Curtis Brown Creative director Anna Davis, who provides the video and teaching notes for our Starting to Write Your Novel , Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel online writing courses, reckons that when you start writing a novel, you will inevitably fall into one of two categories. Here’s her theory and tips to help you get going…
When you decide to write your novel, there are two basic starting positions. *Sweeping generalisation alert* – but bear with me, I think this is actually true, and here are the categories:
- There’s a story you know you want to write, or an idea you want to explore in novel form. In other words, it is the story or idea that leads you into the novel.
- You really want to write a novel but you don’t know what your story is. Your desire to write propels you forward. In other words, the drive to start your novel leads you to mine for your story.
Most writers prefer to be in Category 1. It feels great when there’s something you’re burning to write – something that distracts you in the day and wakes you up at night. However, lots of writers find themselves in Category 2 at some point – and perhaps every time they start writing a novel.
If you’re just starting a novel, there will be challenges in store for you whether you are in Category 1 or Category 2. That’s the nature of the novel-shaped beast. Here are my categorized tips on how to start writing a novel…
1. Category 1:
Problem: Your idea is so perfect that it’s like a bubble you’re afraid to burst. You really want to write it but you’re worried you won’t be able to do it justice – you’re not sure you’re a good enough writer …
Suggestion: Lots of us feel this way. I remember going to life-drawing classes as a teenager – reaching for clean lines and ending up with a childish scribble on the page. This is just the same – there’s only one way forward and that’s to have a go. We’ve all heard the saying that everyone has a novel in them – well, that’s no use to anyone. It’s time to practise, to play, to roll up your sleeves and get down to work. Remember, first draft is not final draft – you can keep editing and refining.
2. Category 2:
Problem: You’re motivated to write, you’ve cleared time in your diary but you’re terrified of the blank screen on your laptop. Nothing’s happening.
Suggestion: We can’t always conjure up a great idea overnight. If writing a novel is the marathon, then you could start with the stretching and training. Perhaps move to working longhand in a notebook, jotting down thoughts, observations and character sketches. Take the pressure off that blank screen. Try writing to prompts and setting yourself a time limit or word limit to focus you. Here are 3 prompts you can use, but you’ll find loads online: “She used to hide behind the door.” “It was so high up, and I’m afraid of heights.” “He didn’t look anything like his picture.” Maybe you’ll find that writing to a prompt leads you in to a longer story.
3. Category 1:
Problem: You feel like your novel idea is good but how do you know if it will work as a full-length novel? How do you work out the plot and structure?
Suggestion: If you have an idea, you’re starting in a good place. Begin by asking yourself key questions you need to find the answers to in the building of your story, to cover all aspects of your novel – write them down and see if you can answer them. Examples of the kind of questions I mean would be: “Across what period of time does my story run?”, “Who is my protagonist?”, “Am I seeing the whole story through my protagonist’s eyes or are there parts of the story he/she is not present for?” As you build more answers to your questions you will actually be building structure. You can potentially move from there to developing some form of working plan, whether written as a string of bullet points, covering the action in each scene or on index cards, or whatever suits you. Not every writer likes to work with a full plan but every writer needs to find a structure.
4. Category 2:
Problem: Where do the stories come from? How do you begin to find one?
Suggestion: Stories very rarely drift into your mind unbidden. Category 1 is a rare and fabulous place to find yourself. For the rest of the time, it’s the hard graft. What are you passionate about? What do you think is important? Write it down – maybe it’s the right territory for your story to grow from. Is there a newspaper article that gets you thinking and offers you the jumping off point for a story? Is there something from your own life that you can tease out and fictionalise? Find some photographs that fascinate you and imagine who the people are that live inside the image. I talked about asking questions – well, sometimes a question you ask yourself can spawn a whole novel. Questions can be one of the very best ways to start. Read, read, read. Read books that challenge you, read classics with great protagonists that have haunted you all your life, read books that are fresh out to see what’s going on in the marketplace. Don’t chase trends but try to get an understanding of what people are reading and what they really aren’t reading at the moment so that you don’t write yourself into a literary cul-de-sac.
5. Category 1:
Problem: OK, so you’re managing to figure out the plot for your story but how do you find the right voice?
Suggestion: Again there’s a lot to be said for just experimenting. Write a scene from your story – doesn’t have to be the opening – can be from anywhere in the novel, even the ending – and see how it feels. Rewrite it (or write a different one) from a different perspective and compare – that might mean you’re, for example, changing from first to third person and just finding out what feels natural to you; what makes your story really come to life in your mind. Ask yourself what the most dramatic possible way to tell your story is – that may well give you your answer. Examine your story – if you have lots of scenes where the protagonist is not in the room, then first person may well not be right for your novel. And try not to over-complicate things. So often, writers will look to solve a plot problem by adding in another narrative voice – it’s very rarely the answer, folks.
6. Category 2:
Problem: You’ve now come up with a number of possible stories for your novel, but somehow none of them is sticking. They all seem so random.
Suggestion: Interrogate the story ideas using some of the methods I’ve already mentioned – particularly asking yourself questions, searching for the answers and playing with voice. Some people need to write their way in to several ideas simultaneously before they are sure which is right for them. None of it is a waste of time because it is still all about writing your novel. Material you’re producing as part of your experimentation might be useful later on when you’re looking to solve other problems in your writing. A character you’re thinking about now might be wrong for your current novel but perfect for the next one in a different story. Don’t throw anything away. And when it comes to finally making your decision about which story to follow, think carefully – writing your novel is running that marathon – you will be living with this idea, working away at it, for a long time. Sometimes you’re going to hate it or just feel indifferent about it, but make sure you start by writing a story you care about. That’s much more important than writing something you think will be saleable.
7. Both Categories:
And finally, if you are still struggling to actually sit down and get it started, check out my Ten Tips on Starting to Write a Novel. Or, get more writing advice from me and the support and attention of a bunch of fellow writers by signing up for our next Starting to Write Your Novel course.
That’s all from me. Happy writing!