How to Begin a Novel
One school of thought to beginning a novel is do not plan or you’ll smother the life right out of your story. Discovery write. Put words on the page Think of it as puking on paper (not the most enticing image, but there you have it.) And this method works great for some people. In the other corner would be those who want you to plot it all out. Often these hardcore outliners want you to plan not just the plot but also setting and character and then break plot up—write out subplots and chapters and scenes all in outline form. They think if you get this whole design down on paper you will know where you’re going all the time. You won’t get lost. To the Discovery writer getting lost is the point since they think getting lost will lead to interesting places. They know they’ll have to revise a lot and they don’t care. The outliner is appalled. How can a person not know where they’re going when they don’t know where they’re trying to end up? Chaos. Absolute chaos. Order is how you efficiently get from point A to point B better known as beginning to end. Boring, the Discovery writer thinks. If you aren’t excited and discovering things as you write your reader won’t be excited by your writer either.
An example of an outliner extraordinaire would be John Irving—bestseller and winner of numerous awards for books like The World According to Garp and Owen Meany and many others. He swears by detailed plotting of a book. He says he spends anywhere from 6 months to a year and a half just planning his novels.. He begins his outline at the end and works his way back to the beginning. BUT 6 months to 18 months! Then he writes. And he writes great books. They take him years to write but they’re good.
In response to John Irving’s method of detailed plotting before writing a word of his novel Stephen King has said that though Irving writes great books he can’t imagine writing a book that way. If he knew where he was going it would take all the fun out of the trip. He does not plot at all. He starts with just an idea of a character and situation and off he goes into the night.
Both of these methods have plenty of true-believers. So which is it? Who is right?
Therein lies the rub. They’re both right. And they’re both wrong. Because the truth is you have to find what works for you, your method, and then go with that. If you’re completely new to writing you should try out both or versions of both that give emphasis to one side or the other. If you’ve been writing for a while and you feel like things are not working—you’re just not getting where you need to go—then maybe it’s time to try to take at least some lessons from the other side of the writing process spectrum. Add some outlining to your discovery or some discovery to your outline.
That’s what I’ve done.
In my experience most writers do come to a process that isn’t completely discovery or completely outlining but does lean strongly one way or the other.
So my process has changed and these changes have made me a better and faster writer. I am a big consumer of writing about writing so a lot of my process comes from things I’ve read, advice taken from here or there from other approaches, and my own trial and error.
I used to do a points on the map kind of outline which is what it sounds like. You have an idea where you’re going to end up in your novel. You have an idea where you’re going to begin. You plot out a few points in between. You’re on your way. I did this in a very limited way. I scribbled out a few ideas. I didn’t pay much attention to them once I got writing. They were more like brainstorming.
I still do a version of this but now it is much more detailed and I put some thought into those points. Just this one change has saved me a lot of time and helped me feel more confident about my fist draft.
EM Forster famously wrote, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say.” He likely wasn’t the first to express this notion but he spoke for many writers. I NEED to write things down to understand and dig into the story I’m trying to tell. I can’t just work it out in my head. It’s too vague that way and what I need is more detail and some concrete direction. Writing it down gives that to me.
I start with a general idea of what story I want to tell.. It’s a Space Western set in a world like the old West or Roman Empire. A love story between an atheist and a believer or a country & western star and a heavy metal rocker. Whatever…
Then I work a little on the character and situation. What’s my main character’s situation at the beginning of the story and what will the inciting incident be that starts the plot moving forward thirty or forty pages in? What does my MC want and what or who gets in the way?
Next I try to come up with X number of big plot points. I brainstorm anything that comes to mind. Then I brainstorm potential scenes—just one or two sentences to describe each scene. For example-- the hero meets his best-friend and they eat breakfast and talk about his girlfriend that the best friend doesn’t approve of. Anything that comes to mind. Then I try to generally order the scenes. But, YOU WILL ADD AND CUT SCENES…all of this is just a guide. As you’re writing you’ll discover scenes that you couldn’t have seen before you were in the process of writing. You have to be open to following your intuition even though you have this outline.
When I have a couple of pages of potential scenes in a potential order, I start writing. As I write, I’m not married to the scenes or the order of the scenes but just having these scenes helps me feel like I know where I’m going.
The next part is essential. I keep to the idea of writing out things first. Before I begin a scene I write for five minutes about what will happen in the scene or what I want to happen. I intellectualize what I’m doing in the scene, write bits of dialogue sometimes, maybe write how the characters feel and what their conflict is. Somehow just writing this down clarifies for me what should happen in the scene. I SEE WHAT I WANT TO SAY. Then I write the scene. I don’t look at what I wrote usually. I just let the characters direct what happens.
So you can see this is a bit discovery and a bit outlining. I’m trying to use both.
The first draft still gets messy, of course. I still follow the motto LOW EXPECTATIONS for the first draft, but even though it will need several revisions it won’t—and this is the important part—require me to rework large sections. I haven’t wandered away from the story in big ways because of these outlining steps. It will allow me to focus on smaller problems and improving language much faster. And I still get the discovery in the actual writing of scenes.
So that’s how I begin a novel.