How Do You Start a Novel?

Note: For the NaNoWriMo writers who find your way here, Bob Ray has posted a “Tips for Surviving NaNoWriMo” on Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog. Check it out.

I get this question a lot when readers tear into one of my books. Blood, you can see, is built on an aleatory structure with recurring subjects the way a modern composer might build a piece of music using the twelve tone row. I can answer the Start question in a more general way: I can’t tell you how to start a novel, but I can show you how I start a novel.

First, I don’t think about writing a novel. I think about telling a story. Is there a difference? Yes.
Second, after I decide upon the story I want to tell, I do some very serious writing about that story.
Third, in that writing, I cover the characters, their backstory, their wants, needs, can’ts.

In the course of that writing, I get a sense of some scenes that need to be in the story. Usually those scenes are associated with objects.

Once the objects are identified and the scenes have suggested themselves, I write a sequence.

This I usually do in four or five timed writings. In these writings, I lay out the scenes in some kind of sequence which might not be the final sequence, but the process gives me a structure upon which I build other scenes. If you’re not familiar with timed writing, check out Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog.

These timed writings are very important because they take me deep into actions, symbols, objects and how those actions, symbols and objects form plot tracks. Plot tracks then let me study the way characters develop around their objects and their symbols and their actions.

Once that I have a scene list, character work, backstory, object lists, plot tracks laid out in the scene list, I might write a few scenes.

I always write an opening scene and a closing scene—knowing all the while that neither of those scenes has much of a chance of being the final opening or closing scene. They’re place holders.

After that, I spend a lot of time writing firsts and lasts. Firsts and lasts give you a native structure–first blood, first scar, first death, first…whatever you’re tracking, and then the lasts close off the plot tracks.  This is a very important part of building a structure because the firsts and lasts give me beats on the story line.

Next, I look at how the through line develops. What is the through line? It’s the spine upon which the entire story rides. At this point, I’m not always sure what the spine of the story is. That comes later but I’m always looking for it.

If you get too far off the through line, you’re probably into a sub plot. Sub plots are useful for developing secondary characters.

All sub plots have to be bound off before the climax, or the final scene of the novel. This is just good dramatic structure–get everything out of the way for the final confrontation between Protagonist and Antagonist.

Now that I have all of that writing in place, I get to write scenes using the scene structure of Setting, Character, Dialogue, Action, Intruder, Symbol, Objects, Climax, Resolution, Hook.

I try to write each scene with an Intruder because the Intruder provides a secondary structure for the story in that the fate of the intruder determines much of the through line itself. The through line, as you know, develops on a series of polarities with patterns and transformations.

As I write each scene, I work a series of Returns to see what returns in each scene from previous scenes. This develops the links for the story and they all lie on the through line and I know that a scene is necessary if it consists of a number of crossing plot tracks. I look for texture in a scene. If a scene has only one plot track, it’s probably an exposition of an object, character, action or symbol that will show up later. Three or more plot tracks layered in a scene make it very dense, very textured.

After I have written all the scenes on the through line and have developed any sub plots and have a draft of the novel, I begin a rewrite but I don’t start the rewrite until I have written a Story About.

Story About
Only when you write the Story About a dozen or more times using the same startline—Today I’m writing a story about– do you see the Spine. There’s some work on Spine over on Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog that I won’t go into here. But once you do see the spine, you can then rewrite scenes using the transforms of the spine for texture, density and heft or center of gravity.

The Rewrite
Once I have all of that in place, then I begin a rewrite cutting out everything that isn’t on the through line, making adjustments in speed, pacing, placement, repositioning.

Only when the rewrite is finished do I look at language–then and only then do I worry about individual words or phrases.

It is at this point that, if you have understood spine, throughline, subplot, scene structure, and all the hooks and links that bind the elements on the story line, you can begin to work language and sentence. Language is the final element of the triad—Story, Structure, Style.

Internalize the Story Line, Through Line, Scene Sequence
It is very important to have all the story line in your head because you should be able to sit down and write any scene on the through line at any time. The story has to be in your head. That’s why you do all the preliminary work.

It is a fatal error to plot on the fly. If you have control of the scene structure, and you know how each scene hooks to its follow, you will not have to plot on the move because the story will develop out of itself as each character expresses wants, needs, can’ts.

That’s the way I start a novel:  Story, Structure, Style.

Note: There’s nothing here about ‘chapters’. For an insight into chapters check out Bob Ray’s article on Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog.

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2 Responses to How Do You Start a Novel?

  1. Susan c says:

    Hi Jack, this is good. A clear way of going about the start process. Thank you. I’ve been thinking about my TGAN idea when I go for coffee every morning or afternoon. The first thing I started with (writing ideas down on the inside back cover of Bob’s book!) was building a list of characters and backstories. I couldn’t see any other way to start. I thought if I wrote a bit about each character’s backstory and my feelings about that character, I’d have a better idea of what my core story will be. It’s a dizzying jumble of ideas right now. Crazy as it is, I have the first opening line in my head. Sets the tone. Can’t get rid of it and probably won’t until I get some of the stories written. Well, I ain’t no genius jack but I’m going to give it a go…the writing , that is.

    I’m about 3/4 thru Blood. It feels like I’m closing in on the end of the Squeaky sublot but not sure. Am reading your book and Bob’s simultaneously.

  2. tony ollivier says:

    I had to look up “aleatory” :)

    great post as ever. I’m doing nanowrimo this month as well.. this helps.

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