It’s the start of a new year, and everybody loves to list their resolutions for the coming year. If one of those resolutions happens to be writing a novel / novella / novelette and you’d like some ideas on how to get started, I’ve listed some observations I’ve picked up from writers over the years.
What’s in a beginning, anyway?
Who says you have to start at the beginning? If you’ve had trouble beginning your novel before, what was the problem? Were you trying to do too much, like trying to know the whole story before you begin? You can drive yourself crazy with this, so make it simple. Just write the beginning that gets you moving and don’t worry about making it perfect. Chances are, you’re coming back to the beginning later during revision, and you’ll know a whole lot more about what to change after you’ve finished your first rough draft of the novel.
You can start writing the second chapter, or just any scene that gets you moving. Don’t worry about what you may think about what the beginning is. Let your writing go freely. The most important thing is to get words on the written page. Progress is defined by word count per writing session, and the more sessions you have the better you will feel about it.
Write the book, not the outline.
Many authors have varying perspectives on this. If you like the thought of having some sort of outline done for your novel before you begin working on it, it is possible that this is where your obstacle is. It’s easy to think you need to have the whole story defined in an outline. The problem with that is that it’s time-consuming, and you might not have all the answers. If this is the case, you’ll never actually start writing because you’ll never finish your outline.
One way to beat this is to cut back on the content of your outline, thereby making it easier to complete. Keeping it to more of a summary may simplify things enough to allow you to answer *some* of the questions that were holding you back. Whether you do answer some things or not, it will give you an opportunity to get started writing.
Many, many authors say that after they’ve outlined their novel, they’ve had to change it after they’ve started writing. If you’re going to have to change your outline anyway, don’t bother making it *so* complete. Keep it general and get to the writing instead.
The same thing goes for research. Some novels require tons of research. This is fine if you’ve written a few novels already and know your process. But if it’s a first novel, it’s more important to get your process down. Write what you can and speculate on the parts that would require research. Once you have a rough draft written, or at least enough to feel confident in your progress, you can do your research. Just remember, the more dependencies you have for your writing, the more obstacles you have actually getting your writing done.
Give yourself a break from the dependencies and obstacles. Life usually has a way of adding to them anyway. Prioritize the writing itself.
It starts with a sentence…
Even a run-on sentence will do. For those that don’t know where they stand on outlines, research, or even the subject of their novel, here’s a quick way to get started.
Pick up some of the books you like, and read the back cover. Often this will be three sentences describing the book. When you’ve looked at several, take a blank sheet of paper (or a blank word processor page) and write your three sentences about your book. Yes, they can be run-on sentences. You’ll find that there’s a totally different feeling about writing the back cover blurb than worrying about the whole novel.
Next, on another blank page, write three paragraphs about the book. You might get some ideas on Wikipedia or any other sites that have the short synopsis of novels. As you write your three paragraphs, you might find that you’ll be going back to your original three sentence blurb to make changes in order to keep the two synchronized.
After you feel comfortable with your short synopsis and the blurb, the next assignment is to write three pages of extended synopsis. Again, Wikipedia or other sites on the internet will provide plenty of examples. You might have seen a few when you were looking for summary synopses. For this part, you can do more or less than three pages, but the point is to expand upon the original summary synopsis, NOT to write the novel.
This extended synopsis can be seen as an informal outline. Now you’re ready to begin writing. Remember to focus on the writing of a rough draft. You’ll get more accomplished if you’re not worrying about polishing every single sentence. The story has to be written first. Remember, you paint the house AFTER you’ve built it.
The first draft is a rough draft
Successful writers improve upon their process as they gain in experience. It’s not realistic to expect a first time novelist to write a completely polished product in their first draft, and yet so many writers approach their first project this way. They don’t get off of a paragraph because they’re making every sentence perfect.
Write a really, really awful paragraph as fast as you can. Include spelling errors if you’re insane like me and can’t allow yourself to continue on the next sentence without correcting every spelling error along the way. Just write the story and don’t worry about polishing AT ALL.
Now write the next paragraph and get the feel of it. Rough draft only. Word count (or page count, if you prefer) is your progress indicator per day. You should have some weekly and monthly awareness as well so you can see your progress in different ways. Try not to spend much time (if at all) re-reading what you’ve written because you’ll find that you can’t leave it alone and you’ll be editing all night (more on this insanity below).
During the writing of your rough draft, it’s okay to correct spelling errors, as long as you’re not fixing grammar and doing anything that’s time-consuming. No editing! This is incredibly easier to say than do, I must say. No research details, or worrying about facts, time in your novel, etc. Keep whatever notes by your side when you’re writing if it will help you NOT go back in your writing to find information.
The fact is that the majority of people that start a novel don’t finish it, and one assertion is that they tried to do too much in their first draft. Keep it rough and get it written. The feeling you have when you write ‘The End’ in your first draft is unbelievable, and instantly catapults you into the minority of people that finished their first draft.
Revision is a subject that deserves its own attention, but here’s a very quick rendition of it. Make a series of “passes” over your original first draft. Each pass can be for a separate category of things that you didn’t worry about in your first draft. Try to focus on that category so you don’t go insane with re-writing everything. For example, if your category is fact-finding, you might find it easier to print out your draft and circle the parts that need checking/modifying with a red pen (you can accomplish this digitally as well).
Taking some time after your first draft is done before you begin any revision passes is a good idea. Your first pass will very likely be changing your original story, and this often means taking out sections of writing that aren’t important enough. Many authors say that they cut a lot out after their first draft.
A novel is never finished, only abandoned
The first time I heard this, it was about poetry, but I think it applies to novels (or any kind of writing, for that matter). It means that a writer will never be able to leave their writing alone every time they have an opportunity to change it. Only when the novel is published, and therefore taken away from them as far as editing goes, is the novel finished. This is a phenomenon that needs to be carefully contained during any stage of time before submitting it for publication review.
It’s very difficult to go over your writing in a word processor because it’s SO easy to edit. If all you want to do is focus on certain things like, time in your novel, facts that require research, how dialogue looks and sounds, or even reading the writing out loud, you don’t want to be distracted by editing everything you see because you can’t help it.
A possible solution is to make the document read-only so you’re not allowed to edit it when you’re proof-reading it, or just marking it up for future edits (like fact finding, etc.). Another solution is to save the document as a PDF document and view it in Acrobat. You could also save it as an HTML document and use your web browser to view it. Whatever is easier for you to keep your hands off it until you’re ready to edit it.
After all is said and done, a writer might find that they’ll never leave their writing alone. That’s a good time to write another novel.
Happy Writing in 2014!