So you have an idea for a novel, but aren’t sure how to start. Maybe ideas, plot points, dialogue, nebulous characters and lots of other things are buzzing around in your head, demanding to be written about. Or maybe you haven’t an idea yet, just a vague feeling that it would be nice to have a book with your name on it.
First, the downside. Books take a long time to write (it may be years), require practically unlimited energy, the determination of herds of migrating wildebeest, the thick skin of the Nile crocodile and wild dreams of best-sellerdom, a high spot on the New York Times Review of Books bestseller list – maybe even a Nobel prize? Well, who knows?
Even if you don’t achieve all that, you can still have a lot of fun trying a novel. Think of it as a fun project – the writing itself – forget publishing, illustrating, selling books for now. Put your skates on and let’s get out there on the ice and see how we do.
Most fiction written these days falls into the genre category: mysteries, westerns, romances, sci-fi and fantasy, horror, thrillers, etc. To say that genre novels are “written to a formula” is true only of romances (possibly). However, readers of mysteries, westerns, thrillers and sci-fi and fantasy do have certain expectations of these books, and will complain loudly if they are not met. Readers of mysteries expect to find a murder or kidnap or some other high-end crime within. If you write about something other than a murder (as in Josephine Tey’s novels BRAT FARRAR and THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR) it had better be good and interesting (hers are). People who buy westerns expect them to be set in the old west, and those who buy thrillers expect…to be thrilled!
Many readers buy genre books; so do publishers. I can’t prove it, but I believe they’re easier to sell, also. As my late husband used to say to me, “Not everybody is wanting to have their mind boggled.” Genre novels are easy to read, to enjoy – no great mental effort is required – “escapism,” they’re sometimes called. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Everybody needs to escape every once in a while!
Let’s say you have an idea for a genre novel involving a number of people caught in a certain situation. The easiest way to start is to type it out into your word processing program. Make it one paragraph. Suppose new homeowners find human bones in their crawl space: that’s your paragraph. Now switch the point of view to the police called to the scene. What would the police want to know? Fill in a few questions they might ask, and some of the responses they might get.
If you are writing from the wife or husband’s point of view, what would they think about this experience? Would they discuss it? What questions would they want answered, and by whom? Might the husband suspect the wife of knowing more about the bones than she’s telling him, or vice versa?
What would the police do next? Interview neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood a long time? Research the old missing persons’ reports? Use your imagination or read true accounts of police procedure or research it on the Net?
Keep adding details and asking and answering questions until you have resolved the mystery to your own satisfaction. What you have now is a synopsis. It could be 4-5 pages long, or 10-35, depending on the complexity of the plot or storyline.
Next, get some 3×5 cards and list out the main events on them, one to each card. Lay these out and see if they form any kind of pattern. By shuffling the cards around, trying them this way and that, you should be able to sort them out into some kind of order. This is how your book will be organized. There are no hard and fast rules for this; it will call for some creative thinking on your part, some use of critical judgment. If you need help, think of some well-known novels you have read, like ALICE IN WONDERLAND or something by John Grisham or Stephen King. See if you can outline them. If you can, you are sure to learn something about organization from this exercise.
Once you have that done, make another list.This will be your outline. When you have that finished, you may start writing your first draft. This should be written as fast and as hard as you can. Don’t think about whether it’s good or interesting or anything else, just write it as though you were telling the story to your best friend. Keep going until you get to the end.
Now you have an actual first-draft manuscript to work with. Congratulate yourself!