Top 5 Steps Authors Skip When Starting a Novel
When the spark of a new idea hits, most writers can’t resist the siren call of the keyboard (or pen, as the case may be) and immediately sit down to write. They get thousands of words in, maybe further than they’ve ever written before, their masterpiece flowing from their fingertips. But then the inevitable happens.
They get stuck.
There are many reasons why, but the one thing I can guarantee you is that, no matter how inspired, eventually it will happen.
And then the frustration comes. And the disappointment. And many writers are tempted to quit.
Don’t give in! Like a Prepper hoarding toilet paper and canned goods, even though you don’t quite know the how or the when of the looming trouble, you can still make sure you have your bases covered. Then, when the inevitable comes, it will be more of a speed bump instead of a brick wall --- hardly noticeable and easy to write straight past.
I’ve broken down the most common beginning steps that authors skip when starting a novel and how working through these initial phases will help you prepare as you start to plot or write, and continue to support your story all the way through pitching and publication.
1. Decide your genre (and possibly your sub-genre)
This seems like a crazy obvious thing to say, right? Psh, Susan, I know what genre I’m writing. I had the idea! Don’t fall for that trap. This seemingly simple question is the key to everything that follows.
When you had that genius idea pop into your head, I’m sure you could see your two main characters falling in love, catching a serial killer, or defeating an evil mage. Romance, mystery, fantasy – right?
But you’ll find once you dive into the nitty gritty of your novel, stories are never that simple. Books in all their glory are complicated, messy things.
Perhaps your two main characters fall in love… but now the heroine is suspected of murder. Romance still? Romantic suspense? Or is this now a mystery?
Your hero catches a serial killer, but the chase takes him across the globe and he ends up having to kill to survive. Mystery? Or thriller?
Your band of adventurers kill the evil mage, but they use technology to take him down. Fantasy? Science Fiction?
There are infinite permutations, and books are rarely, if ever, one simple classification. But genres, as a whole, have individual rules and expectations that should guide you as you write. So, a seemingly small difference – a romantic suspense versus a mystery with a romance – can have massive ramifications on how you write, what you write, and eventually how (and to whom) you sell your novel.
As you are preparing to start your novel, think on how you wish to classify your book. Which section of your local bookstore do you see your future finished product? Let this vision guide you and keep the foundations of that genre in mind from your initial start all the way through to your pitch and publication.
One important thing to note – deciding this early on does not mean that you can’t change your mind later. Stories and characters evolve in mysterious ways once you are in the trenches, but having this to guide you as you write will save you a lot of revision and heartache later down the line.
2. Read your genre
Again, this seems like an obvious step. And many of you will have already done this. But it needs to be said:
Read. Your. Genre.
You would not believe how many authors submit manuscripts to me who want to write the next Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, or 50 Shades, but have never read anything else in that genre. IF they’ve even read those at all instead of just watching the movies. (*Insert screams here*)
If you want to write a novel, especially a novel out of your comfort zone, I commend you. Do it. No one else can tell your story like you can, and we are excited to read it. But remember those rules I mentioned above? Learn ‘em, love ‘em, live ‘em. Every genre and sub-genre has different rules, a different feel to the story craft. The easiest example is in romance -- you write a romance, but it doesn’t have a happy ending (or at least a happy for now ending)? Prepare to have some angry fans – or a lot of publisher rejections. Readers—and publishers—have genre expectations.
I understand the desire to be different and stand out in the crowd, but many times authors get stuck because they are trying to reinvent the wheel. Read your genre, be familiar with the market and top trends, and know your limitations – when to bend the rules and when to toe the line. You readers will love you for it.
3. Choose your Point of View Wisely
The decision of whether to use first person or third person (or occasionally the very bold choice of second person) point of view is usually quite instinctual – either you write how you prefer to read, or you’ve been hearing your main character in your head and you know how they demand to be written.
Before you dive in with this instinct, though, take a moment to reflect on your choice and what that will mean for your story. There is no right answer, but as with the rules for your genre, there are rules for writing in a certain point of view and you’ll want to consider these before you get too far in.
One of the hardest edits I’ve ever worked on was a first-person fantasy, and it was purely because of this POV decision. The author wanted to write in first person, they preferred reading that way, and couldn’t imagine writing anything else. But when we got halfway through, the main character kept getting stuck. The story showed an epic battle between many factions fighting to stop a goddess from ending the world. A beautiful plot, but troublesome as a first-person narrative because the main character couldn’t tell us what she didn’t know. We lost sight of vital information from the other factions -- either there was no way to get it, or the other characters had to sit and explain it. It was clunky, info-dumpy, and the author could feel it. In this case, third person solved the issues – a big fix, but essential to the flow of the novel.
As you are starting to write, think on the crux of your novel and who is going to contribute to it. Who will know what? How will you show this? And what does that mean for your point-of-view decision?
4. Plotter versus Pantser
If you’ve written a novel before, you probably have a good feel for how you like to proceed in planning a novel – whether you are a “plotter” or a “pantser.” But one mistake many authors make is thinking that this answer is set in stone. As every story is different, you as an author are different with every story.
For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, a “plotter” is an author who likes to sit down and plot out a novel before they start writing, whereas a “pantser” likes to write and see where the story and the characters take them. (The origin of the term comes from the phrase “writing by the seat of your pants.”)
It is good to decide on a path before you get started, but the biggest thing authors need to understand is you can be both. You don’t have to only choose one. And one isn’t better than the other.
It is an odd thing – there seems to be a sense of pride and superiority to being able to claim one camp or the other. Plotter authors are in awe of pantsers, even as they proclaim their nerves at the very thought, and pantsers envy the structure and swiftness with which plotters can seem to bang out a story, but they love the freedom of writing on the fly.
But it is those proud pantsers that are the first to come to me and lament that they are stuck, they’ve hit a wall, a blank page, and no matter what they write, they can’t find their way past it.
My easy answer is always, “So plot it out.” Oh, but they couldn’t. That isn’t how they write. So, I say again for those in the back – you can be both.
You loyal plotters that get stuck? Try free writing! See where it takes you. Take your nerves about not knowing where the story goes, throw them out the window, and write!
I know it can be terrifying to try a new process when your way has worked so well in the past, but you can do it! And if you’ve historically been one or the other, it isn’t wrong or a sign of defeat to try switching. Maybe you are writing a new genre, or just have run into a particularly stubborn plot. Every book writes differently.
The hardest thing in the world is putting words on a page and getting to the finish line. Don’t put added pressure on yourself by saying you have to do it a certain way.
5. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ – Make goals and stick to them.
It is a universal truth that writing is damn hard. It takes courage to start, sure, but it will take everything you have to finish. And that is because that beautiful spark of inspiration we talked about earlier? It will inevitably dim – maybe life gets in the way, or you’ve decided you don’t love the idea as much as you thought. Or maybe you’ve started to put words on a page and you’ve realized nothing you actually write compares to that idyllic image in your head.
Keep going. While you still have that glow, make a promise to yourself that you will keep pushing. Even if it is just a couple hundred words a day, and you are convinced your third grader could do better. Maybe on that off-Wednesday when all the bills are due, dishes are stacking up, and you’re trying your best not to murder your significant other, maybe your third grader could. But it doesn’t matter.
You have no objectivity on your own work while you’re in the middle of it. So make that promise, stick to it, and get to the end.
You can do this. Remember – every amazing author had a crappy first draft that sounded like a crazy idea. Friends and family might have laughed or criticized. The author, mid-draft, definitely did both of those things. But they finished. And you can too.
Have publishing questions? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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