Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How to Start Writing a Novel

"A Lady Drinking and a Gentleman (detail)" - Johannes Vermeer
How do you begin a novel? Start writing!

Kidding. Kind of.

This is a question I’m asked a lot by people who have always wanted to write a novel but aren’t sure where to start: Where do you start? How do you even get going?

It’s not quite as difficult as you might think!

A mistake people make that deters them from even writing the novel or memoir they have always wanted to write is that they’re intimidated by how big the task can loom. And no doubt, it’s big and intimidating.

But the real trick is to avoid trying to imagine the whole novel all at once. That’s impossible.

J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien did not, contrary to belief, wake up one day having magically conceived of every spade of grass and glass of butterbeer in Middle Earth and Hogwarts. You don’t have to have everything figured out before you start. Don’t be intimidated. There’s plenty of time for detail work later.

When you’re starting a novel there are only two things you’re looking to find: Voice and Plot.

That’s it! Just two things that you can totally wrap your head around.

So. How do you find your voice and plot?

Well, as you may know, there are two kinds of people in the world. The outliners, and the pantsers.  The outliners plan ahead and have a fairly good sense of where their plot is going to go. They map out the opening incident and the major plot points, with varying levels of detail. The pantsters just get words on paper and revise revise revise later.

Outlining can help you figure out your plot (and please read this post to make sure you have a plot), but there’s only one way to find a voice: Start writing, and keep writing until you find it.

Don’t worry about polish, don’t fret if the first chapter comes out horribly. Get words on page. Keep going. It may come to you instantly, it may take fifty pages, it may take a hundred and fifty pages. Just keep at it.

Check out this post on what makes a good voice, but the thing about voice is that you’ll know it when you find it. All of a sudden you’ll have it, and it will just feel right. It will feel like it’s coming from you, and not from those other novels you’ve read in the past.

Once you find your voice and plot you can always go back and revise to make everything is consistent and trim the parts where you were on a hunting expedition for your voice and plot.

But again, what does this boil down to? Start writing. You have nothing to lose and a whole world to gain.






33 comments:

Chris Phillips said...

Great post, exactly where I'm struggling right now. I want everything as perfect as it is in my imagination, but I just need to put it down.

Mr. D said...

I've outlined three of my four novels. Funny thing is, my favorite one is the one I didn't outline.

Serenity said...

Yes, yes, yes, Mr. Bransford. I love this post. I'm so glad I had a voice in my life telling me back when I began to just begin and to keep going. I hope somebody out there hears yours today.

M.A. Leslie said...

I am an outliner that is trying out the pantsing method on the next novel. I am trying to break out to the Roman numerals and just let it flow.
Unfortunately, I feel like I am in a 12 step program for people with OCD.

Vera Soroka said...

I'm a panster so maybe that is why I'm having problems with writing short stories-they all want to be novels. I tried out lining but it felt like you had your shoes on backwards.

lmmilford said...

I think the trick I found with my first book was to just start writing. I had a vague idea of what it was about and what was going to happen, but that changed quite a lot as I went along.
It is a massive amount of work, so just getting started is always the way to go! Once you have a main character, a vague plot outline and an antagonist, you're good to go!

zsuzsyb said...

I revised my first novel for so long time, that forgot the spontaneity of the first draft. Now when I am starting a new novel I still want to function like at revising and editing. I want to have the whole picture and to figure out everything at the start + writing well. :) I really feel blocked. Thank you for this post!

Javid S. said...

great! thanks

Janiel Miller said...

Short bits are easy for me. My brain operates in short bits. Trying to stretch it into a novel, now that's a different gig altogether. THANK you for this. I need to just keep going. And I'm an outliner, but I like outlining in my head. Probably going to have to change that.

Stephsco said...

This cracked me up: please read this post to make sure you have a plot

GOOD ADVICE

It's really frustrating to get to a certain point and realize there is no plot.

Roger Floyd said...

Gee, I hope I have a plot. I've got two novels under my belt, and I hope they have an acceptable plot to get published. Well, we'll find out.

Maya said...

Funny, I remember reading that post about voice back in May 2010, when I began my WSIP (work-still-in-progress). Back then, I wondered what the heck my own voice would turn out to be. 1.5 years later, I think I am close to finding it! (If the younger me had known long these things take, I might have given up all together. But ignorance is bliss.)

Deborah Taylor-French said...

Best advice ever!
This is my second NaNoWriMo and my second novel.I've plotted and schemed. But it is the daily laying down of word after word, scene after scene, cooking up chapter summaries and kicking my inner editor out of my head, which assure me a first draft.

Thanks!

D.G. Hudson said...

Nice art shot, Nathan.

Your post reminded me to get back to an outline I've started on a suspense novel.

I'm an outliner when I start a novel. It helps me to keep the story arc in focus. It's a flexible plan.

Outlining also helps keep plot threads sorted, and reduces the anxiety that occurs when you decide to re-arrange the order of the chapters during revision...

Getting started writing a novel and seeing the words grow into a story is rewarding on its own.

Leo Godin said...

I think asking a new writer to find their voice early is asking a lot. I've been writing seriously for about year, and my voice is still developing.

I've started three novels, and the first two didn't get very far, because I'm a "pantser" and had no direction.

For my third, I'm using the Snowflake method from Randy Ingermanson. http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php. Even though he is trying to sell software, the method is valid. This seems like the perfect method for a new writer. It allows the author to write a novel in bite-sized chunks.

My other recommendation is from Bets Davies. She focuses on her characters first. New writers, like me, too often focus on plot when great characters are what makes the reader love a book. Here is a blog post from her: http://mythicscribes.com/plot/character-girl-letting-characters-drive-the-story/

Of course, take my advice with a grain of salt. I've completed a few short stories. Nathan is a successful novelist :)

Hiroko said...

Goodness, I wasn't too daunted when I started my first piece of work. I knew it'd be a long while before I finished, but I was having such a wonderful time writing that I hardly thought about it.
Furthermore, God knows I didn't plan. That is to say, I made notes and wrote down ideas while in the process of writing (as well as a fair amount of daydreaming, something that usually helps), but actually outlining the book before writing didn't happen with me. Still, I don't refute outlining as a good technique to utilize and develop; I simply did not outline for my own work.

Darley said...

Agreed. Start writing. You'll figure it out as you go along. If you start going the wrong direction in your story, back up, take another path. Planning (such as outlining, writing character backgrounds) can be useful, but it can also mask the underlying fear and procrastination of beginning your story.

Just start. That's my new motto.

Anne R. Allen said...

Love the gorgeous Vermeer detail!

Lots of bloggers are talking about this today, since it's day 1 of NaNo. You're right that voice is the most important factor in the final product. But I think sometimes new writers don't get that voice right off. It can sometimes come out in chapter four or so (which usually means cutting chapter 1-3.) It's such a high when it does.

But yes, it sure does help to have a plot. I've written without one--just a vague idea of an ending--and mostly, I write myself into a corner I can't get out of. Don't recommend it.

Mostly, though as you say, it's about sitting down and writing. And that's the beauty of NaNoWriMo--it's for butt-in-chair, do-it-now hard work..

Alana Roberts said...

The post on "do you have a plot" is helpful. I'm going to go list my complications right now. Then start writing.

It's too bad you probably don't have any tips on how to keep writing while your unborn daughter tap-dances on your ribs... no wait, distracting me from that is what the writing was for... yeah, this is gonna be just fine. :)

Michael K. Reynolds said...

Nice job on this Nathan. And so true. I posted it on the Writing Platform Facebook page.

The Other Stephen King said...

Great post! Only thing I'll add is that it really doesn't matter how you start the novel. I used to sit and squirm about the beginning. The novel of mine that's rolling into Amazon.com next week, though, went through four different beginnings in the various revisions. Most important thing to do, then, is exactly what you suggest: just start writing.

Jacqueline Howett said...

Great post. Just sent this to a friend!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Great post, especially as I'm at this point in the process now! I'm having some difficulty figuring out a good plot to pursue at the moment (especially since I'm a meticulous outliner and want plot points and structure in place, dang it!) but I've learned not to stress too much about voice. Sometimes it comes late in the draft and the beginning requires a lot of revision for it, but it does come, and once it does, the writing flows.

(I love this day, though; it seems like every post is geared toward me with talk of inspiration and creativity and the beginning of novels, right when I need them.)

Mira said...

Great post, Nathan. I found it really helpful, since I have trouble starting - thank you!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I am starting to see that I am a combo pantster/plotter. I pantsed my way to about 40,000 words in my current ms, which is the furthest I've ever made it in a ms and gave me a chance to get to know my characters. NOW I am finding it helpful to sift through, find the threads of plot here and there and outline the thing. I am learning a lot from Larry Brooks' Story Engineering, and I would recommend the book to planners or pantsters.

wendy said...

Thanks for writing this inspirational post, Nathan. In a world of negativity, the positivity in your post shines the way through the darkness and pitfalls.

Don't stop blogging. We need your light.

Sharon K Owen said...

Great post and how appropriate as NANO is here!!

Joanna said...

As always, today's post makes me think, but I am distracted by the Vermeer. Such exquisite detail. Ah, to write as he paints...

wry wryter said...

Nike.

Just do it.

Hunter F. Goss said...

Don’t worry about polish, don’t fret if the first chapter comes out horribly. Get words on page. Keep going. It may come to you instantly, it may take fifty pages, it may take a hundred and fifty pages. Just keep at it.

Great advice. I've had times where I didn't really hit my stride until I was past the initial scenes of a story. And I'll bet others have had the same experience.

Daniel McNeet said...

Nathan,

Another good post. Applies to "How to Start Writing a Novel" and to those who wish to hone their craft. Only a fool thinks he knows it all. Well done,Nathan, well done.

Debra Eve | Later Bloomer said...

Thanks for a great starting point! I always love your post images.

brief episode said...

Forgive my being tardy to the party and also being contrary, but J.K. Rowling says she got the idea for Harry Potter and Hogwarts and figured out the plot for the series and a lot of the world on a 4 hour train ride when she didn't have a pen.

Maybe she exaggerated, but that's what she's been saying in interviews for years.

http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/biography.cfm

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