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How to Start a Novel

Updated on July 27, 2009

#3 for my 30 day challenge!

Third for my thirty day thirty Hub challenge!
Third for my thirty day thirty Hub challenge!

Starting your Novel

Lewis Carroll may have been the one who said it. "Begin at the beginning, proceed through the middle until you reach the end. Then stop."

That isn't how all writers work. Some writers do a lot better beginning with an outline. Or they use the Snowflake Method, describing their idea for the novel in a sentence, expanding that to a paragraph, expanding that to a page long synopsis, then expanding on it again and again adding more at each pass until they've built a novel by working on all the areas of it evenly. This is similar to what painters do too.

Some artists will do a light sketch over the whole canvas, then develop that a little farther, block things in, add more color, add more detail, layering and layering till they've finished. Others will start in one spot, usually the upper left corner, and draw or paint everything carefully moving over the blank surface until the picture is complete.

There are advantages to every method. The important thing for you is to discover which of these methods works best for you, because every writer reinvents the process of writing a novel. It's amazing how all these creative people will start off in every different way and use completely different processes yet all come out with the same structure in the end -- a long story broken up into shorter chapter sections that's well paced, readable, interesting and fits in the length limits that today's publishers consider standard for a novel.

Many prominent novelists slop over the standard sizes, to the point that a second "standard giant" novel size has emerged. So don't feel bad if you really need a lot of elbow room for your long story. It may be so big it can't be complete in one volume. The physical limits of how many pages can glue into a paperback without it falling apart are what they are. But one of my all-time favorite books is The Dark Tower, by Stephen King.

Each of its seven volumes is a separate book, but the mega-structure, almost a literary cathedral, can be seen as one very long good story that's engaging enough to keep me happily rereading it for days on end. So it's all right if your novel is too big to fit in one book, that just takes building one more layer of divisions besides chapters, finding the stopping points in the story that are satisfying enough the reader can put it down till the next volume reaches print.

I once asked successful, prolific SF and fantasy writer, Leigh Brackett "What's the most important thing you could tell a new writer?"

She said "Know your length. Every writer has a natural length. It could be the short story, the long story, the novella, the novelette, the novel, even the very long novel or the short-short story under a page like Saki. You will always find it easiest to write to your natural length. Your best work will always be in it. You can learn to do other lengths, but you'll always enjoy it most and get the best results in your natural length."

I think she was right.

At the time I thought I was a short story writer. I had good reason to think that, because I had finished short stories and even mailed them to publishers. I had plenty of novel ideas but had never finished a novel, so I couldn't be a natural novelist. But as the years went by, the comments I got from editors brought Ms. Brackett's words back to me.

"This story reads more like a novel opener. Why not just continue it and write the novel?"

"This story reads like a middle chapter out of a novel with a brief synopsis of the beginning and ending. Try expanding it."

"Your story isn't a story. It's a novel ending with a short synopsis of the beginning tacked onto the front. Write the book."

"Your story is excellent, but it's not complete. Try writing the rest of the novel. We do accept serials, read the submission guidelines. Don't send it back to me until it's finished."

If you have ever gotten comments like that from knowledgeable readers, you might be a natural novelist. Your stories are too big to contain in 7,500 words, that's barely enough to get going on them. You keep throwing in more characters and complications until it turns into a big hairy mess and keeping track of it all starts to get difficult. Yet it's all there, reading through all of it again can bring it back to life and get you moving on the project.

Writing a novel can be intimidating to a beginner. It seems like a monumental task, even creating a 50,000 word <a href="">NaNoWriMo</a> novel seems like an impossible quantity of prose. After all, you may have sweated for weeks over thousand-word school essays trying to get everything perfect.

Well, writing your novel isn't like a school essay.

Writing your novel is fun, that's why it's easier to do 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 words of it without stopping.

Write what you want to read.

There is your starting point: Write the novel that you want to read.: Write the novel that you want to read.. Right there. That one is good for anyone to use with any method. If you write exactly the novel you would like to read next -- one that you will love, one that you will want to reread again and again, with all your favorite characters in it doing all the things you think are cool in novels, then you will come out with a good novel that probably has a very large following out in the real world where genres are labels to find the flavor of books people like for entertainment.

Think about all the novels you really like. List them, if you prefer something like the Snowflake Method or outlining and organizing. You can do this any way that feels comfortable to you. In fact, that's the most important thing to remember about every part of the novel writing process.

Do it your way.

You are not writing to please an audience. You are creating a work of fiction that only you could write. Yet you speak the English language and have read lots of novels. You've grown up with the same movies and music as everyone in your generation. You've shared enough human experiences with the rest of the people in the world and especially the parts of the world you've lived in to have a rich and interesting human life.

Telling the stories you want to read will ensure that your readership gets what they expect -- fiction that has your unique voice. That's what a writer's "voice" is -- it's being who you are and holding the ideas and feelings you do, having your slant and your turn of phrase. It's being yourself and sharing the inside of your head with the world.

The inside of your head is furnished with the same ideas and symbols and events that other people's are. You live in the same environment and have the same human instincts. Learning to write well is a matter of practice. Doing it often and enjoying the process is the key to making that practice real.

Writing a novel should not be some torturous miserable task you whip yourself into doing like a bad supervisor bugging you to work at an underpaid grim job under nasty working conditions. Honestly. This is either something you do in your spare time because it's cool, or something you hope will someday become your job. If you're not happy with the actual process of doing it, then rearrange things so that you're using the process that makes you happy while it's going on. Most of all, when you like the story well enough to keep reading it and adding to it, that gives you joy and keeps you focused on a long project that's going to take much more than a day.

It can be done in three. I'm entering the <a href="">3 Day Novel Contest</a> this year, because I've written one every year since 2000 so I might as well pay the fee and take my chance at winning publication. But even that crazy marathon is a much bigger task than sitting down to do 5,000 words of story. I did that this morning.

I started a novel without a deadline or a writing event going on, because I wanted a new novel in progress and wanted something new and good to read.

That is the heart of it.

I'm tired of the ones I've written and I've reread a good many favorites. I want something new that's so totally immersive I can't stop turning the pages. The process of writing it is how I get to turn the pages.

By writing without an outline, I keep some suspense going. I don't know how it's going to turn out. But I know what already happened and keep fierce track of that with a cast list and side notes, including speculations and ideas for future chapters. If you don't outline, you need to create the outline while you're getting it down so that when it's time to edit the novel, you know where to find things.

Try to avoid changing the names of characters. The first name you thought of for the character is often the best name for the character. Jot any possible name changes off to the side but don't actually change anything at all until the novel is done. I learned this one the hard way, when I tangled up an otherwise good novel into months of rereading and name checking and still missed names that hadn't been switched over. It's worse if you swap names between different characters.

It's also slow and inconvenient if you just name the characters things like MC and Love Interest and so on. I tried that once and again, going through to put in their names turned into a huge pain. So if the first name you put down for them seems stupid, accept it. Sometimes people get stuck with stupid names by their parents. It affects who they are.

It affects how other kids treated them while they grew up. It may have turned into a gag they use as an icebreaker or it may turn into something they hate and only use an initial for. They might have chosen it thinking it was cool because they had a really silly name as a kid. All these events around the character's name are a wealth of material you don't need to write down while you're working on the start of the novel -- unless developing character profiles is part of your process.

You can sit down with the name and do up a side file with the character's personal history. But try not to make too many changes while it's in progress. The changes you make will always cause more changes along the road.

The type of changes that work are the ones that come along as events in the novel. "You were switched at birth. You aren't really Mary Christmas. Your name is Ellen Poindexter and you should've grown up on the East Coast with your sister and your mother the real estate developer going to a private school."

That kind of change creates plot.


Don't be nice to your characters. Everything that can go wrong for them should. Don't even be nice to your villains, they don't deserve it. Life happens, and stories are full of conflict. Conflict is the thing that makes stories move, especially long stories like novels that have many plots going on at once and many conflicts to resolve. Conflict can range from marital arguments and fussy quibbling over who made dinner tonight to any form of violence to philosophical differences to outright war with hundreds of planets and thousands on thousands of starships threatening to destroy the galaxy in the magnitude of destruction.

The good guys are the people you, the author, side with and want to win those conflicts. That doesn't mean they should always win them or that they shouldn't get humiliated, shot, beaten, pounded, betrayed, blown up and martyred for them. Make them work for it. Whatever they want, make them have to stand up to ten times the amount of trouble anyone real would have in getting it, even if it's something so big most people wouldn't want to bother trying for it, like becoming a rock star, an astronaut or a professional novelist.

Remember, you're doing something that unlikely and heroic by writing a book anyway. Not many people make it all the way through the long grind to learn the ropes and sell books to major publishers to build a career. It's a rough job and it doesn't pay well compared to most other professions, in fact, you would earn a lot more doing cookbooks. It does have the occasional chance of a big-money bestseller but if that ever happens, the sensible author immediately invests it and sets things up so the fortune remains solid to last through all the market slumps that will inevitably come later.

But you can't even try for the Literary Lottery until you have a finished novel for a ticket.

You can't get a finished novel done without actually starting it.

So wanting to write a novel, then starting to write a novel, comes back to making the whole novel-writing process so interesting and enjoyable that it sustains itself through all the work of writing out the entire text, possibly several or many times over, editing it and thus rereading it several times over, and then going on to do other novels while you go through the interminable wait for whether any publishers are interested in seeing it. Or ship it to Print on Demand companies and self publish.

Novelwriting for the hobbyist can turn over as good a side income as any other hobby that pays for itself and sometimes, occasionally, quite a bit more. Skill counts. Skill counts above all.

Skill comes from study and practice. The study can be fun because the intricacies of learning how to do any creative work are fun for those who enjoy doing it. You probably do like skimming a dictionary and finding cool weird words to describe things, or you love thinking of twisted ways to destroy a protagonist's morale. Read books by other writers, there are tons of good ones on the market. Stephen King's "On Writing" was fun and "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass was wonderful for me.

Try the exercises in them. But also work on your actual novel. The first one is the hardest -- after you've done one, it gets a lot easier and less intimidating. After the fourth or fifth it starts to feel like something familiar and enjoyable. Whenever I start a new novel, I have a feeling as if I'm about to go on a great holiday for a while to somewhere cool that I've never  been, meet people I really like and have adventures. Then that's what happens and what I come out with is a book that is, yes, better than the last one I did.

The more often you do it, the better your skills. So enjoy the process and practice comes easy.

Talent is Enthusiasm

Famous writer David Gerrold, screenwriter of "The Trouble with Tribbles" and frequent SF novelist, held a writing workshop in 1984. He said something in it that has stayed with me ever since: Talent is Enthusiasm.

You have to want to read the next page in order to write it.

It's completely irrelevant whether you're any good at it now. Don't get hung up on that. You can write a horribly bad novel. Join me in November at <a href="">NaNoWriMo</a> and you will meet tens of thousands of other people who close their doors, turn on some music and dodge everyone who loves them in order to pound out a chapter or section a day to get a novel done in a month. Most of them are very bad novels.

So were most of the really good novels that you've paid authors like Terry Pratchett a lot of money for, and bought in hardback before they went to paperback because you couldn't wait.

They were probably rotten to the core, amateurish, stupid, overdone, goofy and raddled with typos in their rough drafts. So go ahead and write your Mary Sue or your innermost fantasies.

Then play fair with the readers and pick on your favorite characters mercilessly. They don't look tough until someone punches them and they don't quit. They don't look so good if they aren't worried about their looks and humiliated when someone makes fun of them. They can have all the superpowers you could name, but every one of them has its down side and its serious problems.

I've got a young man in my hard drive right now who dropped out of college and is about to find out, among other things, that his poor study habits could be the death of him now that he's gotten involved in some real magic.

Do flawed characters. Their strengths are their flaws. Good looking characters take that for granted sometimes. They don't understand what it's like for someone who's ugly. Dress them funny or put them in a context where the people around them think of them as ugly. Rich characters do not know how to pick up their own laundry or find a job or get an apartment or even shop for groceries. Laugh at their problems with that. Superpowered characters find out fast that telepathy means you're going to overhear everyone's bad day all the time griping about everything and you have zero privacy especially if other telepaths are around.

That twist, that knack of twisting everything you throw in, is a plot engine. Just get something down and then ask "Well, what's the down side of it?"

Good looking, rich, successful and talented people get attacked constantly out of jealousy. This is taken as perfectly normal, it's one of the ugliest things in society. You can't excel at anything without someone taking offense at it and setting out to maliciously ruin your life. This kind of petty malice is public namecalling and beatings in school, but in adult life it turns into gossip, backbiting, fault-finding, control trips, all kinds of adult elaborations on child misbehavior. If you want an obstacle, throw in a normal person who just hates the character for something she likes about herself.

Your villains are characters too. Treat them as serious characters. Develop them in detail. They don't think of themselves as villains. They think they're right to do what they're doing. Most of them think it's justified over something they think of as holy or important -- they're doing it to protect someone or to protect society or themselves, or they are offended at something that's a cultural conflict.

Or they know they're evil, call themselves losers and are on the downslide toward bottoming out with an addiction of some kind. There is always the chance with an addict character that they could turn around, try for rehab, try to dig themselves out of the pit they created for themselves in the alco-addict lifestyle. If you know any real addicts or alcoholics in your life, that's meat for enough novels to keep you and a thousand other writers going for a lifetime.

Most of all though, write the novel you want to read. I'm mentioning things I might use in novels -- space battles, alco-addicts, magic. You may prefer cruises to Jamaica and romance novels, or mysteries involving long-dead pirate treasure, or a deep sensitive portrayal of an elderly couple's love for each other and complex family relationships.

Whatever your flavor, that's the one to write.

Because if you write to please yourself, it'll attract the readers who share your tastes. They will be more forgiving of its flaws, especially if they're genre flaws. Many of them would yawn in boredom at the most brilliantly written work of genius if it's in a genre that's not their flavor.

So don't write the ones that aren't your flavor, or you will set yourself up for an unhappy job doing something you hate. Learning the craft is like any craft. What you do with it though, that's real and honest when it comes from who you are and what you want to read. What you need to say to people will come out in your books, often surprisingly including reasonable arguments for everyone you disagree with too and any good points they may have made or could make.

The plot engine runs on conflict. A lot of small conflicts come together in a book. These subplots all mesh together and build on each other to become a major conflict. The rivalry of two women over a man's affections or the rivalry of two brothers to gain a throne when they have completely different political ideas (this can be twisted amusingly too, if the altruistic one is the nasty overcontrolling brother and the one that just wants power and money is willing to play fair and do a good job running things for it), these things are all made up of every sniping moment, every recognition, every minor conflict with a minor character.

I jot down anything that looks like it'd be cool and just continue from there, thinking about what would be likely to happen because of it. The start of any novel for me is the feeling that I want to read something new. I wanted something like certain other fantasy novels I'd done, definitely wanted to use magic and kick off with someone getting out of one bad situation to wind up hip-deep in something worse.

I found myself thinking about prophecy and how people get into that and destiny. So I created this scruffy college dropout, a guy who is so unlike me it's hilarious. I knew from age four what I wanted to do with my life. "Undecided" completely sums him up, he plays games and reads books and goofs around and if he had a job it was something unskilled that he'd have walked out on without thinking about. He hasn't even mentioned it yet, but he lived in a scruffy cheap apartment with a roommate and had a lot of books. He might have been odd-jobbing rather than working at anything where people were going to ask why he didn't show up.

A lot of people are like him, and that's exactly what destiny and prophecy appeal to -- people who want to be told what they ought to do with their lives by someone sharp enough to guess or tell what would actually make them happy. They want to be important, appreciated, cared about and proud of what they do.

So I have some themes going on with him, an idea of where it's going, and a wealth of background in stories where morals acquire some tangible ability to affect reality. Magic has morality, it's not a blind force like gravity or inertia. It picks sides. It may have personalities and involve spirits the way the magic in Curse of Vaumuru did. I like working with it in part because most people do live in a world where social reality is far more important than physical reality.

All of humanity is facing the consequences of success. We have stabler food sources than other living creatures. We have created dens that change the climate and bring our comforts at hand. We bury our dead and take care of our sick and tell our stories -- and we have great cities that offer every entertainment. Most Americans are not worried about being eaten by tigers or a bad crop so much as that one gossipy vindictive person in the office could get them fired and that they couldn't get a new job. That's all getting along with people.

So a novel takes all the troubles of life and makes them bigger than life, so they're interesting reading. It sets up characters who face them better than average or far worse than the reader would as a cautionary tale. A novel is a big, complicated story.

By the time it's done, the characters are as real and important to the author and readers as the real people in their lives. Sometimes more so, depending on how close they are to the real people. Who would you miss more, a coworker you just met or the loss of your favorite character because his or her series just got canceled?

You're opening up a whole new world to your readers, even if it looks just like the one you live in. You're introducing people who come up out of your head, out of your memories and feelings. You're letting them breathe and react as who they are, sharing their stories to move readers. They move you. That's the heart of it.

So start by writing what you want most to read. Do that often enough and you'll eventually get paid good money for it and sign it someday at a table where readers thank you for articulating something they care about just as much as you do. Go for it. And if you get lonely, catch me in November when I'll be posting my progress on the <a href="">NaNoWriMo</a> forums.


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    • mareezy13 profile image


      7 years ago from Chicago, IL

      This is the kind of hub I have been looking for for a long time. It's great how deep you delved into explaining the issues I have while trying to write. I am currently working on a novel now, my first, I'm newbie. Thank you, your prose was inspirational!

    • Lady Wordsmith profile image

      Linda Rawlinson 

      8 years ago from Lancaster, UK

      30 hubs in 30 days? Hmm. I think I will challenge myself to that one, starting with today's :)

      Extremely useful hub, and you've confirmed a lot of things for me. I am pretty sure that my natural story length is that of novel. Thanks!

      I will go and read more of your hubs now...

    • profile image

      DJ Carter 

      9 years ago

      You so inspire me! I can't wait to get to work! Thanks, Robert.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Yep. The right way to write is the way it works best for you. That's awesome, congratulations on finishing your first book! It's addictive once that first one's done...

    • sherry23 profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi, thanks for the hub. I am a freelance writer who find that writing from the beginning to the middle, and then the ending works fine for me. There is no right or wrong way to write. I just ended my first book, and now penning a short story. I used an outline for the short story, it works for me too. Thanks, and glad to know other writers are here.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks, Rebecca! Yep, I did my 30 hubs in 30 days challenge -- finished on my 29th day and now have nearly 100 hubs. I should do the other five soon, build it up to an even hundred. It's been fun.

    • Rebecca E. profile image

      Rebecca E. 

      9 years ago from Canada

      Wow, this is a great pick me up hub, thanks. I do hope you get 30 hubs in 30 days.

      I'll check out Nanowrimo as well.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you! Dave, it helps to separate the editing process into multiple passes. Go through and write a short synopsis of the plot for each chapter, then look to see if there's any areas the plot drags. That'll let you throw out extraneous scenes without bothering to polish them. Then do spelling as one check, punctuation another, prose quality (line editing) another, dialogue as its own pass and so on.

      It's a lot less overwhelming to look for one thing -- bad dialogue or plot problems -- than to have to try to remember everything at once. A way to break it down very fine is to use a style book like Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" and systematically apply every section to the book. It takes longer but it can be very thorough and effective -- and by the end of doing it to a novel, most of the style things become old hat, familiar skills.

    • Dave Manors profile image

      Dave Manors 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      I really like the advice in this hub, especially since I am struggling to edit my first NaNoWriMo novel. I managed to complete the first draft ok and to the deadline, but I have struggled ever since with the first edit.

      Thank you.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you! I will post more novel writing Hubs soon, Prasetio, watch for new topics. I'm having a lot of success with my editing adventure, just finished editing all of "Vaumuru's Curse" and tomorrow will write the new ending to come after what used to be the last chapter. I'll probably do a hub on Changing the Plot.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      9 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Thanks for share. I think you are expert writer. So, as a junior you are like "guru". I hope by reading your hub. I can improve my writing.thanks Robert!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Yay! I will be so glad to see you there. It's a load of fun. I will probably be posting in the Fantasy forum because I usually do Fantasy novels during November. Heh, the one I'm editing was my 2004 Nanowrimo.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks, I'm going to check that out right now. :)

      It couldn't hurt!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thank you both! Pam, I hope you do. It's nowhere near as hard as it sounds before you manage to finish one. The best "Training wheels" that I know of for getting past the difficult first try is Nanowrimo. Having 50,000 other people working on their novels at the same time all ready to give support and many who have done it before is a great way to beat down any insecurities and kick procrastination. The little reward of being able to post daily progress and get cheered for it in a forum does more to get people through the overwhelmingly large project than anything else I can think of. It's not going to be finished until the very last day you work on it but at that point it feels like having done something godly. Three novels later it just feels like a major project you know how to do. Once I'd done twenty of them it didn't horrify me to completely throw out one and start over with the same idea and a new cast, it was more like doing a landscape painting, not being happy with it and doing another one of the same place.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Timely hub, Robert, thank you! I would like to actually write a novel. I can't seem to finish one. This is a great pep talk and perhaps just the shot in the arm I need. :)

    • Bbudoyono profile image


      9 years ago

      Thanks for this great hub. I like it.


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