You have a book inside of you—you know it. But, pulling that book out onto the page is a whole different story. Where do you begin? How do you continue? Does the journey ever really end? In our first Juggernaut webinar, we talk you through how to begin your novel. If you’ve started—or have considered starting—you will know that the creative process is chaos. We offer you some tips on how to give it shape and see the journey through till the end.
What is a novel?
A novel is a genre that began as a reaction to other more formal genres, such as classical poetry or the epic. It was considered lowbrow. More interestingly though, it was carnivorous. The novel fed from different genres: it could include poetry, letters, lyrics, anything it liked. It followed few rules.
Where do you begin?
The beginning of a novel is usually a spark—such as an idea that has come to you in the shower or two characters that popped into your head when you were working on something else. The spark usually takes three forms:
- A concept idea, which is a scenario you want to explore. Examples of books written on the basis of an idea would be Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave (what if your lives are written in the stars?) or Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle (what if Germany won World War II?)
- A character, whose personality or circumstances intrigue you and that you want to explore. Possibly one of the most famous examples of this would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize.
- A plot or life incident that inspires you. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example, was based on a suicide he heard about.
In this stage, it is crucial to listen to yourself. Find what interests you—what catches your heart—and only chase those leads. This focus will help you develop your voice.
Zadie Smith’s two kinds of writers
In her book Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays, Zadie Smith says that there are two kinds of writers – the macro writer and the micro writer. The macro writer plans, they draw out plots, sketch characters, and have three different endings. They can begin their novel in the middle and change everything as they go along. The micro writer begins their novel from the first line and ends it at the last. They don’t know how their book will end or the story; they discover it as they go along. Find out what writer you are. It is most likely that you will be a mixture of both, a macro
writer and a micro writer, however, it’s the percentage that matters. Work with your personality, not
against it, and see this as a journey of exploration.
Also, use whatever tools you need to keep the chaos in place. Audrey Niffenegger wrote The Time Traveller’s Wife using Excel to track her different scenes in time; Hilary Mantel uses a novel file to first grow her novels. Find your method.
Patterns in chaos: A practical guide
So, you know you must surrender to the chaos of creativity, but how do you stop yourself from getting lost? Cultivating writing as a discipline is important. The easiest two ways to do so are:
- Set a schedule. Sit down at the same time to work each day for a certain number of hours.
- Set a word count per day, a limit you must reach no matter what. We should mention that word counts for writers differ drastically: Margaret Atwood wrote 1,000 to 2,000 words per day but Dorothy Parker wrote five. Find a pace that suits you.
Drafts and doubt
Leo Tolstoy wrote eight drafts of Anna Karenina—and he wrote them long hand. He didn’t even introduce Levin (arguably a character as important as Anna Karenina) into the book until the third draft. It will take drafts. It will take many. Be patient. Doubt will be your constant companion: try and make it your friend. Listen to the critical you, but don’t let it drown you out.
The final thought
If there is one last thought we leave you with before you start your journey, it is that writing a novel takes time. Vikram Seth took seven years to write A Suitable Boy and Arundhati Roy wrote A God of Small Things in 12. Gunter Gross got it right when he wrote in Diary of Snail: “Hardly anything, believe me, is more depressing than going straight to the goal. We have time. Yes, indeed: quite a lot of it.”
For the full webinar, click here.