Starting a novel? Here are the 10 things to do right away
by Harry Bingham
You want to write a novel? Keen to get going? Just make sure you do not write your first sentence. Not now, and not any time soon. I mean, you’ll get there soon enough, but first up, you need to get ready.
Some books start with a character, some with an image. Most start with a story. Not a fully-fledged plot, of course. That mostly comes when you’re writing, but some sense of shape, nevertheless.
Let’s say, for example, you are Suzanne Collins with an idea in your head about a dystopian world where kids are made to fight it out for survival on television. That is the seed of a story and, at this stage, we don’t need more, but you still need to write it down. On a blank sheet of paper (or, better still, computer screen), give yourself a heading (it can change, and it can be as simple as ‘Story’), and write down what you’ve got.
Who’s going to lead your action? Perhaps you have a strong idea already, in which case, you’ve maybe written about them already as you outlined your plot ideas.
Just be careful. If you’re less certain, it can be easy to pick someone obvious or stereotypical, but obvious choices are seldom the best.
Take the idea of a reality-TV show in which teenagers are ordered to kill each other.
A painfully obvious centre for the action might be a sixteen-year-old guy with good looks, a bad-boy past and herculean fighting skill (like Cato from District 2). A book written with that kind of hero falls flat as soon as it’s conceived. Someone like Cato is bound to win a survival contest, so where’s the jeopardy, where’s the heart? It also sounds predictable as we can sense this would be a more interesting tale if someone like Cato weren’t to win.
What about a shy twelve-year-old-girl (like Rue from District 11)? A book like The Hunger Games needs true grit to work, and it is possible Rue’s triumph would be too much of a stretch. As a televised concept, the Games might seem brutal. Rue’s fate creates its human tragedy.
The character of Katniss Everdeen, though, strikes the right balance. Physically and emotionally resilient, without giving too much away, she’s a plausible, compelling protagonist.
So for character, jot down your idea in a sentence or two at this planning stage. In our case, that might be, “Katniss. Uses bow to hunt food for her family. Tough and independent, not manipulative or experienced for the world she finds herself in.”
Create a character that seems plausible, yet with a good air of tension over whether she’ll be able to accomplish all that she needs to. We (your readers) shouldn’t feel able to take it for granted that victory is inevitable.
We’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about character right here.
Create a setting
Next up is setting. Suzanne Collins’s world is a fantasy, so it’s obvious she needs to understand the rules of her world. (“A rich city, poor districts. Yes, that’s good. But are all the districts the same? Why does the rich city get to rule with its rod of iron? How sharp do we want to make the parallels with the world we actually live in?”) But let’s say that your book is set somewhere perfectly ordinary, like London. New York. Wherever.
You still need to figure out your settings. There are a million Londons, after all. Are you writing about the Chelsea of investment bankers? The old East End? The new East End? All these places will also look different to each inhabitant. Perhaps they love their cramped flat. Perhaps they feel trapped amidst the lights. And what particular parts of this city will you make use of? A café, a street market? Try to figure out what gives you a frisson of excitement. Where your world and your character and your story all come together excitingly.
The trick here is writing vibrant, alive, mobile and atmospheric descriptions. People have a tendency to think that descriptive writing is of necessity boring – and OK, large slabs of unbroken description probably are. Done right, though, descriptive text actually adds life to the story – and can be a source of movement, instability and danger. Sounds good, right? More info on how to achieve all that here.
Decide the inciting incident
Nearly all novels are triggered by some initiating event. In Katniss’s case, it’s the moment when her sister, Primrose, is called up, and Katniss volunteers in her place. In a regular crime novel, it may be the moment when a body is reported to the police.
Often, writers find themselves really obsessing over this moment, because it acts as the entrance to everything else (to the entire novel, in effect). And that’s fine. You’re amongst friends here and we understand a bit of authorial obsession, but don’t take it too far. Scribble something about that initiating event. (“Katniss’s sister is called up by lot to take part in the Hunger Games. Katniss realises she can’t let this happen and asks that she be given her sister’s place.” That’s all you need.)
Pinpoint key dramatic moments
You’ll also, quite likely, have some ideas for other key moments that take place during the novel. One novel of mine had a sequence set in the Welsh hills during the coldest winter on record. I didn’t quite know how that scene was going to fit into the action, but I knew I had to have it.
In this novel, I knew I had to have a scene where my protagonist, working undercover, would share a prison cell with one of the bad guys she was pursuing. Again, I didn’t have more than a vague idea of how that scene would fit in with everything else, but that didn’t matter for me. In both the cases I’ve just mentioned, the scenes I ‘knew’ about beforehand were key to each book. The snow scene is something that readers will, I hope, remember long after they’re forgotten other plot details.
So write down what you have. You’re not looking for detail here. I might, for example, have written no more than this: “Scene set in the snow in the harshest winter on record. Up in the mountains. Car broken down (or lured off the road? or sabotaged?). A murder attempt. Death by hypothermia. Fiona escapes.” (Well, maybe. I can’t give everything away, can I?)
If you can find two or three moments of this kind, then so much the better. Oh, and your key moments don’t have to be life-and-death affairs. Perhaps your character has her heart broken. Or meets the love of her life. Or has to deal with a parent dying. Those things are just as significant in a novel’s emotional landscape, so note down what you have. A sentence or two is all you need.
Write your denouement
In the same way, you probably know something about your denouement. Write it down in the same way. Perhaps (in the Suzanne Collins example) you truly don’t know much. Perhaps at this stage, she just writes, “Katniss wins. Stays alive. Defeats the others.” Or perhaps she knows a little more. Something, perhaps, to do with the romantic tensions that develop. But nothing is set in stone, and it’s just fine to have gaps in your knowledge.
Just write down what you have. You can come back to everything later. (And will.)
Simply dropping in the very first foundation stones for your novel will help define the whole of the remaining structure. More info on how to build an entire plot that way – ‘snowflake style’ in the jargon – can be found here.
Consider mood and voice
Less tangible, but just as important, you probably know something about the mood of the book. Is it grim? Light? Funny? Grim and funny?
And what about the voice you’re writing in? Is it elegaic, old-fashioned, sad? Or is it cutting edge, urban, cool? Or something else? Here’s a refresher on what voice means (in the context of novels, obviously.) If you want help with prose style, you’ll get a useful guide to that right here.
Some books have touchstones. Things that may or may not play a huge direct part in the story you’re about to tell, but are still an important reminder about why you wanted to write this thing in the first place.
So, for example, Kew Gardens in Richmond features throughout Tor Udall’s wonderful debut A Thousand Paper Birds, in a way that somehow connects the whole book.
If you have such a touchstone, note it down. If not, it doesn’t matter. You may (quite likely) find that you do, in fact, have one as you write. And if you still don’t, it still doesn’t matter. You can write a perfectly good book without it.
Place the camera
Some writers get very tied up with the whole (somewhat technical) business of points of view, and how many protagonists to have, and how to handle time, and much else.
In general, your first instinct is likely to be the right one. If it seems natural to you to write in the past tense, then do. If the present tense appeals, that’s fine, too.
Equally, if you want to write in the first person, that’s probably the way to go. If it feels more natural to write in the third person, do this. There’s no right or wrong here, just a couple of good rules of thumb:
Don’t have too many protagonists. It’s fine to have just one!
The past tense is still the default storytelling tense. If in doubt, use it.
The first person is best used when you have a strong voice for the person in question. In other cases, third person is probably better.
But those things are rules of thumb only. If you want to do things differently, go for it. We’ve got a monster post on all things point of view-ish right here.
Create your secondary characters
Finally, your key character will bump into other people and some of those relationships will be key. You don’t need to know nearly as much about those characters as you do about your main one, but if you do have an idea of some of the other key players, write down what you have, however sketchy your ideas at this stage.
Secondary characters like Cato and Rue in The Hunger Games also accentuate Katniss’ goodness (she helps Rue, she turns against sadistic Cato).
And that’s it, almost.
The truth is that if you’ve written notes on all the above points, even just covering two or three pages, you have probably increased your odds of finishing your first novel by about 500%.
Writing a novel involves far, far more than just a good start. There are a lot of skills involved, including some that won’t seem at all obvious when you’re just starting out. And by far the most common reason why keen writers abandon half-started novels is simply that they lack the technical skills to overcome ordinary obstacles on the way to the finish line. And you don’t have to be one of those writers.
We run courses designed to give you the skills, confidence and guidance to do all this right. All courses are run by authors who know exactly what they’re talking about, because they’ve walked this road plenty of times before. And is it worth it? You bet. I’m just on the verge of publishing my fourteenth book and I still love writing more than anything else. I don’t work for a living. I play.
Harry Bingham is founder and Chairman of Jericho Writers. He has written a variety of books over the years, some leading to six-figure deals with three of the world’s largest trade publishers. His work has been adapted for TV and is currently the subject of a major, and very exciting, new screen deal. Harry’s critically acclaimed crime series Fiona Griffiths has been published across the globe.
Harry’s also worked as a ghost writer and editor on a number of projects. He is the author of a range of short stories and a series of nonfiction books.