“So, how do you start a novel?” by Nansi Kunze
There is a wise saying amongst YA novelists: ‘The journey of seventy thousand words begins with a single letter.’
Oh, all right, I’ll admit it – I just made that up. But it does make a point (of sorts). See, the thing with novels is that they’re really big. When I was doing my Honours year at uni, I remember thinking that writing a fifteen thousand word thesis was going to be really tough. Ha! These days I look back on that and chuckle at my own naiveté; even fifty thousand words sounds short to me now that I write half as much again for a single manuscript. That doesn’t mean I don’t find starting a novel intimidating, though. Many other writers, both aspiring and experienced, do too.
“So, how do you start a novel?” is a question I’m frequently asked at author talks. “Cautiously, and after a very long time,” would probably be the most accurate answer. That’s because I’m a Planner. Essentially, what this means is that I have a very strong idea of where I’m going with a piece of work before I begin writing it. Many writers approach their work in a completely different manner, plunging headlong into their work and allowing it to take shape as they write, often being surprised by what they find along the way. Writers who work like this are often called Pantsers. (The term ‘Pantser’, by the way, comes from the expression ‘to fly by the seat of one’s pants’. You may want to explain this to people before you use the word; only last month I shocked a fellow author by referring to her as a Pantser without considering how risqué that would sound to the uninitiated.) As a Planner, my preparation method goes something like this:
Step 1: Spend inordinate amount of time looking for a recycled-paper notebook with lots of pages to plan in. Convince self that cover design is of great importance, since the beauty of it will directly affect the quality of upcoming novel. Finally manage to choose one. Gaze admiringly at cover in gratuitous display of procrastination.
Step 2: Get out pencil (pen is too permanent for this kind of thing). Write working title and date on top of first page in planning book. Jot down basic premise of novel: things like the protagonist’s name and age, what kind of trouble she’s going to get into in the book (going on work experience at a virtual office and then becoming the main suspect when her boss is murdered, to use the example of my most recent novel) and what she’s up to in the very first scene.
Step 3: Add lists of characters and settings with short descriptions for each. Note down ideas for humorous one-liners, sight gags and embarrassing situations. Try to identify some of the themes to be explored in the story.
Step 4: Write down main plot, using the words ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ every second sentence. Realise it’s full of holes. Spend weeks researching ways the protagonist could actually solve the mystery, the villains could actually achieve the crime, the imaginary technology could actually work and so on. Draw mind-maps and timelines to help solidify plot structure.
Step 5: Intersperse research with more notes about characters, settings and style. This will involve much crossing-out, lots of stream-of-consciousness writing (‘Okay, so obviously R needs to find out about the crime before C does. Problem is, wouldn’t H have told C about it on the first day? What if C was blah blah blah …’) and scrawling things like ‘Needs more glamour!’ at the top of pages.
Step 6: Many weeks and around fifty pencil-covered pages into planning book, open up a new Word document and begin typing at last.
As you can see, it’s a loooooong process, but it works for me, because I need to feel that I’m really well prepared before I can muster the confidence to start a novel. Of course, you may be more of a Pantser; a sticky-note with a couple of names scribbled on it might be enough for you to start your manuscript with. Whether you’re a Planner or a Pantser, though, that ‘journey of seventy thousand words’ thing still applies. In the end, the only way to start a novel is to type the first letter, and then the second, and then the third. Do whatever you need to do to find the confidence to begin, and keep on going. See you on the other side of those seventy thousand!