How to Start Your Novel

Author Bryan Fagan is tackling the inevitable question of every first-time writer. How do I actually start my novel?

Worldbuilding: Setting the Scene

The hardest lesson I learned was to never confuse the reader. Especially on page one. Sadly, that is exactly what I did when I first started this writing gig. 

I would toss them in the middle of a world I created with no warning, no reason or why. Looking at it now, it explains why nobody liked what I wrote. Through trial and error I realized I had to create a world they understood, or do a better job of explaining. Sometimes a little of both is the perfect dish.

I am not a fantasy writer. You’ll see no dragons or warlocks or elephants talking. My wordbuilding contains coffee shops, small towns and farmlands. But that doesn’t mean I get off easy. The reader has to smell and feel and touch the scene I’m about to set. 

When setting a scene, emotion plays a key role. What’s going on inside their head? Where are they emotionally and what are they about to do about it?

So much of what I write involves the emotional journey of the character. My goal is to build them a comfortable world to walk on while their emotional world is crashing down. I find these two elements pleasant when preparing to set a scene. I ask myself: who are these people, and what role are they about to play? But most of all: can I develop them into the people I see in my head?

Takeaway: Simplicity is key! Make sure your reader understands what’s going on in the opening paragraphs.

Developing Your Characters

I have to create people I care about, and that includes the bad ones. If they do not draw my curiosity or force me to ask a ton of questions, why bother?

Sometimes a life experience can produce an amazing character. A small moment in our lives, ripe for the taking. When I was a young boy I spent a winter in a children’s hospital. I remember a nurse. She was tall, big boned and mean. If I listen close I can still hear her intimidating voice. The experience was short lived but her character lives on. With every antagonist I create, pieces of her are mixed in. 

If I know them, I can create them, and if I can create them, I have myself a story to tell. But once they are created I am left with a question: What do they sound like?

Takeaway: Make sure your characters are distinct, so your reader can get to know them.

Finding a Distinct Voice

I believe in following your instinct. Something good will always come out of it.

In my current work I have an important character who comes in at about the 40 page mark. She plays a key role. She decides a lot of things. I knew if I was going to pull this off I would have to give her a distinct voice.

I knew she refused to swear. You would never get a damn or hell out of her no matter how hard you tried. She made up words when she was angry or excited. The sound of her voice was kind, honest and uplifting. You believed in her, not only with her words but the tone she used. Give your character an authentic voice, and they will come to life.

I wanted to create someone who made you smile. Not because she was pretty or wore nice clothes, I wanted someone whose beauty came from her voice.

How did I create her? Was she carefully planned or made up on the spot? Whatever it was, I had to get it right or the story would fail.

Takeaway: Make sure characters’ personalities come through in the way they speak.

Pantser or Planner? Getting the Structure Right

Pantser or Planner. There is no right answer. I could write 100,000 words arguing one way or another and none of it would make sense.

The biggest decision an author can make, whether it’s spontaneous or planned in advance, is where to place the big reveal or inciting event. For me it’s the plot twist. That moment where the reader’s eyes bulge, followed by a handful of swear words. It’s a build up every writer prepares for but one that requires cautious steps.

Almost every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Some bounce around, but it’s rare. I have to see it and understand it before I start.

I begin by showing a problem in the first half, followed by a mixture of mishaps and brief success in the second. The two acts combined lead me to the ending where all hell breaks loose causing the reader to wonder if anyone will survive. This is when things become incredibly awesome if everything works as planned. 

In order for the structure to succeed it cannot be forced. Everything has to connect in some way. The goal is to have the reader say – ‘Of Course!’ – when everything is revealed.

I have a system I created that has helped create people and places and distinct voices. My days of staring at the computer screen asking to plan or pants are long gone and it all began with a piece of typing paper. To me, this blank page is a giant landscape of no lines and borders. Complete freedom in a lawless land.

In my system a mixture of pantser and planner works. Sometimes you need a little of both to make things happen. But with all that work I was ready for the opening chapter.

Takeaway: Generally your structure should contain a clear beginning, middle and end, with the biggest problem arising in the first half.

Opening Your First Chapter

There is nothing more exciting than the opening chapter. It’s kind of like walking into a bakery where your eyes and nose and taste buds come alive. The possibilities are endless. But no matter how much pantsing or planning you try, one thing is for sure: The opening chapter is the most important chapter you’ll write.

It is the chapter where decisions are made. Does the reader like it enough to read chapter 2? Will an agent ask for more or will a publisher give you an offer?

No wonder why so many people refuse to write. My nerves are shot just thinking about it.

I was onced asked how long Chapter 1 should be and I answered: don’t worry about it. That may have seemed like a strange answer, but writers have an internal clock and if they do this long enough they know when to put a stop to Chapter 1.

But for those who are in the beginning stage: your first chapter should include a problem and at least one or two key characters. It should never tell all, but enough to create a curiosity.

My opening chapter is full of ingredients of everything discussed. Ingredients that will only work if I believe in the story and the people I’m about to create. I focus on emotions in chapter one. The emotional state of all things good and bad. If I can pull it off, the reader will want to know who this person is and the circumstances of their actions. 

Takeaway: The key to a successful first chapter is to believe in yourself and the people you create.

What to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. For some, it can be so bad they can’t get over the hump no matter how the stepladder is. Everyone will face writers block at some point or another, and it’s a huge pain when it happens to me. When it does, I take a step back and ask myself if there is a story to tell or was it nothing more than a fun idea.

Sometimes it begins and ends there and if that happens it saves me a lot of time and frustration. Another way of getting over the hump is to think of your favourite movie or book. Play it out in your mind and ask yourself if your book can do the same? 

I like to sit down with a notebook and scribble ideas. I allow my imagination to take over and sometimes I’m amazed how far it takes me. If that happens I know I have something special. The imagination is a pretty incredible tool, and when used right, it can show us if our idea is worth the journey.

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