5 ​​tips on how to start your novel

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By Angela Slatter

So, you’ve got an idea that won’t leave you alone – not the one about how winning Lotto would make your life so much easier, no, the other one. That story with those characters and that immersive setting, with all the action and the witty dialogue. The one that’s pulling you irresistibly towards the computer or that pile of lovely unspoilt notebooks you’ve been buying for years but can’t bear to ruin with your dreadful handwriting? That’s the one.

Here are five tips for getting started (and how to keep on going). Just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so too your novel of 80,000 words begins with a single word on the page. Go on: I dare you.

1. Who, what and where?

Who are your characters?

Make sure you’re interested in your characters, that your idea fascinates you and the setting is one you’re happy to spend a lot of time in – because you’ll likely be immersed in this setting for a long while! Decide on your narrator, how they’ll tell the tale (first person, second person, third person, etc.).

Settle on their voice – how they’ll sound on the page (formal, comedic, dramatic, unreliable?). But don’t be afraid to experiment – after a while you might realise that the wrong person is telling the story, in which case write what I like to call ‘voice testers’, that is rewrite a scene from a different point of view and a different character. Snow White’s story would be very different if told by the Wicked Queen or the Huntsman or any of the Seven Dwarves or the Dead Mother.

2. A room (and time) of one’s own

Set aside the time to write. Quarantine that time from family and friends and work. Make it a regular thing so you’re building a writing habit. Let everyone know you’re unavailable for this period – and remember: you’re the only person who gives your time away.

Say no to interruptions. If you can’t find a place at home to work (and it doesn’t have to be an office, it might be the comfy chair or the back deck), then head to a café or the local library or a park.

You won’t always feel like staring at the white screen and blinking cursor, so keep a notebook on you. Some authors write the whole first draft in longhand in notebooks (I am not one of them, but stare in awe as they pass) – and they then find that typing the manuscript up gives them a chance to do a very light first ‘edit’ as they go.

3. Plotters, panters and plantsers

Outline your story and plan the structure no matter how loosely. Now, I know that every writer is different. Some are plotters, some are pantsers, and some are Frankensteins like myself – a plantser. I hear a lot of new writers saying “Oh, I don’t want to plot, it feels unnatural!” And I also hear the same people somewhere down the track say “But I haven’t finished anything yet.” Coincidence? I think not.

A plan or an outline isn’t designed to be prescriptive or to ruin your creativity – but rather it gives a mud map for your novel, some signposts and suggested directions from beginning to end. You can meander around the landscape and change things, but it helps to start out with a compass point in mind at first.

Find yourself stuck part way through? Start asking ‘what if?’ questions … let your brain loose, scampering through possibilities. “What if the character said yes instead of no? Went left instead of right? Drove a motorbike instead of a car?”

When you feel the writing running out of puff? Rest. Do some more planning. Refill the creative well by reading a book, bingeing a TV series, going for a walk, having lunch with writer friends and just plot-noodling (throws ideas around, the ‘What ifs?’).

The caveat is this: don’t spend so much time planning that you find you’re just procrastinating. “I can’t write this novel until I become an expert on quantum physics!” Incorrect. You can insert square brackets into your manuscript with a handy note to self [FIND OUT HOW QUANTUM PHYSICS RELATES TO THIS PART OF THE PLOT] and then keep writing the meat of the story.

4. Set manageable word counts

Not all writers go by a word count – some will set a number of scenes or chapters to do for a session. Choose the method that works best for you. I personally go with word counts because I find my chapters tend to be in the region of 2000 words. So if I’ve hit that number, then I’ve got a chapter. I’ve got one more chapter than I had yesterday and that’s progress!

Now, keep in mind that some days the words don’t want to come. This can be really difficult if you, like many of us, think we absolutely MUST achieve a huge chunk of wordage daily. You don’t – some days the words will be there, some days not so much – in this case the method I advise is 50 words a day. Yes, that’s tiny! Not much at all. But if you do your minimum 50 words, then you are still writing; you are still engaging in your craft and your routine. By the end of 7 days, you’ll have 350 words that you didn’t have at the start of the week, which might be a quarter of a chapter.

This ‘creeping forward’ method can help you get over whatever’s stopping you from writing (fear or the demands of life in general, etc.) and make higher word counts easier. If you feel like continuing with your writing after your 50 words, then huzzah! Keep going. But 50 a day will give you a sense of accomplishment and that can help push on to the next goal.

5. Lastly, give yourself permission to be imperfect

Progress is better than perfection. Keep going!

Note that I don’t say ‘fail’ – the connotations are so negative that I don’t think it’s a helpful word in the context of writing a novel. We’re not born knowing instinctively how to commit acts of art! We need to learn how to crawl, walk, run; how to speak, sing, listen; how to read and write; even how to eat. Why should we think that writing a story will come easily to us on our first try?

Remember your first draft will not be perfect. It will also not be the last draft. Writing is experimenting with how the words look and sound, their order on the page – with who’s telling the story and how – and indeed what story they’re telling.

One of my old tutors used to say that the secret to writing and finishing anything is bum glue. It keeps your butt in the seat until you finish. Not literally bum glue, obviously, or you’ll go through a lot of expensive chairs, but just sitting until you’ve finished your goal for the day. You’re not wasting time – you’re learning. And you’ll get better the more you write. Persistence is the best friend of success. So: get those words on the page.


 

If you’d like help to start your novel, Novel Writing Essentials is the ideal course to help you turn your idea into a real story and give you the momentum you need to finish it.

About Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter is an award-winning author of several books including All The Murmuring Bones and The Path of Thorns. She also teaches for the Australian Writers' Centre. She has a PhD and an MA in Creative Writing and has written two instalments in the Brain Jar Press Writer Chaps series, You Are Not Your Writing & Other Sage Advice and What To Do When You Don’t Have A Book Coming Out & Even More Sage Advice.

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