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How to Start Writing a New Novel

(if you ever want to finish)

· Writing Tips

I love January. It’s a new beginning, a chance to celebrate last year’s accomplishments and look forward to an even better year to come! If you’re like me, you might have “write a novel” on your list of goals for 2016. It feels so good to make that resolution. The first couple weeks of January are like, yes! Let’s do this!

But then, reality sets in.

Writing a novel is not easy. And starting one is, for me at least, the hardest part of the entire process. It doesn’t matter if it’s your very first manuscript, or if you have ten already under your belt—just starting can be very daunting. This year, I’m planning to write my sixth manuscript (two have been published; still endlessly revising or querying the others), so I have some opinions on the best—and worst—ways to get your latest work-in-progress underway.

Because the way you start your new project can have a big impact on whether or not you actually finish it. Which is kinda the whole point, right?

The Secret Ingredient

Most writers start out the same way: with an idea, and a blank “New Document” screen. (Or a blank sheet of paper, if you’re old school like that.) A big expanse of white can be a little unnerving. 

One of the first questions you might ask yourself is whether you need an outline, or if you should just start writing and see where it goes. Hold that thought. There's something even more important.

Right from the get-go, there’s one factor that distinguishes those projects that will see completion, and those manuscripts that will languish forever, half-finished. And that crucial element is…

Commitment.

That’s probably not a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Lots of other writers will tell you the same thing, because it’s true. Sticking with it, day after day, month after month, is a lot more important than having a mind-blowing premise when you start. The absolute key is to get a finished draft, even if it sucks—as many first drafts do. Then you can go to town on revisions, which I think are much easier and more fun (though more time consuming for sure).

What does commitment mean? It should be a daily goal: reaching a certain word count, writing for a set amount of time, or finishing a scene or chapter. Word counts are especially effective in keeping your progress going. Stephen King recommends 1,000-2,000 words/day in On Writing, and the standard for NaNoWriMo is likewise 2,000. I’ve used 2K words/day as my go-to for most first drafts. But if you can’t fit in that much, that's ok. Do 500. Commit to 45 minutes each day. Sit at your desk and finish your daily goal, even if what you're writing is terrible and you hate it (which happens to us all on a regular basis). You can (and will) fix it in rewrites.

Do I always write 2,000 words a day, 365 days a year? I wish. No, that’s my usual pace when I’m writing a first draft. I sometimes take long breaks between drafts or projects. And even during a first draft, I’ll often take weekends off, or a day here and there to recharge. It’s okay.

Outline, Pants, Or Hybrid...Um, What?

So you’ve committed. Maybe you’ve already written a bunch of manuscripts—you’ve got commitment down! Some of you are ready to take your shiny premise and run with it. You sit down and start typing, flying by the seat of your pants (i.e. pants-ing).

That’s an amazing way to start as a beginner, so that you can make all the mistakes that every new writer makes and then figure out how to fix them. It’s an invaluable experience, and you’ll learn so much that can’t be taught.

Some seasoned writers (like Stephen King) prefer to pants all their projects because it results in a more creative, less formulaic story.

But there is another path to consider—the outline. Pants-ing might sound scary. Or maybe you’ve pantsed in the past, and you want to try something new with this project. I think it’s wise to try out both methods (and various combinations of them). Every project is different, even for the same author, and outlining will be better suited to some projects than others.

A major benefit of outlining is that you’re less likely to get side-tracked in your manuscript with pointless tangents that don't actually serve the story arc. With an outline, you can map out a compelling, three act structure with key turning points, so you know where you’re heading as you write. (Check out books like Syd Field's Screenplay and Robert McKee's Story for explanations of three-act structure, which isn’t absolutely necessary for a good book, but can help you get there—especially for commercial genres.)

Do you have to robotically follow your outline, even if your heart (or subconscious, so useful to a writer) starts leading you off in a different direction as you draft? No way. Definitely depart from your outline when instinct pulls you somewhere else. Then you can decide if you’ll get back to your plan, or if your outline itself needs to adjust.

I’ve pantsed, and I’ve outlined. I’ve also blended the two. For THE CORRIDOR, I had a chapter-by-chapter plan for the first act, and let the rest develop organically. That was great in a lot of ways, but I have to admit I struggled with my final act in revisions because I didn’t have the story structure down. For THE THIRTEENTH WORLD, I drew up a very detailed outline of the entire book, and fine-tuned it with my editors before I wrote a single page. I largely kept to the outline, but I did add or change some big scenes, and they ended up working really well.

Going forward, I'll probably stick to a hybrid approach: some rough outlining of the acts, but lots of room to see what happens as the words hit the page. 

A lot of writers also swear by beat sheets and formal character sketches or questionnaires. I haven’t used either, but maybe I’ll try it out in the future. I’ve found that every project is different, and what worked before might have lost its mojo.

But whatever kind of planning you do, be careful you don’t spend too long. Trying to craft the perfect outline can quickly turn into procrastination! The same goes for research; if you feel you need it before you start, then get a big-picture sense of the topic. But don't insist on becoming an expert before you actually start writing. You might not really know what research you need until the first draft is done. Outlining, research, character sketches—these are all fantastic tools for revision, too, and often much more effective at that later stage.

It’s especially tempting to spin your wheels on planning if you've already written a few manuscripts. It’s definitely happened to me. Psshh, I can write a novel, we think. There's usually some kind of dismissive hand gesture involved. What I really need to do first is … Take your pick. Craft an infallible outline! Know all the characters inside and out! Find that magical unicorn that will make this novel the best ever!

Worry about the unicorn later. Spend a week or two on your planning—and then start writing.

A Little Help From Your Friends...

Here’s the absolute worst thing you can possibly do when you start your new project: Write a few chapters, polish them up and excitedly submit them to your writing group. You want to know what they think, right?

Noooo!!!!

Forgive the hyperbole. But I’ve learned this the hard way. If you start submitting chapters to your critique group, you’ll get exactly what you ask for: critique. You only want critique when you’re ready to revise (and, of course, it’s absolutely essential at that stage). But submit too early, and all that well-meaning critique might just stall your first draft completely.

When you’re midway through a first draft, it’s hard enough to keep powering through, staying committed, getting down those words day after day. It’s an emotional process. All your insecurities will pop up for a visit. (Even if--especially if--you've written a novel before.) This is not the time to start second guessing everything about the manuscript—and feedback from your lovely critique partners (hi, guys!) will definitely make you stop and overthink.

If you’re very focused (or just lucky) you’ll be able to get right back to your draft and continue on. I submitted my original first chapter of THE CORRIDOR to my group, and got some nice ideas for the rest of the draft. It worked out okay, thank goodness. But for another YA project, early feedback made me spin my wheels. I kept going back to the beginning to revise without finishing my first draft. And guess what.

I still haven't finished it.

Instead, I threw up my hands and gave up on the project. I moved on to other things. That was over a year ago. I still think it has a great concept, and I’m just about ready to go back and try again. This time, though, I’m going to complete my first draft before I submit a page of it to my beloved writing group. Then, I’ll be ready to take all their advice and dig into revisions.

The same goes for reading what you've got before you’re done with the rough draft. We are all our worst critics, after all! Sure, go back if you can't remember something crucial, or if you're taking a short break for some big-picture planning. But don’t put on your editor hat, and do not start to revise! It's far too likely that you will get bogged down and keep re-writing the same old chapters without penning any new ones.

(Side note—there are a few avenues for submitting a partial manuscript for representation and/or publication. If that's what you’re going for, by all means, finish a draft of your partial and then revise it like crazy, even if the rest of the manuscript isn’t done. But this is a very small exception from the general rule. Usually for fiction, complete manuscripts are the norm.)

Now it’s time for me to quit stalling, take a deep breath, pull up that “New Document,” and start to write. I’ll figure the rest out later. (And so will you!)

Any questions? Feel free to tweet me @anwilliswrites.

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