How to start writing a novel.

Four ideas to get you started (which is the most important part.)

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Dear Shaunta,

I want to write a novel, but I don’t know how to start. Do you have any tips?

Love,
About a bazillion Ninja Writers over the last two years

I am so glad you asked! Because it’s how I roll, I’m going to start with a story.

I wanted to write a novel for at least twenty years before I actually wrote the first (truly awful) draft of my first novel. Legit, from the sixth grade until my early thirties.

I kind of hate that it took me so long to actually do it. When I think back about why I was in my thirties before I actually sat down and finished a long-form story, a few things come to mind.

I was paralyzed by fear of failure. What if I couldn’t do it? As long as I just wanted to write a book, I was okay. But if I actually tried to do it and just couldn’t — then what?

I was also like a deer in headlights when it came to the idea of rejection. Because, what if I actually did this thing and no one wanted to read it? What if all I had to show at the end was a stack of rejection letters and a stupid novel that sucked so bad I couldn’t sell it?

What if I wasn’t good enough? What if, really, I just turned out to be a bad writer?

The size of the project was also a thing. When I write something short, I can hold the whole thing in my head at once. I know everything I want to say in this post, for instance. But a novel? A novel is a different beast. A novel is like a living thing that grows and changes as it emerges. That’s some scary shit.

So, anyway. If I wanted to be a novelist, I had to actually figure out how to get past all my stuff and write a novel. And another one. And another one. The fourth one sold. So did the fifth (it was a two book deal.) Last summer I sold the ninth and tenth in another two-book deal.

I did it. So can you.

Here’s how to get started.

Accept that different books have different purposes

I know that what you want to happen is this: you write a book, you use it to find an agent, your agent sells it to a publisher, you get paid, the world falls in love with your story. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The truth is, though, that some books are meant for public consumption. They’re special. You’ll feel it when you’re writing it. And others? They’re meant to teach you how to write that special book. They’re special, too, just in a different way.

Re-read what I wrote above. I’ve had two books published by Penguin. I have two coming in 2019 and 2020 from MacMillan. I’ve written ten books. I have no idea if having forty percent of my completed novels published is a good or bad ratio. I don’t really care. It just is what it is.

I’m working on an eleventh now. I sent the first half to my agent at the beginning of this year— and she didn’t like it. That was an awesome day. But I’m learning something from that book and i know that figuring out how to make this one work — even if it’s never published — is going to make my twelfth better.

Not everything you write will be published. That doesn’t mean the other stuff is bad or wrong or a waste of your time. It just means it had another purpose. To teach you. To help you grow as a writer. To bridge the gap between your current skill and the skill you need to write the one that will sell.

The only piece of writing advice that really matters is to keep going. Getting caught up in the idea that every book you write has to be published is the surest way to make sure you don’t keep going.

Develop your idea + test it out

I work with a lot of writers, and the biggest hurdle, after fear of failure, is not knowing what to talk about.

I have a system for that!

At Ninja Writers, we call it H2DSI or How to Develop (and test) a Story Idea. It’s a simple little thing you can do in an hour that, I swear, will turn you into an idea MACHINE.

Challenge yourself to use H2DSI on an idea every day for a week. Then at least one a week, just to keep your idea machine primed.

Consider becoming a plotter

You probably already know this, but . . .

A pantser is a writer who just starts writing with no real plan. They might have an opening or ending scene in mind, a character they know they want to write about, or something along those lines. But they don’t plot their books out before they go.

A plotter spends time planning their book out before they start writing.

I was a serious pantser for a long time. Like — all those 20 years where I didn’t actually finish a novel. And all the way up to when I sold my first book. But then, I had a publisher that needed my second book in six months. It took me TWO YEARS to write the first one. Also, they wanted a synopsis before I got started.

I had to learn to plot. Fast. And I did. And it changed everything. Since becoming a plotter, I’ve finished every novel I’ve started. And putting in a few weeks ahead of time to flesh out my story means it never takes me more than six months to write a first draft.

I have a really specific method for plotting that works very well for me. I’ll actually be teaching it to Ninja Writers in the first two weeks of June. (Everyone gets to plot their own book. It’s gonna be fun. Stay tuned!)

I mean. Do what works for you. But, I highly recommend at least knowing how to plot.

Adopt a daily writing habit

If you’ve been around me for any length of time, you know I have a thing for teeny, tiny goals.

If you can write a single page in ten minutes, you can write an entire novel in a year — in ten minutes a day. That’s just a fact.

Also a fact — you’ll probably write more than ten minutes most days.

Set a goal so small that it’s harder to skip it than it is to just do it. Get a calendar (here’s what I use) and give yourself a gold star every day that you write for ten minutes. Don’t break the chain.

Do you have a writing question you’d like me to answer? Send it to shaunta@whatisaplot.com with DEAR SHAUNTA in the subject line.


Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes, is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming middle-grade novel The Astonishing Maybe and is the original Ninja Writer. Do you have a writing question you’d like me to answer? Send it to shaunta@whatisaplot.com with DEAR SHAUNTA in the subject line.