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How to Start Writing a novel

Writing a novel is no easy task. As Stephen King says in his excellent book “On Writing”, “…do not come lightly to the blank page.” It’s true. The blank page offers a world of possibility, but at the same time it can be a daunting challenge for those with no idea where to start.

Most people have at least one or two “great ideas” that they are convinced would be a great novel…if they just knew how to write one. The thing that most people fail to realize is that anyone can write a novel. This article will briefly cover the five basic plot points of a novel, and provide a small writing assignment to help the uninitiated get their feet wet in the world of writing.

1. Character

Characters, rather than plot, are what drive your novel. Without characters, you’d simply have a bunch of locations, existing in the world. At the heart of any story is the main character, or protagonist. He is the “hero” of your tale. Most times, heroes are understood to be almost supernaturally “good”. In the case of Superman, for example, he is a being of immense, almost incalculable power, but manages to be a force for good 100% of the time. In some cases, heroes have displayed less than heroic traits while still remaining on the side of good. Batman is a good example, as is the legendary Robin Hood.

Your protagonist may be either of these, or any shade of grey in between. It’s completely up to you. He or she can be someone you know, someone completely invented, or a mixture of the two. For the beginning writer, it’s sometimes best to create a composite – a mixture of people that you know in real life. Study people, figure out what traits make them interesting to you. These same traits are quite likely what will make your characters interesting to your readers.

2. Plot

Now that you have your characters, what are they going to do? Many novels simply center on the interaction between characters as the entire plot of the novel, or a large portion of it. Isaac Asimov, for example, is a master of using dialogue with little to no action to create entertaining plots. His work in ‘Robots of Dawn’ and ‘Foundation’ are great examples of this. Most of the action either happened in the past, will happen in the future, or happens “off-screen” and is simply discussed by the characters, giving the illusion that things are going on. Another grand example is Anne Rice with her Vampire novels. Much dialogue and discussion, with small bursts of actual goings-on.

Your plot can be as action-packed or as reserved as you choose to make it. One way to allow plot to happen organically is to ask yourself – how would I react in this situation? Or, how would so-and-so act in this situation? Often times you’ll find that by doing this, your plots will almost seem to write themselves, and might take you in surprising new directions.

3. Location

Location is as open to your imagination as characters and plot. Want to write an epic that takes place on a moon-beetle ranch somewhere past the dark side of the moon? What about a colony of mermaids situated just off the Marianas Trench? Go foe it. Only one caveat – do your research. Granted, an Atlantean city at the bottom of the ocean probably won’t have much documented research, but think about how the environment will affect your adventure. Is it a domed underwater city, or do the Atlanteans prefer the open ocean? How do they deal with predators like sharks? Thinking logically about the layout of your location can both lend credibility to your story and lend some interesting and unexpected plot twists.

Keep in mind however, YOU are the creator of this new and fantastic place, be it a single city or an entire world. You can make it as similar or as alien as you choose. For a start, looking around you at the world you know can be a help, but don’t stop there. Keep going, to the end of the street, the end of town, the end of the world, and beyond.

4. Genre

Genre is the category of fiction your story falls under. Sci-fi, horror, suspense, mystery, romance these are all adequate categories. However, you may find as your writing progresses that your story falls into two, three, or more categories. Ray Bradbury, for example, is considered by many to be a writer of science-fiction. Some others, however, consider him a literature writer, citing his impact on American writing. Ultimately, it’s your readers who will decide what genre to place you in.

Using these four very basic staring points, the beginning writer should have a good starting point to get their feet wet. Keep in mind, however, this is just the tip of the iceberg when penning a novel. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, spent decades working on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s companion piece the Silmarillion.

5. Writing Exercise

As promised, here is a small assignment to help you get in the mood for writing. This is not a test nor a quiz, but a self assignment you are the only judge of your writing’s quality here.

Take a few hours out of your day with a small notepad and head to the local mall. Find a comfortable spot and simply observe the people around you, preferably a pair or a small group that will be there a while. As you observe, try to imagine what the group is talking about and what they’re like. Then, start writing. It doesn’t have to be coherent or intelligible, and it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare. This is for your eyes only. Don’t take time to read back over your writing, just write. Only when you decide you’ve finished should you re-read your notes. Ask yourself, how were your observations? Where could they be improved? By reading your notes, can you “see” the person being described, or “hear” the conversation taking place? By using this method, you may find yourself loosing yourself of writer’s block and coming up with more material than you can put down on paper.

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