For the last six years, I’ve been sitting on a great plot, but I find the idea of writing a novel daunting.
A few days ago, my best friend said to me, “You should write your novel this year. You know, the one where the young woman is in a bus in Rio de Janeiro, and she suddenly hears…”
“You remember the story? But I told you about it six years ago!”
“Of course I remember! It’s such a good story!”
I’m still uncertain whether to start writing the novel or not. (Yes, I’m scared …)
What about you?
Are you a closet novelist?
Maybe you have great ideas but you wonder how to start.
To make things easier, I asked five experts how to start a novel.
1. Ignite the Spark of Longing
The first step I take after being struck with an idea for a novel will seem like a non-step, but it’s critical—just as important as the second step, which is research, research, research.
The first step doesn’t involve any books or paper or pencils.
It doesn’t require speaking with another living soul, either. It involves nothing but thought, and listening to my gut.
Does the idea have the legs required to last the length of a novel?
Because writing a book is the equivalent of a literary marathon, and not every concept has what it takes to go the distance. The last thing I want is to get halfway through a story and have it sputter out on me; decide it’s not the marathon-type after all, but rather like a used-car salesman—full of false promises.
Not every idea has what it takes to dig its way into my writer’s marrow, either; to make me want to get up in the middle of the night to write down a sentence, to make me fall in love with it.
So that’s what I wait for: that spark of longing, even lust, for a story.
The birth of an obsession.
That’s what you’ll need to see you through the empty pages, and that’s what will fill your writer’s gas tank: a grand obsession with your story, and an unrelenting fascination for its many possibilities.
From Therese Walsh, WriterUnboxed.com
2. Apply the litmus test
You have an idea for a novel – a rough idea. So what’s the next step? Brainstorming your idea is crucial.
Most ideas are, well, just good ideas. Ideas don’t make a great novel. Good concepts don’t make a great novel. Nor will timely themes or cool character ideas.
You need four key ingredients that really gel before you can even begin to plot out a storyline. Consider this a litmus test to see if your novel has “legs”.
- A Protagonist with a Goal—an intriguing, compelling goal driven by a core need.
- A Conflict with High Stakes: Not just small personal stakes but ones that affect those around her or him, or the world at large.
- A Concept with a “Kicker”: There needs to be something truly unique or riveting about your concept to take it out of the realm of ordinary and boring.
- A Theme with Heart: Every story has some kind of theme. The best novels have the best themes. Why are you excited about this idea? What message do you see this book conveying, and why is it relevant, universal, and important?
Of course, not all novels have to have these components. But the lasting ones—the ones worthy of being written—will. Even if you’re writing sci-fi, romance, or dark humor.
By C. S. Lakin, LiveWriteThrive.com
3. Spin straw into gold
Ideas are free, and everyone has them. Unfortunately, a great novel can never fly on the wings of a fantastic idea.
It will only find the sky after the author roots themselves to the notion: writing is rewriting.
Potential brilliance can easily be stillborn when a writer wrestles with worry. Don’t.
Get those fingers moving instead, deftly and fast enough to spin your straw into gold.
For me, writing comes in three phases.
The first draft is the fastest, and invariably the most important. In the first draft, I write for myself, and always with the door closed. No one ever sees those words.
The first draft is me getting out of my own way. In this draft I write as fast as I can without stopping. If there’s divine inspiration in writing, this is where I find it.
The next draft is revision. I usually spend longer here than I do on the first. This is where I’m massaging my meaning and making things flow for the reader.
The final draft is a polish, where I make my words sing in their intended key.
In the first draft I get it said, in the second I say what I mean, in the third I say it well.
The most important part is to get the story out of your head and onto the page where you can manipulate your words into something better. Perfection is the enemy of done, and if you’re one of those writers fretting every sentence, the great novel in your head is likely to stay there.
By Sean Platt, RealmAndSands.com
4. Find the focus
Great ideas for novels are usually enough for an initial scene and that’s it. The idea needs to be enriched and enlarged to work for a full novel.
I like to start by asking myself about the focus of the story.
For example, a Cinderella story could be the traditional star-crossed lovers story, or it could be a story of rivalry between sisters. If it’s a rivalry story, then the sister relationship is foremost and the story should start when the sisters meet.
In my book, Start Your Novel, I explain 29 plot structures and how to decide which fits your story the best. By taking the time to focus your story like this in the beginning, you avoid false starts and create a first draft that is more coherent.
Once the basic plot structure is clarified, I also like to plan for the character’s darkest moment by asking this question: “What would make my character hurt the most?”
Of course—OF COURSE—as a writer I must make that darkest moment happen, so the story has the greatest emotional impact on the reader. I try to plan that moment and then work backwards and forwards on the plot until I know a dozen or so major plot points.
If I’m in an adventurous mood, I might start drafting at that point, with just those major plot points as road maps. If I’m in a cautious mood, I might further divide the plot into plot points for each chapter. Either way, the early planning helps keep the story focused.
By Darcy Pattison, FictionNotes
5. Nail your plot
So you’ve come up with an idea from one source or another. You’ve expanded that idea so that you have a story arc from beginning to end, which answers key questions you have asked yourself. You’ve decided where you want to set your epic, based upon your passion or your interests.
Now, at last, you are ready to plot.
For my part, I have always needed an outline: the plot in advance.
To give myself a sense of direction, I do two things.
I create a step outline. I then expand it to a running plot outline.
A step outline is just a list of scenes in the order in which I envision them in the novel.
The running plot outline is a present tense stream-of-consciousness affair.
Writing in this fashion, I’m not worried about typographical errors. spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, figurative language, or anything else that might make me stop, consider, and thus get derailed.
I just start firing away at the computer keys, writing down what I see happening in each scene of my step outline.
By Elizabeth George, from her book Write Away.
There is something else …
You need to save your ideas in multiple ways.
You see, when I wanted to take a look at the plot outline I had written six years ago, I couldn’t find my notes anywhere.
It was a terrible moment!
In the past years, a couple of my laptops crashed, backup was patchy, and a lot of files got lost.
In the end, I found that I had emailed the notes about the plot and the characters to myself. Phew …!
Remember to save notes of your novel in many different ways. Email them to yourself, save them on Google Drive, and make sure you back up your files.
What about you? Do YOU have an idea for a novel?
Which of the tips above would make starting your novel easier?
Let’s have a candid conversation in the comments.