Editors Blog

How to Start a Novel Right: 5 Great Tips

It’s said that in life, there are two types of people: those who look at the glass as half empty, and those who see it as half full. But for those of us who’ve set the goal of starting a novel, I think it really comes down to how we view the blank page: those of us who find it exciting—full of possibility, hope, even adventure—and those who see it as intimidating—capable of inducing guilt, anxiety, even dread.

If we’re being honest, we can probably all admit to having shifted between the two camps from time to time. It’s just too easy to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.

But what better time to remedy that than at the beginning of a new year, a sort of metaphorical blank page itself? That’s where the January 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine comes in (on newsstands and online now!). Whether you’ve been looking for the best advice on how to start a novel, trying to find ways to rejuvenate a stalled draft, or looking to take your revision across the finish line, this issue is designed to strip away any intimidation until only the excitement of the blank page remains.

It was such a pure pleasure to put together this issue that I wanted to share some of my favorite tips from its pages here.

5 Great Tips for Starting a Novel Right

1. When planning your story’s structure, start with this no-fail method: Create a Doorway of No Return for your protagonist before the 1/5 mark of your book. Everything leading up to that doorway should, well, lead up to that doorway. Look at your own novel-in-progress:

  • Have you given us a character with following?
  • Have you created a disturbance for that character in the opening pages?
  • Have you established the stakes (the higher the better) for the story?
  • Have you created a scene that will force the character into the conflict/confrontation central to the plot?
  • Is that scene strong enough—to the point that your character cannot resist walking through that doorway (or has no choice but to do so)?

(Just one of many solid story structure tips from James Scott Bell’s article “The Two Pillars of Novel Structure” featured in the January 2013 Writer’s Digest.)

2. At the beginning of your story, include minimal backstory. In her article “Weaving a Seamless Backstory,” novelist Karen Dionne offers this light bulb moment of insight:

Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, ‘Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.’

In actuality, there’s very little readers need to know about our characters’ history and motivations that they won’t learn over the course of the book. Interrupting our story to tell the reader about something that happened *before* it began works against the very thing we’re trying so hard to accomplish: engaging the readers and sweeping them up into the world of our novel.

I love showing authors how they’re unwittingly sabotaging their stories up front and then watching their light bulbs go off, because the problem has such an easy fix: All they have to do is isolate the instances of unnecessary backstory, and take them out.

3. To deepen your descriptions, add character-defining sensory details. For example:

No: She was wearing Chanel No. 5.

Yes: She was wearing Chanel No. 5 like in the old days, he noticed—that sophisticated, mind-coat-and-diamonds fragrance that always quickened his pulse.

(You’ll learn ways to call upon all five senses in your work in novelist Elizabeth Sims’ article “Master Description Through Sensory Detail.”)

4. Make secondary characters significant. In her excellent feature article in the latest Writer’s Digest, longtime fiction editor Lisa Rector suggests brainstorming what meaningful thing a minor character might do or say that could impact the outcome of your story. Then, make sure at least one such significant moment between that character and your protagonist occurs early in your story (ideally with others following throughout the narrative). “Characters that are inactive in the opening scenes tend to remain so,” she explains. “In general it’s far more effective to have fewer characters do more.”

5. Instead of “write what you know,” try writing what you feel. In an exclusive interview with WD, bestselling Jack Reacher creator Lee Child explains:

The worst [writing advice] is probably Write what you know. Especially in this market. In the thriller genre, for instance, nobody knows anything that’s worth putting in. There are three people in the world who have actually lived this stuff. And so it’s not about what you know. [Write] what you feel is really excellent advice. Because if you substitute Write what you feel, then you can expand that into—if you’re a parent, for instance, especially if you’re a mother, I bet you’ve had an episode where for five seconds you lost your kid at the mall. You turn around, your kid is suddenly not there, and for five seconds your heart is in your mouth and you turn the other way, and there he is. So you’ve gotta remember the feel of those five seconds—that utter panic and disorientation. And then you blow that up: It’s not five seconds, it’s five days—your kid has been kidnapped, your kid is being held by a monster. You use what you feel and expand it, right up as far as you can, and that way you get a sort of authenticity.

(The full interview is filled with helpful, inspiring insights like this one—and especially if you’re writing suspense, I highly recommend it.)

Get More Expert Advice on How to Start a Novel

These tips really are just the tip of the iceberg of valuable information packed into the January 2013 Writer’s Digest. So if you like what you read here, whether you’re starting a novel in 2013 or resolving to finally finish one, be sure to check out the rest of the issue on your favorite newsstand or at The Writer’s Digest Shop, or download it instantly right now.

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine

Follow me on Twitter: @jessicastrawser

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