I often hear from aspiring authors about their desires to pen their very own novel. Most commonly, they have no idea where to start. So, I felt it was time to share some knowledge and help you get started.
Two Types of Writers: There are primarily two types of writers, and I think the type of writer, or rather the type of learner, you are will play a big role in deciding how best to approach your first step in writing your first novel.
Most authors will admit to being what is commonly referred to as either a Pantser or a Plotter. Since people are complex, it’s common for an author to be some form of both. But let’s examine them separately.
A Plotter is someone who takes the time to plot out the details of the novel before they begin writing.
Because plotters may have varying degrees of “the plotting bug” each author is likely to focus on various tasks. Commonly, they’re working on character sketches, plot, and setting. They may work long enough to create a map of their setting as well as key places and detailed world sketches.
For characters, they might find an inspiration picture, develop their family and background, dig deep into their character’s strengths and flaws and fears as well as their dreams and motivations.
They may work with the plot outline until they have a scene by scene sketch.
But a Panster is right the opposite. They’re most comfortable when they can jump in with both feet and allow the story and its characters to unfold before their eyes. Many pansters tend to do some form of plotting, but likely not very much before they’re typing away.
What I’ve noticed, is that many times the author works the same way they learn. If you learn best with hands-on instruction and often get bored with textbook work, you’ll likely feel comfortable as a pantser. But if you learn well by textbook or often feel lost getting your hands dirty before you’ve spent some time studying the material, then you may work best as a plotter.
If you’re uncertain which one you are, consider this scenario: If you just brought home an entertainment center in a box. What is your first step?
Do you lay out all the pieces in groups and consult the instruction manual before touching anything?
Or do you begin putting together pieces you know fit together before consulting the manual?
If you’re a manual first kind of person, you’ll probably want to try writing as a Plotter first. You can always change courses if you’re not comfortable.
If you only consult the manual after you’re stuck, then you’ll likely prefer to try writing as a Pantser. Again, you can change later or do a combination as you see fit.
So consider whether you’re a Plotter or a Pantser. This will help you know which path to take when you actually begin to write your first novel. And if you’re not sure, make your best guess and keep this little tip in mind:
If you’re plotting out your story in great detail and find yourself getting anxious or bored, then you’re a pantser at heart and need to set aside manual and get started writing. You can always consult the manual as problems arise (and they will!).
If you’re jumping in without formal instruction or plotting and find yourself getting anxious or lost, then you’re a plotter at heart. Stop what you’re doing and pick up the manuals to learn more before proceeding.
Now that we’ve taken a look at which path you’ll take, let’s look at what you’ll need before you can begin…
The Big Idea: The first thing you’re going to need is an idea. If you already have an idea burning a hole in your brain, then you’re all set. If you know you want to write but can’t seem to grasp any one idea, then here are some options:
Search for blog posts or instruction books featuring key phrases such as: Developing A Novel, Crafting a Gripping Story, Brainstorming Ideas for a Novel, or Plotting a Novel.
Another option is to search your brain: Consider what interests you most? Typically, we write what we like to read. So if you enjoy historical fiction, narrow down some of your favorite eras in history and see what ideas come to mind.
If you enjoy fantasy or contemporary settings, then explore ideas within these general settings.
The key to any plot is tension. So when considering ideas, consider how you can best bring tension or discomfort to the character. You might do that by forcing your character to do the opposite of what they’re comfortable with or by using their strengths against them. Here are some examples:
Someone who is shy would feel the most uncomfortable in a leadership or public speaking role.
Someone known for their nobility would feel the tension if they were forced to do something they didn’t want to do in order to save their good name or keep their word of honor.
For more information, I encourage you to seek other sources that will go more in-depth. Try searching blogs and books using the key phrase: Creating Tension in a Novel
So, now that you have an idea and some understanding of what type of writer you are, you’re ready for Step One. Step One will be different for Plotters and Pantsers. But don’t be discouraged if you’re not certain which one you are. If you’re uncertain, I advise you to start as a Plotter, but when the itch to write is too strong to ignore, then break off and get started.
Step One for a PLOTTER: The first step for a Plotter is to develop the setting, characters, and plot. You’ll find plenty of sources that go in-depth into each category so look for books and blogs featuring: Character Development, Creating a Setting, How to Describe Your Setting, How to Plot a Gripping Novel.
Feel free to go as far and in-depth as you’re comfortable with.
Here are some tools that cover general writing. I recommend you pick up one or more of these books to get you started:
Just Write by James Scott Bell
Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass
Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke
Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith Jr.
*Many of these books were intended for the general audience and not Christian writers. You may find language or PG13 content.
Step One for a PANTSER: You have an idea and now you have permission to get started. I would advise you to establish some basics about your main characters, setting, and plot. It’s best to have a general understanding of the elements you’re working with. You might even jot down a name bank and collect names fitting for your work (male and female AND last names) to keep beside you while you’re working.
The thing about a Pantser is that they learn as they go. So be sure to pick up research material, and stop and learn more about the craft as you come across issues in your work.
Another important tip is to jot down notes as you write. Since you didn’t plan ahead of time, you’ll want to make note of important details as you discovered them. Keep a notebook beside you to document details about your setting, characters, and plot as you unveil them. You don’t have to know ahead of time but you’ll need to remember these details later in order to be consistent.
But remember, you will eventually run into problems. Here are a few quick troubleshooting tips:
If your characters feel bland or they all feel like copies of the same person, look up information on character development.
If you don’t feel like you’re in your character’s head well enough, look up information on character development.
If your story suddenly stalls, look up plot development or outlining a plot.
There are a thousand other things to learn while writing your first novel, but those three are common pitfalls and will help keep you moving forward.
One last first step:
Join a writing community! I can’t say this enough. There are local writing groups you can pay memberships into and meet with in person. There are others who require a membership fee that meets online. And there are free groups in places like Facebook and Goodreads. I recommend you find an ACTIVE group.
Writing groups will give you like-minded people who truly do understand the ups and downs an author faces. They will “get you” in ways that none of your friends will. You can let them know where you’re stuck in your writing and they’ll help you get back on track. They’ll encourage you to keep going.
Many authors start off with a supportive family/friends circle. And this is good. But it’s not great. Your family/friends unit may encourage you, but they won’t understand you, and they can’t help you. While many start off being strongly encouraging, they usually fade away over time.
Sneak peek at Step Two:
Here are some key topics for you to explore once you’ve completed Step One. These are important elements of novel writing and will help you tell a vibrant story.
Show vs Tell
I hope this helps you find your footing and better understand those early steps. It wasn’t my intent to dig deep but to give you some confidence as you move forward. Happy writing!