As someone who has published five novels over the past nine years, I occasional am asked for advice from newer, inexperienced writers. I am always happy to answer to the best of my ability. Whether they like my answers, or not, is a different matter, but I always try to be honest without utterly discouraging the newbie.
Recently, someone told me that they wanted to write a novel, but weren’t sure where to begin. Should she start with the plot? Maybe she should begin by fully designing her characters. How about location? Is it better to begin with one over the other?
In a word, no.
Like many artistic endeavors, there is no correct way to begin. Writing a novel is not like baking a cake. There is no standard recipe that, if you faithfully follow it step-by-step, will leave you the proud author of a novel. Writing a novel is more like trying to herd twenty-five three-year-olds through a County Fair. You start off with a legitimate plan, then improvise when it doesn’t work. When you are finished, the product is good and an accomplishment, but bears very little resemblance to what you thought it would be.
So how do you do it? How do you start that novel?
You write a word on a blank page. It’s that simple. Now you’ve started your novel.
The thing is, every writer is different. What works for me may not work for you and what works for you may not work for the next guy. In fact, I believe every work is different. I didn’t write my second novel exactly the same way I wrote the first (partially because it was the second novel in a series so I already had the main characters created and ready to go). The novel I’m working on now is developing in an entirely different manner than anything else I’ve written. I’m perfectly okay with that.
Some writers begin with a detailed outline, working out every plot development in outline form before they ever sit down to write a scene. Others, start out with a character they really like, or find fascinating, and then create a plot around them as a means to reveal that character. Others do some combination of the two. Still others just sit down and write the story, figuring out the plot and characters as the story reveals them.
In my current project (which still doesn’t even have a working title) I began with a single scene that had been part of a dream. I am creating the plot and character depth as I go. It’s probably not particularly efficient (I’ll have to go back and adjust various things as my perception of the story evolves, but I’ll have to re-write anyway), but it’s the way the story is revealing itself to me.
So, back to the original question: how do you start writing your novel? By starting it. Start writing the story you want to tell. If you get lost, or bogged down, try outlining the chapter you’re working on. Try outlining the entire work. If it still doesn’t seem to work, try writing profiles of your main characters, character sketches.
In short, try everything. Find out what works for you.
Write. Write often and write a lot. Write to solve the next problem your novel presents you. Write the best you know how, but don’t worry if the first draft pretty much sucks. You will fix that during the revision process. Just write, one word after another. Build a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter.
How does one start their novel? By writing.