Where to start your novel?

On a writer’s group I belong to, someone asked yesterday where they should start in their process of writing their first novel. I thought I’d post my reply here in case it could help others as well. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject (yet), but I do have some experience I thought worth sharing-

It is generally said writers fall between two extremes- Plotters and Pantsers.

There are different names out there for each type, but in short Plotters are people who plan the whole thing out in advance (to varying levels of detail) and Pantsers (as in “fly by the seat of…”) are people who just start writing and see where the story takes them without any real plan. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and most people fall somewhere in between while leaning toward one side. I myself tend to put together a loose structure before I write a story and then let my own creativity fill in the spaces in between as I write. It works okay, but I’m always trying to find better ways to do it- for me.

If you’re finding yourself with lots of scattered bits in your head, I find the best way to deal with them is to write them all down in a single document in point form, and then brainstorm and see how much you can add to it. Then after that’s done, go back and start to edit and play with your ideas, (re)arrange them, and see how the pieces could fit together. Once you have something that looks like it might be a story, try just writing a 1-2 page synopsis of where you think the story might go. (If it goes longer, no problem, but try not to let it go too long.) See how that synopsis looks, play with it, re-write it, add to it.

Then, when you’re happy with it,  do one of two things:

a)      Expand it out to what feels comfortable in terms of planning and plotting. (There are writers like Sydney Sheldon who were said to have longer plans and notes than actual pages in his books!)

b)      Throw it away and ignore it. (Which is what some Pantsers like to do. They just need a clear starting point and are good to go.)

Then, once you finish that, sit down and start writing. Keep writing until you finish what you’re writing. (

If it’s crap, don’t worry about it, that’s what the editing stage is for. Just keep writing! One of the most important things writers need to learn is to let go, accept you’re writing crap, and realize that the gold you produce is the result of the editing phases more than the writing phases.

Ta-dah! You have a book!

If you want a treasure trove of advice then I recommend you check out the following podcasts:

The Dead Robots’ Societyhttp://deadrobotssociety.com/archived-episodes/  Listen to them in any order you like, but I most recommend the Interview episodes and the ConJour 2011 Panel Discussions, which I found especially helpful in different ways.

The Roundtable Podcasthttp://www.roundtablepodcast.com/ This one is pretty new, but the hosts and guests are extremely experienced. I strongly recommend listening to the Twenty Minutes With shows. The actual brainstorming episodes are just so-so, but the TMW interviews with experienced writers are pure writing advice gold!

I also recommend reading Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which although it was written for screenwriters, is a real treasure in terms of thinking about plot, character and story.


3 thoughts on “Where to start your novel?

  1. Robyn, thanks for the mention! I’m glad you like the show enough to recommend it. I just recently got the archive page updated, and I’ll try harder to keep it up to date in the future. If anyone wants to subscribe to the show, please know that all of the episodes are still available through the RSS feed as well.

    Have fun writing!

    • Well that was creepy! while I was listening to the new Dead Robots’ podcast you were writing to me!

      Thanks for doing such a great show,Justin! It really keeps me inspired each week!

  2. I am also a Save the Cat fan. I was devastated when Blake passed. I recommend “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies” even more because there’s a pile of different examples of his theories.
    Of course “Story” by Robert McKee is a fantastic read (if you can’t shell out the bucks for the actual seminar), and a neat little green book called “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark are essential to start working on the technical aspects of your craft.

    If you’re like me, you have a library of writer reference books. Some of my favourite are the “Everyday life in…” books from Writers Digest. I think I bought every single one they have out beginning with “Everyday Life in Prohibition”. Nothing gets your head into an age like that.
    If you want more suggestions. Just ask! 🙂

Comments are closed.