How do you start writing a novel?
One of the questions I hear from time to time, and which I heard recently, goes something like this: “I have this idea for a novel. I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to begin writing it.”
You might think this is a problem unique to new writers. Trust me, it isn’t. Granted, experienced writers usually know how to get started, but not always. It’s not so-called “writer’s block” either. A lot of times you have a bunch of ideas that you want to put into your novel, but you have no clue how or where to begin, or even how to organize all those ideas in your head.
Before I go any further, some of you have no doubt run across various “writing programs” that will supposedly help you plot your story. These might seem like a great idea for the writer who doesn’t know where to start. While I’ve run into a couple of people who have tried these, I’ve not heard of them helping all that much.
It’s the same with books on writing. You can learn good tips from them, but all of these books and software merely represent someone else’s idea of how to write and organize a novel, a process that might or might not work for you. I view these in the same way as I see paint by numbers: You might turn out a decent painting, but you’re following someone else’s instructions for creating the painting, not your own.
One exception to writing programs is Scrivener. That one is not the kind of program I’m talking about. Scrivener is an organizing tool, basically an all-in-one filing system that lets you keep everything related to your novel in one spot—your research, references, notes—with the manuscript. It’s kind of like Microsoft Word that’s been tailored to writers, minus all the stuff Word has that writers don’t or rarely need.
However, Scrivener has a large learning curve associated with it, and it may get in your way in some cases. I played with it briefly but didn’t find it of value to me personally. Some writers have told me that they do use it and find it invaluable. I guess it depends on your writing style and your ability to organize things on your own. There’s nothing wrong with notepads and 3×5 cards.
Pushing writing programs aside (which I don’t think will really solve the problem of how to get started on a novel), let’s discuss the topic of this post.
I feel it’s important that a writer have the right motivation for writing a novel in the first place. If your motivation is simply “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” you’ll likely end up frustrated. It’s no different from saying “I want to start my own business” without knowing what type of business you want to start.
Writing is an artistic endeavor. Whatever the artistic output, the artist has something to say, something that translates into art, be that a painting, a sculpture, or a novel.
This is where you should engage in some introspection of your motives. What is your real purpose for telling the story? Is it just an idea that you think is good, or do you genuinely have something to say, as a writer, apart from the story itself? If not, then you’ll risk ending up with a forgettable story that won’t connect with your reader.
Don’t try to convince yourself that it’s like like the “if you build it, they will come” saying from the movie Field of Dreams. “If you write it, they will read it” won’t play out well by itself. This is where your motivation must take hold. What makes your story different? Why would someone enjoy reading your story, other than they know you and feel obligated to read it? What do you want your readers to get from the story?
Once you have your story idea AND a meaningful reason for writing the novel (aside from something you want to do), then comes the next step. Followers of this blog will surely know what I’m going to tell you that next step is: Create your characters! You may already know some of your cast, although you only need one to start. That’s your main character, the person whose story you’re going to tell or who your story idea is going to happen to.
How do you actually start writing the novel from there? Some would suggest doing an outline, but I’d tread carefully here for a couple of reasons. One, trying to outline your whole novel in the beginning, might overwhelm you. I’m not saying you can’t do that, only that you don’t need to initially, especially if you find the idea of writing a novel rather scary in the first place. However, if you’re an organizer and you have spent a lot of time already thinking about the story and what you want to do with it, then outlining it in might well help you stay focused. The outline can be done on any level of detail you feel comfortable.
The other reason outlining could cause you trouble is that you might get so hung up on getting it perfect that you never make it past the outline to the writing. If you do decide to outline, don’t treat it as absolute and final. Be prepared to make changes, perhaps drastic ones as the novel takes shape. You must be flexible. This is art after all.
With everything is in place (idea, one or more characters, and possibly an outline), you’re ready to begin the writing. But you still don’t know where to begin. This is where your flexibility comes in. In order to guide you better, I’m going to throw an idea out there for an example. It’s an idea I once had for a short story, but it could be turned into a novel. I don’t plan on writing this story, so it’ll make a good example.
Here’s the premise: A scientist has discovered a way do his part in the war on drugs. He’s figured a way to infect coca plants with a virus that prevents them from making cocaine. While cocaine can be synthesized chemically, it’s very expensive to do so, hence not profitable. All of the world’s cocaine, illicit or otherwise, is extracted from the leaves of the coca plant. If this virus were unleased, cocaine suppliers would be out of business in no time. (Note: The coca plant is not the plant that cocoa comes from, so we’re not interfering with the world’s chocolate production.)
To make this idea work as a credible novel, we’d need to do some research, but for now I’m not going to worry about that. My problem—and your problem—is how to start the novel. Ideally, we want to open with a strong hook, a punch to grab the reader’s interest, but that too can wait. It’s more important to start writing. Tweaks and revisions come later.
Off the top of my head, I can think of several ways you might begin this.
(1) The scientist is found dead, and there is no clear motive at first. If we go that route, then the scientist probably can’t be your main character, not unless you want to do a flashback and show his work up to the point of his death.
(2) Cocaine “manufacturers” suddenly discover that coca plants are not yielding any cocaine, and they have no clue why. Panic ensues. This would put the story further back in time from (1) and could lead to the scientist’s death or his receiving death threats.
(3) Start with the scientist having figured out how to make the virus.
(4) Begin with the scientist’s reason for wanting to halt cocaine production. Perhaps a friend or loved one died from a cocaine overdose.
Regardless of which of these you choose If any), the point is to start somewhere. Try writing a scene to go with each of your ideas. My four suggestions could all be pieces of the story, and you could decide later where to put them.
Write a scene (or chapter), write another scene, then another. Once you gain momentum, the novel will hopefully start to fall into place. Even if you stall at some point, you will have those scenes to build on. Maybe you’ll want to stop there and organize the story better by crafting a rough outline based on what you’ve written.
There is no rule that says you have to write the novel in any particular sequence. Take the parts you written and fill in scenes between them. Maybe rearrange them.
Here’s an analogy: You’re an artist about to paint a picture, and you know what you want to paint, something in your head, not something you’re looking at. Where do you begin the painting? At the top? At the bottom? In the middle?
Does it matter where you begin? We read a novel from the first page through the last, but did the author write it in that order? Many times the author does. I usually do, if for no other reason that for continuity. But there’s nothing wrong with writing scenes as they come to you and filling in the gaps later. Some authors write the last scene or chapter first then write the rest of the novel toward that ending. Once the novel is finished, readers won’t know how you wrote it unless you tell them. The process doesn’t matter.
In truth, I really can’t tell you how your should begin to write a novel because every novel is different. You don’t need to write every novel using the same process. A sci-fi adventure is different from a romance, which is different from a mystery, which is different from a thriller, which is different from… whatever.
Or perhaps not knowing how to start your novel is a sign that you’re afraid to begin it because once you do start, that commits you to writing it. The road ahead can be scary indeed, but trust me when I say that the journey is worth it.