How to Start Your Novel in Your Spare Time

“I thought you were going to wait for the movie?” © Brad Chisholm

So many people want to write novels, but don’t know how to begin. Here is how you can get started, today. First of all you don’t need to start at the beginning of your story because you don’t know where that is.

How can you?

You haven’t written it yet. It might be on page 312. So why should you feel pressure about it? Secondly, there is debate currently as to whether or not the opening sentence is important. To me it’s hugely important — just not yet.

In film they call it the “inciting incident”. This is something, preferably visual or at least dramatic, that sets events in motion. An asteroid strikes the local TV station or somebody meticulously poisons a writer’s coffee.

Five (or more) years ago my current next novel started with Dash (a 16 year old boy) witnessing a small plane crash in the Sahara desert. Five years later, that scene has hardly changed, but I consider that unusual.

The opening of Maze Runner (with the elevator shaft) was well done because it combined action, fear and mystery. But I doubt that the first draft began that way. My intention is to take all the pressure off you.

In your first draft be aware that you are telling the story to yourself. You don’t owe anybody anything. So write back-story, digress, wander around like it’s your first time in a liquor store after closing time. When you are done, you will have a big chunk of something that is essentially raw meat. In subsequent drafts, you are telling the story to readers, and that is different, with many concerns. But for now you are free to enjoy writing. It is the happiest time.

I only have one rule for you: Don’t back up, correct, revise or edit until you hit maybe 20k words. Why not? Because if you do, you will end up like so many of our comrades, with a bloated, spell-checked first act, flat on your face with exhaustion.

Think of it like getting into a sports car. The first thing you need to do is tear off all the rear-view mirrors. There is only one direction — forward. Now if you are utterly incapable of disciplining yourself and have re-written your first page ten times or more, you have no choice.

It was the best of times…

Strike that.

It was the worst of times.

Strike that.

It was a dull time to be alive. All the excitement was somewhere else.

Strike that.

You get my point.

You have to turn off the computer and write it in longhand. You’d be amazed how it focuses the mind and enables you to advance.

In summary:

1. Just start. Where and how matters not.

2. Don’t fix anything.

3. Move only forward — if you get a great idea for something digressive, write it in a notebook or keep a separate file. I use Notes because it is dead simple, but there are more sophisticated apps like Evernote.

4. Listen to your characters! Early on, while writing K-Town Confidential we (co-author Claire Kim and I) needed a character to deliver some forged documents to a much more important character at the airport. It was a nothing job. Just for fun we made him a disgraced Korean Embassy employee. Then we had him sitting on an L.A. freeway with his car over-heating, so he put on the jazz station. Anyway, he was a nothing character, I think he had two lines … but this guy, Choi, not even Mr. Choi, would not go away. He became the young lawyer Holly’s nemesis, and damn near took over the book. It just happened, there was no plan for it.

5. Understand that your characters will betray you — and this will usually be a good thing.

6. Your job now is to keep the story moving, not to explain it.

7. If you get stuck, punch someone in the nose. Chandler said that if he got stuck he would have someone come into the room with a gun. Vonnegut said to make each new character want something, even just a glass of water. At a minimum insult the nearest character.

8. “What about my plot?” You ask. Okay. At some point you need it. But for now, use conflict and defer resolving it. Have your characters piss each other off, have them care about something, then make it go wrong. In the second act, make it worse. In fact that’s the job. Readers will tell you all day long that they care about plot, they keep reading or watching to see what will happen, or who did what to whom? But truly they will only do this if the characters are engaging and relatable. When they care about your characters, then they will care about the plot, but not before.

Now is this everything you need to know to write a novel? Not even close, but it is enough to start. Next week I will write about how to plan your novel, though it is probably too late.