3. Words to page (so to speak)

Research done, outline completed, idea germinated . . . whatever it takes, you start to write. One question that comes up often is how “perfect” does each sentence need to be when you first start writing.

For starters, don’t fret about how you start your novel. While the first sentence is critical in a finished work, as is the first paragraph – these are often what hooks a reader into continuing to read your work – your first sentence and first paragraph are most often changed, tweaked or eliminated when you actually start writing.

But wait, you are already writing. You’ve written a first sentence, a first paragraph and then a chapter. You’ve strung a boatload of chapters together into a compelling story. Not so fast. A first draft of a story or novel is not writing. For sure, it encompasses the writing process, but it is not writing. It records words.

“Writing,” to quote a mentor of mine, John Bowers, “is rewriting.” It is not until you pour over your words and paragraphs and chapters many times, are you writing. This is when you edit, embellish, tweak, fix, expand, and do so much more to improve your work. You may find that by the time you get to the end of your story, the beginning no longer works. While you wrote the words, you should not own them. Be prepared to toss them if they don’t enhance the story. When it comes to beginnings, your words are most important and need to be just right, so do whatever is necessary to make them your best.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, April 1986

This says it all. If a writer accepts Ms. Oates’s dictum, them those first words penned at first onset are not that important, so don’t get bogged down on them. Rather, get your story going. Once you have reached the ending, you return to the beginning (give your story a rest for a few weeks before doing this) because now you have a better sense of what the beginning needs. You may keep those first words you wrote, but now you are sure they work. Or, you may choose another path. Regardless of what you do at this point, you have evolved from writing to becoming a writer.

How do you start a new work? I would love to hear about your writing experiences.



2. Start writing that novel

Talk about intimidating. How much research should you do before you start?  Tons? Very little? Should you make an outline chapter by chapter? Just start writing? Start that novel and know the ending? Have no clue about the ending? Write in a quiet place? Noisy place? Starbucks? The variables of how to start are multifaceted and different for everyone.

Some writers are disciplined and outline every chapter before they start their opus. Others just start. There is no right or wrong approach this. Perhaps if you have a book contract and a deadline, you take the organized route. Me? I take my time and approach a book often not knowing the ending. While this causes dismay among lay folk, writers understand it: the characters tell the story. It’s their tale and they will give up the ending as your writing progresses. Be true to your characters and they will be true to you. I have said more than once, “I can’t wait to get home to see what happens in my story.” Non-writers are shocked by this. When I write, I get into a zone and feel I am the conduit for my characters. I am at their disposal to tell their story.

I need a certain comfort level before I start tapping away on the keyboard. Like all of us, I need a topic, an event, a specific theme and then I do a certain amount of research to become familiar with the locale, pertinent history, geography, mores, etc. What is critical for all writing is to know your protagonist’s personal history inside out. Where were they born? Who were their parents? Any siblings? What was their education? Special abilities. Childhood illnesses? Vacations? Favorite foods? Allergies? Medications taken? Music likes? Favorite authors and books? Movies? You get the picture. You may not use most of this, but the more you know about your character, the more real they become. Sprinkling “realistic” facts throughout your story gives depth, and enables the reader to relate to them. Once you have a basic comfort level with who your main character is, what the general plot will be, I urge you to begin. The minute you start, you are on your way to becoming a writer. Your journey will never be straight or unimpeded. There will be roadblocks, unexpected twists and turns, and dark alleys . . . rather than avoid, explore with relish and zeal.

I am interested in hearing how others approach starting a novel? This will be helpful to all.