How To Start A Novel

    Time to confess:
    I’m a closet novelist.

    For the last six years, I’ve been sitting on a great plot, but I find the idea of writing a novel daunting.

    A few days ago, my best friend said to me, “You should write your novel this year. You know, the one where the young woman is in a bus in Rio de Janeiro, and she suddenly hears…”

    “You remember the story? But I told you about it six years ago!”

    “Of course I remember! It’s such a good story!”

    I’m still uncertain whether to start writing the novel or not. (Yes, I’m scared …)

    What about you?

    Are you a closet novelist?

    Maybe you have great ideas but you wonder how to start.

    To make things easier, I asked five experts how to start a novel.


    1. Ignite the Spark of Longing


    The first step I take after being struck with an idea for a novel will seem like a non-step, but it’s critical—just as important as the second step, which is research, research, research.

    The first step doesn’t involve any books or paper or pencils.

    It doesn’t require speaking with another living soul, either. It involves nothing but thought, and listening to my gut.

    I consider:

    Does the idea have the legs required to last the length of a novel?

    Because writing a book is the equivalent of a literary marathon, and not every concept has what it takes to go the distance. The last thing I want is to get halfway through a story and have it sputter out on me; decide it’s not the marathon-type after all, but rather like a used-car salesman—full of false promises.

    Not every idea has what it takes to dig its way into my writer’s marrow, either; to make me want to get up in the middle of the night to write down a sentence, to make me fall in love with it.

    So that’s what I wait for: that spark of longing, even lust, for a story.

    The birth of an obsession.

    That’s what you’ll need to see you through the empty pages, and that’s what will fill your writer’s gas tank: a grand obsession with your story, and an unrelenting fascination for its many possibilities.
    From Therese Walsh, 


    2. Apply the litmus test


    You have an idea for a novel – a rough idea. So what’s the next step? Brainstorming your idea is crucial.


    Most ideas are, well, just good ideas. Ideas don’t make a great novel. Good concepts don’t make a great novel. Nor will timely themes or cool character ideas.

    You need four key ingredients that really gel before you can even begin to plot out a storyline. Consider this a litmus test to see if your novel has “legs”.

    1. A Protagonist with a Goal—an intriguing, compelling goal driven by a core need.
    2.  A Conflict with High Stakes: Not just small personal stakes but ones that affect those around her or him, or the world at large.
    3.  A Concept with a “Kicker”: There needs to be something truly unique or riveting about your concept to take it out of the realm of ordinary and boring.
    4. A Theme with Heart: Every story has some kind of theme. The best novels have the best themes. Why are you excited about this idea? What message do you see this book conveying, and why is it relevant, universal, and important?

    Of course, not all novels have to have these components. But the lasting ones—the ones worthy of being written—will. Even if you’re writing sci-fi, romance, or dark humor.

    By  C. S. Lakin,


    3. Spin straw into gold


    Ideas are free, and everyone has them. Unfortunately, a great novel can never fly on the wings of a fantastic idea.

    It will only find the sky after the author roots themselves to the notion: writing is rewriting.

    Potential brilliance can easily be stillborn when a writer wrestles with worry. Don’t.

    Get those fingers moving instead, deftly and fast enough to spin your straw into gold.

    For me, writing comes in three phases.

    The first draft is the fastest, and invariably the most important. In the first draft, I write for myself, and always with the door closed. No one ever sees those words.

    The first draft is me getting out of my own way. In this draft I write as fast as I can without stopping. If there’s divine inspiration in writing, this is where I find it.

    The next draft is revision. I usually spend longer here than I do on the first. This is where I’m massaging my meaning and making things flow for the reader.

    The final draft is a polish, where I make my words sing in their intended key.

    In the first draft I get it said, in the second I say what I mean, in the third I say it well.

    The most important part is to get the story out of your head and onto the page where you can manipulate your words into something better. Perfection is the enemy of done, and if you’re one of those writers fretting every sentence, the great novel in your head is likely to stay there.

    By Sean Platt,


    4. Find the focus


    Great ideas for novels are usually enough for an initial scene and that’s it. The idea needs to be enriched and enlarged to work for a full novel.

    I like to start by asking myself about the focus of the story.

    For example, a Cinderella story could be the traditional star-crossed lovers story, or it could be a story of rivalry between sisters. If it’s a rivalry story, then the sister relationship is foremost and the story should start when the sisters meet.

    In my book, Start Your Novel,  I explain 29 plot structures and how to decide which fits your story the best. By taking the time to focus your story like this in the beginning, you avoid false starts and create a first draft that is more coherent.

    Once the basic plot structure is clarified, I also like to plan for the character’s darkest moment by asking this question: “What would make my character hurt the most?”

    Of course—OF COURSE—as a writer I must make that darkest moment happen, so the story has the greatest emotional impact on the reader. I try to plan that moment and then work backwards and forwards on the plot until I know a dozen or so major plot points.

    If I’m in an adventurous mood, I might start drafting at that point, with just those major plot points as road maps. If I’m in a cautious mood, I might further divide the plot into plot points for each chapter. Either way, the early planning helps keep the story focused.

    By Darcy Pattison, FictionNotes


    5. Nail your plot


    So you’ve come up with an idea from one source or another. You’ve expanded that idea so that you have a story arc from beginning to end, which answers key questions you have asked yourself.  You’ve decided where you want to set your epic, based upon your passion or your interests.

    Now, at last, you are ready to plot.

    For my part, I have always needed an outline: the plot in advance.

    To give myself a sense of direction, I do two things.

    I create a step outline. I then expand it to a running plot outline.

    A step outline is just a list of scenes in the order in which I envision them in the novel.

    The running plot outline is a present tense stream-of-consciousness affair.

    Writing in this fashion, I’m not worried about typographical errors. spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, figurative language, or anything else that might make me stop, consider, and thus get derailed.

    I just start firing away at the computer keys, writing down what I see happening in each scene of my step outline.

    By Elizabeth George, from her book Write Away.




    There is something else …

    You need to save your ideas in multiple ways.

    You see, when I wanted to take a look at the plot outline I had written six years ago,  I couldn’t find my notes anywhere.

    It was a terrible moment!

    In the past years, a couple of my laptops crashed, backup was patchy, and a lot of files got lost.

    In the end, I found that I had emailed the notes about the plot and the characters to myself. Phew …!

    Remember to save notes of your novel in many different ways. Email them to yourself, save them on Google Drive, and make sure you back up your files.

    What about you? Do YOU have an idea for a novel?

    Which of the tips above would make starting your novel easier?

    Let’s have a candid conversation in the comments.

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at Grab a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind and, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Cate Hogan says:

      A very helpful article, thanks. I tend to write from the seat of my pants, but have learned –the hard way– that following a loose outline and plot structure can save my editing budget down the line. I recently featured a post on my blog with 5 key plotting techniques, which you might find interesting.

    • Monica says:

      I hear a lot of talk from those around me saying, “unless you are going to write a vampire romance saga, you have a snowball’s chance,” when I discuss my life’s goal of being a published author. These words were very inspiring and some of the most helpful I have read in a long while. That extra kick in my butt that I needed to get started. Thank you <333

    • I really love to read just like this kind of article, it makes me learn a lot and it inspires me, i love each and every tips inside this because they really strike!

    • Kconan says:

      I’m with you on concept with a kicker, as in making something original. Seems like most books, and writing in general, is created from a cookie cutter template these days.

    • Starting. The beginning. And such a lovely post and comments too. For me, novels begin with the character. I start talking to a character in my head. Sometimes I see her walking down the road or sitting by the curb. I begin writing down what she says. She begins telling me her story. Like spinning yarn.

      And speaking of finding the focus (which I really liked, by the way), I remember William Faulkner talking about seeing one of his characters in a tree. He wondered how she got up there and why she climbed the tree. Caddie, one of his recurring characters. She was always sitting in the tree while he wrote. That’s a kind of focus, I guess.

    • OKAY, Marcy! I’ll go and do it 🙂

      I like the simple truth you write: “All novels get written the same way: word-by-word, line-by-line.”

      I hope you get back on track with an agent.

    • Marcy McKay says:

      WRITE THAT NOVEL, MARY! I’ve written 3 novels & had literary representation for book #3, but my agent just left the biz. I’m back to square one, but I BELIEVE this one will be published. All novels get written the same way: word-by-word, line-by-line. 🙂

    • Mary I am writing another brief note to say that was a great article every word I needed and will put to use. It followed the best of all the number 8. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us so we can further our writing. career. You are quite a lady. The above comment was from me too.

    • On Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 10:23 AM, Beverley H. Hanes wrote:

      Thanks I loved this article I copied it 3 times to place it were I will need it I also make note from it for future use.

      Ps your number 8 on the last post was a winner. You went through a lot. Thanks for the journey, I ached for you and admired where you have arrived. Beverley Hanes

    • Hey Ali, thanks for your inspiring comment. It seems like you are going full throttle ahead!

      I love what you say about your characters: ” I fall in love with the ideas, the characters I imagine, and the antics they get up to in my mind.”

      I feel the same. The characters seems to have a life of their own and they nudge us to allow them to have a life.

      All the best for your journey as a writer!

      • Ali says:

        Thanks for the reply Mary and for the support 🙂

        Glad to know I’m not the only one!!! 🙂 Those wonderful characters…if only I could just simply plug in and “download” all their stories… what a world it would be! 😉

        I felt that this is THE year to take two giant leaps forward… (And, though I’ve said that every year -!- I do feel happy with my progress in life so far, and am excited about what my current state of mind will bring!)

        Thank you, all the best for you too!


    • Ali Jayne says:

      Hi Mary,

      Thank you for another wonderful post! And for sharing that you are a closet novelist!

      I too am a closet fiction writer! (I say fiction writer instead of novelist because I’m yet to write a full novel!) And have pegged 2014 as the year I want to devote a little more time to writing fiction as well as expand on my non-fiction writing.

      Last year I took a huge leap of faith in my non-fiction writing by drafting a memoir of life with my unusual mother (a book I plan to blog this year before self-publishing), and by creating a blog of my journey as a pre-adoptive parent. I’m really excited and proud of these steps. Along with daily journal writing I spent an extraordinary number of hours writing more than I’ve ever written before, and loved every moment!

      2013’s leap amped up my creative juices more than ever and I began adding to the collection of fiction short-stories, ideas, outlines, and scenes, I have written over the last 12 years or so.

      This year my goal is to complete at least one complete first draft of one novel. Last year I started two and both stories have stuck with me.

      I often find that a fiction story I sit down to write (even in short-story, outline, scene, or idea format) are the ones that wont leave me alone! I fall in love with the ideas, the characters I imagine, and the antics they get up to in my mind…! I have reams of dialogue and scenes from my imagination. It’s the follow through to a full novel that I’m hoping to hone from this point forward!

      All of the steps in your post are amazing and well-timed. I particularly enjoyed the advice provided by Sean Platt and Elizabeth George but enjoyed all of the 5 points by all the contributors. Thank you for sharing their points of view and links to their sites/books. I will be reading them in more depth over the next few days, and will bookmark for future reference too!

      Thank you Mary I appreciate you sharing this with us, and for sharing the insights of those that have come before!

      Keep us updated on your novel’s progress 🙂 Note: I love that your friend remembered the outline from 6 years ago… that sounds like a story that needs to be told!

      Warm smiles and Love,
      Ali Jayne 🙂

    • Gayle says:

      Oh my – that ‘6 years ago’ is me. Mine is outlined, I have scenes, but no real structure. Working, working, working. Thanks for this boost.

      • It’s good to know that I’m not the only one with an outline and some scenes … but no real structure yet. Let’s both make it happen!

    • Dear Lady Lagoon – I look forward to reading your novel one day 🙂

      What made you choose a pen name?

      • Mary,what made me choose a pen name,was because under the name of LadyLagoon(btw,if you want feel free to call me Lady)I have helped so many people,and also,I met a few people that have impacted my writings and my ways of writing.

        Also,with my last name and my first,they can get misspelled so easily(including the last name of Lewis,you don’t wanna know how many people can misspell it so easily)that,in order to avoid the facepalms and telling people how it is to be spelled,I just simply use the name of LadyLagoon.And it’s the best of both worlds.=)
        LadyLagoon-the Italian Chick/Aspi/Manager/Diary Writer/Storyteller/

    • I love the advice that is given here!(btw,LadyLagoon is my pen name)this is very helpful.

      Thanks for the wise words.
      LadyLagoon-the Italian chick/Aspi/Manager/Diary Writer/Storyteller/

    • Linda says:

      Perfect timing, Mary! I’ve just started my novel…
      Your advice here is excellent and I’ll be referring to it often. It certainly feels like I’ve taken on more than I can achieve but if I don’t try I won’t know.
      Thanks for all your wise words.

      • I like what you say, Linda: “If I don’t try I won’t know.” That’s such an encouraging thought!

    • Tim says:

      Clear, inspiring and eminently actionable. Thank you.

      Your advice has helped to sharpen my nascent screenplay structure and move the process closer to a first draft, sooner.

      • Oh, great! I’m excited that you are writing a screenplay, Tim.

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