A student recently asked me a question: where and how should she start her novel? Starting a big project can be daunting, both for novices and for the more experienced. There's no single right answer to this question, but there are steps that you can take to make it easier.
Before you begin a major fiction project, there are some basics which it helps to have covered:
The above are guidelines, not laws of physics, and so it is possible to break these rules.
Should you outline? That depends on your inclination and your situation. You certainly don't have to create one with indents and roman numerals, although there are easy ways to do formal outlines in Word if you want to.
On one hand, I'm a great believer in structure. Your story, by the time you finish it, should have some structure. If you are writing for a particular genre, the basic structure will be dictated by that genre. A romance not only has to have some sort of romance in it, but the lovers also typically come together at the end. A murder mystery generally contains a murder, people working to solve it, and a solution near the end. So even if you don't create a formal outline, you might want to have some place where you keep track of key moments in your story. These notes can help remind you of what you have yet to do.
Sometimes some sort of outline is absolutely necessary to the writing process. This is especially true if you write with others. As most readers of this column know, I have a collaborator with whom I write historical fiction based on Greek mythology. When we're starting a project, we have to figure out which myths we will include and in which order. Furthermore, as we are creating a series of novels based on a world that is supposed to be consistent, we have more than an outline -- we have an enormous spreadsheet, with the major events for every character of import, color coded by the novel in which they occur.
Writers who collaborate on projects have to use some method of organization. I've listened to many commentaries on DVDs from the writers of shows, and in many of the shows produced by Joss Whedon, the writers often discuss how they "broke" a project, a term which they never, as far as I, can tell bother to define for those listening. From context, it appears that breaking a story/episode is about determining the acts and scenes, with especial care to design the story so that its cliffhangers occur just before commercial breaks (hence one of the reasons for the phrase "break a story").
Remember, outlining should be a tool, not a straitjacket. Often its creation is an iterative process.
Readers who have persisted may feel as if I have still not answered the question my student posed: after all this, where should you start? Should you begin with the beginning, the middle or the end?
Beginning at the Beginning. By starting at the beginning, you lay down the groundwork for whatever happens later.
The beginning of your story is extremely important, as it is what hooks readers and sets up the story. Because it is so important, many articles have been devoted to it. On the other hand, because it is so important, you may feel nervous beginning with it -- and it is not as if, these days, you cannot go back and write it later.
Starting at the End: By writing the finish first, you help fix the direction in which you're planning to go. Having a goal in mind can be great for figuring out the rest of the journey.
A Scene in the Middle: Perhaps you don't know the beginning or the end, or attempting to write either of those sections intimidates you. If you know a scene in the middle, starting with it can help you get started while experiencing less pressure (I once read that this is how Scott Smith wrote the story "A Simple Plan").
Honestly, there is no single right answer to this. Some people's personalities are such that they need to begin at the beginning. Also, if you are going to be publishing installments before you completely finish, following in the footsteps of the great serial novelists -- Charles Dickens, Antony Trollope and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- you may need to write beginnings before you write the ends. (It is hard to imagine a better paragraph than the one with which Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times").
But many people don't start at the beginning. I have personally gone with all three. And, when I listen to commentaries from the writers of some of my favorite shows, it's clear that they have tried all three as well. You have to write the entire book, so it does not matter where you start. The important thing is that you do start, because unless you start, and then keep on going, you will never reach the end.
First drafts suck.
Well, not always. Sometimes the muse is kind enough to show up during the first draft. I think she really has to, occasionally, or else novice writers -- and everyone was a beginner at some point -- would be too discouraged to continue.
It is also true that beginners often have no idea how miserable their first attempts are. This is fine; their writing can improve later. In fact, this knowledge can be a problem for more experienced writers, because we can see, as we are typing, how dreadful the first draft is. My editorial muse has to be banished during my first attempts, because if not she chatters continuously in my head, saying things like: Exposition! Contradiction! Repetition! Typo! I don't think that word means what you think it means! Her observations, while true, are irritating and discouraging. I have to find some way to silence her during the early versions, and then coax her to return when I'm revising.
I often find that I have a lousy writing day on one day, but then the next day, the words come smoothly. It's as if my muse is offended when I've been neglecting a particular project, but relents the following day.
My early drafts often leave out a lot of detail. I tend to work on the action and the dialogues first. Instead of writing up the description -- which may not even be possible if the setting and the season have not been determined -- I will include a phrase reminding me (or my collaborator) to add description later. I may use the same technique for transitions between scenes. To me it is important to get the action and the dialogue generally right, as they create the structure of the story.
Other writers work differently. Some may find it useful to work out the description. Some writers are so visually oriented that they watch the action as it happens in their heads and just write it down. It makes sense that they would also visualize the furniture or the landscape as they operate. These writers may find themselves deleting the description in later drafts, as they work to pick up the pace.
How to begin is up to you, but you should do it in a way that suits you and the story you wish to tell. The important thing is that you take the plunge and persist. Sometimes, even when you are writing, it may not feel as if you're making progress -- but you are. When you look back you will see how far you've come.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.