "skeleton" of the story. It's really up to you, and I suggest you experiment with a variety of formats when you sit down to plot the book.
Personally, I like bulleted or numbered lists. I also have my infamous Whiteboard of Genius that I use to create confusing, disjointed graphs and pictures relating to the book. You do you, kid. Just don't go into battle without a strategy.
Characterization? Never Heard of Her.
Just kidding. I have heard of her - in fact, she's one of the driving factors behind your story being an engaging, readable body of work vs. a twenty-four-seven all you can eat snooze-fest (what's with all the buffet metaphors, you ask? Mind your own business).
Your characters, like everyone else in your life, are an ominously sentient collection of traits, views, feelings, and goals. Maybe they fit an existing archetype - the brooding male, the brooding female, the spritely non-binary swamp witch with a love for historical cake recipes...you know, the common types. Maybe they really are completely unique, with no resemblance to any other character in the history of literature! If you need to tell yourself that to feel better, who am I to judge?
Regardless, you need to know who your story revolves around. Again, this doesn't mean every bit of info about these people (or other assorted beings) needs to be planned out. I like to just throw a whole bunch of qualities down on a page and see what I get. I'm pretty sure that's how God created me, actually. I refer to those traits while I write, and I craft my character's development, habits, likes, dislikes, and worldview around them. Sometimes the traits change, sometimes they don't.
Either way, beginning with the writing equivalent of a handshake and smalltalk makes your character, and their story, less of a mighty stranger and more of a vaguely uncomfortable acquaintance. You've got plenty of experience with those, after all.
Your English Teacher Was Right. Theme Does Matter. There, I Said It. You May Address Your Hate Mail to My Inbox, Thanks.
Remember all those exercises about what theme the protagonist's hideous blue curtains represent throughout the story? Well, in a specific sense that kind of work was pretty stupid. They represented some f***ing curtains, Ms. Smith. However, these assignments did bring up an important point when it comes to crafting a novel - theme matters.
Now, your theme doesn't have to be something Dickensian like Ambition or Working Hard for Success, as elucidated through Great Expectations' plot of "poor white boy stumbles into continuous, wildly unlikely success despite being kind of weird and emo." No, it can be less poignant than the literary "greats" of the past. Sometimes my story is "hot, successful woman ends up with a man who actually meets her standards...and he's a sexy ghost," or something related, with themes of It's Nice to Have Standards or Sometimes Ghost Men are Sexier Than Human Ones. But the theme is there, and that helps me to structure my story and the events that shape it.
Theme is the moral or philosophical underpinning of your plot and your characters. It's the driving force, the turning wheel, the FDA-regulated 250 watt bulb keeping your mediocre buffet food at just above room temperature. Basically, without some semblance of theme, your story is likely to fall flat. So write that bad boy down - what is your story trying to say? Are your characters demonstrating the ability of love to conquer all odds? Are they throwing caution to the wind in order to show the world that free spirits usually end up happier, or at least with some hilariously embarrassing tattoos of edgy looney toons characters?
Good! Just keep these themes somewhere in the back of your mind while you write. Your novel will take shape around them.
Storyboarding. Love it, hate it, feel deeply ambivalent about it...every writer does it in some way. When you eat at the buffet of life, it's good to bring some metaphorical Pepto-Bismol along for the ride. Storyboarding is the antacid of the writing process, and it'll make you a better - and less confused - storyteller.
So whip out that whiteboard and get to work!