They say that everyone has a novel in them somewhere. But where does the budding author begin the daunting process of writing that first book and how do you go about putting those thoughts and ideas on paper in a form that others will enjoy reading?
The first thing to accept is that there is no easy way to write a novel; there is no magic formula. Each piece of work (and that’s what a novel is), has its own pace and structure; its own individuality. As well as a good story you’ll need determination; perseverance, self-discipline and application to succeed and to see your book through to the final paragraph. It’s also a brilliant, fun experience and a great creative adventure as well as a challenge. And it’s your world; you create it, populate it with characters, develop it and bring all the elements together as you wish. So, if you’re still up for the challenge of writing your first novel, here are some thoughts and tips to help get you started.
From personal experience I would advise the budding author not to get too hung up on writing a really detailed outline for your novel before you start. Yes, an outline will provide you with direction but it can also feel claustrophobic and inhibit your creative flow if you try to adhere too rigidly to it. By all means sketch out the overall framework for your storyline but be prepared to move away from the model. You’ll be surprised at how the plot will develop and evolve naturally as you write.
Think carefully about the setting for your story. The setting includes the place, the season and the time. Your reader must understand the reason for the setting you have chosen. Why is this particular setting so relevant to the story? Unlike viewers of a movie where the scenes are spoon-fed to them, readers of your novel will create the scene for themselves in their mind’s eye using the information you give them and the clearer the scene you paint with your words, the more real the reader’s experience will be.
Keep these questions in mind when scene setting: What period is the story set in; present day, sometime in the past or even in the future? Where does the scene take place? What city, country etc? What’s the weather like? What can you see, smell and hear? Remember to ‘show’ rather than just ‘tell’; good descriptive narrative is very important in scene setting.
An important consideration which you must decide on before you start writing is the narration angle. Who is the one telling the story? Are you going to opt for a first-person narrator who is at the centre of the plot? Perhaps a third-person narrator who can enter the thoughts of any character at any time or one who follows one character in particular?
First-person narration is useful to the author as it allows the reader to enter the mind of the character; to understand his thoughts and motives and develop empathy with him.
The protagonist has a central role in the story and is usually the one whose side the reader will be on, regardless of whether they are a nice character or a wicked one. The best novels are character driven and yours should be as realistic as possible; flaws and all. Make all your characters real; imperfect, contrary, annoying, desirable etc. Shallow, two dimensional characters are boring and uninspiring for the reader who won’t really care one way or the other what happens to them in the story.
Conflict is a pivotal aspect of all good novels regardless of genre. Every story starts with conflict. In my children’s novel, ‘If I Won A Pony’, the protagonist/heroine bends the truth to keep the pony she wins in a magazine competition. Conflict immediately catches the reader’s imagination, sparks outrage, amusement or shock and draws them into the story. What’s going to happen as a result of the conflict?
What’s at stake?
There should be a clear element of risk in the story. What does your main character stand to lose or win? What is he or she seeking to gain and why? You must make the stakes clear if you want your readers to care about what happens.
Use the risk to move the story forward. The reader must want to turn every page to see whether the protagonist loses or wins and what he or she does to achieve her goal.
Writing in order
You don’t have to write your book from the first paragraph to the last in that order; this can be the road to writer’s block. If you find you’re struggling with chapter 2 but you have a great idea for a passage of dialogue which fits in nicely later on in the story, just go ahead and get it on the page. You shouldn’t feel that you have to write in linear fashion. At this stage, the novel is yours and you can write it, change it, develop it, add and take away from it as you please.
'Write what you know'
There is an element of truth in this old piece of advice for writers but don’t let that restrict your imagination. Embrace something different to enliven your writing. For example, one scene in my latest novel involved an auction at a livestock market. With Google’s assistance, I located a livestock market quite near to where I live and spent an afternoon watching an auction and making notes. From my observations on that afternoon I developed several characters with which to colour my story and really made the scene come alive for the reader. Be prepared to stretch your creativity and don’t be afraid to research areas which are new to you; make site visits and do some interviewing if you have to.
It’s very important that your characters and their actions are believable. Avoid peppering the story with unlikely coincidences or unexpected characters whose sole function is to manoeuvre the plot along an unrealistic route. The story should move smoothly and naturally from scene to scene without clunking along via a series of manufactured occurrences which are so far-fetched the reader eventually gives up in disgust.
Deadlines and discipline
Realistic deadlines are very important for the new novelist. It’s easy to have a vague idea of a date you’d like to have your book finished by and to keep on extending this date until completion remains perpetually out of sight. Challenge yourself but be kind too. Set yourself an achievable daily target. Obviously, the amount you can get done will depend on your personal circumstances, work and family commitments but the sense of achievement you get when you’ve hit your daily milestone will help to keep you motivated.
It’s very important to write something every day to keep yourself in the writing groove, even if it’s just some random jottings or notes. Writing is like a car engine; you need to keep it ticking over to stop the battery going flat!
When you finish each chapter, put it away in a drawer and forget about it. The same goes for the completed manuscript. Sometimes when you’re really close to a piece of work, you can’t see the wood for the trees editorially. Take a step back from your book and let it rest unread for a few weeks then re-read it with fresh eyes. Be prepared to make changes, or even re-write whole passages if you want to.
Don’t give up!
Writing a novel is not easy and at times you’ll feel like giving up and chucking the manuscript in the bin. Don’t! You will finish your book and when you do, it’s the biggest natural high you’ll ever experience; until you see it in print on the shelves of the local bookstore that is!