I’m not going to lie: starting a novel is hard.
I’ve started more than 200 of them, and even now I would never say that starting is easy.
But it is easier for sure, and it’s never worrisome. I get similar flutters when I have to travel, or am being introduced into a new situation where I don’t know the people I’m about to meet. A resistance like the kind I feel before it’s time to hit the gym; I go three times a week, and I rarely look forward to it, even if I’m always glad once I’ve gone.
Experience has taught me that after I’m back from my travels, once I’m on the other side of that new situation and all those new people, my life will be better in some way than it was before. I always walk the half-mile home from the gym with a sweaty yet grateful body.
I have enough faith in the novel writing process to cast my doubts and resistance aside and just start. Sometimes this is immediate. Usually it takes about an hour of procrastination on that very first day. Occasionally I’ll lose a morning to the afternoon. But having a system, and knowing what I need to stay mindful of means I’m constantly writing forward.
At this point in my process I don’t need a checklist to follow because the steps have all become internal. I’ve written them down because I want writing a novel to be as straightforward for you as it is for me, even if the process isn’t ever exactly easy.
There isn’t an order to the list below. Look for the sequence most likely to help you find your flow. I’ve detailed a logical progression of events that could be easily followed.
This is everything I know about starting a novel without procrastination or bullshit.
1. Decide on your idea
You need to know what your book is about. This might seem obvious, but after working with hundreds of authors, it’s remarkable how many of them clam up when asked this question. Sure, they know what their book is about. That’s where they’ve been spending most of their imagination. But that doesn’t mean they can sum it up in a sentence. Make sure you can.
That’s Storytelling 101. Clarity gives you momentum, and you clarity that by asking yourself the right series of questions, then detailing your beginning, middle, and end. It’s fine if you don’t know the answers when you’re starting, but you should be able to in some way detail your story in a sentence or a few specific descriptors.
My book is about:
- The meaning of life
- The suffering of loss
- The nature of true love
- The trials of parenthood
- The benefit of friendship
- A world where magic is illegal
- The saddest mom on the planet
- A boy who realizes she’s really a girl
- A sinking boat and all the people on it
- A metropolis overrun by an army of giant insects
Your book can be about anything, but you need to know what that anything is. Even if it’s just an idea for a character. In fact, that’s an excellent place to start.
2. Get to know your characters
Take the time and do this well. The better you know your characters, the easier the story will be to write. And the faster you can get going. Almost every time I’ve stalled while starting a novel, it’s because I don’t know the people I’m writing about well enough to find my flow. I just finished the rough draft of a book I’m really not happy with. The revision will be substantial, because I didn’t know the characters well enough. The situation there is different, because it wasn’t a problem in pre-production. These characters were well-developed. They just changed in the draft, enough that the next time through will require some significant alterations.
If you’re writing great fiction then your characters will occasionally boss you around. Go ahead and let them when that happens, but spend as much time with them before you start writing the story as you need to.
Decide on the character or characters who must be in your story, no matter what. It might be just one person. Four like in Stand by Me, or maybe two like in Monsters Inc. There is no right answer. But know who they are and how they relate to each other, then:
3. Create your secondary characters
Your finished story should have a lot of happy accidents, but you never want your character selection to be accidental. Don’t include a character in the story just because you think you have a cool idea. That’s not enough. Every character must serve the narrative. If not, they shouldn’t be in your novel.
Their job might be simple. The kind woman who owns the bakery might be in your story to contrast the harpy who owns the furniture store. An estranged and abusive father might explain why his son has to work so hard to keep from striking his own child. A chatty best friend might be great for comic relief. All of those characters work, but you would never want a baker who is only there to offer our heroine pastries, a father who hasn’t cast any consequences onto your antagonist’s life, despite the estrangement, or a best friend who drops verbal bombs to shock without purpose.
All of your characters matter, but when sketching out your secondary cast keep in mind that they exist to serve the story and its primary characters more than being entities on their own.
4. Outline your story into three or four acts
We prefer four acts at Sterling & Stone. The reason is simple, and designed to get our storytellers going faster and stuck less often.
Conventional wisdom divides most stories into three acts. I’m sure you’ve heard this. We think that’s silly, because if you look at any three-act diagram it’s obvious that the second act is twice as long as the first and third, with a midway point. If that works for you, awesome. But for us it adds an unnecessary complication.
By dividing our story into four roughly equal parts, it becomes easier to see how they all fit together. Tons of writers complain about the middles of their novels being a slog. This helps with that problem.
Divide your story into quarters. This doesn’t have to be a ton of detail. Tell yourself what’s going to happen in your novel using four paragraphs, one for each of your four acts. You’ll fill in a lot of this later, but that’s enough to get you thinking about what’s next.
5. Go location scouting
I like to do this early, even before more of the story stuff it might seem more sensible to include at this point in the process. I love to establish a sense of place, even before I move onto theme. Location helps to either understand or establish the mood of whatever I’ll be writing, and together with the characters I’ll feel equipped to know more of what my story will be about.
Choose locations that have some sort of meaning for you or the characters. Ideally, you want writing that’s easy to tap into. That means mining your experience or knowledge base. If you’re just getting started writing, you absolutely do not want to detail some highly specific sci-fi universe. You need to focus on telling your story until that part is easy. Then you can experiment with other tools in the writer’s toolbox.
Google and your memory are both great places to start looking around. Don’t get lost, you can come back as you develop your story. But having a strong sense of setting will help you when you’re working on theme.
6. Know the theme of your story
You don’t need to get heavy here, but starting right does require a compass. Remember when we were talking about knowing what your story is about? This is like that. In fact, this might be exactly like that. Remember our first five examples?
- The meaning of life
- The suffering of loss
- The nature of true love
- The trials of parenthood
- The benefit of friendship
Any one of those could be a theme to expand on. It’s possible that you already know what your theme is about because for you, that part of the story came first. If so, excellent. Pass Go, collect $200, and keep on doing what you’re doing. Explore what you’ve started. If not, ask yourself the following questions to get going.
What is it you’re trying to say? Now that you’ve started asking your characters a few questions, what sorts of things are they telling you? Is there anything you want to explore? Love, hate, or homosexuality? Money, racism, depression? The opiate crisis? What keeps you up at night? What inspires you?
Dig deep, not just because your work deserves it, but because you’re about to step onto the stage. And knowing what you’re writing about and why will help you thrive in the spotlight of your ideas rather than wanting to wilt into the darkness.
7. Write your outline
You can get our outline template here. As I said above, we divide our stories into four acts. Even though the chapter numbers vary, when we’re starting fast we use the outline to get going (we can always add or subtract later) and divide those four paragraph acts into forty or so sentences that cover the breadth of your story.
You can keep all 40 scenes focused on the main story, or include a subplot if that’s what works best for your story. The goal right now is to get the roughest possible version of the story out of your head.
8. Effectively navigate the laws of your genre
This means staying within the fences established by existing genre conventions and reader expectations, while also being true to who you are as an artist and the story you are most wanting to tell. You have to explore your genre to know what is and isn’t allowed. You should also understand the places in your story where it might make sense to steer away from the norm, versus those areas where you must absolutely follow the rules.
This is especially true in the beginning of your book. A science fiction or fantasy novel should start with something that effectively establishes the world for your reader, and not an interior monologue. That could be used for romance. Know what you’re doing and why to give yourself the strongest possible start.
9. Choose your perspective and tense
The point of view and tense in which you tell your story is up to you, but the right pairing is essential to your narrative and should thus always be given proper consideration. You’re giving the reader a glimpse into your world. How intimate do you want that to be?
First person is intimate. Everything is happening to that character: I went to the bar and ordered a drink, then I swallowed it in one long pull. The big benefit here is that there’s no better way for your reader to understand everything about that person and their worldview. The drawback is that she will only privy to that character’s firsthand experience, which can sometimes make exposition more difficult to deliver.
Third person is slightly removed, as if someone is telling the reader a story: John went to the bar and ordered a drink, then he swallowed it in one long pull. Third perspective works well because as the narrator you’re able to fill in a lot of narrative blanks for your reader. But you’ll never get as intimate an accounting as you can with first person.
Tense is when your story is taking place. If it’s happening right now — I go to the bar and order a drink, then I swallow it in one long pull — that’s present tense. First person present tense isn’t used as much because it’s a bit more difficult to pull off for a lot of authors, and in most cases the style isn’t as suited to the story. First person present tense can lead your reader to wonder when the hero is recording the story, in the middle of all this adventure. Past tense is easier on most readers, and more familiar to them.
There isn’t a right or wrong to any of this, only what’s right or wrong for you and your story. Choose wisely, then:
10. Know where to start your story
A lot of authors get this wrong. And yet, it’s so easy to get right if you’re mindful of your story and the reader experience. So let’s make sure that you are.
Too many stories start before they’re supposed to. This is a great way to disengage the reader, and get her to stop caring about your book before she’s even started it. I can’t count the number of books I’ve read where the I’m told all about the world, the character’s backstory, family members, weather, the price of tea in China — seriously, it’s amazing how long some authors will spend clearing their throats.
Most storytellers have been guilty of this. I probably wrote more than fifty books before I finally figured this out. Now my solution is simple. I write the first chapter like I normally would. I’m not worried about all that throat clearing because I know it can get cleaned up later, and the last thing I want to do is overthink my story. But I do want to find the true beginning, and that rarely happens the last time through. I don’t always rewrite my first chapter, but I start every book with the expectation that I’m eventually going to.
By the time I’m finished with the first draft, I know the stories, character, and nuances of what I’m trying to do with that particular novel far better than I ever could have when starting. So why not rewrite the entire thing with that in mind? I’ve occasionally struck gold the first time through, but more often than not, it makes sense to use your original chapter as beats for a rewrite. Take the best pieces but revise it heavily based on what you discovered while writing the rough draft. This is an excellent way to sharpen your narrative echoes, themes, and foreshadowing. You might find that your story actually starts with chapter two, and what you actually have is a prologue. Still:
11. Seriously question whether your story needs a prologue
It probably doesn’t. Very few books do. Prologues by definition come before the story, and are more often written or introduced into a novel as a wubby to comfort authorial insecurities than as something that is truly beneficial to the writer. Prologues are like voiceovers in film: they can work, especially when done with a knowing wink, but they’re usually lazy, and seasoned storytellers can spot the reasoning behind most of them.
There might be valuable information in your prologue. But instead of plastering exposition on a wall in front of your story, why not make a list, then go through your book looking for places to intelligently insert those elements one at a time?
If you’re going to write a prologue, make it awesome. It should never be filler, and even if it isn’t the start of your story, it should still absolutely be the opening notes of your reader seduction.
12. Start strong
Your first sentence is everything.
See how you’re already here on the next line? That’s because that sentence above just shoved you down the slide.
Boom, I did it again.
If you want to understand how to hook a reader and keep them moving down the page, skip the fiction section for this next tip and check out Joe Sugarman’s Ad Week.
Joe was a brilliant copywriter and starting strong was his religion. I’m grateful for my time writing copy, because it helped me to understand the reasons readers leave the page.
Writing sales copy is a great litmus to test how compelling you can be. If your work converts you’re never hungry. But that means you need to keep hooking readers from the opening line, get them moving consistently through pages and pages designed to make a specific action at the end.
Over time it was natural to take all my copywriting tricks and use them to elevate my fiction. Really, it’s the same thing. I’m still hooking a reader from the opening line, taking them through an entire novel, one chapter a time, then asking them to get on my list or buy another one of my books at the end of my story. I don’t want to lose them at any point along the way.
So I start strong. Here are the ways you can start strong, too:
- Don’t begin with a description. Especially a long one. Not unless you really mean it. This device is almost always the author clearing their throat. It sure isn’t for the reader. She came for a story, the last thing in the world she wants is to know all about a verdant meadow.
- That opening line needs to be hot. If you can’t get it to sizzle your first time through, pay triple close attention to it when you’re there the next time. It doesn’t have to be the best sentence ever written, but it needs to be effective at moving your reader down the page.
- Quit it with the fancy language. Amateur writers often try too hard, not yet mature enough to realize that readers will always prefer direct language that creates drama, and that you don’t need a thesaurus to cast the appropriate spell. Readers appreciate story choices over word choices exponentially more than most writers realize.
- Be yourself. This is related to not using overly fancy language. If you’re fancy in real life, then maybe you do need more of the fifty-cent words, but most people have a voice, and you want to get your version of that written voice onto the page.
- Skip the clichés. Please, please, please, unless you’re doing it as a joke or to make a point, never have your characters waking up to an alarm clock. A gunshot, great. A missing spouse, super mysterious. A Secret Service agent saying, “Good morning, Madame President, there’s something you need to see immediately,” you totally have me. Even if you’re going with something familiar like that alarm clock, or maybe a dream sequence, do what you can to make the situation unique.
- Consider mood and voice. Are you going for dark, humorous, or maybe darkly humorous? Nostalgic or sorrowful? Uplifting or cosmopolitan? Your prose will set the tone and should have a consistent style throughout the book, so make sure to set that with intention here.
- Introduce your main character immediately. Don’t spend time with someone who isn’t important, because that’s a bait and switch to your reader. Be direct. Get her to the story and its main character fast.
- Same for your conflict. That also needs to happen fast. A mystery box, some sense of inherent danger, a lazy conversation that turns into a thunderous argument — those are the types of things that will keep a reader moving down the page.
- Ease the reader in. A warehouse full of characters whose names you need to remember is an overwhelming way to start a novel. If your intention is chaos, you could still start simple, with a few key introductions that clearly matter amid the flurry of random workers. You don’t want to meet thirty people at once in real life, so never do that to your reader.
- Use the camera. You’re the director of this book. Think about your opening shot — how would it look in a movie? How would the camera drift throughout your scene? This is an excellent storytelling technique that should be employed from the beginning.
- End with a bang. Your first chapter needs to end with something that will push your reader into the second chapter, same as that first sentence at the start of chapter one. Show them something that makes it hard if not near impossible to put your book down.
And in addition to all the above, I’m going to again suggest that you at least consider rewriting your first chapter once you’re finished with the draft. You’ll be a better writer, and know your story more. The opening of your novel deserves that experience. So does your world.
13. Build your world like a boss
World building is an essential element to every story. We have one universe where aliens are at war with humans, and another where our species is in a battle for supremacy against the robots. We have one world where everything is steampunk except for the stuff that’s old fashioned fantasy or feels straight out of Battlestar Galactica. That mashup universe works because we’ve established a set of rules that keeps everything making sense.
But we also have worlds that are almost exactly like the one you’re reading this in right now. Except that our Ubers are called FASTrs and our Whole Foods is called Provisions. Of course, there are other differences, like all the stuff that happens to our characters in those worlds, but we understand that the most important things with world building, especially when you’re starting a novel, is to keep the world consistent, and part of your character work.
Few people care about your world the way you will, but most readers will care a lot about how the characters interact with their environment. In other words, they don’t care about how things work, they just want to see the people they’re reading about struggling through the obstacles of their lives.
Don’t ever tell the reader that a door whispered by on pneumatics before you start explaining what that means. Unless the person in that scene is a door repairman in your sci-fi story, there’s very little chance that he would ever genuinely be thinking about the door.
Which brings up another point when it comes to world building. Regardless of where your world is, it should feel lived in by its inhabitants. If you drop an iPhone into the 80s it’s magic. To us it’s almost mundane. You should know your world as well as you:
14. Know your story
The more time you take to tell yourself the story before you start writing, the more your narrative will have steeped in and the better your book will ultimately be. Go over your outline a few times and you’ll feel more comfortable in your scenes when you get there. If you’re a born pantser, have at it, but this article is about getting started and staying strong, and that’s harder to do without a definitive target.
You don’t have to know every detail, but you should be able to identify the key dramatic points in your story. Knowing that will help you to establish the setup better from the very beginning. There is also tremendous benefit in knowing the ending.
You don’t have to stick with the finish you originally plotted. Most of our books end differently than we expect them to, and every one of them has some sort of variance. That’s part of the process. Having an ending in mind means I can write toward it, but even better, I stay motivated. The hardest parts of any project are not knowing what to write next. The ending can serve as your goalpost.
Write with a blend of your instinct and heart. Get the story out, knowing you will eventually revise and polish your work to its proper shine.
Start strong, keep consistent, and finish what you start.
We hope you change the world with your story!
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