You want to write a novel? Keen to get going? OK. Fine. 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. Most start with a story. Not a fully-fleshed out plot, of course. That mostly comes when you’re actually 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 TV.That right there is the seed of a story. At this stage, we don’t even need any more. But you still need to write it down. On a blank sheet of paper (or, better still, computer screen), give yourself a heading “Story” and write down what you’ve got. Simple is fine for now.
The next requirement is a character. Who’s going to lead your action? Perhaps you have a strong idea already, in which case note it down. If not (or perhaps even if you do), be warned! It’s really easy to pick someone very obvious … and the obvious choices are seldom the best.
So take our fab idea about a reality-TV show in which teenagers have to kill each other. The obvious centre for the action is a tough seventeen year old guy who has some pretty heinous fighting skills. Yet a book written with that kind of hero falls flat almost as soon as it’s conceived. Of course that kind of guy is going to win a survival contest! Where’s the jeopardy?
Sometimes, you can play it cute and go to the other extreme. What about a shy fourteen year-old-girl who loves books and not a lot else? Well, OK, maybe … but that feels like too much of a stretch, no? In fact, Suzanne Collins’ own choice was pretty much bang on the money. Someone who is at a real distance from the cliche character, but nevertheless feels like a very plausible – and exciting – protagonist. So for character you can jot down your idea in a sentence or two. In our case, that would be “Katniss. A girl. Uses her bow and arrow to hunt food for her family. Tough and independent, but not particularly sassy or experienced in the world she now fnds herself in.”
Do you feel the juice there? The way the character seems plausible, yet with a good air of tension over whether she’ll be able to accomplish all that she needs to.
Next up in the holy trinity of story-telling is setting. Now, Suzanne Collins’s world is a fantasy one, so it’s kind of obvious that she needs to understand the rules of her world. (“A rich city, and 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: London. New York. Skegness. 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, home to the last true Cockneys? The new East End, and its swirl of immigrants? Or what? And what particular parts of this city will you make use of? A Cafe? A street market? An internet start-up? A block of flats lived in mostly by Bangladeshis? Try to figure out what gives you a frisson of excitement. Where your world and your character and your story all come together excitingly.
(So, back on the Suzanne Collins idea, for example, there’s not much frisson when Katniss is just at home, living her regular life, hunting and hanging out with her family. The frisson in that story comes when she changes worlds. Goes to the city. Gets trained. Then is tossed out into the woods to live or die. Understanding each of those settings in which Collins’s heroine found herself would have been key to the success of that novel.)
4. Precipitating event
Nearly all novels are triggered by some initiating event. In Katniss’s case, it’s the moment when her sister is called up for the Hunger Games. In a regular crime novel, it may be the moment when a body is reported to the police.
Very 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 down 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.” – Bingo! That’s all you need.)
5. Key dramatic moments
You’ll also, quite likely, have some ideas for other key moments that take place during the course of the novel. For example, my own book Love Story, with Murders 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 my Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, I knew I had to have a scene where Fiona, 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 really key to each book. The snow scene in Love Story is something that readers will remember long after they’re forgotten other plot details.
So again: write down what you have. You’re not looking for detail here. I might for example have written, (in the case of the Love Story scene), 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 by ——” (well, 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.
In the same way, you probably know something about your denouement. So write it down in the exact 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 love-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.)
7. Mood / 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?
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 damn thing in the first place. So, for example, the river Thames flows through William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms in a way that somehow connects up the whole book. If you have such a touchstone, note it down. If not – 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.
9. Placing 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.
On the whole, your first instinct is likely to be the right one. So if it seems natural to you to write in the past tense, then do. If the present tense appeals, that’s fine too. (Don’t know the difference? Yes, you do. The dog barked: that’s the past. The dog barks: that’s the present.)
Equally, if you want to write in the first person (“I took an arrow from my quiver …”), that’s probably the way to go. If it feels more natural to write in the third person, (“She took an arrow from her quiver …”), that’s fine too. 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 definitely want to do things differently, then go for it.
10. 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.
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%. And the odds of actually writing a decent first novel by even more than that.
But writing a novel involves far, far more than just a damn good start. There are a lot of skills involved, including some that won’t seem at all obvious when you’re jsut 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 a number of courses which are designed to give you the skills, the confidence and the guidance to do all this right. If you’re really just starting out, you could try our Creative Writing Flying Start course. If you want more meat on your plate, try our How To Write a Novel course, or the somewhat more advanced, ten week version of the same thing. (and of course all that assumes you’re writing for adults. If you’re writing for kids, you want this amazing course.)
Needless to say, all our courses are run by professional 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 it is. I’m just on the verge of publishing my fourteenth book and I still love this game more than anything else. I don’t work for a living. I play.