Getting Started With Your Novel

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People come up to me after talks or at conferences, offering to give me an idea for my next book, telling me what a cool trick ending they’ve devised. I say thank you, no; I have more than enough ideas already to last more than a lifetime. Ideas aren’t the problem. I’m not even sure writing is the problem.

Getting started? That’s the problem. A lot of people who could probably turn out effective and even brilliant work, don’t — because they don’t know how to begin.

I’m here to tell you that the famous terror of the blank page or screen doesn’t need to overcome your creativity. Here are some tips for getting started that will awaken your muse … and put the pen in her hand!

Your first mistake is starting with the blank page/screen. Any project takes planning, and writing a novel is no exception. So accept that you have to do some reasonably heavy lifting before you even get to the pivotal scene that’s been playing in your head.

1. That said, start by choosing your tools. Don’t worry: pen and paper are completely acceptable. However, if you’d like to make your life a little easier, I can wholeheartedly recommend using Scrivener (no, I have nothing to do with Literature and Latte, I’m just a very satisfied Scrivener user). Go to the site and take a tour and if you’re not convinced that this will help you with every writing project you’ll ever undertake, I’ll be surprised.

2. Okay, now that you have your tools lined up, use them. One of the reasons I recommend Scrivener is that it gives you access to spaces where you can jot down your ideas (I use the corkboard feature for this). If you don’t already have ideas for your novel, then perhaps you should wait until some come to you; otherwise, this is the time for random thoughts about it. They could be anything from the color of the protagonist’s eyes to the final exciting scene to that one point that you think someone should make.

3. Next, create a character file. Note that I didn’t say “list,” though you may wish to do that as well. I want you to go deeper: create a filecard (either real or virtual) for each character, and spend time with them. What’s the character’s backstory? What did he want to be when he grew up? What was Mom like? Where did your character go to school, and what was that like for her? What are his favorite foods? What’s her defining quotation? What is the character’s quest, both in life and in the context of your story? How do other people feel about your character? What’s his most endearing/annoying trait? Religious beliefs? Memberships? Relationships? As you see, the list is only limited by your imagination. Why are you doing this? Because while people are often inconsistent in their thoughts and behavior, it’s up to you as their creator to make sure that these inconsistencies are neither sloppy nor haphazard. You need to know your characters inside out. Even if you don’t use a lot of this information, you need to have it.

4. The next most important thing to consider is your timeline. I cannot count the instances of timeline mistakes I’ve made (thank goodness for editors!), because, quite simply, we forget. Was Elizabeth born in July or September? Is she older or younger than her brother Joe? Did the life-changing accident happen when she was twenty or twenty-five? Could she have listened to Rhianna in her car when it happened, or was that before Rhianna became popular? All these and more are waiting to trip you up, so make it easy on yourself and note it all down.

5. Let’s talk geography. Back in the dark ages before the internet, I wrote a novel in which a character strolled on the beach… at San Jose, California, which is an inland city. Oopsie. I never made that mistake again… but geography can trip you up. Use maps! They’re wonderful, and you can make them into pdfs and insert them into Scrivener for later perusal.

6. Finally, have an idea of the plot. Just a vague idea really is fine… you may find, as I do, that your characters take a strong hand in changing it. That’s fine. But have an idea where you’re setting out for before you set out, and it will raise your confidence level substantially!

So there you go. Follow these steps and you’ll find that the blank page isn’t quite so terrifying!

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at

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