The first inkling that you’ve had an idea that could be a NOVEL!!! can be an unsettling experience whether you’re a new writer or an old hand. It starts as a sudden jolt, what Nabokov called a ‘throb’ and Henry James a ‘glimpse’. What do you do with this jolt when it then refuses to go away? Where do you start? How do you start? How do you find a routine and rhythm so your novel gradually builds?
1: Don’t Rush Headlong
A novel can stall if you have thrown yourself into the pilot’s seat when you’re not yet in control of the forward thrusters. It can pootle about and digress if you try to spontaneously make-up all of its content and backstory as you go along (hence beginner’s novels that start with something unrelated to the plot, like an account of how the parents met).
Allow yourself to play in your notebooks. Use freewrites and gathering exercises to help you both make sense of your idea and add detail to it. Read novels that might be like the novel you would like to write (and annotate them). Do general research but don’t get bogged down in minutia like what furniture would be present in a certain scene or what sort of pants would a centurion wear.
Set yourself a deadline (maybe three months or six months ahead) for when you will start to actively compose the novel. The writing is going to be a slow process, so there’s no need to jump straight in. Use this bedding-in period to expel any obviously cliched or fanciful thoughts.
2: Spy, Eavesdrop and Steal Things from Washing Lines
All stories are about people, not throbs, glimpses or abstract ideas or statements. The more time you spend getting to know your characters before you start, the easier it will be to predict how they will act or react to any given situation. Write biographies and freewrite your characters. Work out what makes them tick and how they think and speak. Maybe write sketches in which you observe your characters in a variety of routine situations, like arriving at work or talking to children, a loved-one, a parent, a cold-caller or a flirt in a pub.
Play your characters against the grain, so they don’t just serve the plot’s need for a hero or a nurturer, a love interest or shape-shifting trickster. The more that you inhabit your characters, the more ideas you will have that shape and deepen the eventual story. Spend some time each week out and about and observing real live human beings in public places. They’ll give a lot away that you might be able to capture and recycle.
3: The Spinal Column
After you’ve acquired a healthy file of rough ideas and sketches, try to assemble a loose spine: beginning, middle and end. Having an end in sight is useful because the storyline is a tool to help you decide what to include and not to include. That account of how the parents met, if it doesn’t help move the plot onwards, it didn’t need to be included but it might have been harder to ascertain this without a climax in mind.
You might also have too many ideas, so now is a good time to rationalise your material so you don’t bite off more than you can chew. You might use bullet points, index cards, graphs or spider diagrams to design your novel, and the plan might all end up on the cutting room floor, but give yourself a direction for your novel, a route map. In the long run, you might end up going to another country altogether but at least you had somewhere that you wanted to go in the first place.
4: Exercise your Trigger Finger
The most important line in a novel is the first line. The most important paragraph is the first paragraph, as with the first page and first chapter. Once you’ve found your spine, try to think about the most energising moment to start the story. Where will you get most traction and hit the ground running? Just before the first moment of significant change often works. But if this is a ‘why’ story and not a ‘what next’ story, starting at the end might ask the right sort of questions (as it does in Ronan Bennet’s The Catastrophist). Whatever, you don’t want an arduous run-up before you reach the springboard, no parents meeting, background checks on your characters or long descriptions of alarm calls and the grey light that filters through the curtains.
Get your characters doing things that can’t be undone as soon as possible. As part of your preparation, take ten novels from your shelves, or better still buy ten random novels from a second-hand shop and copy out and study their first lines and paragraphs. This exercise might not show you how to do it but it will provide you with plenty of approaches and possibilities. It’s more than likely, though, that you’ll find the perfect opening as you draft, usually after you’ve written the end and often by cutting or shaving down the first couple of chapters.
At the early stage, you just want to give yourself something to change. Be patient. Not even Littlehampton was built in a day.
5: Something to Change
Writing to have something to change should be your rule of thumb at this point. There are so many things to attend to in writing a novel, from the realisation of grand themes to the strategic arrangement of commas. You can’t do it all at once. A first draft is merely a fishing trip, the voyage out. You’re trying to find out what you want to happen and why and to who and how to use words to make another person in the end care about it.
The second draft (and there may be many stages to the second draft) should perfect the sketchy first draft and the third ought to polish it all up (this is when you should start to worry about the commas). Get yourself into a position where you can let this first draft splurge so you have something to edit. Rupert Thompson wrote the first draft of The Book of Revelation in two months and then spent two years developing it. Give yourself a break and don’t try to do it all at once.
Ashley Stokes is the author of The Syllabus of Errors and editor of Unthology and The End. He teaches creative writing for the Unthank School of Writing and has critiqued over 900 books for The Literary Consultancy.