How Do You Start Writing A Novel?

I’ve received a number of emails lately — from acquaintances, potential editing clients and strangers.  And these sincere aspiring authors have one thing in common.

They haven’t started writing their books.

So that’s my first piece of advice.  Write. Write with abandon. Write with acceptance. Write with forgiveness. Write with the knowledge that you are going to rewrite several if not many times.

Wait. Rewrite? Folks stop me there, especially if we’re talking face-to-face. “I don’t have time to rewrite,” they say.  My reply? “OK.”  I mean, really. Who am I to say that it will take someone four years to write a novel?  That the novel they start won’t resemble the novel they query and the novel they query will only resemble the novel they sell in some ways, but not in other ways?  Saying “OK” may be a copout but it’s also the truth.  It’s OK with me if these folks don’t rewrite their books, but it shouldn’t be OK with them — and then they shouldn’t be querying or even self-publishing.  But that’s not my job.  I’m always eager to send a list of websites or some blog names or links; to recommend books and vouch for online forums.  But the nitty gritty has to come from within, because learning how to write and publish a novel is only the start.  Heck, writing a novel is just the start.

But what if you are at the point of writing that first draft — and you just want to get it out — onto virtual paper so that it’s real and can be “saved as” the first draft of your novel?  Some people are ready to get moving but get so hung up on writing right and being perfect that they don’t make it past Chapter One.  I did that for a long time. I rewrote the beginning of my book so many times that I had a fabulous first 50 pages and nothing else. Mind you — those fifty pages are not part of the novel I sold.  They weren’t even part of the novel I queried.  So I spent months and months and months writing something that went no where.  I wish I knew then what I know now.  And that is — getting the barebones story out is what’s most important.  I don’t get held up in the what if’s and it’s not fabulous.  I just write.  And then I go back.  A gazillion times.

Since writing and querying and selling THE GLASS WIVES, a process, that in its entirety, took five years, I have written one other almost-completed novel.  One that won’t see the light of day.  I have the beginnings of two others and ideas for yet one more (the keeper, I think).

Here is a post that I wrote for Writer Unboxed that first appeared on their site in October 2010, right before I signed with my agent, Jason Yarn.  At that time I’d published one short story.  Now I’ve published three and have had two more accepted.  My goal was to be a published author.

So here’s my best advice for how to get started when you want to write a novel — or when you’re struggling through an early draft.  I even do this in later drafts, but I find then it’s often a matter of trimming, not adding.  We have a lot of lurkers here — who write all different kinds of fiction and some non-fiction and they just want a jumping off point.  We can’t push them — they have to do it themselves — but a little nudge coupled with a smidgen of advice couldn’t hurt.

What color is your balloon?

By Amy Sue Nathan

I wrote, rewrote, proofread and edited my story. Three times. I typed ‘The End’ and then with a writerly sigh and a wink, emailed my fifteen-hundred-word short story to my best reader-friend.

“It’s really good, Ame,” she said over the phone. “But I want, well, I really want more.”

Who did she think she was? Oliver Twist? I replied as eloquently as possible. I was, after all, a writer, wordsmith and lover of language.

“Huh?” I said.

Until that time, my published writing had ranged from six-hundred-fifty to one thousand words. I had never written anything longer. Had she missed those additional five hundred words? Perhaps her version of Word didn’t have a counter.

I printed out my story and stared at the first page. I turned it upside-down, read it with one eye closed and read it aloud. Then, I read it aloud with one eye closed. I knew what the story needed and was up for the challenge but didn’t know how to start. The thought overwhelmed me. Then, because when writing didn’t work, doodling did, I uncapped my favorite, fine-line blue marker and drew a circle around the first paragraph. (I’m that delicate balance of procrastinator meets visual-learner.)

And that’s when I saw a blue balloon.

That first paragraph separated from the rest of the page as deflated blue balloon needing enough air to make it round, but not so much that it would burst. So, with short, precise breaths I exhaled into that first blue balloon and then the ones that followed. I meticulously added detail, emotion and meaning, all the while holding tight to the story so it didn’t drift away.

Those fifteen hundred words became three thousand. And eventually the story was published.

At one time I did not believe I could write more than one thousand words. Then for a while I thought three thousand was my limit. I’m happy someone had the insight, faith and chutzpah to ask me for more.

I’m even happier that I had more to give.

It’s now four years, many blue balloons, essays, stories and one seventy-seven-thousand-word, yet-to-be-published novel later. So, when writing friends and colleagues ask for advice (and sometimes when they don’t ask) I suggest looking at each paragraph as a deflated balloon. Just try it, I tell them. It doesn’t have to be blue. Go wild. Pick any color at all.

And it’s still my best advice to myself. When my writing needs a little (or a lot) of something, I automatically see each paragraph as a floppy, blue balloon. Then, I take a deep breath and huff and puff just enough of the right words to evoke the images and emotions I had truly hoped for.

And then not only is the page filled up, but so am I.

Please share you best advice or tricks for getting started or for just getting through an early draft!! 

22 thoughts on “How Do You Start Writing A Novel?

  1. Amy, such great advice and I love the image of a blue balloon. My best advice is simply to sit in front of your computer and stare at the screen until something comes to you….and it will if you’re just patient. And the idea of letting anything happen during the first draft is important….don’t worry about imperfection….just get the words on the page.

    Now a question for you…..I just finished the first draft of a short 50 page children’s chapter book. And I’d like to hire a freelance editor because I’m new this genre. Any suggestions on how to find and hire a freelance editor?

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    • Hi Suzanne,

      Congrats on finishing a children’s chapter book! I wish I could help you myself — I am not sure I even know of any chapter book freelance editors. I do know of someone who might be able to help you find one if she can’t help you — email me for more info!

      I also agree with you about first drafts. Just get those words on the page!!

      ~ Amy

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  2. Amy, I absolutely love the ‘blue balloon’ advice! I have a novella that needs to be edited and I’ve been dragging my feet, dreading it. Now I’m raring to go with a new technique. Another great post, thank you!

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  3. Love this balloon metaphor – especially about the part of holding on tight, filling it, but not letting it drift away. So important.

    My best advice? Don’t get bogged down by all of the “rules” of drafting. Use an outline, don’t use an outline. Write non-stop, pause a lot. Write linearly, or non-linearly. Write every day, write when you can. All of the rules are good ones, but not if they ultimately stop you from writing at all. Use the ones you need, the ones that work and simply get you to write.

    Plus? Don’t forget to keep reading!

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  4. What became TG is so different from the first scribblings that I can’t even imagine the old manuscript even exists – but it does. It isn’t “bad” but it is NOT VK’s story – it’s not what I would have wanted anyone to read, as I do TG–I did many rewrites, and five or so novels later, I STILL do many rewrites.

    I think this is something people just coming into the “business” of writing do not realize — I used to think that “rewriting” meant “I didn’t know what I was doing” – as if the first draft must be somehow “perfect” – lawd! That’s so far from the truth!

    I had plenty of time to write my first novel but the real work came in the six months or so before it was published- because I decided to do what my instincts told me to – to shake off the “I wanna be published” part of me and put on the “I love language and words and these characters” part of me.

    Somewhere, and I can’t recall where, I heard someone on TV say, “People need to stop trying to be a success and instead be the best they can be at what they do.” This is the truth – when you stop trying to be “a published author” and instead write the best book you know how with love and frustration and angst and joy and freedom and terror and excitement and abandon, then you will be on your way.

    With deadlines now, I have to “get on the stick” as my mother used to say (whatever that means :-D~!) but I still start the same with: sit down, write.

    Great post as usual, Amy, and can’t wait to read your book!

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  5. Amy,

    I remember that post on Writer Unboxed! It was before I even “knew” you, but it stood out as awesome advice. In my critique group, I’m often told, “tell me more.” I still have that initial gut reaction of “but there’s nothing more to say.” Then I go back and add more details about the emotions, the surroundings, the characters movements and expressions, sometimes even a dash of previously missing back story, and it’s alway better than before. Super agent Donald Maass calls it “lingering” over a scene. Your blue balloon technique is the perfect way to do just that. Thanks for the repost. It’s invaluable advice.

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  6. Thanks Amy for crafting an encouraging writing TRUTH and beautiful metaphor … breathing life into your story. (smile) To have that true moment of joy when you complete a novel length story, you have to write the words … thousands of story words, and there is no other way to do it. I, too wrote the first chapter of my beginning story, rewrote it, polished it, didn’t like it, revised it … for several years. I didn’t know how to get past it. And that was years ago when smart, savvy writing blogs were not available to provide writers with a sanity check … “Yes, this is hard, but joyful and here’s where you may be getting off track ….”

    For me, I know I have to get those words down in order to reach that exhilarating moment when I have the finished story in hand. Lay them down in a first draft, keep moving. I keep Heather Seller’s “Chapter after Chapter” on my writing table for inspiration. Whenever I get bogged down, I reach for it and turn to almost any page for encouragement and as a wisdom guide about the process.

    I’ve completed a first novel, and have five chapters of the next in process. There’s also this character that popped up for a third story. Her name appeared and I don’t even like it. Wonder what that’s all about? (grin) Wonder? No. Get the words down, Yes!

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  7. I love this, Amy! It is scary to start something new, and even more terrifying, sometimes, to rewrite, because we know a piece needs “something” but don’t really know what–especially when we get vague comments. (I once had an editor say, “This does not amuse.” How helpful was that?!) What I often do is try a paragraph from another point of view, even if I don’t think I’m going to change the point of view. That is, if I’m writing a novel in the third person, and it seems like it’s not emotional enough, I’ll switch to first person to get inside that character’s head. And, if I’m writing in first person and the descriptions seem flat, or I don’t have enough sense of the setting, I’ll switch to third person and describe the world around that character. I tell myself it’s a fun exercise, but sometimes it gets me off the ledge of procrastination, and more often than not, it teaches me something about the paragraph and the story/novel itself.

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  8. When I began writing my first novel, I was were you were—overwhelmed by word count. My solution: baby steps. I scribed notes on small pieces of paper—notes about dialogue, description, etc. Everything was carefully collected in a file folder. To my surprise, it didn’t take long to fill the file. Then the weeding began. I separated what belonged from what didn’t. And, in the end, almost like magic, I had a book.

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  9. It took me 2 plus years to finish the novel I am querying now. My second novel is a YA (something I said I would NEVER write!). Both novels I started with an outline. I use software called Snoflake Pro. I love it. You do a detailed outline, character sketches and then your novel just writes itself. Ok, not really, but it makes it much simpler. I’ve had a few short stories publishes and them I didn’t bother to outline, but with novels I have to.

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  10. Hi Amy! I spent 2 years revising my first novel, which eventually ended up shelved. I wish I hadn’t queried so early….it still needed work. This time, I’ve been writing with a LOT more focus on plot structure, hoping for less rewriting later. But I always let myself just write the first draft, without too much editing. Each time it’s taken me about 6 months to finish the first draft.The process has to be fun. Even though publication is the main goal, the only way to get through a story is to enjoy the plot twists and what’s happening to the characters. Then the rewriting can be for polishing the prose. But I look forward to that part too! It’s important to get over the hump of the middle and just keep writing through the end. 🙂

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  11. My advice: Face your fears.

    My first novel rolled in my head for a very long time without seeing a pen or computer screen. And then one dark and not-so-stormy night I sat before my computer, felt my stomach twist as if the monitor was about to explode in my face, and I typed the first sentence. Nine-hundred-pages later, I typed “The End,” all accomplished in less than six months. Unpublished, yes. My favorite story: Hell yeah! Three and a half manuscripts later (all small than the first), I’m still unpublished, but doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

    The key is to have the courage to run through a wall of fire knowing that it’s the only way to save your life. That’s writing. That’s life.

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  12. I’m on what must be year 4 and getting very close to getting it published, so I totally follow your timeline. I find reading what I wrote the day before (and i do try to write something every day) gives me the momentum to move ahead with the story. Also, for a first draft, i do not necessarily try to write the scenes in order. If I can see the set point scenes ahead I write them. Sometimes they have important information necessary to be woven into earlier scenes. As you can see I’m a bit of a pantser. Enjoy your column!

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  13. Nice post Amy. I have no trouble writing words. Lots of words. But I love your blue balloon metaphor about inflating the basic words on the page detail, emotion and meaning. Choosing just the right words makes all the difference.

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  14. What an important message about the metamorphosis of a book baby. I confess that, when I wrote my first novel, I was pretty close to being that naive about the “level” of edits required. On my current WIP, I am all about embracing the change. But I am still not a first-draft-barebones writer. I massage and edit and re-edit and edit some more and edit some more as I go. If the sensory details aren’t in place in early drafts, I am not compelled to move forward (I know, weird).

    But what has helped me tremendously is watching the success of other authors I’ve met on Twitter (You’re one of them). When I see someone else make it, it makes it that much easier to keep plugging away at my draft (and the way I write, who KNOWS what draft number it is at this point?).

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  15. I think this is such an important point, and one that I came to pretty reluctantly….I am on about the gazillionth edit of my current WIP — and this thing was a MESS when I started editing the first draft, which was written over several years through several different iterations, while I worked on other projects. I think I’m finally getting somewhere with it and I keep editing away….hoping to query soon. The one thing I’d do differently in the future would be to have written more consistently on a regular schedule every single day so I never lost touch with the story. Also, I wish I’d first developed a very detailed outline in advance of writing. That seems to work best with my style. (p.s. glad to see the Writer Unboxed post — I didn’t see it first time around!)

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  16. Hi Amy! Coming out of lurking. 😀 I LOVED the Writer Unboxed post! Your story—as well as your blog are inspiring.

    Adding my two cents to the advice… I don’t think anyone else has mentioned it yet.. but I highly recommend participating in NaNoWriMo. I did an outline prior to November 1st, and then just cranked out the bones of my story over the month’s time. I can’t say enough how liberating it was to just keep writing rather than worrying about any edits. It was the best thing I ever did to produce an early first draft.

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  17. One of the most helpful analogies I’ve heard recently for writers of first drafts has to do with cars. Usually, I am an outline writer. I like to have the story pretty much laid out before I start writing, similar to a roadmap. With the novel I’m working on now, however, I’m still fuzzy on too many of the details to do more than a vague outline–beginning, middle, and end. For a while, I was totally stymied by this lack of outline, until I heard this: Writing a first draft is like driving a car at night. You can’t see any farther ahead than your headlights will shine, but you can get where you’re going that way.

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  18. Great post, Amy – I, like all the rest here, love the blue balloon metaphor. Let’s keep it blue. Red is too…aggressive. 😉

    Congratulations over and over on writing way more than you thought you ever could. And being published many times over. We are so much more than we think we are.

    I had a similar experience with a friend who read a short story of mine. He wanted “more” and, though I didn’t draw blue balloons, I found the more in the minor details, the little things that breathed life (blew (blue 😉 up the balloon) into the story it was meant to be and I was so grateful for his input. As I am for yours and this great website.

    I’m currently a bit stuck in the middle of my second novel (been away from it for over a year!) and know what I need to do – just write – but sometimes it’s taking that first step back in that’s the hardest. Thank you for inspiring me to do get my feet wet again.

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  19. I love this analogy, Amy! I love your fresh look at writing. It takes me back to where I want to be with a fresh look at my own writing. The so many words per day method is now how I am the most productive. I don’t like imposing word counts or allotments of time and I have fought it, but every time I have met a deadline or finished something, I used one of those methods.

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