“Dear J: I’m trying to start a novel because I feel the time is right, but I have no idea how to do it. Can you please give me some advice? Thank you! ~Madame S.”
* * *
Dearest Madame S:
Oh my goodness, I wish I knew. I am still trying to jumpstart two novels I have jostling in my head and they are elbowing each other trying to fit through the same small doorway (my brain), with a logjam result. If I had a magic novel-starting button I would certainly share it with you!
In lieu of that, I’ll say this:
–My books usually start as short stories, so if you are feeling gripped by ideas, write them down as completely as you can. If you find yourself wanting to write linked stories about those characters, there’s a good chance there’s a longer piece there– a novel. (It helps me to think of a novel as linked short stories, with each chapter consisting of a short story, because then I know the chapters have their own internal dramatic integrity–a short story being a window into a person’s life that shows an important moment but doesn’t answer *everything*. You know you have an important dramatic moment, but you also will end on a cliffhanger–very useful for novel chapters, no?)
–write as much of the mosaic as you can see. Some of my short stories become middle chapters of novels. Other pieces of the mosaic featuring the same characters, or written along the same theme, will become puzzle pieces that fit into the chronology of the book later. Still more will end up on the cutting room floor–but that’s okay! It’s all part of getting to know your book and its characters. So write as much as you can see in your headlights–the pieces of story that are illuminated for you.
–when you have a decent amount of pages, say 50 or more, and you’re feeling comfortable this might be a longer piece than a short story (you still have the will and urge to write it!), back away from the pieces and make an OUTLINE. This is the scaffolding for your book.
It will change, so don’t worry that it’s constraining you. Ask yourself:
–what is the overall storyline? Write a laundry list of scenes, from the book’s beginning to its end. If there are a lot of question marks, that’s okay. You’ll figure out what those scenes are in the writing.
–plug the pieces of the mosaic you’ve already written into your outline. You may be surprised how much you already know!
–then write the missing scenes. This is going to be trial and error in some cases, so don’t worry if you’re like WTF about some of the scenes. Write as much as you know.
–at some point, whether in the first draft or after it’s done, ask yourself:
“What is this book about?”
You should be able to say what it’s about in one sentence. This is not plot–i.e. how your book will be described on the NYT bestseller list. That’s plot. What the book is about is theme.
For instance, Those Who Save Us is about “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Its plot = “A German woman sets out to find out more about her mother’s life during World War II.” (The NYT description.)
It’s important to know the theme going forward because it is the “so what” of your story. If you don’t have an underlying emotional current of “so what,” your novel will be simply a mosaic of scenes–that’s nice, but it will have no emotional through line or heart. And you will use the theme to sieve out scenes that shouldn’t be there because they don’t enhance the theme. Every scene in the book will eventually work in service of expressing that theme.
Again to use TWSU as an example, the novel is about a daughter judging her mother harshly–and the reader finding out why the mother has acted as she has.
Each scene works in service of that theme. Each scene also advances the plot, and the plot expresses that theme.
As Stephen King says in On Writing, “The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader.”
So for now, just write, baby, write. Then develop a plan (the outline).
Good luck! & write on.