With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting today (!!), here’s an excerpt from How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever, on sale now!
Rule #12: You have to start somewhere
So, uh, how do you get started writing a novel?
Kidding. Kind of.
One mistake that often deters people from writing the novel they most fervently desire to write is that they’re intimidated by how large the task can loom. They freeze up at the mere thought of writing and discover how much fun housework is in comparison to sitting down and confronting the hugeness of writing a novel. Or they stall, attempting to think through every single aspect of the book before actually putting fingers to keys.
There’s a reason for this: writing a novel is hard. It’s easy to get intimidated, but the real trick is to avoid thinking you need to have everything figured out before you start writing.
J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien and H.G. Wells and J.D. Salinger and George R.R. Martin and every other initialed or non-initialed writer out there did not wake up one day having magically conceived of every spade of grass, every glass of butterbeer, every creature in Middle Earth, and every stone at Hogwarts.
You don’t have to have everything figured out before you begin. Don’t feel like you have to know precisely how the whole novel is going to work before you get started. There’s plenty of time for details later.
When you’re just starting to write a novel, there are only two things you’re looking to find: voice and plot.
That’s it! Two things. You can totally wrap your head around two things.
And all the world building, all the ins and outs, and all the “how in the heck am I going to make this work?” You can worry about that as you go along. Voice and plot are what you’re looking for when you start the actual writing.
How do you find your voice and your plot?
Well, if you are a planner, you can craft an outline that can help you figure out your plot in advance. I lean toward the planning side of the spectrum, and while I don’t know everything that is going to happen, I have some major points I want to hit on the way. If you’re an improviser, you can write your way to your plot, and you won’t need to know exactly what is going to happen right off the bat. Just get going.
Planning and improvising are the two basic ways to find your plot, but there’s only one way to find your voice: start writing, and keep writing until you find it.
When you’re looking for your voice, don’t worry about polish. Don’t fret if the first chapter comes out horribly. Don’t worry if it feels like you’re imitating another writer’s voice at first. You’re going to revise these first pages so much that they’ll be completely unrecognizable by the time you’re done with your novel anyway, so don’t get bogged down trying to perfect them.
Just get words on the page. Keep going. Your voice may come to you instantly, it may take fifty pages, or it may take several years. Just keep at it. Push through. Stretch yourself and try different things.
Write your way to your voice.
At some indeterminate point, when you have been at it for a while, you’ll hit a magical flow and realize you have found your voice. 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 the novels you’ve read in the past.
Once you find your voice and plot, you can always go back and revise what you’ve written to make sure everything is consistent, organized, and harmonious. You’ll have plenty of time to trim and refine the parts where you were hunting for plot and voice in the mystical land of “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing.”
Start writing. It’s time. You’re ready. You have nothing to lose and a whole new world waiting for you.