The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is that there are no easy answers. The second thing you need to know is that there is no magic formula. Every novel demands its own structure, its own pace, its own way of looking at the world.
Still with me? Good. Because, as it turns out, writing a novel isn’t just a head-banging exercise in utter frustration and despair (although, trust me, sometimes it is just that). It’s also a deep swim into your own headspace and a joyful adventure. It’s your world. You get to make it, populate it, cultivate it, and bring all of the pieces together.
If you’re ready to take on the challenge, here are 10 steps to get you started.
1. Forget the Outline
Outlines are fine unless they derail you. I’ve seen it again and again: writers who end up spinning their wheels for years, beholden to a failed outline. The good thing about an outline is that it gives you direction. The bad thing about an outline is that it limits your novel’s possibilities and may cause you to get hopelessly stuck. For the first fifty pages, at least, write your Urdu novels without an outline. Instead, try more intuitive scene lists. (You’ll find scene lists and other helpful planning tools in my Novel Planning Worksheets.)
2. Establish the Setting
Setting encompasses not only place, but also time. Where does your novel happen, and when?
Ian McEwan’s chilling novella, The Comfort of Strangers, derives much of its tension from the setting of Venice — the convoluted streets and hidden alleys are essential to the feeling of disorientation that leads to the protagonist’s undoing. When I began writing The Year of Fog, I knew it could happen only one place: San Francisco. And I knew the story of a child disappearing into the fog must begin on Ocean Beach, where the summer fog is so dense, you can see only a few feet in front of you. I’ve since published several more novels set in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The moment I set foot in San Francisco twenty years ago, I found my muse.
What location is your muse? What place do you know so intimately, you can describe it like no one else?
When you consider the setting of your novel, be as specific as possible. If it begins in a city, what part of the city? What street? What building? Why does the story happen here?
3. Consider the Point of View
Who is telling the story, from what distance? Do you have a first person narrator at the center of the action, an omniscient narrator who can access the thoughts of any character at any time, a limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character? Do you have multiple narrators telling the story from different angles?
In The Stranger by Albert Camus, the protagonist Mersault engages the reader’s empathy, despite his seeming coldness, because the first-person narration invites the reader into Mersault’s anxious mind. We understand his motivations from his own point of view, and actions that might otherwise seem reprehensible begin to make sense.
Who is telling the story? From what distance?
I write novels in first person, because I love the intimacy of first person. It’s the point of view that allows me to most deeply inhabit the protagonist’s voice. When I settle in for the long haul of a novel, first person just feels more natural to me. For short stories, however, I often write in the limited third person, which provides a different kind of stylistic freedom.
If you’re just starting out, try writing in the point of view that feels most natural to you. Don’t force the novel into a point of view that doesn’t engage you. Choosing the point of view that instinctively feels right will remove some of the friction and will help you to establish an authentic, engaging voice. As you become more skilled and confident in your writing, you can try out different points of view for different novels and stories.
4. Consider the Protagonist
You need someone at the center of the action. This will be a character your reader ends up rooting for, no matter how flawed. And he or she must be flawed in order to be realistic and interesting. Emma Bovary is deeply flawed, but in the end, we care what happens to her as she hurtles toward self-destruction. Flaubert isn’t easy on Emma, but he portrays her in all of her complexity — her ambition, her passion, her rapacious desire for status and luxury. Every great novel is character-driven; your protagonist must be a character worth caring about.
Your protagonist isn’t you. He or she can (and should) make bad decisions you would never make and get into trouble you’d never get yourself into.
If you find it difficult to separate yourself from your protagonist, consider making the protagonist different from you in some significant way. After writing four novels with female protagonists, I wrote The Marriage Pact from the point of view of Jake, a marriage therapist who can’t get a handle on his own marriage. Writing from the male perspective challenged me and took me to places in the story I might not have gone otherwise.
Remember: your protagonist isn’t you. He or she can (and should) make bad decisions you would never make, get into trouble you’d never get yourself into. Trouble is the fun of fiction. Go there.
5. Embrace Fragments
Don’t be afraid to write a paragraph here, a page there. Not everything has to be a full-fledged scene or chapter in the early stages of writing your novel. If you have a scene in your head that you know you want to write, go for it. But if you sit down at your computer and feel flustered and uncertain, give yourself the freedom to think small. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to write 800 words about where my character lives,” or “Today I’m going to write 500 words about what’s troubling the narrator,” or “Today I’m going to write the last paragraph of the novel.”
That last one is kind of weird, right? But the point is, you don’t have to write in a linear fashion. You can piece your novel together later. For now, get some stuff on the page.
If you tell yourself, “I’m writing a paragraph today” instead of “I’m writing a chapter,” the process will feel less daunting.
I wrote much of The Year of Fog in fragments, which I later pieced together. The same is true for Golden State. Occasionally, I write a book in a more linear fashion, but one bonus of working in a non-linear way is that you don’t have to stop if you get stuck on a scene or plot point. You can just write something else. Of course, a scene needs to hold together as a scene, with a beginning, middle and end, but working in fragments can help you banish the fear of the blank page.
6. Consider the Conflict
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there is no novel without trouble. Every story begins with conflict. What’s yours? In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a woman goes missing in the first chapter, and her husband appears to be implicated in her disappearance. In John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet, a middle-aged man meets his dead mother along an aqueduct in Lisbon, and must come to terms not only with his own country’s past, but also with the mysterious nature of the uncertain boundaries between life and death.
Trouble is the fun of fiction. Go there.
The Marriage Pact opens with a man alone on a small plane with a stranger, injured and starving, unsure what day it is, where he’s going, or exactly how he got his injuries. When you drop your protagonist into the middle of a bad situation on page one, or at least chapter one, you buy yourself some time with impatient readers. You can go back and weave the background in later, the how-we-got-to-where-we-are story, after you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention with a terrible situation. No matter where you start, remember: your novel must begin with trouble.