How to start writing your Novel

how to start writing a novel for beginners and how to start writing a novel tips
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Published Date:04-07-2017
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COVER STORY A pyramid approach to novel-writing By Jess Lourey Besides being one sentence too long, I’ve got a great idea for a novel—it’s a heart-pounding adventure this summary includes extraneous detail and the main character is young, she’s on a mirror planet where that is important to me but not crucial she possesses magical powers, and she’s a hamster. to the task. Again, the goal of Step 1 in the writing pyramid is to take an aerial This is a snippet from a conversation Ink, so I know it works. snapshot of your novel, capturing only I had with a guest at a recent book sign- If you’ve got a great idea and you’re the large structure. So, after I cut away ing. As our chat continued, it became ready to turn that spark into a full- the subplots, supporting characters, and clear that he was passionate about his fledged novel, all you have to do is carve superficial detail, I was left with this hamster adventure and had devoted out some time and follow these seven summary of November Storm: ‘‘ many brain-hours to fleshing it out. straightforward steps. “How far along is it?” I asked. A newly minted Minnesota PI investi- “What?” Summarize your novel in one sen- gates a suspicious hunting accident, uncov- “Your novel,” I said. “How many tence. Begin the process by distill- ering a brutal small-town secret. pages have you typed?” 1 ing your idea into its purest form. “Oh, I’m no writer, as much as I’d like Don’t include specific names or places If you craft this sentence well, it will to be. I just come up with the ideas. now; the idea is to be purely conceptual. not only give your entire writing process That’s the hard part, right?” Here’s an example of a one-sentence a boost, but you’ll have a powerful sell- While there are a lot of things wrong summary for H.G. Wells’ classic novel ing line to use with a future agent or with this conversation (start with “ham- The Time Machine: An English inventor potential reader. ster adventure” and work your way to travels thousands of years into the future, “That’s the hard part, right?”), the one discovering the devolution of humanity Now expand your one-sentence that stuck with me was this: “I’m no where he had hoped to find utopia. summary into a full paragraph. writer.” This fellow was so juiced about It’s tempting to pack lots of detail 2 Include the status quo at the begin- his concept that he shared it with per- into the one-sentence summary. Your ning of the novel, what obstacles the fect strangers, yet he had no idea how to idea is complex, your characters multi- protagonist encounters, and how the translate it into a novel. faceted, your setting diverse. How can novel ends. This isn’t the time for I can’t tell you how many people just you condense all of that to a handful of secrets. Lay it all out. like him I’ve encountered on book tours words? I know the challenge. Here is my If it is helpful, freewrite or mindmap, and in my classroom. These are people first attempt at crafting a guiding one- using key names or phrases from your who dream of turning their unique idea sentence summary for November Storm, Step 1 summary as your launch point. into a book but are too intimidated by the novel I’m now writing for my series: Based on my one-sentence summary of the process to take that first step. Or, The Time Machine, for example, I would they start writing and soon become Mira James, a new PI license and copy use “English inventor,” “thousands of overwhelmed and demoralized. of Private Investigation for Dummies in years into the future,” and/or “devolu- I’m here with some good news: Writ- hand, is asked to look into a suspicious tion of humanity.” Here is that single- ing a novel is a process you can navigate. hunting accident in northern Minnesota sentence summary expanded into a full I’ve created a writing pyramid that illus- and instead uncovers a secret that threat- paragraph (note: spoiler alert in case trates how to plot your path, guiding ens to topple the community. Meanwhile, you’re planning to read his novel): you from a crucial one-sentence sum- another dead body is thrown into her path, mary of your book (the base of the pyra- and she is forced to juggle a budding rela- The book opens with the Time Trav- mid) to progressively higher levels until tionship with blue-eyed Johnny Leeson eler dining with peers in late 1800s Eng- you’ve created a finished manuscript. with an uncomfortable attraction to Gary land, where he is trying to convince them I’ve used this approach to develop my Wohnt, local police chief, while her kinetic that he’s invented a time machine. His critically acclaimed six-novel Murder- sidekick, Mrs. Berns, flies the coop, leaving guests are naturally skeptical. They arrange by-Month mystery series from Midnight Mira to work it out on her own. to dine again in a week, and when they 30 The Writer • February 2011 ‘‘Turn an idea into a finished manuscript A pyramid approach to novel-writing using a basic 7-step approach return, the Time Traveler tells them he’s that photo into the character’s page is an her? Does he love baseball because it’s visited the future. He discovered two effective way to spur creativity and flesh the only game his father ever played humanoid races remaining on the planet: out characterization. For example, I with him? the beautiful and childlike Eloi, and the have a photo of actress Betty White in Quirks. These are one or two imper- subterranean, haunted Morlocks. He the character page for Mrs. Berns, the fections that make your character explains his idyllic time eating fruit with wonderfully spicy octogenarian who human, such as a tendency to hum the Elois and exploring the area, followed regularly appears in my series. when nervous. by his discovery that the Morlocks raise Physical characteristics. This in- Goals and motivation. Ask yourself and harvest the Eloi like cattle. He ends by cludes the basics of height, weight, hair what your character wants and why he describing his escape from the time and eye color, etc. or she wants it. period, including his burning of the forest, Age. Include the actual birth date if Conflict. List the obstacles, large and the wresting of his time machine from the it’s relevant. small, that the character faces in achiev- Morlocks, and the loss of Weena, his Eloi Personality traits and their source. ing his or her goals. friend. Distraught, he travels further into For example, is the character lazy be- Growth. How is this character going the future where he witnesses the death of cause her mother always picked up after to be different at the end of this novel humanity and the planet. Finally, he returns to the time period he left, provid- w o r k o u t ing an exotic flower from Weena as proof of his travels. ANTAGONISTS ARE typically underwritten characters. Who wants to Note that the ending must be given spend time with the bad guy? I do, because a well-written, believable and sympa- away to make this paragraph work. This thetic antagonist spells the difference between a toss-away novel and a cinematic summary is for your eyes only, and it’s novel. Imagine you are your antagonist’s biographer. Interview him or her, creat- dynamic. You’ll find yourself returning ing a character page from the answers (re Step 3). Questions to ask: to tweak it as you continue up the writ- ing pyramid, and that’s OK. Revising as • What’s your name? Nickname? new ideas occur is one of the exciting • Anyone ever tell you that you look like someone famous? elements of writing. • Of all your qualities, which are you most proud of? Where do you think you acquired this quality? Invite your characters in. So: • What do people seem to like the least about you? How does it make you feel? You’ve taken a snapshot of your • Which habit of yours would you most like to change? 3n ovel’s point and created a rudi- • I f someone looked in your bathroom garbage right now, what would they find? mentary outline of how to get there. • What scent do you enjoy the most, and what does it remind you of? Now is the time to create a sourcebook, • I f you could go back in time and change one day of your life, what day would or character bible, for profiling each it be, and why? of your significant characters. I hand- • What three goals do you want to accomplish in the next year? What challenges write my character bibles, but a com- do you have to overcome to reach them? puter works just as well. Devote at least • Whom do you love most in this world and why? a page to each character. Include the fol- • What scares you? lowing information: If you can coax your antagonist into answering these questions, you’ll be well Name and photograph. The photo on your way to creating a character readers can relate to who is nonetheless a is optional, but if you come across a pic- damaged human being. This will create an incredibly interesting conflict when he ture of someone in a magazine or news- or she crosses paths with your protagonist. paper, or an old family photograph that —J.L. reminds you of your character, slipping • The Writer 31Do a rough outline of the novel. Remember the words of Robert t h E P Y r A M i d 6 Frost: “No surprise in the writer, no A P P r o A C h w rite novel surprise in the reader.” A chapter-by- chapter, detailed outline is laborious to craft and restricts the creative drive o utline novel when it comes time to actually write the novel. I recommend in- develop each sentence in one-paragraph summary to a full stead generating a rough outline that page description highlights only the major conflicts and character interactions, essentially a sketch setting more complex version of the summary you completed in Step 2. This “big pic- ture” outline allows you to always have Create character bible something exciting to write toward without eliminating the joy of discover- Expand summary to one paragraph ing what your characters will do when left to their own devices. w rite a one-sentence summary Write the novel. This is it. The training wheels are off. You have a 7sn apshot of your novel and a rough than at the beginning? The setting sketches anchor your map for creating it. You know which General story line. Draft a three- writing and allow you to maintain con- characters you’re bringing in, what to five-sentence summary of the charac- gruity in your place descriptions. If you they’ll face, and in what locations they’ll ter’s story arc; this will be a character- have space, staple in a photo or two if face it. Start writing the story from the specific version of the novel summary you come across an image that visually beginning, and don’t stop until you have you wrote in Step 2. captures an element of your setting. a complete first draft. Remember that you as the author Develop each sentence in Step 2 Writing a novel really is this straight- always need to know more about your into a full-page description. forward when you break it into the characters than your reader ever sees. 5 Include at least two sound, two seven manageable steps of the writing This inside information allows you to smell, and two feel details on each page. pyramid. Good luck And if you see a create a multi-dimensional, internally For example, let’s take the first sentence hamster adventure tale on the bestseller consistent population for your novel. of The Time Machine summary that I list in a year or two, you’ll know who’s Beware that Step 3 is an easy place to get created in Step 2: The book opens with to blame. sidetracked; keep your character out- the Time Traveler dining with learned lines to one page per person so the pro- peers in late 1800s England, where he is Jess Lourey cess doesn’t morph from novel writing trying to convince them that he has Jess Lourey is the author of the Murder-by-Month comic-caper to scrapbooking. invented a time machine. mysteries. Octoberfest, the sixth in the series, is due out in If I were to expand this to one page, I May. She is a founding faculty member of the Mystery Writers Sketch your setting. If you don’t would describe the characters’ clothes, of America’s MWA University and lives in Minnesota, where yet have a notebook for your novel, the smell and flavor of the food they’re she is a professor of writing and sociology. Web: www.jess 4b uy one. You want to physically eating, the feel of the tablecloth under draw the neighborhood(s) and the inte- their hands, the clank of the forks on rior space(s) where most of your story their plates. I would include preliminary r E s o u r C E s will take place. No fear—you don’t need research into the political issues, mores, to be an artist to do this. If you’re and scientific breakthroughs of England sketching a room, for example, just in the late 1800s so I could include • o n w riting: A Memoir of the Craft chicken-scratch the major pieces of fur- accurate conversational topics and make by Stephen King niture and placement of windows and sure I got the clothes and hairstyles cor- • B etween the Lines: Master the Subtle doors, as well as which direction is rect. Specific to the topic of a time Elements of Fiction w riting by Jessica north. If your book is set mostly in a machine, I’d brainstorm and roughly Page Morrell neighborhood or town, sketch out the outline the give-and-take that would • t he Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose, relevant cross streets and put labeled occur if someone told me they’d and techniques to Make Your Novel boxes where you imagine all the busi- invented a time machine. Do this for Great by Donald Maass nesses and houses would be. every sentence in Step 2. 32 The Writer • February 2011