How to Start a Novel

A toddler, looking down at the first step, stands at the base of a staircase

Starting a novel is an exceptionally personal affair, so I’m always amazed when someone decides to tell us all the best way to do it. Nonetheless, there are some basic guiding principles a struggling writer might find helpful. If you’ve been burning to begin but can’t seem to type the first word, read on.

Pantsing versus Plotting

Novelists fall into two famous factions: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers are so named because they write by the seat of their pants, just jumping in and seeing where their pencil takes them. Pantsers probably aren’t the ones whining on Facebook that they don’t know where to start. Plotters, on the other hand, would feel reckless and adrift setting out without a map—but how do you make a map if you don’t know the territory?

You might know intuitively whether you lean to pantsing or plotting, but I suspect most successful writers flop back and forth between the methods even within a single project.

Pantsing

Pantsers are quick off the mark. Even if the quality of their day’s work is rubbishy, at least they’re cranking out quantity. And that mounting word count is worth something. It’s thrilling and encouraging. Editing and refining can come later.

On the other hand, without a clear plotline to guide them, pantsers inevitably hit a wall. Suddenly, they’re in a tangled mess. Either the ending is looming too soon, or there are way too many words and the ending’s nowhere in sight. Characters who appeared in early chapters haven’t reappeared. A charming minor character seems to have taken over.

This is the point at which many pantsers either give up or temporarily become plotters to sort themselves out. They make notes on characters they want to keep and why. They toss out subplots that ran out of steam and brainstorm new excitement for the threads that are working. They take a hard look at where the main plot is headed and figure out once and for all how to bring it home.

Once things come together through conscious plotting, the pantser can move forward again with confidence.

Plotting

For many would-be plotters, outlining an entire book plot is so daunting it becomes a deal-breaker. Maybe the word “outline” triggers nightmares of school term papers. Even those who manage to wade in might decide pantsing is more attractive and change teams.

Determined plotters, however, power through. They make a flowchart, maybe using one of the popular drafting apps like Scrivener, Novel Factory, or Plottr. They make sure each character appears regularly; they stay on top of subplots; they match their main plot to one of the classic novel formulas and sketch out what happens in each chapter to achieve a similar geography.

The thrill for a plotter comes when the outline is ready and they can finally dive into actual writing. No writer’s block for them! Every day, their work is ready-made. Just check the chart and get cranking. They can even write chapters out of order, if they like, depending on their mood.

Until they can’t. A familiar problem for plotters is that once they give life and speech to their characters, or add details to their world-building, all kinds of unforeseen possibilities appear. The outline suddenly looks forced and constrained. It isn’t based on what the writer knows now.

This is the point at which plotters do well to pants for a while, rethinking the outline as they go.

TIP
An “outline” needn’t be complex or tyrannical. The I.A.1.a.(1) format wasn’t made for novels. A list of one sentence per chapter will allow you to see the project at a glance. If you put character names in bold (or in color), you can track their presence through the chapters.

Becoming a Writer

When it’s time to put pen to paper, the more grist you have for the mill, the better. You can prepare yourself to succeed as a writer in many ways.

Know your genre

Read books like the one you want to write. While you’re at it, read a lot of them. If you’re the analytical type, make notes on what they have in common and what makes each one special (or not). Is there action from the first page? If not, how long does it take for something major to happen? Is there a lot of description? Is it written in first person? Is there more than one point of view? Is there a happy ending? How long is the book?

If you’re the intuitive type, let the genre and its rhythms get into your writing bones. Usually, a character has a problem or wants something, then the character has emotional and/or physical ups and downs until the object is attained (or not). Soak up how book-length stories play out so you can write yours “by feel.”

The point isn’t to copy anyone else’s formula, but rather to know what’s normal, expected, and even permitted in your genre. I see questions on social media like “Is it OK to have two main characters in contemporary romance?” or “In historical fantasy, is it a problem if some chapters are longer than others?” “Is 200,000 words OK for middle-grade?” If the askers had taken the time to learn about their genre, they’d know what was normal, and they’d have a sense of whether diverging from normal is tolerated.

If you’re writing genre fiction (romance, sci-fi, fantasy), knowing the standard template for that genre will help you plan your chapters. Search online for “hero’s journey” or “outline my romance novel” or “science fiction subgenres” and you’ll find any number of helpful websites that explain the characteristics of your genre. Plotting applications like the ones I mentioned above are the perfect tool to jump-start a writer who feels helpless, showing step by step how to pace the events and emotional arc of your story in a reasonable number of chapters. Ideally, you’ll be able to jettison the training wheels once you’re underway.

If you have more “upmarket” ambitions (that is, your work is more “literary”), you can begin your brainstorming with the classic questions: What does my protagonist want, and why don’t they have it?

Know your market

If you hope to sell your novel, you’ll need to know exactly where it fits in the market and who might want to buy it. To get your book to the right readers, you’ll need to know whether it’s a “cozy mystery” or “young adult alternate universe” or “contemporary romance thriller.” Reading books like the one you want to write will help you define your place in the market. Find a book similar to yours at Amazon and check its product details to see how it’s positioned in the market. Click on a category to see the top-ranked books in that category.

Screenshot from Amazon.com showing detail of "Best Sellers in Contemporary Literature & Fiction." Categories are listed on the left. To the right is the cover image for the number 1 book at the time of the screenshot, “The Coldest Winter Ever,” by Sister Souljah.

Learn how publishing works

Become familiar with the vocabulary of novel writing that agents and editors use: beta reader, sensitivity reader, copyeditor, proofreader, illustrator, book designer. Understand the submission process: query, pitch, hook, concept, synopsis. Jane Friedman has written excellent introductions to self-publishing and traditional publishing. The websites of Joanna Penn and Dave Chesson are similarly brimful of advice for indie writers. With the wealth of free resources available to new writers, it’s easier than ever to educate yourself.

Join a professional writers’ organization that supports both published and “pre-published” writers. Their websites are filled with information you’ll need to know when it’s time to submit your work to an editor or publish it yourself. Online you can browse lists of workshops or conferences to attend. In my experience, the main complaint of agents and editors listening to pitches at conferences is that they don’t have time to hold the hands of writers who haven’t bothered to learn the first thing about the process and business of being a writer.

Learn from other writers

The internet is full of writers helping other writers. Use a platform like Meetup to join a writer’s group. Join a Facebook group for writers. Join several. Follow writers you admire on Twitter or Instagram (or wherever they hang out), and you’ll inevitably see links to blog posts and articles they think are worthy and relevant.

Practice

Not everyone cares about writing well. It’s possible to spew a hundred thousand words and slap them into print, done and done. But if you want to write well—especially if you hope to acquire an agent and submit your work to traditional publishers—nothing beats months and years of time in the chair writing and rewriting. Except maybe years of writing combined with years of reading.

Go now! Write a killer first page

Recently I attended an “agent fest,” where each writer anonymously submitted the first page of their novel to be read out to a panel of agents and editors for critiquing. It brought home in a powerful way how important that first page is. Agents and editors receive hundreds of submissions every month, and if a first page doesn’t grab them, more often than not they move on to the next submission.

You can do better! Write the first page, then the second, and before you know it, you’ll be done with a draft. Then go back and rewrite with the benefit of full knowledge of your characters and their story. Last of all, hone and polish that first page, giving it all the promise of what’s to come.


Photo of staircase by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

~ ~ ~

Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

Please see our commenting policy.