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How to start a novel: why your big idea is stopping you writing

Knowing how to start a novel is difficult (it’s even more difficult to finish one, but that’s a different story). You have an idea, but nowhere to start. It’s easy to listen to podcasts and join Facebook groups that make the process seem easy. But there is always that blank screen that needs to be overcome.

There are many bit of advice out there that make the process of writing look simplistic.  There will be hundreds of ideas running around in your head – more information here on what to do with that – but you’re finding it extremely difficult to actually write anything worthwhile… In fact, even when you have one idea to work on, actually deciding where to start can be really challenging.

I have been in that situation (in fact, I think it would be difficult to find a writer that hasn’t been). Starting was the hardest part of one of my stories, so I wanted to share the best way I’ve found to start a novel.

Is the idea too big?

The idea for my new novel, The Unjudged, had been rattling about in my head for almost two decades. On our first date, I told my now wife about it (and we’ve been together for almost eleven years). However, every time I sat down to try and write it I was getting myself into a pickle. Nothing seemed to work, and nothing was good enough for the idea. I tried different formats. I tried to put the story into a screenplay, a TV series and a play. Changing it to a short story didn’t work, even though I hoped that would cause the breakthrough I needed.

When I did my Masters I didn’t even try and write something based on this idea, because I just couldn’t get my head around where to begin. In hindsight I realise that at least part of this was caused by a lack of confidence, but I maintain that most of it was due to me not being able to sort the right setting, the right characters or the right story. I came to the conclusion that the idea was simply too complex and too big for me to write my story. A growing sense of disappointment and annoyance built up as I started to think that I would simply not get this story started – let alone finished.

You may be in a similar situation with your latest idea. You might have a great set piece, or premise that you want to get into a story. But no matter how hard you try you can’t get all the information you need to on the page quickly enough to explain everything. You might even come to the same conclusion that I did – that the idea is simply too big.

No. You are thinking too big

Landscape image
Be the boat, not the mountains

What? How can one think too big? Common sense tells you that you need to work harder and write more notes to further understand the setting, or the universe, or the historical moment that you’re writing about. If you can only get a better handle on the background to the story, then you’ll be able to write it with no issue.

I thought the above true, I really did. I almost filled an entire notebook with character arcs, with the history of the universe and the timeline that everything was supposed to be completed in. It didn’t help me start my story, instead it just made the universe more complex and make the task in front of me even more daunting. I had no way of knowing, but all of this preparation was actually stopping me being productive, and dragging any ideas I did have into an even bigger vortex of confusion.

So my big idea sat there for ages, unused and unloved. It stayed in the back of my mind as other ideas were formulated and written. As plays were performed and scripts submitted. After a while, it started to feel like I had a ghost following me, taunting my incompetence.

How I started to think small

Colchester write night logoThen I went along to Colchester Write Night, a group of writers local to me who get together once a month to talk about writing, the craft of writing and about everything else concerned with writing. It’s a lovely little group (and you should look for something similar wherever you are!). For one of the writing exercises we were told to start a story in the middle of some action. Ignore any set up, ignore the descriptions of the surroundings, just start with some action! It was late on a Monday night, but I was in a strange mood, so I scribbled down:

Marcus’ head flew into the air, arcing away from his body.

Then I wrote the next sentence, and the next. Before I knew it, I had the rough outline of a rough idea. Even better, it would fit perfectly into the story that I had been trying to get started for so many years. I didn’t know it at the time, but Marcus would become the key to unlocking this universe. He wasn’t destined to become the main character, but thinking about his perspective had been enough to get me writing.

And then it hit me:

Go personal

Creating the disembodied Marcus Tumi was what I needed to do to get my story started. It allowed me to stop worrying about the bigger picture and concentrate on the personal story that was going to be told. I couldn’t possibly manage to get all the information for this universe in straight away, so I had to stop trying to!

I tried the same technique with my current work in progress, and I found it was much easier to get started.

If you’re worrying currently whether your big idea might be too big, go back to the person who will be telling your story. Even if you’re going to have an all seeing narrator, they will need to be telling someone’s story. So focus in on that. Knowing how to start a novel isn’t about the bigger picture – it’s about the small one.

Did this help?

I hope my story above helps. I hope it gets you up and running and your writing started. If you have any ideas for writing topics for me to cover, drop me an email at phil@writewithphil.com, or leave a message below.

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