Saturday, September 19, 2009

How do you start a novel?

People often ask where I get the inspiration to write, and then, when I get the idea, where do I start.  For me, I start with my characters.  It starts with a name.  For one of my books, I had a hard time coming up with names, but I already knew I was going to write about a woman who walks through cemeteries (Epitaph).  As part of my research, I did a cemetery walk figuring I could read all the names on the tombstones to get ideas.  I took lots of notes that day, but ultimately, Amy Benson's name didn't come from a tombstone.  But I digress. . .

{ahem} It starts with a name.  Then I have to know everything about that character.  Their hair color, their eye color, their body type, their personality, their family history.  This is what makes your character who he is.  There are times I don't get to know my character very well until I'm into my third chapter in the story.  In fact, for the story I'm writing now, I'm half way through and I've realized the characterization has been a little uneven, but now I know my character much better so I can go back and edit out the inconsistencies.  One of my writing buddies "interviews" her characters at the start of a novel.  It's a similar process, but even with an interview, many times you don't really get to know this person until you've spent time with them (on paper/computer).  Once I have my main character developed, I work on the other characters based on his/her personality.  The type of friends they have, the type of person they attract, the type of person that would frighten them, the type of person that should frighten them but they fail to notice.

Once I have the characters outlined, for my part, setting inspires me. (It's kind of like playing dolls {grin}).  You start them into the place that they fit, but I'm easily touched by a beautiful house or a particularly interesting landscape, or an unusual place.  Things that stand out of the ordinary. That's what starts my engines running (for example, a cemetery - again using Epitaph as my example here because most people don't throw their main characters into a graveyard).  Another example - I'm taking a trip to Sedona, Arizona to learn more about vortexes, a topic on my hit list for a story.  Click here to learn more

Okay, now you have your characters and you have your setting.  Unless you have a plot, your story isn't going to be very interesting.  There are many different approaches to plotting a novel.  One of the workshops I attended at a writer's conference showed a grid that shows the best way to maximize conflicts.  If you put your protagonists in direct competition or opposition, that's a good start.  Give them different goals in life, and have one stand in the way of the other.  I think the example the workshop leader used was to have the heroine predisposed to hating policeman based on a previous encounter and the hero is a cop.  There's no way the heroine would even want to talk to this guy based on her predisposition and even if she did, her immediate reaction would be negative.  Then, say, the cop's goal was to raise enough money to buy a house that he could turn into a safe haven for troubled youth, and the heroine wants that same house to turn into a nail salon because that's her dream job, and she has a lot more money to front.  Well, you get the idea.

Personally, I've gotten off to many false starts.  I get the characters set, I get the setting lined up.  I start the story and discover that it's BORING.  They're not going anywhere or doing anything, they're just walking along, having a nice time.  Nobody wants to read about walking along, having a nice time.  People need conflict to be interesting.  When I realize that during the writing process, I stop writing and go back to outlining.  These characters need goals in life and they need obstacles to overcome. 

Way back when I first started writing, I took a "Sol Stein" course.  At that point of "serious effort" in my writing career, I didn't understand all the ins and outs of the process, but looking back on that now, it was a good primer.  The things that I remember most from that were:  #1 Make your main character stand out.  Give them a strong identifying feature, whether it be a unique look or personality trait (In The Treasure of St. Paul, my hero had a nervous habit of ticking off his fingernails against his thumb, one by one).  #2 Put your characters into a stressful situation that throws them off their game.  Add some unbalance to their lives, and do it quickly to draw your readers in.

There are lots of tools out there these days to get you started and help you.  There are enneagram programs to help you develop your character's personality.  There are writing programs to give you ideas.  There are storyboard and outlining programs to keep you on track.  The most important part to writing a good novel, however, is strong writing skills.  Even with all these aids, the bottom line is that you have to have a firm grasp of the English language.  You have to to know/learn how to tell a story in an interesting fashion.  You have to understand the basics of showing and not telling.  Even after years of practicing, I still make *stupid* mistakes, but at least I think I've learned how to turn a sentence, and when someone tells me a sentence is boring, I know that they aren't just being mean.  Now I understand why. :-)


  1. Gee, and I thought all you had to do was open a document and type, "Chapter One."

    I'm a start with a character and a situation, and then see what happens. I learn as I go. It's the surprises that make it all fun for me. But I have to have SOME basic premise, be it a scene, a goal, or a character history. Or, since I like mystery themes, a puzzle to solve.

  2. Puzzles are always good. When I see a setting that inspires me, already I have some sort of plot running through my head, imagining the people that live there, visit there, something along those lines, so I guess that counts as basic premise.

  3. Very informative. Where were you when I started writing fiction two years ago?

    The hardest part of a story for me is the beginning and end. And half the time when I sit down to write, I don't outline. Lately, I've been writing stories off a small synopsis in my idea journal. I like flying without an outline, because the story tells itself to me and I'm always surprised at how it comes out.

  4. The ending is ALWAYS hard! But once you give your characters a goal, meeting that goal creates a natural ending (and of course wrapping up all the loose ends you've dangled along the way).

  5. Good advice, Karla. I didn't know Sol Stein had writing courses His book "On Writing" is one of my favorites.

  6. We're talking ten years ago - I actually had software for my computer that gave you points to start with. It was a clever program, but you still had to have some basic premise to start with. It was perfect for starting my "serious" journey, and even though I didn't do a whole lot with the program, the lessons it instilled were long-lasting.