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How To Begin Writing A Novel

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All forms of novel writing start with a germ of an idea that slowly develops into something tangible and solid. More often than not, the idea has been germinating in the back of our minds for years; characters which have been slowly aiding the development of the dialogue and plot, now clamour to be heard aloud. But there is a vast gulf between starting a full-length book and finishing it. In an article in the American Writers’ Digest, author C. Story points out: “There’s a talent part of writing and then there’s the craft – and they’re two different things. The talent comes in while conceptualising a story; the craft is what lets you put it on paper in a coherent form.” So we let our talent take care of the characterisation and plot. The following exercises are the bare bones of starting to craft your novel.
In a card index system, large notebook or computer, set down the sequence of the story. The important thing is to have a clearly defined idea of where your story is going right from the start. There will be many crossroads and U-turns along the way, even the odd dead-end, but this is all part of learning the author’s craft. The important thing is to get all those messy notes and unrelated ideas out of your head and into some semblance of manageable order either on paper or screen.
Define your principal characters using the same system. Describe their characteristics, personality defects, virtues, colouring, quirks and foibles. The basis for your story is knowing in advance what is eventually going to happen to them.
Prepare an outline of the complete novel. You need to decide on a starting point – past, present or future - that will effectively and believably link up with the conclusion. Trying to make it up as you go along doesn’t work; you need to have a rough outline of when the events in the story are going to occur and in what sequence.
. You may have your ending clearly mapped out but find at some later stage that the story has a different idea to the one in your outline. Don’t be too hasty to disregard the messages because the unscheduled conclusion may turn out to be a more striking ending than the one you intended. ‘Gut reaction’ can be an important writer’s aid – a sideshoot of talent that should be carefully nurtured – so be prepared to take a risk.
An additional exercise in craftsmanship at this stage could also save hours of frustration once the book is finished. Trying to decide how long the typescript is going to be is a bit like asking: How long is a serpent’s tail? But it is an important consideration in modern publishing. A boring thought, I agree, but it could save considerable effort at the end when you’re trying to cut or stretch your typescript to fit the publisher’s requirements. On the plus side, by having this information in advance does mean that you have a clearly defined framework within which to work, right from the start.
Once you have a chapter outline, details of your characters pinned up in front of you, and a broad synopsis of where the story is going to lead. Don’t worry if you haven’t thought of a catchy title – the idea will come out of the blue, and the last thing you want to waste time over at this stage, it what you are going to call it, since either you, or the publisher, will probably change it anyway. Let the characters tell their own stories (where possible) through dialogue and action, whilst avoiding pages of high-blown prose – today’s publishers don’t like it. And don’t feel compelled to include every single detail about your location, characters and plot in the first chapter. You’ll overload your reader with detail when what they want is action.
By using your chapter outline and synopsis it will be easier for you to keep track of the events shaping the plot.
Check writers’ guidelines from publishers who already publish novels in your genre.
The final word count is extremely important. The standard minimum length for a novel is 80,000 words and there is little point in submitting a typescript that doesn’t reach that target.


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