The Art of the Start: How to Begin the Novel You’ve Always Dreamt to Write

Novel Ideas How to write BeLatina

Maybe you have a notebook, or maybe you have a few of them. You might be the type who scribbles down ideas on loose scraps of papers or perhaps you are hyper-organized and keep careful files, both digitally and on paper. Whatever your style, if the thought of putting all those ideas together into a book has been scratching at the corners of your mind, there is no time like the present to dive in and start.

Writing a book is not easy, no, but neither is it impossible. As in any major undertaking, setting your intention is the first step. That means that it’s time to put all those loose files into one folder and label it: my novel. Don’t be worried if you don’t have a title yet, they often come later in the process. But calling your project by it rightful name is the first motivation you’ll need to tackle it and take it seriously and begin.

Once you have steadied your resolve, you’ll first have to clarify your main idea or plot. In a sense, the parts that build a novel are essentially dilated answers to a series of questions that need to be sorted out in a certain order. Everyone’s process is unique, of course, but here are some suggestions about how and where to get going:

1) When you are getting started, especially if you are planning on sending out a pitch in the quest for an advance and support to complete the project, the first thing any editor will ask is: “What is this novel about?” You might have a full picture of the plot or maybe just of the main action or the climax to one of your story arcs. Don’t worry if you haven’t decided on the details or clearly imagined the ending (or even the beginning), but you will need to have a general idea of what you wish to accomplish.

2) The next step is to figure out the setting, both in space and time, that will best suit the story you wish to tell. Is it happening now? Is your novel futuristic or historical? The second question to answer for yourself, the, is: “Where and when does my story take place?”

3) With this background, you’ll be ready to move onto your character development. Now that you know what will happen, when, and where, you’ll be well-positioned to decide who the ideal protagonist(s) of your story ought to be. 

Often, deciding on the main characters also helps to hammer out what perspective you will give the narrative. Will it be told by the protagonist? Will you create a separate narrative voice? Is the narrator one of the secondary characters? The third major question to grapple with is: “To whom does the action happen to and who else has a hand in it?”

4) Now that you have your main elements set, it’s time to divide the story into three arcs, the basic structure of the most successful novels and screenplays. The first would introduce the action, the second would trace the main plot up to its climax, and the third concludes with a slow resolution, denouement. This fourth question might be: “In what order does my characters’ story unfold?

5) In addition to the main plot of the story, a rich novel includes other themes or passions that move the author and her characters. For example, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch explores the fate of a young man who falls victim to a terrorist attack. The main plot points revolve around the catastrophe and how it unravels his life, but there are many secondary themes that lend the book depth and breadth, such as its exploration of familial relationships, trauma, romantic love,  addiction, friendship, art history, the antiques trade, and even New York City as a setting so vibrantly drawn, it is nearly a character in itself.

6) Now, you must outline. Some writers like to write chapter summaries; others prefer the classic outline structures with Roman numerals and letters. I have even heard of authors who think of the text almost in an architectural way, sketching the way the action and characters will fit together. Again, don’t be concerned with the blanks. Try your best to create the skeleton — you’ll have time to flesh it all out.

7) Once you have the frame set, begin to fill in your canvas. Return to the beginning and see if you can write that first sentence. Go through and continue to write in the bits of connective tissue between one moment and the next. Decide when it’s time for exposition and when dialogue is more appropriate. 

8) When you reach the end, try to write it. This sounds obvious but it’s sometimes difficult to know when you’ve gotten to the finish line. On the other hand, if you listen to your intuition, you’ll likely know when you have produced the right paragraph to finish your novel.

9) Title? Your book needs a title. Go back and read through again — often your title lurks within the book itself.

10) The last major step is to edit as much as possible before you send out the manuscript to other readers and editors. They will help you edit further, but it’s best if you go as far as you can on your own first.

You may be thinking that all of this is much easier to list than it is to do and I absolutely agree. If you research the recommendations of published novelists, you will discover that many give practical advice. But they also often include other, more abstract or mood-setting tidbits that help them facilitate the process. These choices are all very personal, and part of the blossoming of a writer is discovering which of them will be yours. 

Consider the following:

When will you write? Are you a morning person or more creative and energetic at night? Also, what kind of time do you have? Most people can’t afford to quit their day job or stop taking care of their families to adopt an 8-hour a day writing schedule. If you have a choice between carving out a giant chunk of time once a week or the opportunity to write for shorter spurts more often, choose the latter. The more automated you become in including writing in you routine, the quicker it will come along.

Where will you do your writing? Virginia Woolf famously claimed that fewer women than men were writers in her time because we lacked the space in which to unleash our creativity. In a room of her own, Emily Dickinson became a prolific poet likely because all she had was her private space and so few social commitments outside of it, that she almost couldn’t help herself. Truman Capote, on the other hand, preferred to write while reclining, preferably sipping on something and having a smoke. I have to say that some combination of the three — the space and solitude to recline on a divan and type furiously, as ice clinks in the glass — is probably a dynamite approach.

How will you write? Vladimir Nabokov adhered to a strict daily schedule that began with writing and included napping, meals, and nature walks later in the day. His preferred method was to write while standing at podium on notecards, which he could then reshuffle like a rudimentary word processing program. Of course, Nabokov’s devoted wife Vera, was the one who patiently typed up his manuscripts from thousands of hand-written cards. If you lack a collaborative partner or the patience for this method, a computer and a desk works for many, though some writers still prefer to compose by hand.

Who are you writing for? In the best case, this question will have one concrete and one abstract answer. You will need to consider your intended audience, for instance: are you writing for adults or young adults? Is this a mass market novel or a prestige publication? Ideally, though, you will also have a person or people willing to read your book, at whichever stage you feel requires feedback. Creative writing courses, workshops, meet-ups and even websites are great places to find a writing community, a peer group, a sounding board. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but it is only complete when it finds a reader.

The most important, most crucial kernel to take away is that there is absolutely no way you will finish your novel unless you do one thing: grow fearless of the blank page and start. Now is a great time to begin.