Five Simple Steps to Start Writing Your Novel

I know I break out lots of character bits and talk about believable villains and plot gaps but sometimes you just want a short checklist. I have several friends who do NANOWRIMO (NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth) each year and in fact for several years running I did as well. For those who have never heard of it, NANO is where during the month of November you try to write a fifty thousand word novel. Technically I think 50 K is officially a novella, but I’m not sure if that definition has changed. I stopped doing it, not because I didn’t enjoy it but I found that most of my stories take about a 100K of words to get through so I’d always hit my word count but rarely reach the end of the story which was a bit frustrating. Whether you are preparing for NANOWRIMO or just getting started in writing a novel on your own, these five simple steps can help you out.

First, Pick an idea and commit to it.

If you are anything like me, there are thousands of potential stories zooming around your head. It is very easy to start writing on one and then see another shinier idea lurking at the edge of your consciousness. Jot it down and if it goes with the concept you are already working on, include it, but otherwise promise it you will return and stick with the idea you chose. Focusing is the only way you will get anything done. Don’t get me wrong, there will probably come a time when you will doubt the idea and think it utterly worthless. For me that happens around the 20K mark with every novel I have ever written. It is normal, but don’t abandon your idea, finish it out. Evaluate at the end. If you still think it is trash at the end, put it in a drawer for a while and work on something else. But pick an idea and commit to it if you want to compete a novel.

Second, Create a Short ‘Outline’

I know some of you saw that and had English class flashbacks. That’s okay. Outline is in quotes because it means a different thing for everyone. In fact I don’t outline all of my novels the same way each time. Some have an outline that is only a paragraph that loosely covers the three major points of a story arc.

Bob is an average guy living a quiet life when the slug monsters descend on his home town. Bob has to get himself and neighbors to safety. Bob takes down the slug monster general.

Sometimes I leave it like that, but mostly I break this out into a list of things I want to happen to my main character on their journey.

  • Bob comes home from work
  • Show Bob’s quiet life and introduce neighbors
  • Have Eddie blow up the bridge.
  • alarm sounds to evacuate the town.
  • pick up neighbor’s friend.

The list goes on, but it isn’t detailed and in the initial run through some things won’t be in order. I may decide early on that Bob needs to confront the slug monster holding decorative salt shakers from the 1950s but I may not know where and when he picks them up. I just know he’ll need to before the show down. Once I have this list i will type it up and leave plenty of space between lines. I will keep it to one page though. I’ll fiddle with it a bit once I see it typed and occasionally add things like ‘Pick up Salt shakers’ earlier in the story. I then print the page out to keep near me when writing. This isn’t because it is set in stone, it is because I will take notes and add activities as they occur to me. I will also cross things out and draw arrows as I shift them around. At times I will get through the first two or three points, decide I hate the rest and jettison them completely as the story takes a different turn. The outline isn’t meant to constrain you. It is meant to provide a basic road map. Feel free to go off road any time though. You may prefer a more formal outline and that is okay as well. even when I end up not using the outline, I like having to write it up because it helps my brain take my basic concept from idea into story mode. Also if I get stuck on one point that I just can’t figure out, I can let that section marinate in my brain a bit and use that day’s writing time to pick something further down the list that I know I am going to include to work on that day. Often working on something elsewhere in the story will help me unkink whatever got twisted in the part that hung me up. So don’t let the word outline scare you, just pick the type that works for you. There are no grades, it is a tool.

Third, List out your Names

I like to make a list of names for my principal characters and places before i start. I didn’t always do this and then I found myself staring at the page trying to figure out what name works best for my heroes best friend who would later betray him.Once I’ve written my outline I can usually see where I’m going to need people. I make a cast of characters list like you would see at the beginning of a play. Sometimes I don’t use the character or sometimes I’ll get to their section of story and decide another name works bette, but I will still have the list. My description of them tends to look like the front of a play as well. There is generally their title, their name and then a one or two sentence descriptor.

  • Hero: Bob – solitary, quiet with a traumatic childhood. Likes to fade into the background but will have to take center stage.
  • Neighbor 1: Crazy Eddie – older, ex-military, at war with squirrels, like explosives
  • Potential Love interest: Cathy – Admin at Bob’s office, polite to him likes the same comic books he does

The list will continue and perhaps the love interest will be needed, perhaps she won’t, either way i have a starting point. To this list I will add a few details like the town’s name and approximate population at the time of the attack, how far away it is from a major city. As Bob’s story takes place all in one town, I may come up with a list of road names and sketch out a small map so i know how the roads intersect. That way I always know if you turn right off of Elm onto Main then the third street on the left will be Clementine. It helps to square that away just so you don’t have to think about it later. I will print out the character and street list (with plenty of space for extra details to be added as I go – hair color, clothing, personal habits, etc) and then I will sketch the map at the bottom if it is small. When I design Kingdoms I often put the world map on the back of the page and then add additional mals as needed for towns and such. Having these names in advance (even if you change them) can help keep you moving and give you a place to jot character details as you work so you don’t have to go back through your manuscript to find out it Elm Street ever connects with Water Street. It also helps bring your world a little more to life in your own head.

Fourth, Schedule your Writing time

I know we have talked about this before so I’ll keep the details light here. Look at your schedule and be realistic about what it looks like. Think about what time you can actually schedule for writing. Then put it on the calendar, in ink if you are using a paper planner. Treat the writing time as an important meeting you can’t miss without dire consequences happening. This is not time that you can just shift willy nilly on a whim. It is a commitment. If it helps you to set a word count goal, set a word count goal. I will be writing 1500 words and I will not move from my desk until they are done. Personally i like to use time instead of wordcount goals as some days an hour of writing will get me 1200 words and other times it will produce 1800 as it really depends on what I am writing and how the story flows that day, so I set time blocks. Pick what works for you and stick with it.

Fifth, Write

I know that seems like a silly item to add, but it is true. All else is planning to write. Only writing is writing. so once you have your preliminaries set. Write. Just write. If you keep at it, you will reach the end of the novel. There may be places you want to improve or change later on, but that is editing. It is done later. Now, we write.

For those of you just looking to start, I hope this helps you out.

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