Hello hello! I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve started working on a brand new story. My third novel, in fact. I’ve been asked this question a bunch: how do you start a novel?
I expect every writer has their own specific way of starting, but for me, it always begins the same: I get a single idea of a character, and a strange thing happens to them.
That’s it. I don’t know anything about them at first. Not their age, where they live, their friends, their world. I don’t know the genre. All I know is the singular idea of a character and that singular strange thing happening to them. For my very first book, it was a supposedly ordinary girl who dropped a glass of water and it floated in mid-air. For the book I’m querying now, it was a girl destined to a life of crime who received an order to kill someone, only not the person she thought it would be.
Some writers can write multiple stories at a time, but that’s not something I can currently do. Maybe one day! But for me, it’s one idea at a time. And I know when something might be a real story when it keeps nagging in the back of my mind for days, for weeks, begging to be built out.
If I get a random story idea, I write it down and see if I naturally remember it. If it follows me. If it nags at me. If it knocks quietly and waits for my attention to return.
When it doesn’t leave my brain, that’s when I know I have something. That’s when I really start to pay attention.
Because a book will take me a loooong time to write. I will spend countless hours with this thing. I will outline it, and draft it, and revise it, and revise it again, and again, and again… it will go to beta readers, who bring back a host of edits and ideas. It will go through the absolute ringer.
And if I don’t *love* it, if it’s not a story that, despite all the hours and eventual tears and self-doubt and work I *know* I will pour into it… if I don’t love it, what’s the point?
Writing is too damn difficult a thing to do if you don’t love it. There is so much rejection. There’s so much steeling yourself and your heart. There are so many nights given to working on it.
But I love it. And as long as I love the story, I’ll be happy.
Which brings me back to the beginning: the nagging premise. Personally, in my very early brainstorming, I like writing on paper. I imagine this doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m very comfortable writing by hand, and it’s how those initial ideas start to form.
I write down a lot of different scenarios—possible branches this story could take. That part always takes my breath away, knowing a story will be drastically altered based on the ideas I’m pulled toward. Brainstorming lets the story come alive, and it shows you where the story might go if you make that choice. It’s really incredible.
I spend a lot of the time just thinking. I find that my brain naturally starts to choose the paths it wants the story to go down, so I just…listen. It might sound silly, but when I’m about to set off on a project that will be a ton of time and effort, I want my heart to listen. I don’t want to force myself to write a story simply because I think I should, or if I’m rushing myself to make a decision.
In time, that singular character with a singular strange occurrence begins to take shape. Within a world. Within a time. The story grows around them. And while I spend a lot of time thinking and listening, I try to guide my ideas a bit. I recently finished Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, which is enormously helpful for outlining, to make sure everything starts to make sense and feels compelling all the way through. Along the way, I ask myself a bunch of questions—would the villain be someone they knew from childhood? Would it be a former friend? A former lover? Would my main character be a runaway? What sort of conflicts would they face? What do they ultimately want?
I keep writing down possible ideas and see how I feel about them. I usually take a day to let some thoughts sink in, and those ideas once again let the story grow and take shape.
Once I have a vision I feel somewhat comfortable with, I write a basic synopsis. Some writers would be surprised by this—I don’t know many who like writing a synopsis, and I know far more who hate writing them. For me, I need to be able to summarize my basic story in a couple pages in order to make sure I know the story from start to finish. A lot of writers tend to neglect certain parts of their story (usually the ‘saggy middle,’ as it’s often called; I usually initially have issues finishing the story strong), so this forces me to really think through everything and understand the conflict, stakes, and character progression.
I also write a basic query. Nothing fancy, and it’ll go through a miiiiiiiiillion revisions before I dare use it as a real query, but that’s a quick way to understand the basic pitch and the hook. I didn’t do this for my first book, and if I had, it would have helped me realize something very important: I didn’t really have any conflict in that story! I had an interesting character idea who kinda meandered and ultimately didn’t have much standing in her way until the very very end. I’ve learned a lot since those days, and I’d probably rewrite that story from the ground up if I care to do so one day, but a query would have helped so much.
I let the synopsis and query sit a bit (see a pattern here?). I think about them and tweak as I see fit. Then I do something a bit controversial: I share the synopsis with a few trusted friends who are avid readers.
But I’ll talk more about that in my next post! I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
For any fellow writers, I’d love to hear what your process is of starting a new story!
Wishing you pumpkin spice and hot cider,
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