The Ultimate Guide to Starting A Novel

Jim Woods by Nayanika Mukherjee on Unsplash

So you’re about to write a novel. That’s great. But where do you start? There are sooooooo many different approaches. Don’t worry, I’m going to keep it really, really simple for you. Let’s begin.

To write a novel, you need a story. And it is often helpful to figure out whatever part of the story you know. Maybe you don’t know much. That’s okay.

Ask simple questions until you figure out the main idea of the story.

Questions like:

  • What do you want to write about?
  • What’s the genre?
  • Most importantly, how would you describe the story in just a few sentences?
  • What other stories are inspiring your story?

All of these come together to form what I call the “story seed.” Everything in your novel grows from it. In time, with water, light, and lots of attention the story seed turns into a fully developed story. by Akil Mazumder

The story seed for Breaking Bad was “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface.” During the 80’s and 90’s, many movies used the movie Die Hard as the story seed. The movie Speed was “Die Hard on a bus.” The Sly Stallone movie Cliffhanger was “Die Hard in the mountains.” Air Force One was “Die Hard on a plane.” Con Air was “Die Hard on a plane with cons.” Speed 2 was “Die Hard on a boat.”

There are many, many different examples of story seeds. Here are a couple more. Reservoir Dogs is a heist movie where you don’t see the heist. The Godfather is the story of a war hero becoming the leader of crime syndicate.

I’d recommend that you look at a few of your favorite movies or books to figure out if there is a common theme. For example, I love revenge stories and stories that primarily feature antiheroes. It’s no surprise I like writing gritty crime novels.

Have a few ideas now, right? Good. Glad to hear it. But along with ideas often comes analysis paralysis or overthinking.

Don’t Overthink Your Story Seed Too Much.

If you want to write a James Bond-like spy novel, just admit it. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to write a novel. Remember, you can always revise. Don’t be afraid to be wrong! The two things that will stop you from writing a novel are self-censorship and perfectionism.

You can always fix things in the revision process.

JJ Abrams was working on the show Felicity and joked to another writer, “This would be a lot easier if the main character was just a super spy.” This one little thought evolved into the story seed for the tv show Alias.

Don’t be afraid to start small. Don’t be afraid to start with a tiny question such as, “What if _____?”

What happens if dinosaurs were recreated and put into a theme park? (Every single Jurassic Park movie.)

What if you couldn’t make a sound or you’d die? This is the story seed for a Quiet Place.

A Word Of Caution

It will take some time for your story seed to grow. So don’t expect to have the beginning, middle and end for a novel overnight. I personally find it helpful to “foolscap” a novel.

What do I mean by that? You can always create a simple one page outline with some ideas on it. Steven Pressfield has this approach he calls the “The Foolscap Method.”

Take a glance at this photo. courtesy of Steven Pressfield

I know, there is a lot on that page, but this is actually the birth of the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Let’s break it down even more.

The story seed: A redemption story about golf.

Start with three acts (notice the lines dividing the page for each act). You can also call this Beginning, Middle and End if you prefer. Here’s the birth of one of my “foolscaps.” taken by the Author hard at work

All I have on it when I start out is B, M and E. If you know the beginning, you can likely figure out at least a general idea for the end.

Then the rest is just filling in the gaps.

Very rarely is a story right out of the gate. And I find myself making many revisions to my foolscaps.

Trial and error is a definite part of the creative process.

Maybe you’d rather use some other approach. That’s absolutely fine. But know that you could be falling into a rabbit hole of sorts. Whatever tool you decide to use, keep things as simple as possible. Make sure the tool allows you to focus on your story.

You want to spend your time working on your novel, not learning tools to write your novel.

While tools can be very helpful, the most important part is showing up. by Bruce Mars

Showing up and doing the work, even when you’re confused and not sure what you’re doing. Showing up is your flashlight that will get you down the winding path of your novel.

Showing up is what matters most. That’s the rock-solid foundation for your novel.

The more time you spend working on your book, the more your story seed grows. It’s that simple. When you don’t show up, your story seed is more likely to stop growing.

As your story seed grows, your confidence grows too.

Over time, you’ll start to see the growth and know that it is just a matter of time until you finish your story.

So the real question is, will you commit to showing up? That’s how you’ll write — and finish — your novel.

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Stories are powerful. That's why I write.

Akron, OH

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