You’d like to write a novel … but how do you even begin?
I’m not thinking here about ways to write a great opening (if that’s what you’re after, check out this excellent article from The Write Practice). The issue of “getting started” deals with more fundamental questions like:
- How do you come up with a novel-worthy idea – one you want to work on for months, possibly years?
- How do you grow that idea into an actual story – with a setting, plot and characters?
- How do you find the courage (and the time!) to sit down and start writing?
I imagine that if you spoke to a dozen different novelists, you’d find their novels had a dozen very different starting points. You’d probably find that some of those seemed unpromising or simply odd.
Chances are, though, you’d also find some common ground between those starting points. Here are some potential ways in which novels can begin
#1: With an image. C.S. Lewis’ famously said that The Chronicles of Narnia “all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Perhaps you have a particular scene, or part of a scene in your head. Like Lewis, you might have carried that image with you for years, even decades.
#2: As a short story. The second novel I attempted began in this way (and the short story, as I recall, began with an image). I finished the short story, then realised there was a lot of backstory to it that I wanted to write about.
#3: From a prompt. My very first novel, when I was 14, started in response to a competition entry … and kept going. If you’re coming fairly new to creative writing, try spending a few weeks playing around with prompts and trying out some freewriting – you might find that a particular idea catches hold.
#4: With a concept. My novel Lycopolis began with one clear concept: “a group of online roleplayers summon an evil demon into their game … and into the world”. A ton of things changed from planning to drafting to second draft, but that core idea is still central to the novel.
#5: With a character. Some authors come up with a compelling character then develop a story around them. If you enjoy character-driven fiction, this could be a good way to make it work. (Most often, though, you’ll probably find that a character comes to you along with a concept or an image.)
#6: From other art. (“Art” here including literature, music, etc, not just what you’d find in an art gallery.) Perhaps something you’re reading inspires you – it could be a particular character, a plot point, or even a single line of dialogue. Maybe the lyrics in a piece of music speak to you, or there’s a photograph or painting that you keep returning to. A novel could grow from that seed.
(If you want to read several authors’ descriptions of where their novels began, check out What Inspires Authors to Write Their Novels? on the Huffington Post.)
You can’t force an idea to emerge. If you don’t feel that any particular idea is calling to you right now, you might choose to spend a bit of time on short stories, poems, or other short-form writing.
Alternatively, you could try setting aside some time to (hopefully) be inspired: maybe going away for a weekend’s retreat, or finding a quiet nook in your house where you can curl up with a notebook and a mug of tea and spend a couple of hours playing around with any fledgling ideas that are lurking in your head.
Can You Stick With This for Two Years?
I’ve written a bunch of short stories that I didn’t particularly care about – they were just competition entries, designed to fit a particular theme. That can be perfectly good practice … but with a novel, you need an idea that interests you enough that you can commit to it for a significant length of time.
Realistically, if (like most writers) you have a day job, kids, and/or other commitments, you’re looking at spending a good two years of your life on this one novel.
How do you know upfront if this is the novel for you? I’m not sure you can ever be certain, but I definitely advise going with your gut feeling here.
If you’re dithering, ask yourself “Is this exactly the kind of book I’d love to read?” If so, you’re probably onto something good!
Creating the Actual Story
So, you’ve got an initial idea – now it’s time to develop it into an embryonic story, by developing characters and a rough idea of what’s going to happen.
At this stage, I’d suggest you lay in some supplies:
- A notebook (not a fancy one) to dedicate to your project. You don’t want a fancy one because you don’t want to pressure yourself to fill it with perfect words in perfect handwriting.
- A few sheets of plain white paper. These are handy for mapping out things that might not easily fit in your lined notebook.
- A pen that’s nice to write with. It doesn’t have to cost much – just anything that’s not a scratchy old biro that’s drying up.
I don’t recommend working straight onto a computer at this stage. For me, there’s a definite difference between the way I think when typing and the way I think when writing by hand – and I suspect you may find the same.
When you work on paper, it’s easier to stay away from distractions. You may well feel freer to put down possibilities (instead of fixed ideas) – whereas typing into a linear document can feel rather formal.
Try coming up with your characters on a single sheet of paper – I like to draw these as a sort of mindmap, with lines linking them (where appropriate) and very brief notes about each one.
Another sheet of paper can be a good starting point for the events of your story. What’s going to happen to your characters? Do you have a sense of how it all ends?
You can spend as long as you want on this. There’s definitely no “right” way to do it: some authors like to plan out lots of details before they write a single word, others have the barest idea of where they’re going, and a couple of characters to enjoy the journey with.
A Quick Note on Structure
I don’t worry overly about structure until after the first draft of a novel. Structure is at least partially instinctive – we’ve all read (or watched!) plenty of stories, and you may well find that a good structure naturally emerges as you write and rewrite.
If you do want to have a clearer structure from the start, or if you’ve got a first draft that needs working into shape a bit, K.M. Weiland’s book Structuring Your Novel is excellent. There’s also a workbook version.
For a basic version of novel structure, I like Nigel Watts’ “Eight-Point Arc” – you can find a post I wrote about it here on Daily Writing Tips (so long ago that eagle-eyed readers will notice I was still writing under my maiden name).
Getting Your Novel Underway
Ultimately, writing a novel is a messy business – one that’s at least partially conducted at a subconscious level.
You’ll probably find that ideas come to you at odd moments, sticky problems finally work themselves out after weeks of wanting to bang your head on your desk, and your first draft ends up containing squeamishly bad passages of writing alongside gripping scenes that really come alive.
There’s definitely no perfect way to begin: what matters is that, once you’ve got an idea you’re excited about, you do begin.
From there, you can just keep moving, step by step, towards a finished novel.
In fact, if you want a little extra help with that, check out my in-depth post Your Two-Year Plan for Writing, Editing and Publishing Your Novel (However Busy You Are). There’s a quick slideshow version near the start, if you’re in a rush!
It’s aimed at busy writers: people who can’t take a year out from life to write, but who instead need to fit writing around everything else that’s going on. To make the plan work, you just need 30 minutes per day (or the equivalent across a week) for your novel.
Best of luck with your writing: I’d love to hear about your idea and its progression towards a finished novel. Just drop a comment below to tell me what you’re working on.