Three ways to start a new novel
I am often asked how ideas for stories come about. There is no one answer for that – one has come from a dream, one has come from walking past a television, one or two started off as ideas for screenplays and then, once the first draft was written, were turned into novels. But the usual starting point, for me, is the need to want to write something.
There are so many reasons for wanting to tell a story, but the main one is purely that; you want to write a story. We can shorten that sentence: you want to write. That’s the best starting place. After all, if you don’t want to write, you won’t want to write a novel, but do you start with a character, a theme, a plot, place or protagonist? Do you think, ‘that would be a good setting,’ or do you think, ‘that’s a great dilemma to explore’? I’ve touched on finding inspiration before, see Finding Inspiration on your Bookshelf, but, for me, there has to be a spark, something that makes your heart leap and say ‘that’s it!’ Sometimes, though, that spark is just a flickering flame and needs fanning. I am in that position at the moment and so here are a few ideas about the process of getting started.
Some people start with a character. Someone you know, someone you’ve observed, read about or seen on the news. You find an interesting person and think, ‘what would happen if…?’ And the ‘What If?’ is probably the best place to start. What if your best friend suddenly found herself/himself in a strange location, what would they do? How would they react? From here, the story grows out of the character, but even with those few lines, you can see that you already have the main ingredients for a story: a character and a problem. After all, without conflict, there is no drama, and without drama, there is no (decent) story. Yes, we can all write about pleasant things and how wonderful our visit to a location was, what a great holiday we had and how nicely it all turned out, but that’s not going not be of much interest to many readers. Readers want drama, they want to follow your character through some kind of adventure, change, difficult situation, and see them win at the end – or lose, you can do either.
Starting point one: Find a character and explore the ‘What ifs?’
Here’s another way of starting things off. I am currently thinking that I might like to write a story set in a haunted mansion in the wilds, isolated, cut off, and creepy. Yes, it’s a very overdone setting, and the first things that come to mind are very overused stories. ‘The Cat and the Canary‘, ‘The House on Haunted Hill’, ‘The House that Dripped Blood’ and all the rest. Classic, Gothic, creepiness with a group of people confined to one location and unable to leave. It’s been done to death by Miss Author, in the study with the typewriter. So, why not make it a spoof? Why not find a way to turn in on its head. That’s what I am trying to do. What if this was a comedy horror/mystery/thriller? You could then really play on the cliché and have fun. (Actually, that IS ‘The Cat and the Canary’, so make your characters specialists in a field, and only when all five realise that they need each other to survive can they band together to defeat the evil. But what happens if one of them…? And on we go.)
When writing ‘The Saddling’, the location was paramount. It’s set on the Romney Marshes, and so I was after atmosphere, and the setting brings that with it, depending on how you use it. I remember one of my essays at school, when doing A Levels, was to discuss Thomas Hardy’s use of Egdon Heath as a character, as the protagonist actually, and that’s another way of coming at it. Make your setting (the heath, the marshes) the protagonist, and you have both character and setting before you start.
Starting point two: find a setting and think who would be uncomfortable here? (Immediate conflict.)
Another way to come at it, and I’ve done this, is to start with a plot. One of my first stories is called ‘You Wish’ and I hit upon that with the idea of, ‘What if you got your wish for one day?’ Nice, there is definitely a plot there about getting what you want, and we all want that. But then I added, ‘But in return, you have to suffer three days of the downside, the payback?’ That then gives us conflict and, in this case, loads of ideas for comedy. (It’s a comedy novel and rather a mad one, but I still like it.) And then I thought, ‘One person getting their wish and then having to deal with the consequences is one thing, having four people all doing the same is another. And so, the four main characters appeared. But I wanted to tie it in with fast, mad-cap comedy and a bit of a farce, so these characters then had to intertwine and come together and stir things up and… I won’t give away the story, but the point is, I started with a complicated plot and then put in the characters. This makes for an action-driven story with some depth to the characters and also, as there are four main characters, more chance of readers associating with at least one and cheering them on.
Starting point three: Find a situation
One of my previous cabaret partners used to quote from a show (I think it was ‘Merrily We Roll Along’) and come out with: ‘What comes first, the music or the lyrics? Answer: Usually the contract.’ (Sorry if I’ve misquoted that.) But what comes first when setting out to write a novel? Well, ‘anything’ is my answer. Start with a character and have a book about a character’s change, start with a setting and find inspiration from it, start with the idea of a type of fiction, comedy horror, life story farce (mix genres, I do), or start with a great big ‘what if?’ You will soon find that, once you’ve started thinking, the other things will attach themselves to you. I want to write a story about five people in a big old haunted house, I can even picture the building. Knowing me, I will draw up a floor plan. But I will have to start thinking: who is going to be at this house and why? So, I have a setting, and the characters will come, and then, based on who they are, the plot will emerge. There’s no theme for this idea (theme and subject, or message, is another way of starting out) but that’s all part of the writing process. Let it develop.
So, when asked how a novel comes about, I now usually say, it originates from the desire to write… something. How you then structure your writing is a subject for another day.
When you’ve set yourself up as a writer, it’s not all about writing. Saturday morning was one of those ‘admin’ mornings. Sometimes these are hard work, other times like today, they are pleasant. Today pulled into focus the fact that there are enjoyable things about the writing process, some less pleasant and some that are just plain nice. (Please change that adjective and use one of your own. I was lazy there and should have used ‘rewarding’ or ‘pleasant.’)
The hard work of writing
Some things about being a writer are hard work, but the fact that you are doing what you want to do makes them easier. Or at least, it should. The most difficult part of writing a novel is putting in the words, and putting in the hours of putting in the words. You latch on to your plot and characters and do all the fun background stuff of creating the story ahead. Then come the hard part, putting in all the words. I think it was Agatha Christie who said, “I have the plot and characters, all I need now are the words.” Something like that. That’s the hard part, writing down 80,000 words – or whatever.
The second hardest part is selling the book. Even if you have a publisher with a publicity machine and marketing to do it for you, you must do a lot of things yourself. Book signings, PR, etc. If you don’t have a publisher you have to work even harder to get the word, and the book, out there. That’s the thing I dislike the most, the PR. I’m not a salesman. But, get yourself in the right frame of mind and put that mind to it, and you can find you actually enjoy entering competitions (a good way to get noticed) and persuading friends to write reviews, finding blogs that might cover you and talk about your work, making contacts and all that. Keep at it. It’s hard work, but in the end, it may pay off and, if you enjoy the journey along the way, all the better.
[There will be more about the process of putting a story together later, check the category list in the right column. There’s a drop-down menu that says Post Categories, then you click on a subtitle and find all posts under that heading.]
The easy work of writing
For me, the easiest parts are the creating and the editing. Inventing a world, and its characters, thinking out a neat plot with twists and turns, obstacles and trials, tribulations and events for your character that will make things interesting. Working out backstories and making up lives, that’s all fun too. (You then have to write the body of the text, see above.) Then you have the editing where, after putting the thing aside for some time, you can come back to it and see what you have repeated, what you’ve told us already, what that character wouldn’t do but does (if he wouldn’t do it, don’t let him! Keep in character), seeing what you have misspelled (a great deal in my case), see how you can shorten it. Then get into the technical detail of your grammar and so on. I now use Grammarly to help me with this and I have an excellent editor too.
The next fun part is working on the cover, but I shall cover covers in another post one day. If you want to see who I used (for the first time) on ‘The Saddling’, check the bookmarks list on the right. The Design link with lead you to People Per Hour where you can put up a job and see who bids, or where you can simply find and contact designers and layout experts. There are many excellent ones there looking for freelance work.
And the next stage is the ‘nice’ things about writing. Not that I like the word ‘nice’. It’s not a nice word at all, strangely enough. But you will know what I mean. Today, Saturday 11th March, I received an email from someone I don’t know. She had bought ‘Remotely’ for a friend and thought she’d check it out first. She’s now “gripped”, as she puts it. As well as saying some other things she adds, “I love all the many details you pull together in one eloquent paragraph!”
It’s always good to get feedback like this and you have a responsibility to reply to such emails. Thank the person (even if they are not complimentary emails) and, in cases like this, try and get them to write a review on Amazon as these help sales. But do connect with your readers, especially if they have taken the trouble to connect to you. It makes it all worthwhile.
What to write?
You want to write a story but don’t know where to start. Here is one of my personal tips for finding inspiration.
I often find myself wanting to write something and not being sure what to write. This post attests to that as I wanted to write a new post for my blog, but didn’t know what it was to be about. So I wrote about that. What to write?
Novels or short stories?
I am not a short story writer. No matter how often I see it on advice blogs or sites, ‘writing short stories is the best way to get your name known. Enter your story in a competition…’ etc. I am too wordy to write short stories. It’s a discipline just like writing a novel, where wordiness is also a drawback. Less is more, blah-do-blah, you’ve heard it all before. But short stories are a good way to hone your skills and develop ideas, on a small scale and, if they are for you, then fine. I prefer the larger challenge of novel writing and find short stories too restrictive, but competitions are a good thing to get involved in. Some of them ask for only 1,000 or 2,000 words – not my style. I often have to edit out over 10,000 words of any novel, so telling a story in fewer is not so much pulling teeth for me as having the whole lot ripped out. I admire short story writers; I’m just not one myself.
But you decide and, if you decide, ‘Toady I will write a short story’, or ‘Today I will start a new novel’, you are still left with, ‘What to write?’
Write about what you know
This is what they all say, and I don’t necessarily agree. I wrote a book, ‘Lonely House’, about two young guys accidently killing a man in a house where, seconds after the shooting, the victim’s family turned up for a party. It later transpires that… Well, I won’t give away the twists, but there are many. I’ve never shot anyone or found myself in a house in the woods where a monster lives, faced by a family starving their child so that she will… But that’s another twist. The point is, I didn’t know anything about the situation and so had to use my imagination. Okay, so write about things you know about, but don’t limit it. Let your imagination soar and see what comes out.
Write about what you don’t know
I was interested in writing a story that centred around a winter solstice festival, ‘The Saddling’ (due out in May 2017). I knew very little about winter solstice apart from the date of it, and so research was the way to go. Make research a fun part of your work and not only will you find unexpected inspiration but you’ll also learn something along the way.
But, where to start?
One day I wanted to write… something. Short story, novel, screenplay, musical? I’ve done them all – even the short story thing – but I had no idea what to write about. This is where I invented one of my ‘inspiration techniques.’ This involved thinking of a number between one and six, then a number between one and 15, a number between one and 300, a number between one and 30 and a final one between one and eleven. Why? What do the numbers (and here I do this at random) three, seven, 167, 15 and six, have to do with anything? Simply this:
I have a bookcase with six shelves, roughly 15 books per shelf, each book being approximately 300 pages (these numbers will vary) and each page having on average 30 lines. The last number is a word on a line, and you can drop this one if you want. So, I am now going to find the 7th book on shelf three, find page 167 and line 15. If word number six turns out to be and, if, but, etc. then I’ll simply find the nearest adjective or noun. I’m going to the shelf now…
I’ve chosen ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, as it was the seventh book on shelf three. It has 1,480 pages so I can, if I want, be flexible on the number 167 and think of another one, but I won’t. Page 167, line 15, word number six turns out to be: Dutch. So, how about writing something about Holland, or the Dutch, or, after reading the rest of the line, Richard the Lionheart? It’s an idea, and at least I have a setting. Actually, the title of the entry in this book is ‘Bogie’ which Brewer talks about as a scarecrow or goblin. So, that’s probably more useful. Already I am forming ideas for a creepy story about scarecrows. Perhaps I should check out some ‘Dr Syn’ and make sure I don’t replicate those famous scarecrow stories. Maybe I could think of something else? Something to connect a scarecrow and a Dutchman, the Flying Dutchman perhaps? That’s a neat legend.
Not everyone has a shelf of reference books, but a novel will work as well, or even a magazine. My top shelf, number one, has novels on it and book number 15 happens to be ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, by Bram Stoker. Not my most favourite story of his, but page 167, line 15, word six turns out to be: ‘Will’. In this case, it’s talking about a will – a perfect idea for a story. I want to write a comedy spoof about a haunted mansion and the family gathered for the reading of the will. Perhaps this is Stoker giving me some inspiration from beyond the grave.
So, you see, I have this one little system, which is entirely random, of finding inspiration. As long as you are open to it, you can find a single word sparks off a whole story, short or otherwise, and all you have to do is cross over to the bookcase apply your random numbers. If it doesn’t work, I have other techniques that I will write about another day but, if you are stuck for an idea, try it and see what you come up with. Meanwhile, I am off to write about a Dutch scarecrow connected to a will. Anything could happen.
Nothing is ever finished.
You’ve written your novel, what next?
The chances are, if you’ve finished your novel, you will be champing at the bit to get it published. Thanks to innovations over the past few years, you can now do this. In fact, if you finished your draft today, you can have your published book on sale by tonight. But hold on! Nothing is ever finished.
I tend not to reread my novels, not once they have been put ‘out there.’ It’s not because I don’t like them, I do, very much. It’s not because I have read them before, I have, several times. It’s not because I have other things to do either, I have plenty. I tend not to reread them as I don’t want to find errors, I don’t want to think, ‘I could have done that differently,’ no matter how useful such thoughts are. If I reread some of my very early novels (the gay thriller ‘Other People’s Dreams’, for example, I would not be satisfied with it at all, and there’s a reason for that:
I wrote it over a period of about three years, I submitted it to some publishers and had interest from one, the British publishers, Gay Men’s Press, and was very excited and encouraged when they talked about publication and sent it out to their readers for comment. Sadly, some of the readers thought it was ‘almost but not quite’ and, soon after, the publishers disbanded (nothing to do with my book!) I did, however, get an agent at the same time, and she read the book, had a heart attack and retired to Spain. (Again, nothing to do with my book. At least that’s what she said). So, many years later and along comes Lulu.com a self-publishing platform and one of the first, if I am not mistaken. Here I was suddenly able to upload my Word doc, see it laid out and then design a simple cover and, by tea time, have it ready for sale. It really was (and is) that quick and easy.
But. Over ten years later and I have learned a thing or two. This is what I mean by ‘Nothing is ever finished.’ Here are the stages I have been through to complete my latest novel (my eighth published so far), ‘The Saddling.’
- “I had a dream.” The idea for this story did, in fact, come from a dream. One of those dreams that leaves you with a feeling rather than just a snippet of imagery. It was an unsettling feeling and one that I wanted to explore in novel form.
- I thought it would make a good film too, so I went through all the stages of plotting a film script: structure, character, setting, storyline, character development, spreadsheets and notes, images of the location, visual ideas and all that. I put it down as a screenplay in under 120 pages – TIP: it’s a good way to concentrate on your storyline but be aware of structure: most films are heavy on the structure before anything else.
- I left it alone for a while, worked on something else and came back to it later. No-one was going to buy that script, but I had the basics for the novel. I set about the first draft.
- This took a further year or so (one must do paid work in between writing sessions, unfortunately) including an intensive week away on a small island near me, Tilos, where I hammered out a further 35,000 words during my ‘Holiday.’
- My novel was finished and, ten years ago, I would have sent it straight to Lulu.com, or even Create Space, and published it that night. But I had learned something in the years in between.
- I left it alone for some time and worked on something else. I came back to it as a second draft and added in ideas that had occurred to me during that time. You should always be thinking of ‘the book’ and what you can do to improve it. I tend to work on about three stories at any one time, the first draft of something is always at the back of my mind.
- I then ordered an A4, spiral bound, copy of draft one from Lulu. TIP: You can do this, keep it private, no need for a cover, and you can sit and read it in print, rather than on the computer. It looks different, you see it in a new light, and it was cheaper than buying the paper and printer ink I would have needed.
- I attacked the draft (2) with a red pen and wrote draft 3. This was more a question of cutting and pasting, deleting over 10,000 words (from 110,000) and writing new sections. Some sections were simply edited.
- I had a few people read draft 3 by sending them PDF files and, in the case of my editor, another A4 printed version.
- I listened to their comments and wrote draft 4.
- Then draft 5 – which was more of an editing job on my part. I also ran this through Grammarly to check up on my grammar. TIP: Don’t rely on the built-in spell and grammar checker with Word, always get a second opinion.
- Draft 5 was sent to my editor, and I left it alone for a while. He came back with a few comments, and I edited things down to make draft 6.
- The editor (who I work with as the indie-publisher and who also does my layout) set the chapters into Adobe In Design, and we looked at a few things like chapter length. I then did some further editing and layout work before sending him the final draft 6 files.
- We then edited some more to make draft 7.
As I write, we are still working on the final layout of chapters ready for publication in April/May. He sets them out and sends me a PDF, I read them and hopefully find no errors. (He was still finding a few typos in my draft six – nothing is every finished.)
Once that draft is complete, we will then go through the manuscript, via Skype as he is the in the UK and I am in Greece, and we will ‘slaughter the widows and orphans’ to get the layout just right. That will be draft 7 and will be the final draft. Unless I reread it and want to make more changes. For changes, read improvements. But I shan’t as you can easily overdo something and kill it by fiddling with it. While all this was going on, I was also employing a cover designer, and this novel has my most professional cover to date.
As things stand today, March 5th, 2017, we have set out the first three chapters, another 35 + to go and then the widows and orphans to get rid of before uploading it to Create Space and Amazon for publication.
You see? Four years down the line and we’re still not quite finished. So, unless you know you have the perfect story told and laid out in the perfect way, don’t rush into publishing your book. Take time to make it perfect. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your book to make it the best you can while always remembering, ‘Nothing is ever finished.’