In an article about writing a novel, and illustration of a quill and inkwell on a desk with an open, blank book
It's hard to get started, but you'll be glad that you did. (Illustration by Elizabeth Wong, University of Rhode Island)

How To Start Writing a Novel When You Don’t Know Where To Begin

There’s so many approaches that you can take; the important thing is to do what feels right to you. 

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In an article about writing a novel, and illustration of a quill and inkwell on a desk with an open, blank book

There’s so many approaches that you can take; the important thing is to do what feels right to you. 

Contrary to popular belief, most experienced writers don’t actually sit in front of their 19th century typewriters and spill out a perfect novel onto the pages, given to them by the Muses themselves. In reality, starting a novel takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of thought and personal investment on the part of the author. The way you begin a long-form written piece changes how you write it, which in turn changes the life it takes on when it’s finished.

There are literally thousands of articles out there about the “right” way to begin a novel — some say that the beginning is the most important, that if you aren’t sure of anything else in your book, knowing that first line will be your anchor, your flashlight, as you flesh the rest of the book out. And there are other articles that foretell destruction if you settle on a first sentence before your entire novel is done. It’s confusing, to say the least.

It’s true that there are some tried-and-tested methods when it comes to starting a novel — there are ways to come up with ideas, to outline and to actually begin writing that have worked for most people. But the fact is, there’s no perfect guide. Beginning a novel is more about taking stock of your philosophies about writing and committing to something that interests you rather than following any sort of universal checklist.

So let’s break it down. From germinating ideas to preliminary drafting, I’ve compiled some resources for you to work with as you see fit.

How do you come up with an idea?

According to author Jerry Jenkins, “Most fiction starts with a memory—a person, a problem, tension, fear, conflict that resonates and grows in your mind.” Ideas for novels typically come from your own lived experience. As author E.B. White says, “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world” — a writer’s ideas come from the world around them and feed back into it.

We are all collections of experiences and beliefs that have the potential to inspire a creative piece — a person that appears in your life for a day and then vanishes, a long-standing conflict with a parent, political turmoil in the midst of a pandemic (wouldn’t know anything about that myself). Regardless of intended genre, the most generative ideas for a story come from the complexity imbued in real life.

Implicit in your plot is when and where your story happens. According to an article from MasterClass, one of the best ways to ensure that your piece is dynamic and compelling is simply to “choose a world you want to spend a lot of time in.” This doesn’t just apply to authors who are world-building for fantasy novels — it essentially means that your chosen world should fascinate you even if it’s something mundane like a suburban neighborhood or a university campus. If you as the author lose interest in the context of your novel, there’s no way your reader can be expected to maintain their own.

A good way to generate ideas is to write, unrestricted and continuously, from a prompt. There are veritable catalogues of prompts online that are designed with the intention of jogging your writing muscles in a low-pressure setting. If these feel too artificial, another way to keep track of ideas as they come to you is to start a writer’s notebook to record parts of your life in a highly personalized, intimate way. As Tumblr user notinthemaps succinctly puts it, “Buy a journal. Carry it with you everywhere you go.” It’s in notebooks like these where the seeds of inspiration are planted.

How do you outline your novel (and do you have to)?

There’s something to be said for the organic nature of improvisation — coming up with an idea and just seeing what happens as this vague outline of a plot and character take shape on the page. But as “Welcome to Night Vale” creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor point out on their writing podcast “Start With This,” having an outline for your project is actually a far more sustainable route that doesn’t actually compromise creative freedom. An outline gives you the necessary structure and has the benefit of workable, built-in goals.

But in order to outline your novel, you have to have a plot. And in order to have an engaging plot, you typically begin with engaging characters. If you choose to write a novel about a certain character in time, something has to happen. The character has to change. Intricate, well-formed plots typically follow the arc of your characters as they react to events in their environment, rendering the sequence of events themselves almost invisible.

Character creation is entirely another hellscape for which thousands of articles exist without any cohesive thread of advice. Tumblr user letswritesomenovels dispenses with the tedious concept of 50-question character creation sheets (like this one from NaNoWriMo, which if it’s up your alley, would only benefit you) and offers up four simple questions instead:

— What is your character’s role?

— What is their name?

— What makes them unique?

— What is their Hogwarts house?

Questions like these teach you a lot about a character (more than the color of their eyes does) and brings you closer to them. According to one of my creative writing professors, the goal with character creation is to become friends with them the same way you would with someone you meet in real life. You get to know what they like, what makes them tick — you treat them as real people rather than conjurings of your own mind. She suggests writing a dialogue between them and you, the author, as if you’re getting to know each other over coffee. What do they say? How do they act? All of this will give you a better picture of who they are.

How do you actually start writing?

One of the hardest parts of writing is actually doing it — even after you have all the ideas and have planned out your story. Sometimes, the sight of a blank page can paralyze you.

The absolute best way to beat this paralysis is to commit to your story, and commit to the act of writing every day. I know, daunting. And sometimes physically impossible. But writing every day or close to every day, even for just 10 minutes, changes a lot about how you view the craft.

Consistency in practice teaches you things you wouldn’t learn otherwise: what time of day is most productive for you, whether you tend to start scenes with dialogue or with description, even what kind of pen most encourages you to write comfortably. When you write every day, it lowers the stakes of your writing on any given day. You can afford to mess up, and you feel less bad about it, because you know you had yesterday and you will have tomorrow.

But if you need a way to be held accountable, there is no dearth of virtual writers’ communities to keep you honest. NaNoWriMo is perhaps the most famous one, and in July, they’re offering Camp NaNo, an opportunity to write for one month cheered on by participants from around the world.

There’s also The Write Practice, founded by author Joe Bunting, that boasts of hundreds of in-depth, targeted resources for any and all of your writing needs. Plus, they send newsletters with little bursts of inspiration every week to your inbox. And if you want to be part of a community that publishes short-form pieces with the intention of collectively inspiring one another, check out The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Ultimately, there’s no prescription for starting a novel, regardless of how adamant some advice blogs are. A project as long and intense as a novel should essentially be based in your deep curiosity and empathy for a part of the world. As E.B. White puts it, the fundamental goal of a writer should be to investigate “whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.”

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