How to Start Your Novel

It’s altogether too common for a story to never be finished for no other reason than because it was never actually begun. People interested in writing often say that they don’t understand how to start a story, and thinking back to the first days of my own writing career, I can absolutely sympathize. But, while there is no right or wrong way to begin a story, I’ve done my best to outline a few tricks you can use to plan your narrative and hopefully feel more confident when you finally put pen to paper.

#1: Write everything down. Have a cool idea for a story? Write it down. Come up with an interesting character tick? Write it down. Even if you’ll eventually toss most of your ideas in the bin when you hit the storyboarding phase of planning your narrative, it’s still important to keep track of all the little thoughts. Nothing feels quite as bad as coming up with the perfect idea only to forget it when it’s time to write the draft. Try carrying a small notebook around with you, or download a note-taking app on your phone.

#2: Organize as you go. As your story begins coming together in your head, sit down and chart out what you have so far. In the past I’ve used whiteboards, mind mapping software, and even the bathroom tile around my tub to plan a story. I often chart like this:

overall concept/goal/theme/setting/etc.
hook -> next event -> next event -> ending

Underneath each scene, I make a list of all my ideas pertaining to that point in the story. It may seem sloppy at first, but it’s important to organize your thoughts. A strong storyboarder will undergo this process several times before writing a draft. I personally did this nearly a dozen times before beginning Winter’s Child.

#3: Take your time. It can sometimes take almost as long to plan a story as it will to write it. No matter the case, it’s almost never a good idea to start a draft without fully preparing the plot. Rushed plans make sloppy endings.

#4: Do your research. Nothing is quite as discomforting as sitting down to read a book filled with inaccuracies. When I read a book that claims the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor, it pulls me away from the story. Even if your writing style is superb, a mistake like that will wreck your credibility with your readers. Check every fact. Look up every date. Research every custom for the time period you are writing in. Even if your story is set in a fictitious place and time, do the research to make it as believable as possible. I once had a professor that said, “To write historical-fiction you must be so fluent in the time period that you can explain the sorts of utensils they used to eat dinner.” That level of factual fluency is vital to every story, and can make or break a narrative.

#5: Build strong characters. A good protagonist will practically write their own plotline. Ideally, your characters should be so realistic that you can have a conversation with them in your mind (read: insanity). My characters have surprised me before, making decisions and creating dialogue that I never planned or expected. Think back to your favorite stories. Almost all good writing is character driven, meaning that the actions and decisions of the characters are what moves the plot forward. Character creation and development is such an important aspect of storytelling that I’ll probably write an entire blog post about it soon, but for now, remember: a strong character makes a strong story.

#6: Write a final plan. When you finally feel like your story is ready for a draft, take the time to write out a final storyboard. In it, include as much detail as possible. Don’t be afraid to take a good deal of room to do this; plans for longer novels can be a hundred pages long. Put this final storyboard someplace safe (and/or save it on more than one computer), and if possible, take it with you whenever you sit down to write.

#7: Don’t hesitate.Once your story is planned out, don’t sit around second guessing your decisions. Just WRITE! If something seems out of place when you reach that point in the draft, you can always change your mind, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start the story. You can make mistakes — hell, I’ve had to rewrite entire chapters — but you can only do so much before putting pen to paper. Everything else can be sorted out in the draft.

#8: Make it a habit. Just like learning the piano, you’ll need to make a habit of practicing your craft at least a little bit every day. Sit down to your computer or notebook for at least half an hour. Write something. You may not like what you come up with at first, but it’ll become more comfortable as the story progresses.

#9: Above all, just keep writing! Trust me when I say that the first pages of a story are always going to be difficult. But that being said, in each case I’ve managed to eventually reach a sort of story-zen and hit my groove. It will happen, but you have to climb the hill before you can walk down the other side.

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