What I Learned About Starting a Novel from Starting a Novel

1. Starting a Novel is Hard.

No joke. A novel is an 80,000-100,000 length journey with a unity of theme and character. This is a monumental task, something that might be required of Hercules like slaying a Minotaur. You’re basically committing yourself to spending anywhere from three months to a year with the same people and the same events. That’s tough.

2. So Find a Writer Hook

Having a hook at the start of a story to draw reader in and push them to keep reading is drilled into writers from the start of their career. It is often the first advice you come across in books on writing. But the same thing is true for the writer. You have to have a hook for yourself, something that will keep bringing you back to the story. Usually this happens in the deeper levels of the story, finding something about this particular story that gives you something to say, something important, something that resonates deep in your soul. This does involve knowing who you are and what you love to be effective, of course, so that’s a good starting point. Typically a story resonates with me on character levels. Stories that deal with father/son or brother/brother issues resonate with me very strongly, because of my own particular brand of idiosyncrasy and mental furniture. A hero wrestling with the light and the darkness inside is another great theme for me. Redemption, or the fall from redemption, or the rejection of redemption, tend to be strong themes for me, hooks that keep bringing me back to my stories. Figure out your own unresolved longings, your oedipal complex, your psychological unsoundness and write about that. Something that hooks into the very things that make you who you are. A good way to start this process is to pay attention to the stories and movies that you love. What common themes do they have? What events, themes, characters do they have in common. Those are pretty good indicators of your hooks.

3. Know Where You’re Headed.

Until you’ve written a few books you should always have a plan of where you’re going. Only authors with a lot of experience know their instincts enough to really venture out without a conscious plan. For the rest of us mortals, getting through the book means knowing where you’re headed. You don’t have to outline in the same way as your English Comp teacher made you outline, but you should know who your characters are, what their arcs are, and a general path of what will happen next. If you don’t have a destination in mind, how do you know if you’ve gotten there? Traveling without a destination in mind has a different term: wandering. Don’t wander.

4. You Don’t Start in the Right Place.

This is also on the level of a writerly truism, but almost invariably, unless you are highly experienced, you are going to start your novel about 10-20 pages too early or too late. What I mean by this is that you have to get into the head of your story. The result is that you almost usually start your story too soon or too late. The moment where your story begins takes place on some page other than page one. For me it is usually one or two pages late, so I have to cut off the first page or so to find my story’s natural starting point.

5. Create Characters You Love.

It is safe to say that if you hate your characters, your readers will too. Characters are your traveling companions for a long, long journey and if they annoy you or don’t interest you, you’re unlikely to finish writing your story. Create people that are interesting to you, people who matter, who are complex and have unique perspectives on the world. Real people, not cardboard cutouts or even stale archetypes.

6. Start Writing.

The best way to start a novel, once you’ve found your hook and know where you’re going, is to sit down and make that blank page a little less blank. Stop reading about writing. Stop reading other things. Stop fiddling with your outline or daydreaming about what the trailer will look like, and write the next sentence. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: