Starting Your Fiction Book
I’ll start off by saying that I have a minimalist style when it comes to starting and writing novels. This means I do not write outlines or detailed notes prior to beginning any novel. I may do those things later in the process, but I don’t do it when I’m staring at a blank page that says: Chapter 1. It also goes without saying that the fastest way to start a book is to start writing it.
I also think the fastest way to never start or finish your novel is to bog yourself down with detailed character biographies, notes and plot outlines. After all, you’re going to think you did an amazing amount of work if you wrote 50 pages of character biographies that included primary and secondary emotions, height, weight, tattoos and disabilities along with their back-stories, primary driving forces and personality traits. The truth is that you didn’t write a word of your novel, and I believe that in most instances, those descriptors and features will come out in the text as you write.
So Let’s Just Get Started!
When you get started, there are two to three things you need prior to writing the first word of your actual story. Yes, I know I just said ‘skip the preplanning’. You still need to know two things: your characters and your plot or goal, and in some instances, you may need a little extra information.
Who are your main characters?
The first thing you need to do is name your main characters and give them a job title. You can do this at the top of your word processor on page 1. In books that have a large cast of characters, this will help you remember who they are, especially if you have to take an extended break for some reason. In Anything for an A, I wrote down:
Kelsey Smith – girl who needs straight A’s
Carl Jones – Kelsey’s best friend
Greg Black – the guy that gave Kelsey a place to live after he found her homeless on the street
Principal Hattrick – Principal of Grand Central High School
I wrote nothing else down. Are they short, fat, tattoo’d, mentally unstable, fucked in the head for X reason? I didn’t know, and at this stage, I don’t care. The only question I wanted to answer was – Who are my main characters and what are their names? As more characters make their appearance, you can always add to this list.
What is your story’s theme or once sentence plot?
Next, write down something about the theme or plot of the book. This can be a single sentence or a paragraph or both. There are two reasons why you need to do this.
You need to know something about what is going to happen in your book that you can reference later to make sure you are staying on track. For Anything for an A, I wrote:
With time running out, 18 year old senior Kelsey must get straight A’s in order to qualify for a scholarship to college. After living several years on the street with her poverty riddled parents, Kelsey was taken in by a man she calls Uncle Greg, but he only agreed to house her until she graduated from high school. With one semester left, Kelsey has to prove that she has a 4.0 graduating GPA in order to get a free ride to college via an exclusive scholarship, and that means getting straight A’s her final semester and somehow convincing the teachers to change her previous grades. If she can’t do it, she knows she’ll have to go back on the streets.
You’ll need these later to advertise your book. When you write down your single sentence overview and your paragraph plot overview at this stage, you are not bogged down by the details and subplots and all the chaos that happens to your characters throughout the book. You can reword it later for your book blurb and advertisements and marketing, but the truth is that this is going to be the simplest overview of your new novel that you will ever write. You can also use versions of this in query letters and submission packages if you plan to look for an agent or publisher.
Is there anything else that is critical that must be written down right now?
For some books, you may have another piece of critical information that you must write down right now. This information will differ, depending on your book’s genre, theme and setting. For Anything for an A, the other important information was Kelsey and Carl’s class schedules. This book is set in a high school, so it was critically important that I list their class schedules right away so I did not forget which classes they had during each school day. If you’re writing a Mystery or crime book or HowDunIt, this information may be the weapon and the murder and some keynotes on how it happened and the primary clues. If you’re writing a fantasy book and creating your own world, it may be information on your world, the climate and the cities and towns within. Just remember to keep it as brief as possible. You don’t want to spend a whole lot of time here, and you can always add to this later.
Chapter1 - Page 1
With all the critical information written at the top of your word processor, it’s time to start writing your story. If you’re going to get cold feet anywhere in the process, it’s right here, because you’ve not written anything of the actual story text.
Writing Down the Opening Paragraph
There are a few ways to start your novel, including waking your characters up, starting with the first action sequence that’s loudest in your head, using another novel’s opening paragraph and using a prompt card.
Waking Your Characters Up
If you get stuck here, the fastest way to start a novel is to wake the characters up. You can look at this like they’ve been sleeping in your head, and now it’s time to wake them up and bring them to life. This might look something like:
Kelsey Smith rolled over to view the alarm clock on the nightstand. The red numbers indicated that it was just past six in the morning. Her alarm wasn’t due to go off for another 15 minutes, but she decided to get out of bed, shower and eat breakfast early so that she could get a jump on the day. Not to mention, she still had homework to finish from last night. The book she was reading was currently under her head.
Once you wake your character up, you now have something to write about. You can write down her thoughts while she’s in the shower. You can describe breakfast, and you can start the interactions with other characters. During later drafts, you’ll delete this paragraph because you never want to start a book by waking a character up, but it is a great way to get your novel started.
The First Action Sequence
If you’re writing an action book, adventure book, crime book or anything that’s going to contain a lot of physical action, you can start with the first action scene that is loudest in your head. If you’re starting a drama book or romance book, anything to do with family, friendships or relationships, you can start with an argument. The good news about starting with an action sequence or argument is that you can keep it, and you’re virtually guaranteed to grab readers’ attention.
Using Another Novel’s First Paragraph
If you read a lot or own a lot of fiction, you can start with someone else’s first paragraph, especially if it fits your theme, location or writing style. For this version of an opening, you’ll just copy the other author’s first paragraph and move on from there. This is a technique that is used in a lot of creative writing classes to get new and aspiring authors past their blank page syndrome or ‘writer’s block’. However, it is very important that you notate that this is not your paragraph and that it came from X book by X author. As you draft, this paragraph should disappear. However, if you don’t write it out of existence with your drafting process, you will have to delete it before publication because it is plagiarism if you keep it.
Using a Prompt Card
There are dozens of books on writing prompts and writing ideas out there, and a lot of them are fairly cheap, under six dollars. If you happen to have a book of prompts or some idea cards, locate one that works with your book idea and type it right under your chapter heading. Use that to write the opening paragraph of your book and move forward. Like using the opening paragraph of an existing novel, you also need to delete that prompt during your later drafts.
Once you have your opening paragraph written or first few pages, you’re writing your novel and working on your first draft. Congratulations!
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