How to Begin Writing a Novel.

how to begin writing a novelBegin where you are, with what you have. Just start writing your thoughts about your novel in a notebook. That’s how you begin.

Writing a novel is like putting a puzzle together, but first you must dream into existence all the pieces. Then, you must find where each piece belongs.

It’s important to have an organized system for collecting all these pieces of your novel and to be able to rearrange them as you better understand what your novel is about.

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Dreaming the Pieces of Your Novel…

When you commit to writing a novel, ideas will come to you…ideas for dialogue, scenes, characters, titles…all sorts of stuff. These are the puzzle pieces. At first, it might just be a trickle of ideas, but the more you keep the channel open, the more ideas will come.

Not all the ideas will be usable. Some ideas might belong to another novel, one you haven’t even dreamed of yet. You won’t know for sure which ideas go where until you’re deep into writing your novel.

The important thing is to capture all of your ideas, all the puzzle pieces, as they come to you and keep the channel open.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you.

Keep the channel open. ─ Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

 

Here’s how I record my ideas…

It’s important to have an organized system for collecting all these pieces of your novel. Here’s how I record my ideas.

I carry a small pocket notebook and pen with me at all times. My best ideas come to me when I’m walking, washing dishes and doing things unrelated to writing. I jot these ideas in my pocket notebook as they come to me.

I don’t edit or ponder over the ideas at this stage, I just get the ideas down.

I also have a larger spiral notebook on my desk. The pages in this notebook are the size of regular notebook paper and perforated so they can be easily torn out. The pages also have three holes in the left margin so I can tear the pages out and put them in a three ring binder when I begin to organize my ideas later.

Being able to tear the page out and put it in a three ring binder is very important. This spiral notebook is the main depository of all the ideas for that particular novel while I’m dreaming all the pieces. Later, I’ll organize all my ideas in the three ring binder and arrange them into a rough outline. The binder makes it much easier.

So, while I’m out and about, living my life, I record ideas that come to me in the smaller pocket notebook. At the end of the day, if I have ideas in the small pocket notebook, I transfer these to the spiral bound notebook. If the notebook gets filled up with ideas, I start another spiral bound notebook. This idea gathering stage can go on for months or years.

When I’m ready to organize my ideas and notes into scenes I move them into a three ring binder.  The binder is divided into four main sections: Act I, Act IIa, Act IIb and Act III. I try to organize my ideas into the act where I think they might belong, but they move around as I get a better understanding of what my novel is about.

I also include a section in the three ring binder for characters, snippets of dialog, story premise, story theme, the value being pursued in my story, the central story question and what keeps the main character going, what she wants and why she can’t get it. I’ll cover all this in later posts.

For now, keep the channel open, dream the pieces to your novel and gather them together. Take your time and stay relaxed.


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I’ve written an email course on How to Write a Novel. It’s based on my nearly 30 years of study and experience. It begins with story theory and then shows, step-by-step, how I plan and organize a novel before I begin writing. Where possible, I use popular movies to show solid story structure at work. It’s a fun and fast way to learn structure. This How to Write a Novel email course is available at no cost. It’s my gift to you. Enroll here.

Comments

  1. Hey Gary, this is a very practical article as I’ve always wondered how to start when it comes to actually writing a book be it a novel or otherwise. In the future I certainly will use the steps which you speak of here, particularly writing all of my ideas in one pad I always carry with me. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Grizzly!

      Thanks for commenting. We write in a linear fashion, one word after another, but our minds think in multi-dimensions. The only way we can possible keep track of our ideas is to write them down as they come to us.

      Thanks for stopping by…

      Gary

  2. Hi Gary. I agree with you completely, and we’re on the same page! 🙂

    A writer myself, I find it essential to always have pen & paper on hand for those sudden bursts of inspiration that just pop up anywhere I am, anytime of the day. So, I get what you mean.

    Like you, I always have a small spiral notebook with me – the ones with perforated, tear-off pages for all my notes and edits.

    Well, it appears that there are things a writer needs that technology just can’t replace, right? Cheers and keep up the good work!

    Sophie

    • Hi Sophie!

      Thanks for taking time to comment. Yes, I’m still a pen and paper sort of guy. I only buy shirts with breast pockets so I always have a place for my pen and notebook. The scattered ideas I get throughout the day are the best. Sometimes it feels like the universe is leaving me clues.

      Thanks for stopping by…

      Gary

  3. When I was younger I often dreamed about writing a book – I lived in saudi Arabia as my dad worked as a dentist on an American army base. We had no TV channels to watch so books were my only release ( when it was too hot to go outside! ). I now write for my website but I still have dreams of writing a book one day…

    • Hi Chris!

      Thanks for taking time to comment. You just have to begin writing your novel. Use the notebook method like I suggested. That way you’ll get the ideas down and can build on them later. Once you start, you’ll find that the creative process develops its own momentum. The secret is to start.

      All the best…

      Gary

  4. Hi Gary,
    I have been working through something similar as I am working on developing a career in the paid public speaking arena. As I develop my material I use my smart phone (Samsung Note series) works great! I am able to use the writing feature along with voice recordings capture my ideas on the go. Thanks for the tips!!

    • Hi Tony!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comment.

      Wow! I applaud your commitment to a public speaking career. Thanks for sharing how you use your smart phone to prepare your speaking notes.

      All the best…

      Gary

  5. Thanks for a wonderful “How To” article Gary (◑‿◐) Your reminder to write down our thoughts over the course the day, where we are, is just what I needed to hear…inspiration happens to me all over the place when I’m out and about and easily forget 90% of it. I also think that having the puzzle peices makes you more likely to actually try and put the puzzle together and not procrastinate…again wonderful article…thank you you (◑‿◐)

    • Hi Sevieden!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad my words were helpful. It’s a simple thing to write our thoughts down, but it makes a big difference. For me, writing a novel is really more like day dreaming. As long as I can stay relaxed with the process and not take it too seriously, it’s very enjoyable.

      All the best…

      Gary

  6. Hi Samantha!

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m pleased you enjoyed my post.

    Yes, like you, I definitely need to outline my longer projects. Like you mentioned, it might just be a hasty outline scrawled on legal but it helps me organize my thoughts.

    I have a system for planning a novel that I’ve developed over the years. The pocket notebook is just the beginning. In the coming weeks, I’ll post more about how I plan and write a novel.

    All the best…

    Gary

  7. Hi Gary,

    This makes a lot of sense. Just recently I’ve begun carrying two books around – one spiral bound one for ideas, and another workbook just for writing drafts.

    I’m loving the availability of it all, just jotting everything down as it comes to me. 🙂 At work, home or on the bus, wherever.

    Thanks for this article. I love that quote about keeping channels open…I never thought of it like that before.

    Anyway, thanks again for the inspiration. Happy writing! 🙂
    Elsie

    • Hi Elsie!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m pleased you found my article useful.

      Keep the channel open indeed!

      All the best…

      Gary

  8. alisonklingvall says:

    Hi Gary,

    I have started to do this a few times (well writing ideas down at least) and not kept at it but I love how you talked about these ideas or snippets as not needing to be judged and indeed it isn’t my role to judge them anyway. I should just keep the channel open and collect the ideas that flow through.
    The more I read your posts the more I see that probably by now i could have written a novel if I hadn’t shut down so many ides before they were even properly formed.
    this is an extremely practical and simple post and yet the power of it could be extraordinary.
    Thank you!
    Alison

    • Hi Alison!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m so pleased you found value in my post. Yes, keep the channel open.

      I sometimes joke that novelists are like spiders, we pull it out of our rear. But, more than that, we begin with a single thread. At first it doesn’t look like much. It’s weak and flimsy, but if we keep weaving, the web gets stronger and stronger until it’s a thing of beauty that captures the reader.

      At the moment, I’m writing a eBook about the full process I go through when I write a novel and how I structure my story. This eBook will be available free here on my site by the end of October. You might find it helpful. Meanwhile, I’ll post most of the chapters here as well.

      Alison, I’m sure you can write a novel and really hope you do. It begins with writing down your ideas. If you get stuck or have a question just leave a comment. I’m happy to help.

      All the best…

      Gary

  9. Hi! Interesting article with very awesome approach. I always thought if you want to write a novel you need to start from characters, time, theme, message you want to send and stuff like that. I have the impression that it is just the othey way around. What is the seed that you put in your mind in order to summon ideas? I don’t believe it is just “I want to write a novel”.. or maybe it is..?

    • Well, Branka, it’s complicated.

      I think it’s probably different for everyone, that’s why I say start with what you have. A novel I just finished and will publish in 2016 started with a character and the story evolved from that, but my novel “Some Glad Morning” began with my memory of how lonely it can be for a soldier. A love story grew out of that.

      It helps to know story structure so you can adapt whatever ideas you have to that form.

      I don’t plant a seed in my mind as much as I just relax so my creative mind can do its work. I tend to live in my story and practice it like I’m practicing a lie. I know that sounds awful, but a novel is kind of like a big fat lie that you practice over and over again until it rings true.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      All the best…

      Gary

  10. Travis Smithers says:

    You have brought up some great ideas on how to do some writing that I had never heard of before. The concept of the first note pad for ideas is good and well known but i like how you transcribe them to a larger ring book. The part I really like is how you organize them into a three ring binder after.
    A very simple but effective way to get organized and make the writing experience so much better. Thanks for the tips.

    • Hi Travis!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate that you took the time to comment and glad you found my post useful.

      All the best…

      Gary

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