Let me start by saying this post isn’t how best to start your novel. This is about just putting the first word down, whatever it is. That first word is the beginning of your journey. Fine-tuning comes later. A LOT later. Secondly it’s now National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and a lot of you will be taking this opportunity to finally get that story out of your head and onto paper or laptop, however you work.
I’ve tried NaNoWriMo and failed, given up, walked away, call it what you will. I’ve done that twice because I put myself under too much pressure to produce perfection. Only now have I figured out it isn’t about that. It’s about getting that first draft down. That’s it. Nothing more. Maybe I’ll try again next year. This year I’m in the middle of proof-reading and the timing is wrong.
Having said that, if it works for you to get that first draft into reality, then fantastic. Good luck! Remember it IS only the first draft. 50,000 words. It’s doable, but remember it’s unrealistic to expect to create a fully-fledged debut novel ready for publication in that time frame.
If halfway through, you find the discipline is sucking all the joy out of writing your story, it’s fine to walk away. No one is judging you. Please believe that. You can write your story without the pressure, and enjoy it a whole lot more.
“Which comes first? Plot or characters?”
It doesn’t matter. If you have a character, you immediately have a story, because they exist. They have a past, and hopes for the future. They have foibles and habits. Describe them, then allow them to interact with another character. As soon as you do that, you have the beginning of a story.
If you’re considering writing a novel, I’m assuming you have characters or a story idea kicking around somewhere. Maybe you have just a character and want to put them in a situation. Or two characters in a favourite show who you think deserve better so you feel some fan fiction is in order.
Whatever it is, starting a book can be daunting, so don’t look at it that way. Instead, think of it as telling a story. This sounds obvious, but “I’m writing a book,” sets up massive expectations when what you really need is a story, before you even start worrying about who will buy it, where to sell it, book covers, etc.
And don’t worry about that killer first line either. Just get the thing down, whether on your laptop, or writing it in a dedicated notebook. It doesn’t matter. Just get the thing down.
Plotter or Pantser?
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you like to have neatly arrayed storyboards, a list of characters and key scenes, and a solid idea of chapter sizes? If so, great! But don’t forget that stories are organic. Sometimes sticking rigidly to a plan can interrupt the flow. If creativity is booming, but you’re thinking “this doesn’t happen until Chapter 47,” don’t stop. You can change it at a later date. Or not. It’s up to you.
If you’re a pantser like me, it can be difficult to keep a hold of continuity in a story. If you’ve seen a proverbial squirrel and given your characters something else to ponder, don’t stop yourself. It makes the process a bit more haphazard, but if that’s the way you work, great! Be prepared for tangents, blind alleys, red herrings, veritable mazes which can lead to writer’s block or true inspiration.
I find I get to a certain point and then I want a little bit of order, so I can see where the story is heading. This isn’t a fixed point. You will find yours.
“But what do I write?”
It sounds a bit patronising to say, “just write,” but sometimes it really is that straightforward. If you can, get yourself to a coffee shop with your laptop or a gorgeous notebook and free-flowing pen, and just start. Or put your favourite music on, or prepare a spot in your home where you can keep all your writing accoutrements and have it as your zone of creativity.
Basically, I can’t tell you what to write. Your story is yours alone. It’s having the confidence to start and don’t listen to people who say, ‘don’t begin with this, or that…” Listen to your own voice. The sooner you recognise it, the easier your writing will flow.
Finally, talk to other writers. We really are very friendly and want to build each other up, not knock each other down. Indie authors especially are a very supportive lot. Traditionally viewed with something approaching pity, there is now no shame in independent publishing, and we’re sources of a wide range of information.
That’s it for now, except to say a massive GOOD LUCK, whether you are doing NaNoWriMo or not, whether contemplating fan fiction one-shots or wanting to be a published author. Your story is everything, so forget everything that goes around it and just write that first. Everything else can wait.