I know. You’re here because you’re a beginner, and you’re wondering how to finally start writing your novel after months (years?) of fantasizing about being a best-selling author. It’s both intimidating, and, well, if we’re being honest, a little disheartening. Because you realize that there’s actual work that has to go into it!
I mean, that’s crazy. It should be writing down all the crazy characters that live inside your head, making them do the dumbest stuff (when they agree to it, which, in my personal experience, isn’t very often. Darn little hard-headed dingbats), and then decide which is your best profile for the headshots that you know will be everywhere.
At least, that’s how it should be.
But it’s rarely like that. Yeah. Those dang authors trick us into thinking it’s super easy! But in truth, it takes a bucket-load of determination, and quite frankly, a slightly disturbing level of willingness to kick your own butt.
So, now that you know that there’s going to be actual work involved, and not just mucking around with the people who keep you company in your head, you’re ready to move on, and find out how to actually do this thing. (If you’re not, then go back and read my intro again. I’ll wait…)
What to do before you begin writing your novel
Whenever I started writing my novels (yes, there’s a plural to that… I began many novels, but it took an embarassingly long time for me to actually finish one… And yes, I only managed to finish one. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and bring my other brain babies to the finish line…), I would always start with passion, but it would fizzle out way too soon.
I usually ended up getting stuck in my plot. I would hit a wall, and nothing in my story made sense anymore. Or my characters would change their mind halfway through about what was going on and I would throw up my hands in desperation, cursing the little bubs and deciding that if they were going to act like turds, then they could bloody well write their own story.
As far as I know, they never did.
But then, in my great wisdom, I thought that perhaps, just perhaps, I was going about it the wrong way.
See, I’m not a huge fan of planning – it just always seemed like way too much work for way too little fun (you may want to read my article about “pantser vs planner” if you want to know more about this). But even I was forced to admit that some amount of planning was necessary.
You can’t just give free reign to your characters’ whims, because they just mess stuff up.
So here’s what I did before I started writing my novel that finally got me unstuck:
Get to know the characters in your novel
In my opinion, characters are what make or break a story. We know that all stories have been told, and that many elements of story keep coming bad (good vs evil, the Chosen One, etc – read my post about why clichés are necessary in fiction for more).
Despite this, we never tire of reading them.
And that’s because of the characters.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a million other important elements as well (like prose, plot, pace, etc). But you could have the best plot, best setting, most incredible writing and still have your novel fall flat if you’ve got two-dimensional characters.
So how do you avoid that?
I think the best way is to actually treat your characters like they’re living, breathing beings. I’m mean, that’s what you want to aim for, isn’t it? You want your readers to feel like they could meet one of them in real life, and they would never know it was someone who had once existed solely inside the twisted meanders of your mind. (That would be embarrassing. The way those characters turn out has nothing to do with us. It’s all on them, they’re their own people.)
The characters of your novel are real people
So what you want to do is get to know your characters.
Not by filling out one of those annoying “super detailed characters sheets” (I don’t know about you guys, but randomly deciding that my character’s favorite finger is her left-hand pinky never really helped me with my novel writing. But maybe that’s just me. I’m weird that way…)
You have to get to know them by talking to them inside your mind (um… do this discretely, otherwise you might end up inside a cute little white room with super comfy walls. The problem is that the nice people there who only want what’s best for you don’t want you to leave. Your company is too much fun.)
Listen to them. Get them to interact with each other. Think about situations you get in yourself, and see how they would react. Would they react the same way as you? Would they get pissed and yell at that cashier? Would they blush and lower their eyes when someone told them they’d made a mistake? Would they give that man an icy stare after he dared challenge their knowledge?
Spend some time getting to know them outside of the novel you’re writing. Get to know them as people. Get familiar with their reactions, the way they hold their head, the way they speak, the way they walk and hold themselves.
And write all this down.
Get to know the world your characters live in
Now that you know the people who will be populating the pages of your novel, you need to be familiar with the places that these little twerps will be living in.
But here again I wouldn’t encourage you to just sit down and start writing down irrelevant stuff.
Instead, while you’re getting to know your characters (see previous paragraphs if you’ve already forgotten. But if that’s the case, I’m a little worried about you…), visualize them in their setting. See them at their table eating breakfast. See them walking around their garden, silently cursing the tiny weeds that keep poking their heads out of the soil.
Where is it that they’re comfortable? Where is it that they’re not so comfortable?
Your settings, just like everything else that you’re doing in this phase, are going to change along the way. That’s totally normal, to be expected, and, so I’ve been told, not a good reason to set your laptop on fire (you’re welcome, learn from my mistakes.)
But by sitting with your characters in their settings you’ll start to get a feel for things. How they look, how they smell.
Write this down.
Have at least some vague idea of the plot in your novel
At this stage, you certainly don’t need to know it all (besides, this too will change as you go) but having at least some vague idea of what your character will be doing is helpful.
All good stories have ups and downs, slow parts (where you get to know the characters) and fast parts (where the action happens).
So what’s going to be your character’s ups?
Again, you don’t need to have a detailed vision of them, but knowing if it’s more likely to be something to do with finally getting that piece of peach skin out from between his teeth, or with vanquishing the darkest worldly overlord that the planet has ever seen could help you guide your writing in the right direction.
Same thing with the downs, fast parts and slow parts.
Just write down the vaguest ideas you’ve got. You’ll figure out how they fit together later. You’ll figure out how your character reacts to them later too (this is why everything will change, because chances are that for some odd reason, the ungrateful little trouble maker will object to you having him thrown off a cliff. Again.)
So write down your ideas so you’ve got the general direction, the overall flow of your story. But don’t get too caught in trying to get it perfect, because it’s not going to stick. Believe me. Be flexible.
Why go to all this trouble before you begin writing your novel?
You might be thinking – and rightly so, I suppose – that this sounds like a lot of work to go to before you even begin to write your novel.
The thing is, in my experience at least, if you begin writing right away, it’s going to end up in partly-begun-but-never-really-stood-a-chance draft heaven.
And that’s just sad.
So if you’re truly serious about this, if you really want to write that novel and get that story out of you, then I truly recommend going through this process.
See, what this process does is give you the raw material to build your masterpiece.
I find it a lot easier to not get stuck this way than using the method I used to use before (the “meh-I’ll-just-wing-it” method. It’s widely known, no criticizing.)
This process gives you a direction. Yes, it’s like having a GPS that tells you to “just head north, you’ll get there”. But at least you know you need to head north. It’s a good beginning.
And that’s the point.
It’s to get off to a good start. Because writing a novel is going to take a lot of self-ass-kicking (remember?), so the later in the process you get discouraged, the better. (Yes, you’re going to get discouraged at some point. Unless you’re not human, in which case I’d love it if you dropped a comment down below, because I’m curious to know what you are).
Things are going to change as you go, it’s the nature of what we do. So save yourself the pain, and have things change while your story is still just a skeleton. It’s so much less painful to go back and change things then, than when it’s a fully fleshed-out version of your novel.
Begin writing your novel
If you got this far, then you deserve this.
You may now begin writing your novel! If you use this method, you’ll no longer feel like you’re a beginner, mucking around in muddy waters that keep sucking at your bare feet.
Instead, you’ll feel like you’re slightly less beginner, still mucking around in the same muddy water, but you’ve got boots on. So the water isn’t quite so cold. It’s a little more bearable.
Do you feel ready to begin writing your novel?
Let me know in the comments if you thought this article was helpful – I’d truly love to hear! I’d be happy to improve my content – if that were at all possible of course. (Just kidding. – I know it can’t be…)