Updated: May 23, 2020
Being faced with a blank page is either the most exciting or one of the most intimidating experiences a writer can have. Often it is a combination of both. You may have a story already forming in your head but not know where to start, or you may have decided to write a novel without any idea of your subject or characters. Either way you will have to start scribbling or typing at some point, but what to write first?
Making a start
There is no one way to start, or indeed finish, a novel. Because I am a writer I will include in this article the way I tackle the first page, but I will also share different methods so that hopefully you will find the one that fits you best. Some great writers claim they only ever write one draft and that is what they publish. My sceptical side wants to doubt their honesty. I have been lucky enough to see notebooks of many great authors in the British Library with their hand-written revisions. If you get the chance to visit it is an amazing experience, uplifting and humbling at the same time. However, if these authors who claim not to revise, rewrite or edit their work after completing the narrative can be believed, how do they do it? How do they not simply freeze under the pressure of writing the perfect opening sentence? I cannot imagine. Perhaps they are geniuses or self-deluding? Luckily we do not have to write only one version of our story. We can revisit, revise and rewrite as many times as we need. That is why I suggest the NaNoWriMo technique for starting a novel: write first, tapping into your creative brain and ignoring the critical side, get the bones of the story out of your head and onto the page before you start worrying about quality. If you spend months deciding on the perfect opening line then you’ll have one line to show for your labour. My way you may well have an entire outline written in thirty days.
Starting with plot
If your story is already forming as you stare at the blank page, just start writing and see what happens. Ignore your errors; I’m sure there will be many but you can tidy those later. Let’s just see where your imagination takes you. Allow your subconscious to breathe life into the settings and characters you create. If you write every day you may take the story with you into your dreams. I have to admit that’s my favourite part of the writing process, when I start dreaming my story. It no longer feels like hard graft at that point, it just bubbles over and spills onto the page, and only my typing speed slows the creation.
However, you may not have a story in mind when you stare at the blank page. What do you do then? All is not lost. Inspiration can be found all around us. Scan old and current newspapers for stories, sometimes a seed from a strange real life event will beg to be fictionalised and expanded. Read fairy tales or historical epics and pick themes or characters from those to reimagine and revise into your own story. If you do all of this and still cannot find a plot that fascinates you, there is another way.
Starting with character
It is possible to start a story by having a strong central character, throwing them into an unusual situation and imagining how they will behave. I have started books this way and it has worked for me. The Ballerina and the Revolutionary started when I completed an exercise for one of the Open University’s creative writing courses. We were asked to pick a number of items owned by our character and by connecting those items together, create a picture of the person who owned them. From this Vivienne, Crow’s mother, was born. While she changed enormously between the point of conception and the final tale (in which she became a fairly minor character) the act of creating her from nothing allowed a plot to develop. You may prefer to look at photographs of strangers and create inner lives for them. This is another way to form the character who will kick start your story. If all else fails there is nothing wrong with basing the central character on yourself, most writers use aspects of themselves in their characters – it’s part of the "write what you know" doctrine.
Starting with setting
Many books revolve around settings. "Paradise", by Toni Morrison is one; "Middlemarch", by George Eliot is another. If there is a place you know well, that evokes great emotions within you, then that too can be the spring board from which your plot is developed. Of course your setting needn’t be real, it can be purely imaginary, but for this to work you must make it real. The sights, sounds, smells, temperature of the place are all important. When you develop a character, there is (or should be) far more to them then how they look. Settings have the same complexity and if your setting is at the centre of the story then the reader will want to know everything about it as if it is a character. In some books setting is character. “Ruins” by Scott Smith and “The Elementals” by Michael McDowell are two examples. Reading any or all of the four books I’ve mentioned will show great ways to bring the setting to the centre of your story and make it work.
To plan or not to plan
There’s a wonderful word I’ve learned from doing NaNoWriMo – Pantster. It means writing by the seat of your pants, without a plan. The benefits from my experience are that the characters have space to dictate the action. If you have no fixed point that you need to reach (no fixed ending) you have no obligation to make characters behave in ways that seem alien to their personalities in order to get to where you want them to be. It’s exciting not knowing where a story will take you. It’s like being writer and reader at the same time, constantly surprised. However, it makes the dreaded writer’s block more difficult to overcome if it strikes. It can mean you end up writing yourself into a corner and have to return to an earlier point and rewrite. It can also mean that when you hit a brick wall you find yourself without a ladder to climb it.
Having a plan can be vital for some types of story, especially mysteries, where you will need to leave clues early on to ensure the reader is led in the direction you require for the story to work. Having a plan, or at least a strong idea of where you want to go, means that you have notes to refer back to, a ladder to climb the mental brick wall, if you encounter writer’s block along the way.
Currently I am stuck in the middle of Venus Virus with no pre-written plan to guide me to the end. I will return to that story, but I will probably find that I need to either plan ahead or rewrite large sections to reach the end.
National Novel Writers’ Month is an international event where writers are challenged to pen 50,000 words over the thirty days of November, or 1667 words every day. If the idea of that terrifies you, then you should probably face your fears and try it, if only for the experience.
The event is free. There are hundreds of thousands of writers battling the same demons at the same time as you, and through the forum you have access to them. However hard the challenge you face, you will never feel alone during NaNoWriMo. Newsletters with prompts and advice are delivered to participants. If you have time to read them they often contain words of wisdom and support that can bring you safely back to the fray. NaNoWriMo forces you to keep writing, if you take it seriously. You have no time to edit as you write. Focusing only on the creative part of your mind means that you are likely to surprise yourself, if not with a complete novel, at least with some imaginative gems that you can recycle and use to produce other work.
Because of the way you track your daily word count, if you spend even a few days without writing, the task ahead can seem overwhelming. On days when you feel uninspired but force yourself to reach the word count you may well produce absolute rubbish that belongs in the bin, but remember that after the dust settles in December, you can go through and cut swathes of useless material from your draft and still have something worthwhile. On bad years I’ve included diary entries, shopping lists, and complaints about how hard the challenge of writing is when uninspired, just to reach the daily word count. Even on bad years I had good days when I produced scenes that were more than worth the effort, even if out of 50,000 words I was left with only 10,000 I could use. The only way to succeed at NaNoWriMo is to place your ego firmly in the back seat and be willing to write badly in order to write at all. Reading at a later date what you composed during NaNoWriMo, you might be tempted to condemn your talent completely and quit writing forever. To feel that way, to doubt yourself, is the greatest risk you take when you sign up. If you are likely to judge your talent harshly based on frenetic scribblings then this is not the event for you.
With luck you feel ready to start writing. Do it now. Even if it’s just a couple of notes. Keep a notebook with you at all times. Inspiration can strike at the most inconvenient time, but if you don’t jot down your ideas you will probably forget them. Find a comfortable place with something to drink beside you and just open your mind and let your imagination take over. The only way to start writing a novel is to start writing.
We’ll look at the content and themes of your novel and we’ll consider whether you plan to write a story that is character-based or plot-based (and what those terms mean). And I’ll ask you to consider the following question - what do you want people to think about while, and after, they read your story?
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse. Carmilla also offers individually tailored editing packages for self-publishing authors.
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