Feb 23

So you’re writing a novel. Where do you start?

admin-ajax 2People generally ask how one attempts to write a whole novel. Sure, it’s one word, followed by another, but which words? My professional experience taught me one thing about the writing process. There are two types of people when it comes to writing. Those who are terrified and intimidated by the blank page, and those who embrace the blank page.

To get off the starting blocks, do not be phased by that blank page or the blinking cursor on your screen. With new technology it’s so easy to change the first word on that blank page. So keep that in mind for starters. Change that first word ten times. It doesn’t matter. Just write it.

When I decided the creative life was for me, I read and read as much as I could. I’d watch podcasts by Paulo Cohello or listen to interviews with Stephen King. The one piece of advice that was repeated over and over again was simple. ‘Just keep writing, every single day’. How hard can it be to do something you love, every single day? That advice, combined with my ambition, my enthusiasm and some divine-inspired zone writing (you know the kind when you write like a maniac, the words come too fast for you to keep up, you just write – and when you finish you look at it and go – wow did I really just write that?). Yes I was hoping for many of those moments to write that book.

It turns out, there are many ways to write a novel. There are hundreds of articles out there on the best way to write a novel. Alas, divine-inspired writing zones don’t generally last the duration of the whole book. They are fleeting burst of a few lines that you may end up having to kill later on anyway.

Let me add to the myriad of articles out there on how to write a novel. Let me qualify that, I can’t tell you how, I can only share what I’ve learned for myself thus far. Perhaps a more accurate question is how do you write a book worthy of publishing. Hopefully that will be a post for another time. Meanwhile, back here in the heady days of the idea, the concept of writing a novel…

It may seem like an obvious thing to say, but you need to know the story you want to tell. I say this, purely because in my younger years I wrote poetry. Sometimes that poetry wrote itself. I never knew what was going to be channelled through my pen onto the page. I would often write until 2.00am or 3.00am in the morning, go to sleep, then get up the next morning and be amazed at the words I had coupled together. Writing a novel doesn’t seem to write itself. I’ve tried believe me – just sitting there waiting for the words to come. So, it’s best to have a vague idea of the story you wish to tell, or an idea regarding the message you are trying to communicate.

Once I have the stirrings of a book idea in my mind, I dedicate some time – not long perhaps a week – to the brainstorming phase. Throughout my years as a copywriter working on go-to-market campaigns, this was the crucial time when the team got together to kick the project off. ‘No idea is a bad idea’ during this phase. The brainstorming process allows you to work out elements of your story that you hadn’t even thought about – until now! As you progress and begin to increase your word count, you will find brainstorming to be an extremely useful technique to work out complexities or challenges that may otherwise halt your good work. After some solid brainstorming you are ready to develop your character, setting and plot outlines.

Character profiles/sketches can be so much fun to work with. Again it’s a case of brainstorming and writing down anything that comes to you. Let your imagination run wild. You may find a certain person that you know comes to mind as this character takes shape on the page in front of you. It’s surprising how shallow and one dimensional your characters can come across to the reader if you as the writer don’t really know your characters. Ensure you have given thought to aspects of their personality such as their conflicts and motivations, their looks, their temperament, little verbal ticks they may have and so on. I have created a mini questionnaire for myself when it comes to creating my characters. Completing it forces me to really identify who my characters are and how they relate to each other and the story itself. I’ll create an example of the type of questions you should ask yourself when creating these people who populate your book’s world and post to this forum in the coming weeks.

Once you have identified your characters, even very loosely, you can move on to your setting outline. The setting of your book may or may not be hugely important to the story – but you do need to consider setting. What year do your characters live in? Is it in the past or the future or present day? Which country do they live in? Is it a particular time of year? Does your character have a favourite place or a feared place? If it helps, take a look around you right now. What things do you observe about your own setting? Are there trees outside? How do you feel about the view from your window? This will help kick start the type of things you need to note about your character’s setting. Again, feel free to brainstorm and have fun with it.

By now, your plot outline should be percolating in your mind. You have the foundations in your characters and setting so now it’s time to weave in the story. I personally find planning and writing chapter outlines is a really useful way to identify very early on where the gaps are in your plot. If you’ve gone from A to C but not quite sure what B is yet, that’s fine – at least you’ve identified that you need to think about that part. There are lots of useful techniques on how to build your storyline which I’ll explain in a later post.

To get you started right now, however, think story goal. As I mentioned at the start of the article, it helps to understand what message you want to communicate or what story you are bursting to tell. This is is the central theme. Once you have established this, consider subplots which serve a function outside the realm of the main plot. Sub plots provide the opportunity to change the scene, tone or emotion at any given point in the story. Perhaps your character has an illness, or perhaps they are in crippling debt, but whatever the subplot is it should add something in terms of layering to your story and character. There are many points I could make about plot, but one important element that I would be remiss to leave out is, ensure your plot has some sort of tension. You need tension to keep your readers involved. I always think, if I’m bored reading back my writing, then my readers will be twice as board. Find the tension!

Once you have given due thought and attention to the points outlined above, it’s a good idea to consolidate everything with a summary – or chapter-by-chapter outline. In essence, your chapter outline details the opening scene of your book and moves forward scene by scene through the story until the end. From here you will identify gaps in the story line but there is no need to be overly concerned at this stage. For now it is good to have identified the strengths and weaknesses.

If you have completed all of this you will have the beginnings of a draft novel. This is a very simplistic view and only designed to get you thinking but hopefully it should help. Depending on the nature of your writing you may have to consider additional elements such as research which you will continually have to add to as your work progresses.

Finally I would like to end on some advice that I started with. Don’t underestimate the importance of writing every single day. With structure and goals written down this should be more achievable. Of course we all get off days where we write a few pages, only to shred them theatrically days later. It is far better to do this than not have anything to shred. For me, it’s about continuity. If I don’t write every day, I forget where I am in the character’s mind or the plot. I have to re-read all my writing from the start to jog my memory. Apart from anything else this becomes boring, and a huge waste of time. So keep writing every day – and enjoy!

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