Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seven Steps To Starting a Novel

I get asked a lot about starting novels. The questions come in via e-mail, facebook, twitter, in person, library visits, vet appointments, and at the post office. Everyone has a novel in them and everyone wants to know how to start it. The idea’s too big, they say, or it’s a funny shape and they can’t see the outlines of it to get it down there. They don’t know if it’s the right idea. They don’t know if it’s an idea that is sellable. They wonder if they will get better ideas later. They wonder if they should put kissing in it, because kissing sells books. There are millions of potential authors out there and ever so slightly fewer reasons why those potential authors cannot start their books.

Here’s the thing, though. Well, here’s the several things. I have said some of these things before, but I’ll say them again.

1) Anyone can write a novel.

No, it’s true. Really. I say this a lot. You might not have GONE WITH THE WIND or THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER or THE GREAT GATSBY in you, but I’m quite certain you have a serviceable novel that won’t embarrass anybody in you. This is because

2) Novel-writing is a learnable thing like painting, penmanship, and making play-doh snakes.

That means that anyone can learn to do it. Again, you might not make the best play-doh snakes out there, and your first one will be lumpy and have that annoying seam that sometimes happen when you work with Play-doh on a dry surface, but with practice, they’ll be lovely and even and rainbow colored. Your friend Stephanie Meyer may be able to make them longer than yours, but still, you’ll be able to make play-doh snakes acceptable for playing with in most circumstances. But that doesn’t change the fact that your first play-doh snake is going to look like ass. This is because


That means that the trick is not just cunningly putting your pen to paper and coaxing that brilliant novel out of you with gin and Teddy Grahams. It means you need to learn. A lot of would-be writers I encounter seem to . . . gloss over this aspect. The aspect of suck. And oh yes, my dears, your first novel will suck. Don’t take it personally. You, like everyone else on this planet, including artistic geniuses, need to practice. Van Gogh didn’t paint masterpieces before he learned how to mix colors. My artistic beloved, John Singer Sargent, spent years learning from a master. You don’t get into a car for the first time and expect to tear donuts around the parking lot (though that is why you learned to drive, right?). Everything else in the world requires sucking and practice -- why are people surprised when that first paragraph comes out and it looks like someone sat on its face? You know what we call those people who write a sucky paragraph, follow it by 1,200 more, and then start all over? Novelists. You know what we call people who think of a brilliant idea but never actually write it down? Everyone else. Is that not mean enough? I can do meaner. You know what we call people who think of a brilliant idea, write down thirty pages, and then stop? Everyone else. You only get points for starting, middling, and finishing a novel. There is no second place for almost finished. Which is why the advice you will see all over the internet is the same and its

4) Just write the damn thing, folks.

As I’ve said before, it’ll suck. Don’t let yourself get sucked into preparation. Yes, prepping is important, and plotting is important, and character development is key. But every writer does those things differently, every author has a different process that works for them. A process that develops over several novels. If it's your first novel, you don't know what works best for you. You don’t have a process -- you’re inventing the process as you go. The most important skill you will learn this go round is not character development or pacing or how to write a beautiful line about the best sunset ever. The most important thing I learned that first time round was how to finish a novel. So, that said, the practical version of #4 is

5) Make a routine, and stick to it.

Write a sentence every hour on the hour. Write a chapter every Wednesday night for two hours (that's how I wrote LAMENT). Write every afternoon from 2-4 p.m. Write on the subway. It doesn’t matter what the routine is, just that you make the decision to write, and you do. And then keep it up, even after the flush of that first passion wears off and other insanely better ideas begin waving and offering you skittles. And remember

6) No more excuses.

You don’t need to do more character profiles. You don’t need to do more research. You don’t need to know how they get to the reactor in Chapter  11. You’re good. Really. You’re good. What’s that you say? You don’t feel safe? Secure? You feel silly? Yeah, it’s going to be that way. More prep-work isn’t going to make that go away. There's always revising for the stuff that isn't perfect. Which will be everything. So you might as well get started. Oh, and one last thing.

7) Find a new beginning.

Actually, find as many as you can. Sit down at your computer. Get a stack of your favorite books. Read just the first page of each and see how they get you into the story. Close the books. And start your own.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that, Maggie. Some of us need that kind of encouragement (and knowledge that we will suck, lol).

Solvang Sherrie said...

Brilliantly put!

Amy said...

lol and for those of you who feel like it... Nanowrimo is in November it's Nation Novel Writing Month... it's fun and I was coaxed into doing it by my friends. It's good for the "Just write the Damn thing" suggestion because you have to crank out 50k in a month and then you get all sorts of stuff from a self publishing site. Just a suggestion.

Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks for the breakdown.

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh my God, thank you. I've got three reader emails about this - now instead of writing a full and thoughtful answer, I can just direct them here. And maybe get chapter five revised today instead. Score!

Dawn Embers said...

I agree that this is a great post. Definitely follow the Just Write and It's okay to Suck mindsets when it comes to first drafts. Now if I can get used to the new job and class I can get back to progress on novels. *goes to follow advice and write*

Ani said...

Thanks. It was really helpful... I think. Only the time can show. But it sounds really good and reliable.
Cross your fingers and lets start again Maggie`s way. ;)

Sarah said...

Awesome post!!!!

sarah@theunwrapping said...

thanks for this. really.

Crystal Cook said...

Ah Maggie I love this :) Thank you!

My goal is to be finished with my first COMPLETE novel by September first. Yes it is sucky, but I am doing it!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, guys! I hope it's helpful in the long run. And yes, Nanowrimo is coming up!

Stefanie Emmy said...

Thank you so much for posting that! I think I'll print it and read it all over again every day ;D

Greetings from Austria,


Agnès said...

I've been waiting for someone to tell me this for about 3 months now. I have 2 ideas in my head but I just can't write them down. It's so hard. But this post, I'm shivering now!, is the key. Tomorrow, I'm going to sit down in my room, start the computer and just write it down. The thoughs in my head. Finally.
Thank you Maggie. Thank you, you are just amazing.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Fantastic advice, especially the part about just doing it.

Anonymous said...

I really like what you said about the beginning. The beginning of my story really sucks and I know I will be re writing it another 20 million times before it feels right.

Your tips and tricks are the most helpful I have come across so far and I'm glad they are there :)

I hope to have my first novel finished by the end of this year and thanks to your wise words it has made it that much easier to finish my story :D

Thankyou for telling us we will suck, it actually does help :)

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Melissa said...

This is one of the reasons I love reading your blog. You are honest and upfront. I have never thought that I was the type of personality that could write a novel (think math person - all logic, rules and lacking in creativity)but just by reading your post, makes me feel like I could write a novel. Yes it would suck but it gives me the opportunity to think that I could do it.

Thanks for the possibility of another door opening in my life.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

You're so welcome, guys, I hope you have fun (but also work >:D) with it.

MagnoliaHoney said...

Thanks, Maggie! What wonderful advice. You've inspired me to pick my writing back up. I started a young adult book about a 14 mos. ago and I have over 100 typed pages. I keep going back and adding to or revising it. Weird, I started with a chapter close to the ending and then went back to the beginning. Not sure if that's normal or not, but.... Thanks again!

emily.love146 said...

I love this almost as much as rainbow colored play-doh snakes. And man, I really love those doughy things.

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