10 Tips on how to start writing a novel

Tobsha Learner

So you're ready with a great idea for a novel, but stuck on how to start? We give you ten top tips for how to break the barrier and start creating

Author, Tobsha Learner

 

1. Don’t be intimidated by the blank page

Write the outline of the story and character breakdowns of all your main characters before you begin. Collect as many research notes, visual cues, character quirks/physicality/details, plot graphs etc, and have them at your finger tips the moment you type your title onto that first blank screen…

 

2. Get the first draft finished no matter how rough

This way you’ll have the total shape of the novel and you won’t get stuck rewriting and polishing every paragraph as you go and end up never finishing the book—a classic first timer’s syndrome…

 

3. Don’t be precious about your own prose

Every author has written terrible first drafts. It’s all in the rewrite, writing is a craft to be learnt and practised not a ready-made gift no matter what your best friend or your mother tells you. We all fall into the trap of our favourite phrase or adjective. Do a global search and highlight them, then only use them once in the book and rewrite…

 

4. Do your research—become a razor-sharp observer

For characterisation, interview and record for dialogue and specific characteristics (with permission, of course). Get into the habit of eavesdropping and making notes, snippets of dialogue, psychological quirks etc. This will inspire and help build realistic and empathetic characters. For location, visit if possible, take photos, record sound, smell, and architecture. Everything to help create visceral landscape the reader can almost touch. If visiting a location is not possible, go online and collect images. On action/careers of characters—search out experts in that particular field and interview them. You’d be surprised how many will agree (with a promised thank you or reference at the back of the book). Just make sure you’re respectful and make it clear it’s for general atmosphere and not to use verbatim…

 

5. Be prepared to write many drafts

To over-write is better than under-writing. This allows you more choice as you hone down your narrative. Take time out between each draft to get a “clear eye” on each re-write—this will give you more objectivity. I’m talking weeks not days. I call this fermentation time, and it’s important to resist the impulse to sit down and fix what you think is wrong with a draft immediately after finishing reading it…

 

6. Study the masters

Choose your favourite example of the genre you want to write and study it. Observe how the plot unwinds throughout the book. Make a graph noting how the subplots feed into the theme of the book and how they all build to the climax and conclusion. Look at how conflicts between characters and the obstacles they have to overcome creates tension. Note how specific characteristics make a protagonist believable... 

 

7. Think about tenses and what they do psychologically to the reader before you begin writing

For example, first person/present places them in the skin of your protagonist and moves them through the landscape right in the moment, the down side is that the description of other characters will always be through the protagonist’s eyes unless you jump tenses. Again look at your favourite books and note how the author uses tenses for different effects… 

 

8. Don’t show your first draft to anyone

You will naturally think it is pure genius and trust me—it won’t be. Wait until third or fourth draft and then choose carefully picked readers who reflect the correct demographic ie, if it’s Young Adult, get your teenage daughter to read it. Encourage them to be frank in their responses. If the same criticisms keep turning up, deal with them in the next rewrite…

 

9. If you want to hire a professional editor do so at a later stage

Otherwise you will be wasting your money. There are two kinds of editors: structural editors for plot problems and copy editors for grammar, spelling and fact check. An editor is no guarantee of a publishing deal but it can help. Remember to check their professional credentials and that they know the genre you’re writing in…

 

10. Never send a first draft to a publisher

You will be rejected. Always send the best and final draft—you will only be read once.

 

Tobsha Learner’s new book The Magick of Master Lilly is out now, published by Little, Brown Book Group, and priced at £8.99 in paperback and £7.99 in e-book. For more information visit tobsha.com