Since I wrote my first novel a few years ago, I’ve come across many people who feel that they have a story inside them. Most haven’t gotten down to the actual nuts and bolts of writing because the task is just too daunting. Constructing all the elements and putting them together seamlessly seems a massive task. I am often asked, “How do I get started?”
If you’ve ever thought of writing a short story, novella, or novel, I’m going to give you some advice. These are things I’ve learned over the past few years, things I wished I knew before sitting down to write a first novel.
First let’s address your inner critic. Many of us have a critical voice that critiques our work (sometimes harshly) and may even tell us that we can’t do this. I’m here to tell you that when you sit down to start that first work, IGNORE THAT VOICE. Roy Peter Clarke, in his excellent book “Writing Tools”, says, “the internal critic ...becomes useful only when enough work has been done to warrant evaluation and revision.” In other words, don’t criticize until you have actually written something. Another famous author, whose name escapes me, states it more bluntly: “Write shitty first drafts.” By this she means write, even if it’s not your best. Get a draft down on paper/screen. Once that is done you can always fix it, but you can’t improve anything if you’re too paralyzed to put words to paper. Both of these authors are saying the same thing: ignore your inner critic and write. Give yourself permission to write poorly. That takes all the pressure off of you. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t even have to be good, you just have to write. Get started. Get something written.
The question I hear most from aspiring writers is this: Do I need to plot out my whole story in some sort of official outline before I write or can I just wing it and let the story unfold as I go? The truth is that both styles can work. Some people are very formal and want to know the major plot points, including the ending, before they start to write. J.K. Rowling had apparently worked out the entire Harry Potter saga, including the ending, before writing it. Stephen King, on the other hand, recommends that people create compelling characters, put them in interesting situations, and see where they take you.
Okay, so you’ve decided to write, what elements does a writer need to keep in mind? First you need a main character (or characters). Is your story about a young Jedi? A peaceful hobbit? A wary gunslinger? if you have a story that’s been percolating in your head for a while, you have an idea of who the main character is. The best authors create characters that are well developed and interesting. They have their own motives, habits, even quirks. They have pasts that have affected them and continue to influence them. As an author, you will know a great many details about your character. Not all will make it into your story, but in knowing them, your character will be stronger and more developed.
You will also need to choose a viewpoint. Will your story be told in the first person, where the character tells their own story? “I pulled the knife from its sheath”, etc. Some well known novels in the first person include The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Hunger Games, and Twilight. The third person is even more common - “He pulled the knife from its sheath”. These are the two most common viewpoints and when writing your first work it’s best to pick one and stick with it.
Next decision: which tense? In other words is the story told as if it is happening now? (present tense) or are we hearing about something that happened in the past (past tense). Past tense is the most common for longer works of fiction. It is simple and easy to follow, but viewpoints and tenses can get very complicated. It’s possible to combine different viewpoints, to switch who tells the story and how, to change tenses for different sections. Unless done very well this can get very confusing for the reader. I would keep it simple for a first effort. As science fiction writer Orson Scott Card says in his excellent book “Characters and Viewpoint” : “Choose the simplest, clearest, least noticeable technique that will still accomplish what the story requires.” Like I said, keep it simple for your first effort.
You need some kind of conflict, some big event that your character(s) will face. The Jedi will have to fight the evil empire. The hobbit will need to undergo a dangerous journey. The gunslinger will need to track down the bandit who killed his brother, and so on. Our introduction to the conflict should come early in the story. This introduction may be sudden and violent or subtle and mysterious. In either case, the first chapters of a book should have the reader saying,” something interesting is going to happen to this character, I want to see how it plays out.”
Your main conflict usually involves a protagonist, someone whose motives are contrary to your main character’s. The protagonist doesn’t have to be an evil scientist, a monster, or a devious fiend. It could be a corporation without a conscience, a volcano, a co-worker, or the girl next door. Like your main character, your protagonist should be well developed and fully fleshed out. With all of your characters, ask yourself “What is their motivation? What does each one want?” this is the basis of how each character will act and these motivations will drive your story.
Your story unfolds and eventually heads toward the big final scene. As it does, your main character undergoes some degree of change. The timid, peaceful hobbit gets tougher and more confident. The gunslinger comes to see that revenge makes him no better than the killer he is pursuing. Events affect these characters and they also may find out things that change their lives, their way of looking at things. Luke Skywalker finds out that he’s related to almost every other character in the story. If you’ve created a character that is interesting, one that readers identify with and want to follow, readers like to see how the events of the story affect them.
Eventually, the main characters blow up the death star, destroy the ring, get the girl, whatever. Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. You’ll move on to the editing/revision phase, but we can think about that later. For now, be proud of yourself, because you’ve accomplished a great deal.