How To Write A Novel (1): Where to start

How To Write A Novel (1): Where to start

I recently joined a Facebook group for writers. I soon realised it was not for me but what I learned from it was that there are many people out there who want to write a novel and don’t know where to start. So, I thought, like so many other blogs and websites, I should put down my thoughts on how to write a novel in the hope that it may help others. Today we start the process.

What’s interesting is that yesterday, I started on a new novel of my own. Perhaps these posts will reflect the process I go through as I write it. That could take years, so I expect these posts will overtake the actual writing of the new novel. Hopefully what will follow over the coming months will be useful to anyone who wants to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys.

It starts with an idea

Actually, it begins with the internal need to tell a story but let’s assume you have that need, that want, that something inside you that tells you, ‘You must write a story.’

Ask yourself: Do I want to tell a story?
If the answer is yes, then read on.

How to find inspiration

You want to write a novel, but you don’t know what the story is. If you really have no idea, or if you only want to practice writing, then check out my post on Finding Inspiration On Your Bookshelf. It’s one way to find ideas, not the only way, but it’s a start.

I also suggest reading any of the millions of books available on ‘how to write a novel.’ I’ve been writing books now for 17 years. The early ones are, in my opinion, pretty rough to say the least but they are out there and have been enjoyed. I still read books on ‘how to’, and writing advice and the one I have read most recently is On Writing, by Stephen King. It’s part biography and part advice giving and all worth reading. There are many others.

You’ve already got an idea, now what?

How to write a novel
First draft notes for a new novel, part of the timeline

Let’s say you already have a story you want to tell. What now?

Well, some writers simply start writing and see what comes out, that’s fine. Others like to plot and plan the structure of the action that will drive the story, that’s fine too. Some like to build a character and then set them in a situation to see what they do, others have the ending imagined and then work out how to get there… All techniques are valid, and I can only tell you what I have done in the past. Here is how I started with a couple of my own novels.

The ‘What If?’ approach

I wanted to write a novel (I have since I was young) but I had no idea what it was to be about. Then, one day, I was alone on holiday on a Greek island, in the summer, and I saw a small yacht a little way off the coast. It was one of those sailing boats that people hire out for a week at a time, white, with a mast and probably a ‘Sunsail’. On it was a group of young men and, from what I could see, they were all naked, larking around and having fun.

Then I thought, what if…? What if they had been hired by someone to crew their boat for the summer on a deal that they couldn’t refuse? Nice. But what if that person was after something more than just a crew? What if…? What finally came out is a mildly erotic gay thriller called Other People’s Dreams. Not my best work, I have to say, but I was passionate about the idea and immediately started writing it. I had no idea of structure or even plot at that point, but I spent the second week of my holiday living out the story (not literally but in my head) and drew on the scenery and settings as I did so. Once home, I eventually knocked it into some kind of shape.

The point is, I was inspired by something I saw and thought, ‘What if…?’ which is, I am sure, how most novelists think.

The structured approach

How to write a novel
First notes for ‘Unforgivable’ a list of twists and complications

On the other hand, what I am starting now has been in my head for many years. I have no idea where it grew from except that I have always wanted to write a farce. Don’t ask me why. If anything needs plotting and planning it’s a farce. This one started out as an idea for a play called ‘Vile Bags’, and now I have the working title of the novel as ‘Unforgivable’, as that was a line in the first draft of the first act of the play. I never wrote any more than that.

In this case, I have plotted the action first. I have a rough idea of characters, and they will develop as I go through the preparation process but, for a farce, or a mystery, or a thriller, or anything where the sequence of events is necessary, then I suggest you write those events out in chronological older first. If you don’t, you will have an awful lot to keep in your head as you go through the writing process.

How to write a novel
My first draft list of characters including their ages

I have no idea how to write a farce, and so I will probably buy a book or two to find some advice. But I do know that structure is vital. As are mix-ups, timing, a growing sense of panic, a calamitous climax, foreshadowing things to come, laying traps, comedy, and strong, conflicting characters. The first thing I have done (all I have done so far, as I only started on it seriously two days ago) is set out the essential action in a timeline. I did this by hand at the kitchen table. The next day I transferred those notes to the PC and typed them up – it’s easier to cut and paste and change things around. So, already I am on draft two of the plot outline.

As I do this, so the characters grow, and I can already see that I have one character I want, but the story doesn’t. By which I mean: I want a mad old mother living in the house of the wealthy composer where the story is set, but I have no need for her. It’s a comedy though, so perhaps she can stay for no reason other than to add colour, but she doesn’t fit into the plot. Yet.

Two ideas for places to start

So, there you have two or three ways to start your novel. Next time, I’ll address another of the questions the social networking group asked, and we’ll go from there. But for now, as I start work on ‘Unforgivable’, you might like to start on your own novel using one or more of the techniques mentioned below and write along with me.

  1. Find inspiration at random
  2. Just start writing the story
  3. Plot and plan and draw up a timeline of events on which to hang the story
  4. Start with characters you want to explore
  5. Start with handwritten notes, or type on the PC (always save and backup)

The bottom line
Just start writing… something.

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