A few weeks ago I talked about my analog toolbox. One of the most important worksheets I use is my “When Starting a Book” Worksheet (it could probably use a better name, but at least that one is descriptive). This worksheet contains the bare minimum you should know about a book before you start writing it. Let’s go over what’s there and, of course, I’ll provide a link so you can download your own copy.

The very first thing you need to fill in may just be the hardest, and you may want to actually skip this and come back to it later. It’s the title of your book. Sometimes an author will know the title before they even begin writing. Other times, you will have to struggle to come up with something catchy and appropriate after your done writing. Either way, I’d suggest throwing something in here just so you know which book this particular worksheet is associated with.

Next, I want you to write down what the kernel idea of the story is. What was the spark that led you to deciding to write this book. And you’ll notice, there isn’t a lot of space to write here. That’s on purpose. You need to keep this short – think elevator pitch. When you get into that elevator or run into a friend and they say ‘Hey, what are you writing now?’ you can quickly rattle off what you write here before the elevator doors open or the other person gets bored and their eyes wander off into the distance. It needs to be concise, descriptive, and, if possible, enticing.

Here’s my kernel idea for the book I’m writing now, The Willful Wallflower: A young lady has no interest in marrying because a young man broke her heart when she was fifteen when he kissed her and then ghosted her. She now meets him as an adult and decides to get her revenge.

The next section of the worksheet delves into the main characters of your book. There is space for two protagonists. This could be your hero and heroine if you’re writing a straight romance, hero and hero or heroine and heroine if you’re writing gay romance, or if you have two protagonists in your book this is where you detail who they are and what they want.

So, a quick review of what you need to fill in in this section:

Internal GMC and External GMC – of course, these are the most essential things you need to know about your protagonists. If you need to learn more about them, here’s a link to a blog post that explains what they are and the importance of them.

Unique characteristics – what makes this person unique? What makes them stand out? Are they exceedingly nice? Particular about cleanliness? Are they religious in an a-religious society? An extremely wealthy nobleman? Whatever it is that determines this person’s character, write it down here.

Wound – every character has a wound that shapes the way they see the world. Write down (in as few words as possible) what theirs is and how it affects what they do and who they are. For more on wounds, check back next week and I’ll have a post all about them.

What’s important to them – everyone has something or someone that they will feel the loss of that thing or person severely. What is theirs (and are you going to threaten the character with the loss of this thing in the story?)

How do they react in a crisis? This is really important to know because your character is going to go through at least one crisis in your book. You need to know how the character is going to react.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to them? (Hint, you might want to have this happen to them in the story.)

There is space to answer all of these questions for the second protagonist and then for your antagonist if they are a person (and not something inanimate or the protagonist him/herself). You’ll note, I add one more question here for the antagonist, and that is what is their “fuzzy socks”. What makes them a nice person? There has to be something otherwise your antagonist is going to be a one-dimensional caricature of a person and not a real person that your readers are truly going to worry about.

Next comes three essential questions you’ll need to be able to answer:

The story question is the question that must be answered by the end of the story—pretty simple, huh? Will Dorothy ever get home? (The Wizard of Oz) Will Luke every discover who his father is? (Original Star Wars) Will Buttercup ever marry Wesley? (The Princess Bride)

There always needs to be something at stake in a story. If there isn’t you have no conflict. Being able to concisely define what is at stake will help you keep it in mind as you write.

There also always needs to be a sense of urgency in a story. If there isn’t, what is driving the protagonist to try to attain their goal? If there’s nothing pushing them, why do it?

The next section is for writers of romance. These are the two most essential questions that need to be answered and if you can’t answer them you’ve got a problem. Why should your two characters need to be together and why can they not be together?

Next comes a very pared down narrative structure. This is just the main turning points of your story. For plotters, you’ll want to go into much greater detail about what happens in each section of your structure—a list of scenes or however you like to organize your book. For pantsers, either fill in just the inciting event and then fill in the rest after you’re done writing, or some may want to write down a few words or a sentence in each section just so you know where the story is going and then allow it to get there in its own way as you write.

And finally, there’s a brief section where you can write down the names of secondary characters and their connection to either the protagonists or antagonist, ie why are they there. And I always find it useful to have a brief description of what that person looks like to refer back to as I write.

And that’s it! Fill this out when you begin to write your book and you’ll find yourself referring back to it again and again as you write your book. And here is your copy. Enjoy!