HOW TO START WRITING A NOVEL
Now is the time to nurture your imagination and to pay attention to all the half thoughts that never quite make it to the surface of consciousness. What if is always a useful phrase for conjuring up scenarios, but take them further. Pursue your what ifs and allow the scenes they evoke to play out; track them down and see where they take you. This can be logical – if this, then what? And then what? And why? – and less logical – wild cards, unexpected patterns and serendipity. Both kinds are equally useful. Dreams can be a rich seam of stories, and that twilight time before and after sleep, when your sense of reality is temporarily suspended, can be a great time for spinning storylines. Allow yourself to daydream too. Excellent work of this nature can be done in the bath, on the bus, any time at all really. If you were often told off for staring out of the window in class, you’ll have this part already covered.
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Experience is a writer’s best friend: Seek as wide a range of it as possible. Grand adventures and the mundane minutiae of daily life all have the capacity to increase your understanding so get out there, do things and meet people. Travel if you can and see how other people approach the vagaries of life. Or don’t travel and really try to see what’s right under your nose. Switch positions and imagine scenarios from other people’s perspectives. Be interested in the lives of others. Empathise. Carry a notebook everywhere. Write down interesting ideas, thoughts and observations as they occur. Soon enough you’ll start to see patterns that might make a character or a voice, an element of plot. Pursue your what ifs across this new terrain.
Read everything you can lay your hands on. Probably you do already and this is what has made you want to write a novel yourself. No writer is an island, to misquote John Donne, and you understand that your novel will be a contribution to something that is bigger than yourself. You will be ‘standing upon the shoulders of giants’ to correctly quote Sir Isaac Newton. Reading will inspire you, expand your experience and, in essence, teach you how to write. There are myriad creative writing courses out there should you wish for more specific teaching but I rather subscribe to the idea that it’s your game and you should make your own rules. It’s essential, though, to have a solid understanding of the rules you’re making or breaking, and reading the work of others will give you this.
Consider ideas – philosophical, scientific, cultural, geographical, whatever – and their history BUT question those ideas. Challenge those ways of thinking fed through the news and media. Academic studies frequently disagree with each other and are honed and sharpened by the friction of opposing ideas. Fiction is a lens through which conflicting systems can be explored. Consider that there may be no objective reality, simply subjective experiences and beliefs, such as might be expressed by the characters in your novel. A compelling question about the human condition is a good reason to write a novel.
Often, it’s during the actual writing that the real ideas come, irrespective of the excellent notebook scribblings you’ve made, and should continue to make. Commit to setting down words without excessive judgment (that inner critic will be more useful later for editing and producing further drafts) and let the story begin to take on a life of its own. As it does, you’ll start to find your authorial voice, to know your characters more intimately and to become more confident in the story you really want to tell. If you write only 500 words a day, a single page, in 160 days you’ll have an 80,000 word first draft. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day and he did alright.
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