How to Start a Novel

You’ve decided you want to write a book. Terrific. Maybe you’ve even tried it a few times, but haven’t gotten one all the way to the finish line. It happens. I had a slew of thirty-page novel starts before I finally found out how to start a novel that I could finish.

See, that’s the trick. You have to start the novel, but you have to have planned to finish it before you type the first word on page one. And that means laying some groundwork. What steps do you need to take to have the best chance of finishing the book you’re starting with such enthusiasm?

Here are a list of suggestions that will help you start the novel in such a way that you can hope to reach the end.

(Linked rules lead to workshops related to the rule. I will eventually have one for each.)

You might think that I’m off on the wrong track already—that maybe this first rule is sensible for people who are working on historical novels or science fiction or round-the-world thrillers, but that it doesn’t apply to you. After all, you’re planning on writing a novel set in the town in which you currently live, using thinly disguised versions of your friends and relatives as the characters, so you don’t need to research your background.

Yes, you do.

In your town, which streets intersect lanes; in which direction do the house numbers run; what kind of tree is that monstrous thing that grows in the library’s side yard; what are the five most common varieties of birds you’ll find around the bird feeder in January, or the birdbath in July? What is the family name on that elaborate tombstone that you notice every time you drive to the grocery store? What color are the handles on the carts in your grocery store, and if there’s lettering on them, what does it say? Are the parking spaces straight in or diagonal? Which families started the town, and are they still in control of the place? What material has been used to pave the streets? How old is the oldest house and where is it? Who built the projects over on the east side?

I could ask a million questions like those—they’re the sort of questions I always ask myself about any new world I’m creating. They are small, personal questions, which when answered offer intimate knowledge of a place. That intimate knowledge is what will make your book come to life—tiny, perfect details, mentioned so casually that you might not even realize you have included them.

To get these details you have to look around your world with the eyes of a stranger before you begin to write. You must become an innocent, asking silly questions and being willing to make a fool of yourself. And this is true whether you’re using your home town or creating a complete world from scratch on the fourth planet out from an alien sun. You have to name the flowers and the trees and the grass, the streets and the houses and the stars, the animals and the rivers and the clouds—even if you don’t intend to use these names, or this knowledge. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

The act of learning these details will make them part of your thoughts, and your mind will know they exist even if you don’t put them on the page. And as a result, the book you write will live within a whole world, and not in a Hollywood set, where if you walked out in the front door of that beautiful house, nothing would greet you but the parking lot behind the propped-up set.

Don’t spend half an hour going through your baby name book to pick out a name for your main character and call that character creation. You want to have a feel for what your character would do in most situations (though if you’ve created him well enough, one of these days you’ll try to plug him into a scene and he’ll look at you and say “I’m not doing that.”) And even while you’re angry with him, you’ll be thrilled that he’s real enough to stand up for himself.

And don’t do a superb job of developing your main character and ignore everyone else. At barest minimum, you should feel that you have intimate knowledge of the two or three characters who take center stage in each of the first three or four scenes you’ve planned.

This should be fairly obvious, but I overlooked it in most of those thirty-page false starts. Conflict is the engine that drives any novel, and if you try to write one without first making sure you have an engine, you’re not going to get far. Write out your conflict. (Or conflicts.) And don’t go for the big generalities. “Gerri versus men,” is a conflict, all right, but when you’re stuck on chapter five and you look at your notes for something that will help you get back on track, something along the lines of “Gerri’s hatred of her father drives her to take up with dependent men that she can then abandon, and the man she has now abandoned intends to kill her” might actually aim you in the right direction again.

Know whether the story you are writing is about good versus evil, or about the transcendence of love, or about anything that can go wrong going wrong. You’ll find additional themes as you’re writing that will add depth and resonance to your main theme, and sometimes the main theme will shift focus part way through the book, but if you don’t know what the theme is to begin with, you won’t have any control of it when it shifts. And theme more than anything else is what will unify the beginning of your book with the end.

For salable novels, you need to resign yourself to either first person (Let me tell you about the time I found a diamond in my soup, and almost got killed by a hit man.) or third person (The stranger picked up his spoon and stirred it through his chili. He chuckled and glanced up at the waitress. “Let me tell you about the time I found a diamond in by soup, and almost got killed by a hit man.”) Second person, the voice so popular in those choose-your-own-story adventure juveniles (You stir your chili with your spoon, then turn to the waitress and say, “Let me tell you about the time I found…”) turns off readers so quickly that, unless you’re a screaming genius, your editor will bounce it back to you unread. It’s ugly and awkward.

So figure out which one it’s going to be. First or third. When you’re a bit more experienced, it can be both in the same book.

First person is great fun to write, because the narrator will develop a distinctive voice with shocking ease. Its limitations are that you can’t know anything except what your main character knows, and, because the main character is narrating, you’re almost certain she survives the novel. Agatha Christie did some funky things with this, but I thought the one where the first-person narrator turned out to be the killer (surprise!) was kind of gimmicky.

Third person is broader in the scope of what it allows you to do (multiple points of view, varying emotional distances, shifts to omniscient viewpoint). It is easier to write a literary novel in third than in first. There are exceptions. Its drawbacks are the ease with which you can be drawn off into tangents, the ease with which you can fall into passive voice (boring) and the way that characters can proliferate, to the point that you start losing track of them.

I’ve written books in both, they each have their uses, and you will discover that one fits what you’re writing better than the other. Give it some thought.

  • Know your genre.

In a perfect world, every book would be equally marketable to every publisher, and we’d all sell everything we wrote and make millions doing so. But we haven’t yet reached that perfect world, so in the meantime, you’re going to need to know what you’re writing so that you’ll have an idea of who might buy it. It really, really helps to know this BEFORE you type “The End” and print out your final copy. Or, worse, get fifty rejection letters from publishers who tell you they “don’t publish books of this type.”

Genre is: romance, mystery, horror, western, men’s adventure, science fiction, fantasy, gay/lesbian, religious, historical, mainstream, etc.. Mainstream can have elements from any or all of the other genres, but will have some facet that publishers believe will make it appeal to a wider audience. Walk through a bookstore, and try to imagine where your book would likely be shelved. That’s your genre.

And be honest with yourself here. If Fabio’s presence on the cover of your book would, A) be appropriate, and B) increase sales, you have not written a mainstream novel. Ditto rocket-ships, women in chainmail bikinis, or guys in cowboy boots and chaps.

  • Know your expectations.

If this is the first book you’ve ever written, give yourself a little slack. Nice as it is to imagine that you’re going to get a million-dollar advance, a movie deal from Steven Spielberg, and foreign sales in every language known to humankind, the odds are against this happening. First advances generally float in the $2,000-$5,000 dollar range, and most first novels sink without so much as leaving an oil slick on the water to mark their passing.

While having high hopes can keep you going, having high expectations can paralyze you. After all, if you demand of yourself that you write the Great American Novel your first time out, every time you try to type a word on the page, your mental editor is going to say “No Great American Novel ever included that word.” And you’ll never get beyond the first thirty pages.

Give yourself room to learn, and to make mistakes.

If you do this ground work before you sit down at the keyboard and type “Chapter One,” you’ll stand a much better chance of getting to “The End.” And the coolest thing about starting a novel is having justified confidence that you’re going to eventually finish it.

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