You’re all ready to get started…

…there’s just one problem.

The moment has come–no more waiting, no more foolin’ around, no more putting it off. You’re going to write a novel. It’s something you’ve wanted to do for as long as you can remember. And now, at long last, you’re ready. You whip out a pad of sticky notes and quickly jot down the ancient adage: “Every journey begins with a first step.”

27020713_ml-crpdFeels good, doesn’t it? Now what?

“Well….”

“Uh….”

Where to begin, for many aspiring novelists, can be a darned tricky thing to resolve. The answer, all too often, is just to dive in anywhere and start writing. I don’t recommend that approach. It’s pretty much doomed to failure, I believe, unless you’ve nailed down two critically important things: the genre and the ending.

My guess is that anyone thinking about writing a novel will have at least one of these two things firmly in mind. Typically, the known element is the genre–romance, fantasy, mystery, western, whatever.

The element most often missing is how the story will end.

I know several excellent writers who rarely, if ever, know how their stories will end before they begin writing. In most cases, however, they know whether the story they’re working on will be a standalone tale or part of a series. Breaking that down to essentials means they know whether or not they can kill off the protagonist.

If you’ve got that much decided, you’re probably ready to begin. If not, you’re probably just wasting your time.

This doesn’t even get into the much debated issue of plotter versus pantser (someone who outlines the entire plot before starting as opposed to someone who writes from the seat of their pants with little or no planning). Most successful novelists fit somewhere near the middle of that broad spectrum. A thumbnail outline will suffice for many, while others–myself included–usually work without a net until about the half-way point, then panic sets in, and we force ourselves to outline the rest of the story.

The best methodology for you is the one that works for you. Sadly, it may take a couple novels before you figure that out. In the meantime, however, you need to adopt some sort of strategy. Failure to do that will almost certainly condemn you and your unfinished book.

Maybe all you have in mind is a character, an incident, or a plot twist that appeals to you. I like to think of these nuggets as story “triggers.” So, how do you turn one into a novel? Where do you start?

If you truly don’t know, I’ve got a suggestion. It’s a modified version of an exercise I conduct when I do public speaking. It’s meant to stimulate the imagination, and it will almost always wake up a room full of sleepy-eyed attendees who’ve just polished off a hot meal.

Start with a four-column chart like this:chart-empty

Next, fill in the first column–completely–before moving on to the next. Because you already know what genre you’ll be working in, choose character types which might logically appear in a story of that kind. Go as fast as you can and don’t even think about the other columns.

Step two: fill in the last column, once again, completely. Think of personality traits. Be creative, don’t just rely on lame ones like “sad,” or “kindly.”

Step three: fill in column two. You know where the action is most likely to take place in the genre you’ve chosen. Spell it out.

Final step: do column three. Problems can be big or small, gender specific or not. It’s your choice.

Here’s a small version of this table with only four rows of data, all pulled from a possible Wild West story. Believe it or not, this little chart contains 256 possible story lines!chart-fullJust take one word from each column and shift Personality to the beginning. For instance, one possible story line might feature a compulsive lawman in a hotel with amnesia. Another might be an angry school teacher lost in Dodge City. Or how ’bout a guilt-ridden gambler on a ranch with a disability? Why not use all three? Or more? How might all these story lines overlap? Which ones might feature characters with competing motives? (We’ll cover all that stuff in due time.)

Obviously, not all 256 of these potential story lines will work. But I’m guessing a bunch of them would fit comfortably in a western. Imagine how many possibilities you’d have if you filled out ten rows of data. (For the math challenged, that’s ten thousand combinations.)

If that doesn’t give you some ideas about where to start your story, you probably need to rethink novel-writing as a career choice.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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7 Responses to You’re all ready to get started…

  1. Robin Castillo says:

    This exercise really speaks to me!

  2. An-l says:

    I hope this is the beginning of your next textbook…”How to Write a Novel.” Even though I learned most of this as a student in your ELM writing classes I enjoyed reading this blog. You wrote it in a way that should benefit those writers, like myself, who are yearning to become authors. I can’t wait to see what the cover will be on this one. I have an idea!

  3. Susanne says:

    Hmmm. Food for thought. I may try applying this to a short story I’m noodling with.

  4. Pingback: And so it begins… | Sage of the South

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