Five Essential Steps to Beginning Your Novel

24 Jan

Ah, that most terrifying of all things in nature – the blank page.  Contemplating it is like looking at the vast and empty universe from Mt. Palomar.  It is Sisyphus’ stone, hell’s bottomless pit, the dank moat in front of the castle – and your dwelling place for the next year or so.  In this edition of my blog, I’ve composed a few suggestions that will help you start writing your novel, and the first thing you must know is that all success lies in preparation.  As the adage goes, if you want a good ending, make a good beginning.  This includes your novel’s original concept.  Obviously you’ve been telling yourself the story of your novel in your mind for some time.  It’s nagged at, thrilled and inspired you.  You’ve thought about it in the shower.  Perhaps you’ve dreamed about it.  You might even have written a page or two just to get the juices flowing.

Stop!  Write no further.  There may be some steps that you’re forgetting.

1.     Ask yourself whether or not your idea is original (enough)?  Do your homework.  Check out the competition.  Find out if there are already other books in the marketplace that echo, resemble, mirror, or baldly resemble yours.  If there are, determine whether or not yours is sufficiently original to set it apart from the rest.  If not, go back and make sure that it is.  You might even want to read those other books, just to make sure you don’t trespass too far on their territory.  Find out which of their ideas work – for as Chekhov said, “Great artists don’t plagiarize – they steal!”  (In other words, repurpose and rewrite those ideas that you admire, but use your own voice; don’t slavishly copy them, particularly to the point where they will be recognized.)  Find out, too, which ideas do not work in those other books – repudiate clumsiness and banality.  Embrace sublimity.  Don’t be intimidated by either.  Yet, don’t be too original, either.  Originality, something that has never been seen before, seems to scare and intimidate editors because they won’t know how to sell it.  If your book comfortably fits into an established genre, all the better.  If not, make sure it points to one.  (I’m speaking to the ordinary working writer here and not to writing prodigies who write literature; I’ve nothing to tell the latter, and rarely read them anyway.)

2.     Identify your audience.  If you are working in a genre, as I work in the mystery/thriller/historical fields, find out your readers’ median age and make sure you can reach them through your prose.  For instance, mystery novels are usually read by people over fifty years of age.  That’s why I could set my latest book, “The Stand In”, in Hollywood of the 1950s.  Most of my readers grew up then and can remember what it was like, and I can therefore refer to people, events, and places that the audience will know and respond to.  If your audience is young adult, you would naturally eschew such details.  But remember, that your first audience is your agent, the second your editor, and finally your readers.  In other words, your idea must have commercial viability.  If you don’t write with an eye toward sales, I can safely predict that yours will be a solitary and lonely career.

3.     Do your research on your subject matter.  If yours is a contemporary or historical work, you must write convincingly about the subject; this is called “verisimilitude”.  If you’re writing about Washington, D.C., for instance, I would recommend that you go there.  There is no substitute for describing the smells of a place until you have smelled them yourself.  What does the sunlight look like?  How does it slant in the summer breezes?  What is the atmosphere like – is it heavy, clean, revitalizing, smothering, what?  If writing about a distant time and place, read the firsthand accounts of people who were there at the time.  When I wrote about ancient Egypt, I made sure to not only read the history of its kings and queens, but also books that included such mundane things as ancient laundry lists.  For instance, I found out what the Egyptians called their underwear.  (It was “underwear”.)  There is no substitute for this kind of research.  Make notes.  Pull historical incidents out that will make great action sequences.  But then do this, too – don’t make your prose sound like you had a thousand note cards at your disposal.  Remember that you are writing fiction – you don’t have to be so accurate that you lose the thread of your story.  Verisimilitude means the “appearance of truth”, and not the truth itself.

4.     Outline, outline, outline.  Nothing, at least for me, is so important as this step.  Though there are some writers who can mentally keep track of their prose, their characters, their subplots, etc., and who compose their novels merely by writing them from page one to the end, I cannot.  In a mystery or thriller, which is heavily dependent on plot and the logical (and sometimes duplicitous) revelation of clues and events, an outline is especially needed.  Now, it need not be anything more than a simple step outline in which a single sentence may describe an entire chapter.  But I don’t work that way – my outlines contain everything I can think about in regard to a particular scene or chapter, from bits of dialog, to its mood, to character descriptions – anything I can dredge up at that moment when committing it to paper.  I shake the scene like a dog shakes a toy.  I chew on it.  I rearrange it.  I put down those ideas that I may not even use.  What I don’t do is worry about word choices or making it into art.  That’s for later.  Some people worry that this approach will actually constrain their final work.  But I always allow myself to diverge many times from my outline, for writing the final prose brings discoveries of its own.  You can go into places that the outline had not foreseen.  I can guarantee, however, that you will finally come to the point where you lose the thread of your original story, or have painted yourself into the proverbial corner.  That is when the value of your detailed outline will become apparent.  All you have to do is go back, find your place, and go on from there (with a few little adjustments).  If you didn’t have that outline, onerous and frustrating as the work usually is, you’d be lost.  All my unfinished pieces remained unfinished because I did not complete it.  As a result, my novel’s internal structure simply collapsed on itself.  I had been so excited that I started work too early.  DON’T DO IT!  Plan, prepare, and lay the foundation for a complete work before you write even one word.

5.     So you’ve identified your competition, found your audience, did your research and composed your outline.  The next will be your simplest step, but also the hardest.  Here it is:  Go into your office.  Plant your butt in your chair.  Raise your hands to the keyboard – and start.

In conclusion, there is one thing I can promise you – if you have accomplished the four previous steps the vast wasteland of that first blank page will not seem nearly so intimidating.  The only words I have left to say are…good luck, and please keep me posted on your progress.


14 Responses to “Five Essential Steps to Beginning Your Novel”

  1. Shannon Howell January 24, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    So, where does one go to find out things like the average age for readers in a genre?

    Also, in your outline, do you do a “hundred word summary?” Somebody mentioned it at my Writer’s Group. I had heard of outlines, 8-point arcs, and other methods of helping an author maintain structure and focus, but not that. So, if you use it, I’d like to know where it fits in there.

    Nice post.

    • Brad Geagley January 24, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      In my screenplay class we would call the 100 word summary a “high concept.” I don’t usually do it for myself, but I heartily encourage it in others. Anything that gets you writing and thinking is good for you.

      Thanks for the comment!


      • Shannon Howell January 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

        So, any thoughts on where to go to find statistics like the average age, etc. for readers of certain genres?

      • Brad Geagley January 26, 2012 at 7:59 am #

        Dear Shannon – I forgot to answer your question below, i.e. how do you find out the average age of your readers…? For myself, I got the answer by attending lectures at various mystery writers conferences, such as Bouchercon. But here’s a very helpful survey I just found that might be of benefit to you…

      • Shannon Howell January 27, 2012 at 4:21 am #

        Thanks for the link. There was some helpful stuff in there!

  2. simonreadbooks January 24, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Once you start, the challenge becomes sticking with your writing schedule. I actually reward myself whenever I hit a certain milestone. If hit a monthly goal of, say, 10,000 words, I may treat myself to a CD or DVD I’ve been wanting. Sounds silly . . . but it’s quite motivating.

  3. Miss Judy January 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Oh I just Love your blogs!! They breath life into me…..thank you, my dear friend, thank you!!!!!

  4. MOL January 25, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    Great advice! I have some ideas about what I want to write but have not found the time to do it. I know it will be quite the commitment in time, creative juices, focus.

  5. Brad Geagley January 25, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    Let me warn you in advance – writing a book is the hardest thing you will ever do, in terms of stretching your creativity, the committment in time, the sheer back-breaking labor. I liken it to falling down a well and painfully crawlung back up toward the distant light (which is of course the moment you write “The End”). But, as one of my readers so rightly said, “Easy is for sissies.” If it were easy, everyone would be doing it because the term “writer” is so denigrated these days that anyone who holds a pencil considers themselves to be one. BUT, writing a book is also the most rewarding thing you ever do outside of having a child. And books don’t despise you in thirteen years. Good luck, and keep me posted!

  6. dana January 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

    So helpful…thank you!

  7. vilunilenad February 3, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Hi Brad,

    Thank you for your informative and smile-inducing blog posts. As a fellow writer and deconstructor of the writing process I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with everything you are saying. It took me the better part of ten years to get to the place where I could finally be satisfied with the words ‘The End’, and now I have achieved that first milestone I am finding progress towards the second that much easier.

    My personal preference is to get through the darned thing as quickly as possible then go back and polish. I think if more people can get their heads around this – the flexibility of writing – then more people with those tories locked up inside them will be able to get them out more successfully.

    More luck to everyone here. It is a pleasure reading this blog.

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