Novel Writing: Getting started

I am in awe of people who can write a novel.

It is no simple task to write that many words – let alone tell a compelling, well-written story. And it certainly isn’t always easy to commence writing your novel either. Even for the most experienced writers, writing a novel is no easy task. It takes time, emotional energy, complete obsession, focus, drive and motivation. It is a special person who submits their work to my agency, because no matter the level of polish in their story or writing, they have achieved the impossible: they have managed to find a way to communicate the story in their head and share it.

I hate receiving emails from clients saying: ‘I am not a writer, but I have written this novel’. You ARE a writer! You may not be as literary or as accomplished as some other writers, but you ARE a writer. Otherwise you wouldn’t have felt compelled to write your story in the first place.

Writing is a discipline. As well as being born with the talent for writing beautiful prose or imaginative tales, it is also a learnt art and something that we can generally get better at the more we do it and the more we educate ourselves on the art form itself and the world around us.

Every writer has a different way of approaching his or her work, below I have included some things to consider and some suggestions for how to get started in your novel writing journey. Good luck!

STARTING OUT

Finding inspiration.

Some people write because they have a burning idea in their head, others write for the pure enjoyment of the words. Either way, keeping your eyes open for inspiration is an important task for any novelist.

You never know when you might feel inspired by something so it is worth having a way to jot down ideas when they come to you: a notepad and pen, or an Ipad can be useful.

I find listening to stranger’s conversations can be a wonderful way to get my creative juices flowing. On many occasions I have jotted these conversations down and later I have found that stories have flowed on from there.

Inspiration is everywhere, you just need to be alert and seek it out; it could be a newspaper headline, a comment from a passer-by, a scenario observed at the park with your dog…And think about all the stories you have been told over the years or have read that you were fascinated by. The chances are that if it has captured your imagination then there is an audience for it.

Should I write an outline?

If writing an outline helps you get started, that’s great! But don’t be afraid to amend the outline as you write.

Sometimes inspiration comes to us as we develop a character or setting and in these cases the outline can serve to inhibit the development of the plot if we don’t trust ourselves to follow that inspiration. The great thing about having the outline in the first place is that there is nothing stopping you from coming back to it or adding to it along the way.

Having an outline is a great way to track your plot points and ensure something is happening in your novel (ie conflict and resolution).

Another option is to map out each character’s journey: where they start, where you want them to get to and how you want to get them there. This might give you a premise for your plot and allow you to work out how each character will impact other characters and the plot in general.

What next?

Start writing! Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here and there…if that’s what gets you started then that’s the main thing. There is nothing worse than having the desire to write, but having fear stop you in your tracks. Writing something rubbish is better than writing nothing at all. You can always edit or rewrite it later.

And if it all seems just too daunting, set yourself small tasks: ‘I am going to write one scene today’, or ‘1000 words’…whatever breaks it up and makes it seem achievable. This will help curb writers’ block too!

Write what you want to read.

Don’t write a something based on trends or because you think it might be a bestseller. Write what you love to write; if you love a particular genre then you are more likely to write well in that genre and fully immerse yourself in the writing.

GENRE

Genre will influence many elements of your novel, so it is important to consider what area you would like your novel to fit into. In other words: consider who your audience is in order to pitch your book to them.

Not every book will fit neatly into just one genre, but it is still important to consider – even if you feel it takes on elements of a number of genres.

Whatever genre you decide your work will best slip into, it is important to read extensively in this area and understand what audiences of this genre expect when picking up a novel. Knowing your genre will also give you a sense of how you can better challenge the norm and add flavour to that particular tradition to help you stand out from the crowd.

SETTING

Setting is important!

It covers not only the location but also the time period, and both of these aspects will affect character, mood, voice/tone and will influence the decisions you make about the conflicts that your characters will face (and therefore influence the plot development). So think: When does your novel happen? Where does it happen? Is it real or imagined? Will it change time periods and locations throughout?

And when writing about the setting try and give as much detail as possible, it will help your reader become absorbed into the journey you are taking them on – you want to give your reader every reason to lose themselves in the narrative.

CHARACTERS

Characters are more important than you think. They are the reason a reader will keep reading. You want the reader to invest in your characters, and in particular your protagonist: your central character.

You need a protagonist.

This is the person who is at the centre of your plot, they are someone your audience can share the journey with. Ideally this character gains the trust of the reader, despite his or her flaws. You want the reader to want the protagonist to succeed in the face of their conflicts – the plot points that stop them from reaching their goals. They don’t have to be likeable, but we do need to be able to relate to them, or find them interesting.

And there can be multiple protagonists in a story – which means you can have multiple points of view (see below for more on this)!

It is about bringing characters to life; allowing them to live on in the imagination of the reader and not just in the pages of the book.

We want to identify with the characters and to do that we need them to have both flaws and redeeming features. Often it will be their flaws that will help add tension and create conflict in the narrative. Flawed characters have the opportunity to surprise us, disappoint us and make us feel hope again.

Your book should be populated with other characters too – people or creatures who will interact with your protagonist(s), serving as either friends or foils.

POINT OF VIEW

Who is telling the story, from what distance?

You don’t have to decide on point of view before you write the first few sentences or chapters…or even the entire novel. Although, it is helpful to understand what point of view is and how it changes the telling of and tone of the story. These things can be changed, but it is important to remain consistent in the point of view that you ultimately choose.

The most typical points of view are first person (the ‘I’ voice; told directly from the point of view of the character) or third person narratives (this describes the character, setting and action from an outside perspective). The second person narrative is less popular but can still be used effectively (second person addresses the audience as ‘you’ and tells the reader what is happening).

There’s no hard and fast rule about what point of view will work better for what type of novel. But it is worth thinking what point of view will serve your narrative and your reader the best.

PLOT

Things to consider:

• Something needs to happen.

• There is no set formula for the perfect novel, although a traditional approach is: to have a conflict (which is the main motivation for the story), a climax and a resolution (the outcome of the conflict/crisis).

• What are the stakes? What does your protagonist stand to lose or gain? What does the protagonist want and why? And remember: there can be more than one thing at stake!

• Your plot doesn’t have to be linear.

Give characters a compelling problem: Conflict.

Most novels have some sort of conflict, which brings with it a sense of tension. This tension builds until the problem comes to a climax, and then finds a resolution in some way. Conflict provides the character’s motivations for their actions and creates momentum and purpose across the novel – the conflict should propel your character forward and leave them somehow changed forever…

Make things happen!

You might have the greatest characters and the most beautifully crafted words, but if nothing’s happening then what’s the point?

When I am editing both my work and others’ work I often employ a simple way of seeing if and how something happens in the novel. Exercise: Go scene-by-scene and write a single word or sentence describing the action. Do this on post-it notes so that you can see the big picture when you lay them out together on the floor. You will then be able to see where the story lags (and where it most likely needs work). It also gives you a great chance to visually shake up the plot and will give you fresh perspective on the bigger picture.

AND FINALLY…

Write drafts…write many, many drafts.

A first draft is exactly that: a first draft. Be prepared to self-edit and rewrite. Nothing needs to be perfect in the first draft, that is what the other drafts are for. I once heard someone say ‘write without judging yourself’ in the first draft. This means that you don’t need to obsess about every word used and the structure of every sentence. Try and get the bigger picture working, everything else can be worked on in subsequent drafts.

The first draft doesn’t need to be spectacular; it just has to be done. Then you can move on to honing what is already there. Editing words and ideas that exist is easier than stifling yourself with perfecting words that haven’t even hit the page yet. It is good to take a break between drafts and find some head space before you dive back into it.

And when you do dive back in, try and focus on particular elements of your novel in each reread/rewrite ie look at plot, tone, point of view, language, dialogue, pace, resolution etc.

And once you feel you have written as many drafts as you can handle…?

Then perhaps your novel is ready to be shared…

However, make sure you don’t do this too early, otherwise your creative soul might be crushed. It is good to send it out when you feel you are confident with the characters, writing and plot.

Ask friends and relatives to read your work as a first point of call and ask for honest, constructive feedback. It is also good to target a few friends who enjoy the genre you are writing in – they might have some good suggestions about how to improve your work.

And be prepared for the feedback, it is hard to take but constructive criticism doesn’t mean your work is rubbish, just that it needs more attention. Every writer needs this developmental process, not even the best and most experienced writers write in complete isolation.

And then comes editing.

This includes self-editing and professional editing!

But remember…

Everything I have said above is all very well…but if it leaves you feeling paralysed, with no will to write then forget the genre and the plot and the point of view (etc) for a while and JUST START WRITING. As I have said, everything can be reworked and honed in subsequent drafts.

Remember, your creativity comes first. The rules come second.

And with that wonderful load of information, I encourage you to get started on that first novel, the one that has been burning a hole in your brain for years now. No one else needs to see it until you are ready, so take your time and try to enjoy the journey. The destination will come to those who wait.

About Kit Carstairs

Kit Carstairs has background in book and magazine publishing, academic research, marketing and broadcasting. She has almost a decade of experience working with a wide variety of content including: fiction (adult and children’s), general non-fiction (craft, gardening, home improvement, general DIY, food titles, natural history, general reference, photography) as well as working with corporate (marketing and sales material, business reviews and papers) and academic content (research publications and thesis). Having worked both as a freelance editor and as an in-house editor and project manager in publishing, Kit has a comprehensive understanding of the importance of content development and the need for authors to be proactive in developing manuscripts that represent their full potential. As well as providing manuscript assessments Kit is also able to offer her editing and proofing services (POA) as well as fast and accurate transcribing services (POA). Contact Kit to discuss these services in more detail. Kit lives and works in the inspirational surroundings of the Blue Mountains, in Australia's New South Wales.

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