You’ve decided to write your novel. The question now is: how to begin writing a novel. Where do you start? Of course, you could just write and see what happens, and that’s always fine, but if you consider a few things first, you can save yourself time and headaches.
Point of view:
Can your story be told all from the perspective of one person? If so, write in first-person point of view (POV). Use ‘I’ did this, and ‘I’ did that, and so on when referring to the POV character. When you write in first person, you can’t include anything seen from the perspective of another character. The central character can only know what another person might be thinking from observing, and describing for the reader, their facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures.
If you need more than one character’s perspective to tell the story, then use third person POV. Third person uses the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’; e.g., He ate the ice-cream. There are two kinds of third person points of view:
I quote here from my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine
“Omniscient—written from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator. They know what everyone is thinking and feeling and what is hiding around the corner. Omniscient POV is not often used these days because it keeps the reader one step removed from the feelings of the characters. It is most often seen in epic fantasy. The important thing to understand when writing in omniscient POV is there should be only one voice, that of the narrator, and even though they can see the thoughts of every character, it is advisable not to try to explain many different characters’ thought processes in one scene because it quickly becomes confusing for the reader. I suggest that beginning writers avoid this point of view. It’s too remote for many modern readers, less immediate than the alternatives and hard to do well.
“Third person intimate—written from the perspective of a character and in that character’s voice but using the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ to refer to him or her. The language used is what that character would use if they were telling the story, so the reader sees the action through the character’s eyes. This is used when an author wants to be able to show more than one perspective on the story, but wants the reader to identify more deeply with a character than is possible in omniscient. For this reason, it usually involves changing from one intimate point of view to another, and this is where the writing can fall into head-hopping.”
Head–hopping refers to abrupt changes in point of view such that the reader doesn’t know whose head they’re in, or they’re being knocked from one head to another like a ball in a tennis game. Refer to my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine for information on how to avoid head-hopping.
If you have only a couple of character’s perspectives you can also have alternating chapters with one first-person POV in one chapter and another POV in the next chapter, but it’s best not to use that for more than a couple of characters, and some people don’t like even that. First person POV is best used with just one main character, your protagonist.
It’s advisable not to have too many points of view. The less points of view, the more you create an intimate feeling in the story. Five is generally agreed to be the maximum.
You don’t need to have it all plotted out, but you should have the main plot elements decided on—know your protagonist (central character), protagonist’s aims, antagonist (the bad guy or element), antagonist’s aims, and how they clash to create the dramatic tension. I also suggest at a minimum that you have a beginning, a middle and an end in mind. You can always change it or develop it further as you write, but if you don’t start with something tangible in the plot department, you can finish the book, then when you or a beta reader looks back over it, you discover that, at the least, it just doesn’t hang together, and at the worst, it doesn’t actually have a story. Then you’re faced with a complete re-think that usually leads to throwing a lot of it out, rewriting large parts of it and writing new material.
Even if you like to write from the seat of your pants and not be stuck to an outline, it’s still important to have a basic plot in mind.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Pantsing (also known as winging it) is the term authors use to refer to writing without a fixed outline. An author who adopts the pantsing approach to writing is called a pantser. A plotter is someone who has an outline that they follow. These are different approaches to writing, and neither one suits all, but it’s good to consider what approach you want to take before you begin writing.
I suspect that many authors, like me, fall between these two extremes in that they have a plot line, but don’t force themselves to stick to it as they write. That way they get the benefit of allowing their imagination to throw in unexpected twists as they write, while avoiding the possibility that they may wander so much that they end up with something with no shape.
I think it’s a good idea for beginning writers to have some kind of outline, but be flexible enough with it to change if needed or inspired in another direction.
I plotted my first books out in detail. Later books, after I became ab experienced author, I wrote without plotting for the first half of the book, then I sat down and plotted out the rest. Even so, I did have a major diversion from my initial plan in Demon’s Grip, book 3 of The Diamond Peak Series. My character made up her own mind and refused to change to fit how I thought the story should go, when I finally decided that maybe it would be more interesting (though more challenging for me to write) to follow the character’s direction, I realised that the story improved considerably. The character, in surprising me, surprised the readers as well. And surprise is good.
So whatever approach you plan to take, be flexible.
Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes, and strengths and weaknesses—make sure they have some weaknesses, because perfect characters are boring. What quirks/manerisms/habits—speech or physical—do they have? How are they different to each other? What do they look like, speak like, think about the issues in your book?
Some people write these kinds of things down before they start, while others just have the ideas in their minds and allow the details to come out as they write. Either is fine, so long as you have considered the questions above. You certainly don’t have all the details decided, but if you don’t have a good picture of your characters in your mind, it’s a good idea to write down their descriptions to help with continuity.
In my first book, I had to keep looking back to my last description to see what colour eyes or hair I’d given them. I soon discovered that it was wise to keep such details in a separate file called ‘Characters.’
Where to start:
You don’t need to begin at the beginning of your story. If authors did that, every story would begin with the birth of the protagonist, and that would be very dull. The beginning of a book needs to grab the reader, hold onto them and not let go, so choose an exciting part of the story to dive into. You’d be surprised at how often, as an editor, I suggest cutting the first part of a manuscript and beginning the story at a later stage.
Avoid prologues, as well. It’s better to throw readers directly into the story. But if you must have one, keep it short and snappy and stick to the essential points.
Fantasy and science fiction books need information to help readers make sense of different worlds and cultures, and other books need historical facts, personal histories and other relevant backstory in order help the story make sense. The question we need to ask is how much information to put in, and what isn’t needed and so can be left out.
The tendency for some authors is to include too much information, while others have the opposite problem and tend not to include enough information. It’s easier to add information in, however, than to delete it, so I recommend putting in less information than you think you need. Readers do not need to know everything we know about our story. They are quite capable of putting suggestions together to form a picture.
Revising my early writing efforts included a process of paring back the information I’d included in my first draft until I had just enough but no more than was necessary.
Whatever information you think you need to include, make sure it’s as succinct as possible, pepper it throughout the action and don’t let it slow the story down. I suggest that you jot down a few points on what you really must include, just so you aren’t tempted to put in swathes of unnecessary information or leave out something important.
Now you’re ready to start:
After you’ve considered these points, you can get started. Just sit down and write, and stick at it until that first draft is completed.
Are you writing a novel? Where are you up to with it?
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It won’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox
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You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: WritingTips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
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