How to Start Writing a Novel
A couple of years ago, I reached out to aspiring writers to ask what challenges they faced in their writing. More than 2,000 writers have answered my survey, 5 Quick Questions About Your Writing Life. 66% of respondents said the hardest part of writing a novel is getting started. Maintaining a writing habit came in second.
For me, maintaining a habit for the long haul is the hardest part. This was true when I wrote my first novel 17 years ago, and it’s still true today, six novels in. Beginning is fun and full of promise. It’s the novel’s middle distance where I start to get weary, wondering how I’ll reach the other side. In the beginning, you don’t yet know what can go wrong, and how long it will take to fix it.
I’ll address writing habits in a separate post, but let’s tackle the big one first: how do you sit down in the chair and begin the hard work of getting the words on the page?
Get past thinking, “I’m writing a novel.” Instead, tell yourself, “I’m writing a few words today” or “I’m writing a piece of my novel today.”
Writing a novel is a daunting challenge and a major, time-consuming endeavor. Looking from the starting line to the finish line, miles away, can be mentally paralyzing. The only way to start your novel without psyching yourself out is to break it up into small, daily tasks. Approach each day as a mini-project, not a major project. The mini-project is a scene, a chapter, or a page for that day.
You don’t have to know where you’re going. You don’t need an outline. You don’t even need a plot to get started. Just come up with these three things:
- a specific (interesting) person
- in a specific place and time
- facing a specific problem
Who is the protagonist? What trouble is he or she in? Where and when does your story take place?
Character, conflict, setting. From these three elements, all of the rest flows.
Come up with a situation that is worthy of a novel. The situation has to be big enough, the problem great enough, to sustain a novel for 250–400 pages. Beyond that, the protagonist has to be deeply invested in the problem. The stakes have to be high. You have to give the reader a reason to care about what happens to your protagonist, a reason to care about the outcome of this situation.
So, if you’re having trouble getting started, do this:
- Stop saying, “I’m writing a novel,” and say instead, “I’m writing a piece of my novel today,” or even just, “I’m exploring ideas for my novel today.”
- Remember your three essential things: person, place, desire.
- Determine if your situation is novel-worthy.
Write your novel this year(for real this time)
What if you could have a solid first draft by the
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two story collections, including the psychological thriller The Marriage Pact, which has been published in 30 languages. She is the founder of Fiction Master Class and Novel in 5.