How to Begin Writing a Novel

A woman left a comment on a writing discussion today saying she decided she wanted to write a novel, then she requested advice on how to begin.

My advice?

Write a word. Any word. That’s all it takes to start writing.

A book begins with a single word. Many novice writers get intimidated by the thought of writing an entire book, but all you ever need to write is one word. I know that’s not much of a goal, but in the end, it is the only goal. That’s how every book all through the ages got written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book.

So, to begin with, just write. Get a feel for words. Read fiction. Get a feel for how a story flows. Once you are in the habit of writing, read books on how to write. Sometimes it takes a long time for it all to click. I’d written two and a half books, read dozens of books on how to write in addition to the thousands of novels I’d read, before it all clicked. Most of what the how-to-write books said didn’t make sense at first. Rising conflict? Stakes? Showing? Telling? I hadn’t a clue what they meant, but I stuck with it, and became a good writer. I’m not naturally talented, but I discovered that it is possible to learn the craft. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it’s about thinking. Some authors can sit down and let the words flow and lo! There is a story! Other authors write extensive outlines, detailing the entire story before they ever set one word to the page. I don’t do either. I think about what story I want to write and why I want to write it. I figure out who the main characters are, what they want, how they are going to get it, who is going to stop them getting it. I figure out the beginning and the end (because I need to know where to begin and where I am going), and I figure out a couple of scenes in the middle, to give me an idea of how to get there. Then write. I am a very slow writer, but still, being a slow writer, I’ve written five books that have been published.

The best skill to learn after you’ve written your book is how to rewrite. Chances are, you dumped too much information in the first chapter because you assume people need to know everything about your character before they can understand her, so usually the first thing you do in rewriting is dump the first chapter. But to rewrite, you have to have written. So just write. And write what you want. Writing is all about practice. A person who wants to learn how to play the piano doesn’t just sit down at a piano and immediately start playing. You have to learn the basics, have to practice, but still, you can plunk at the keys to get a feel for piano playing. The same thing goes for writing.

All too often, inexperienced writers tiptoe through their novels, letting major events — fistfights, gunplay, murders, betrayals — take place off-page. It’s much easier to let characters emote afterward than for the writer to take the time and trouble to tackle the action scene. I know I have passed on opportunities to create such scenes, thinking the characters’ reactions all-important, but I forgot one thing: readers need to experience the drama.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the confidence to bring such complex scenes to life, to juggle the many elements that comprise an action scene, but the only way to learn is to plunge headfirst into action. Write it fast and fearlessly; let the words fall where they may. You can always clean up the mess in rewrites.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to study the publishing business. Learn everything you can about good prose, story elements, query letters, promotion. With so many millions of people out there who have written a book or who want to write a book, the competition is fierce. A writer does not attain maturity as a writer until he or she has written 1,000,000 words, or so they say. (I’m only halfway there.) So write. Your next book might be the one that captures people’s imaginations and catapults you into fame and fortune. Not writing another book guarantees you will never will reach that goal. It also keeps you from doing what you were meant to do.

11 Responses to “How to Begin Writing a Novel”

  1. WriteTheWhite Says:

    I want to start off by saying that I really needed to read this. I’ve written words, and then stopped, and overtime forgotten and had to start anew. To keep going one word at a time, of course I know I’m supposed to do that, but it’s hard–you wouldn’t have put together this post if it wasn’t! So I’d like to thank you for giving me another push, another spark. Very helpful!


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Best of luck, Sherri. The key is to finding the time or the passion to write. If you have time, you don’t need passion. If you have passion, you will find the time.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    There is sound advice here. Your single word puts me in mind of the single step in Chinese taoist philosophy. The journey of a thousand miles begins with but one step. When I sit down to write that one word I always think of that journey and writing is and should be a journey. You never know what you will meet up with on the way and journey’s end is usually not what you were expecting it it to.

    A good writer takes me, the reader, on an adventure, a trip somewhere. He or she is my guide because they have been there at least once and so wrote about it.

    There’s an Australian playwright who once said: “Writing is easy. Its the bloody re-writing that’s hard”. I tend to go along with this point of view. Everything including the kitchen sink can go into the first draft. In the re-writing you have to decide if you really do need that kitchen sink where you put it.

  3. helenscribbles123 Says:

    This was a nice post, but I think an important note about writing a novel, least from my own experience is to have a plot outline, it’s okay to write, and fly off but if you don’t know which direction you’re suppose to be going in, then you’ll come to a halt either quarter way halfway through. I agree with just write, but when it’s something as lengthy as a novel or novella than take the time to do a plot outline – it really helps to see where you plan to go.

    • ROD MARSDEN Says:

      I see where you are coming from Helen. For me articles and short story writing came before, during and after the novel. you can start with a letter to the editor. I wrote one to a fishing magazine
      when I was a kid and was thrilled to get it published.

  4. helenscribbles123 Says:

    oh forgot to check the notify me of replies button +_^

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It always amazes me how different all writers are even though we are basically doing the same thing — stringing words together to create a story. When I write a book, I know where I am starting, how I am ending, and I have a basic idea of how to get there, but if I had to actually spend time writing an outline, I’d never write the book. But that’s just me. An aspiring writer who needs suggestions on how to write is obviously one who needs more structure, otherwise s/he’d be writing, so your suggestion about an outline is an excellent one.

      • helenscribbles123 Says:

        Thanks Pat the suggestions just comes from my own experience. When I write flash though sometimes I just begin with one sentence and let it take me where it will, but then flash can be anything from 50 words to a 1000 so it’s easy not to get lost. I’ve seen others start novels only to grind to a halt because they had no plan. I’ve just published my debut novella Jumping At Shadows, which incidentally had 6 edits (re-writes) done before I arrived at the finished and polished work. So your advice about rewriting is a golden rule, new writers need to understand that the first draft even a flash usually needs a rewrite and edit.

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