#WriterWednesday: How To Start A Novel

“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.”

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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.

me & my long, looong outline!

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.
Make sense?

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.

6 Responses to #WriterWednesday: How To Start A Novel

  1. Jenna! You are always so generous in sharing your wisdom. I’ll be re-reading this blog for guidance when I start my next novel. I already feel the grip of panic!

    • Lisa! The post is intended as a panic antidote. But if you are feeling panicky, let me know. We can hold hands and jump into our novels together.

      XOXO and happy writing! (Remember: small mosaic pieces…. you can do it!)

  2. Fantastic post from a brilliant writer! I love how you refer to the process as writing and filling in “pieces of a mosaic.” I also like the idea of writing what most excites me before I outline to build a clearer picture of the characters and story. Here I go! Thank you, J! Sincerely, Madame S

    • What an honor to hear from the actual Madame S! Thank you for inspiring this post. I wish you Godspeed on your mosaic–finding the pieces, building the scaffolding. You know I am cheering for you, and you know where to find me if you need specific cheers! XOXOX Love, Jenna.

  3. Jenna,
    I’ve never heard of this process before and it’s a fantastic idea!! Definitely less overwhelming for a writer who doesn’t know where to begin and may get anxiety ( i.e. Me) ;-D
    It’s funny, and somewhat coincidental, that I make mosaics with sea glass but never thought to approach writing that way. You are one wise writer there Jenna Blum!!

    Thanks for always sharing an inspiring me!! Hope all is well and that the novels jostling in your head find their way to the page and someday to the bookstore! <3

    With gratitude,

    • Dottie, it’s great to hear from you! I’m so glad to have been helpful. I think we’re all writers who don’t know where to begin and may get anxiety–so sharing methods can help. I know I find it fascinating and soothing to ask the writers in my novel workshop how their processes work: many commonalities and many new ideas to pool.

      The sea glass mosaics sound beautiful! What surface are you assembling them on?

      Happy writing–and all other art-making!

      Jenna. xoxo

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