From tiny beginnings: how I start a novel

Can you remember what you did when you started on the novel you’re working on? If you’ve finished more than one, do you have a way you like to prepare? Are they always the same or are they different for each project?

Last week I wrote about reaching the end of the tunnel and emerging, blinking and relieved, with a finished book. Now, of course, I find myself at the beginning of another. Here’s what I do.

I’ve got a working title for my next novel: Echo. It started as a subject I’d always wanted to explore, then a week ago formed into an idea that demanded to be written. Now I’m quarrying for the beginnings of my story.

This is what I’m doing. I’m hunting around Amazon and LibraryThing to see who else has tackled the subject, getting acquainted with all the various ways writers have handled it so that what I do will be new.

I know what I want the story’s atmosphere to be, so I’m delving through the less-familiar albums in my music collection to build a playlist. Some of these will become a soundtrack for important sequences or characters, capturing a vital essence or even just a moment.

At this stage, anything is possible. Ideas tumble out of everywhere. A chance headline seen on someone’s paper while travelling on the Tube. A TV programme glimpsed while persuading the DVD to work. A conversation with a friend. A book cover that startlingly would be perfect if it had been designed for Echo.

Each of these could drastically change the way the book develops. This is where storymaking seems like serendipity and fragile chance. As much about random collisions as about research.

And so what I’m doing most, as I stand at the edge of the tunnel, is watching and listening.

Tell me what you do to start writing a novel

(Thank you, Paul Beattie, for the pic) You can find more tips for planning your novel in my book, Nail Your Novel, available in the Kindle US store, the Kindle UK store, and in print.

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  1. #1 by cougel on April 3, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    This is wonderful. And helpful. People rarely write about this moment in the process.. the very first baby step in a long line of them. It provoked a question – how do you know which idea is the one that “should” drastically change how the story develops? Do you just know in your gutt which one is probably the one to pursue?

    • #2 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:01 am

      Cougel, hello! Yes, at this stage I think everything is gut instinct – from picking the idea to deciding which approach rings true. Of course I try to listen to my gut as much as possible later on too, but at this stage, the gut is doing more of the talking than the head (which might say ‘you don’t want to do that, it’s terribly hard!’)

  2. #3 by Glynis Smy on April 3, 2011 - 6:02 pm

    How exciting for you, Roz. So many new avenues opening up in your life. Good luck for the future.

    An interesting post.

    My third will be planned. My first came to me in chunks and my second was hammered out during NaNoWriMo. They have been my learning curves. Having now read through writer resource books such as Nail Your Novel, and digging myself out of a huge muddle, I realise planning is important. If I want to carry on novel writing, (who said if?), then I have to be more organised.
    Writing poetry is not something I had to think about, but now my heart is in novel writing, it must keep me stress free!. :)

    • #4 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:03 am

      Thanks, Glynis! it’s interesting that you say each novel is a learning curve – I agree. Each novel has its own challenges and will test your writing instincts and skills in different ways. But you can learn to recognise that and work with it. Even at such an early stage.

  3. #5 by Kate Kyle on April 3, 2011 - 6:18 pm

    Interesting way to start a novel at Amazon and through music :)
    For me it starts with a snippet – a witness situation, overheard conversation, an imagined scenario, often already featuring a character. As it’s something I ‘stumble upon’ in my daily life, it usually reflects what I’m doing at the moment and contains an element of ‘what if’.
    I then need hours and hours of thinking and walking and speculating, and more walking and layering, and rethinking before I sit and start scribbling down the bones of the story.

    • #6 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:04 am

      Kate, that’s so true – an entire novel may arise out of something you saw on a walk. Or an idea might be refined by where you chose to stroll that day.

  4. #7 by Hugh on April 3, 2011 - 7:26 pm

    For me it’s “What if?”, but with the answer always expressed as a sentence with a subordinate clause. A sentence alone is too bald, and a paragraph too complex. The sentence with a subordinate clause provides just the right amount of genetic material that can then – with much luck and nurturing – develop into a story.
    P.S. But about this playlist: the music is not just an accompaniment to writing, but a driver of specific flights of imagination in specific directions?

    • #8 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:10 am

      Hi Hugh! What-if is one of the best kick-starters. And i find it works best if you can’t answer it until the very end. I remember talking to a friend who was also noveling, and he felt a book was best summed up by an answer. I felt that discharged the all-important spark far too soon.
      So I’m with you. Questions keep us going.
      As to your point about playlists… I use them in a number of ways. Early on , they allow me to play with ideas in a daydream state. Later, I put them on while writing and they keep me focussed. For me, a soundtrack is an important part of the whole creative process – nudging, engulfing, clarifying, and, just as you say, acting as specific inspiration.

  5. #9 by alberta ross on April 3, 2011 - 11:06 pm

    my first started as an exercise homework – was supposed to be a short story – kept growing past short – past novella into full length and from it has grown the next two. The world I write about has grown a trifle complicated now so more planning for this the third and even more I suspect for the fourth!!!

    • #10 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:11 am

      Hi Alberta! Isn’t it funny how something begun so casually can become so important? Great to hear your novels’ origin story.

  6. #11 by erikamarks on April 3, 2011 - 11:44 pm

    Oh, it’s exciting, isn’t it, Roz? Daunting and thrilling, both. Right now I’m deep in research for my WIP–my other novels have not required much of that, but this one will–but like you said, this story won’t be quieted, and I feel compelled to write it and explore these characters–but they are bound and determined to live in a place and follow a course that intrigues me, but one I don’t know much about, hence the research…

    • #12 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:13 am

      Hi Erika! Daunting – yes, that’s a word I haven’t used yet, but daunting it certainly is. I need to do justice to the idea but it will take a lot of work to make it come to life. Good to hear you’re treading that path too. Best of luck with yours.

  7. #13 by Frelle on April 4, 2011 - 12:24 am

    Thank you for explaining your process! I don’t think I’ve been by your site yet off of a #trdc linkup, and I am glad to meet you. I just started writing this spring, and it’s wonderful to come across someone willing to write about the beginnings of a story. Subscribing to your blog!

    • #14 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 12:26 am

      Jenna – thank you! Off to look at yours… (blog, I mean…)

  8. #15 by Maggie on April 4, 2011 - 12:47 am

    When I start, I scribble down as many ideas as I possibly can think of before they escape my brain. I let the idea simmer for a week or so and keep jotting down more ideas as they come up.

    • #16 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:09 pm

      Know what you mean, Maggie. The trouble is, those ideas seem to come out faster than I can write. Perhaps I should wear a butterfly net.

  9. #17 by Ranae Rose on April 4, 2011 - 1:38 am

    For me, the process usually starts with a certain scene or often vague idea, or even a phrase. If it’s meant to be a book, the fever builds from there, and more and more ideas pile themselves on top of one another, until I’ve got something I can turn into a compelling story.

    • #18 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:10 pm

      Love that phrase… ‘the fever builds…’ It can certainly get feverish.

  10. #19 by meszarosgyula on April 4, 2011 - 10:43 am

    I’m a planner, so I draw a mindmap to put together my ideas for plot, characters and places. I develop it until I feel starting the first draft. Meantime I do research and character development.

    Good luck for your next novel.

    • #20 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:13 pm

      Meszaros, that’s an interesting method. I’ve come across one other writer who uses mindmaps to develop ideas for novels and I rather liked the sound of it. Basically I love exercises that help me see my story and characters in new ways. I might give that one a try. Thank you!

      • #21 by Gyula Mészáros on April 4, 2011 - 2:22 pm

        LOL, my name is confusing, again. I just changed the display name to make it clear that my first name is Gyula (Jules, it is). I wish my parents named me Peter. :)

        Anyway, I read your book last year, and I plan to read the editing part again, because I’m in that phase.

        Another thing: may I ask if you use any application to store research material? Just out of curiosity.

        • #22 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:36 pm

          Oof, apologies for getting your name in a muddle. Glad my book is helping!

          As for applications… I know there are a number of them out there and I always wanted to find a way of building an ideas database, but never have. At the moment I have lots of Word files for different subjects within my book – eg geography, characters, pure plot etc. I read about an author who bookmarks within her Word files so that she can cross-refer them all and hop easily from one to another but that doesn’t seem to me to be much better than separate Word files.

          If you discover a better system (or use one already) do let me know.

  11. #23 by Sally on April 4, 2011 - 11:15 am

    Hi Roz,

    For me, my story began with can be best described as a notion that I wanted to write a story that reflected my deepest political beliefs. The ideas only really took off when I was working on the characters, and I decided on a whim to insert a character that I had originally invented in my teens. He was originally a comic, but in my present story I removed the funny elements and made him far more serious. That character turned out to be the most important catalyst to the development of my plot. He (and his relationship with another character) practically wrote the story for me.

    Oh, and yes, music definitely is a must for me too. I daydream music videos of the most emotional and key action scenes… sounds nutty, but it really works!

    • #24 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:18 pm

      Sally, that’s an interesting process – starting with a belief that’s important to you and building from there.

      I particularly like the idea of the comic character recast. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Mrs Brown, but it uses the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly in a serious role. That’s rather startling and somehow gives him more gravitas than if a straightforward actor was doing the job. Although of course, credit must go to him for playing the character well, it’s undeniable that the audience reacts to his previous work. In the same way, I’m imagining that your comic-grown-up probably had gravitas and complexity in your mind which helped you write him.

      Love your remark about music videos! I’ve never thought of that but I can well imagine doing it now!

      • #25 by Sally on April 4, 2011 - 2:49 pm

        Yes, Billy Connolly’s serious casting in Mrs Brown is very similar to what I mean with my character. You’re right, the character was well-developed in my mind before I started and this is why it made such a difference.

        I’m curious – and sorry if you’ve mentioned this already elsewhere – but which songs made up the soundtrack to the making of Life Form 3?

        • #26 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 3:12 pm

          I love this idea of twisted casting, and I was thinking it’s an effect we can’t use in novels. Until you made your comment! Another example from movies is John Cleese in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein.

          I’ll answer your soundtrack question in a fresh post otherwise there won’t be room for you to reply with yours! And I’d like to see what other people are using too.

          • #27 by Sally on April 4, 2011 - 3:55 pm

            OK! :)

  12. #28 by Bill Greeves on April 4, 2011 - 12:13 pm

    I’ve only completed one novel, which took forever due to life getting in the way (not in a bad way, just a distracting way). But I have outlines for three other novels, very different from the first and from one another. I am trying at this point to decide which one I want to tackle first. All of these started as seeds of ideas but then they fleshed out thanks to the “random collisions” you mentioned. I have a long document of titles, descriptors, character names, backstory traits, stray bits of convo that I have seen or heard or read about as I go about my daily routine. When I skim this list, I tend to make connections between the seemingly random bits and it helps give life to the story. I also connect my characters or scenes to music and my first novel definitely had a distinctive soundtrack. I have a pipe dream of getting to select the music groups who will participate in the actual film soundtrack when my first novel is adapted for the big screen! : )

    • #29 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:24 pm

      Ho ho, Bill – don’t we all dream about who’ll do the real soundtrack! And who will play the lead. I’ve just realised Michael Caine would be perfect as one of the characters in Life Form 3, although I didn’t have him in mind when I wrote it. Might as well dream big…

      • #30 by Bill Greeves on April 4, 2011 - 3:43 pm

        same thing happened to me – I had one person in mind for a main character and halfway through it hit me that I was all wrong! Now I’ve got the full cast on board and we’ll be filming on location in six US Cities and in Mexico (in my head at least!) : )

  13. #31 by Corey J. Popp on April 4, 2011 - 2:01 pm

    I research the factual portions of the novel I’m planning. I decide where I’m going to use the truth, where I’m going to bend the truth, and where I’m going to toss out the truth.

    This usually begins on Google or Amazon where I search for non-fiction books. I then load them into Goodreads. From there, I do online searches of my library’s catalog.

    As I checkout and reach each book, I create an excel spreadsheet where I plug in my research.

    Then create a rough outline based on the facts I learn. Afterward, I wrap it in make-believe scenes that are far more interesting than my research.

    • #32 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 2:31 pm

      Ah Corey – a spreadsheet user. I’ve never used them myself but I like the idea of being able to cross-refer and bring pieces of information together. At least, I’m imagining that’s what you can do with a spreadsheet. Do elaborate if you have the energy!

  14. #33 by Sascha on April 4, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    I tend to start with characters and song lyrics. Typically one is inspired by the other, and then a genre or theme is set up and I start plotting things out in my head before I commit word to paper even for the plot. Once I have a general idea of where I’m going, I can start writing. And plotting.

    • #34 by rozmorris on April 4, 2011 - 4:55 pm

      Hmm… starting with song lyrics… that’s very interesting from a story point of view as it crystallises inner desires and worries. Thanks, Sascha!

  15. #35 by Gyula Mészáros on April 4, 2011 - 7:13 pm

    Roz,
    To keep research in order I use Evernote (evernote.com). It has standalone application, web interface, even mobile application for smartphones. My notes are synchronized with the server, so whichever computer I use, I can access them from anywhere. It has a nice web clipping tool also, to clip text or even web pages into my notes. Very handy when gathering info. I take notes on my smartphone on the go, so I never forget an idea.
    I have one notebook per project. You may want to give it a try.

    • #36 by rozmorris on April 5, 2011 - 7:32 pm

      Gyula, I’m clearly not so technological as you. My phone is probably older than you are. Good old scraps of paper for me, I’m afraid!

  16. #37 by Amanda Hoving on April 5, 2011 - 4:53 pm

    Very exciting, Roz, and congrats on finishing up your previous book! My current WIP (3rd novel) came suddenly, allowing no time to research or plan. Now that I’m started the second draft, I see how this has created more work, but I felt I needed to get the story down before I lost it. With the other two, I wrote one or two sentence summaries for each major scene that I thought would occur. Like you, I also spent some time looking up what had already been written on the topics. Oh, and I also made sure there was lots of chocolate nearby.

    Good luck, and have fun!

    • #38 by rozmorris on April 5, 2011 - 7:33 pm

      Thanks Amanda – and good luck sorting yours out!

  17. #39 by Mark Feggeler on April 6, 2011 - 2:11 pm

    Love this topic!

    I began the process of writing my first novel almost one year ago and am almost finished with the first draft — I work full time and have three children, so the book is written in stolen moments.

    Not having written anything longer than a short story, I thought I could simply sit down and start writing. That did not work. Within a week, I had a complete but simple outline. I’ve adjusted it as I’ve gone along. The outline is very simple. Each chapter gets one or two sentences summarizing the important things that need to happen in it. When I finish a chapter, I jot down five or six bullet points for the next one and move through them. This process has successfully kept me on topic and advancing, albeit slowly.

    I’m already anticipating the rewrites and making notes for them, in addition to beginning an outline of the follow up novel.

    • #40 by rozmorris on April 6, 2011 - 4:11 pm

      Hello Mark – nice to meet you! How many of us have started the same way as you have – short stories, then an idea that’s too long and keeps on going… good luck with it.

  18. #41 by Rob F. on April 7, 2011 - 2:04 am

    Hello Roz! Listened to your spot on Joanna Penn’s podcast this morning and subscribed to your feed not long ago!

    While the novel I’m working on now is technically my second – I wrote my first for NaNoWriMo last year and while I won four days out I only finished the book in February – I still think of it as my first, as I’ve had it in mind for years and it’s the one I want to publish. What I seem to be doing to start it, though, is pulling my hair out.

    I’ve got this character who in many ways is to me what Noel Coward reckoned James Bond was to Ian Fleming and I’m trying to give him a decent plot. I’m also trying to apply some writer’s advice I’ve picked up off various websites which suggests outlining as a way to make sure the novel has a decent set of foundations from the outset. I had a rough outline for my NaNoWriMo novel which was very handy for figuring out what should happen next.

    This time around I Googled making an outline and found Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I’ve been trying to apply but keep grinding to a halt when trying to generate three disasters per Step 2. In the meantime I’ve barely written more than pages of notes in over a week!

    I’m starting to think the best idea for me is to just start writing and see where I get to!

  19. #43 by Rob F. on April 7, 2011 - 2:06 am

    On a related note, you mention “hunting around Amazon and LibraryThing to see who else has tackled the subject”. While I’ve heard and read many folks say that a writer needs to be aware of other works in the genre, this is the first time I’ve seen anyone actually suggest how to do so short of browsing book stores and opening my wallet (a difficult proposition as I’m still trying to pay a credit card off).

    I’ve tried looking at Amazon myself and while there doesn’t seem to be anything quite like the concept I have in mind (an action-adventure mashup of cyberpunk and urban fantasy minus, hopefully, the grimness of both genres) I’m not sure whether I’m searching Amazon right.

    How do you get Amazon to generate a list of titles in your intended novel’s genre / plot line? And how else do you find out what’s similar to what you have in mind?

    • #44 by rozmorris on April 7, 2011 - 7:37 am

      On Amazon and Library Thing you can search by tags – where customers (and authors’ friends) have listed the subjects tackled by a title. They’re very subjective, but can be a great way of finding books that might brush against what you want to write. Good luck!

  20. #45 by Ck1 on April 7, 2011 - 7:55 pm

    Roz — Just a reminder, in case it might pertain to your story (even if in a minor or abstract way), Pink Floyd has a classic album called “Meddle” and it has a 23 minute (!) song, “Echoes”.

    You can sample it if you Amazon search Pink FLoyd Meddle and it sample Echoes. I know that’s the plural of your book title, but it might be fun to put this tune in your novel somewhere (I don’t think it has any vocals, I can’t recall now; it’s just a 23 minute amoeba from, who else Pink Floyd).

    Ciao. Please keep posting as you continue to hone down the new novel process (index cards, etc.). Thanks

    P.S> Pink Floyd’s Greatest Hits is called Echoes, too. BUt the song is really their benchmark early stuff. On Meddle. Bye bye

    • #46 by rozmorris on April 7, 2011 - 8:40 pm

      CK, that’s got to be tried! It seems to be fate.

  21. #47 by Ck1 on April 7, 2011 - 7:58 pm

    Postscript: The sample is horrible! Its just the start of the song. Maybe you have the album, or can buy the whole song (23min–like a mini album) for $1.99 on Amazon. Don;t go by the snippet; that’s just the very beginning. Bye bye.

  22. #48 by Lara Sterling on April 10, 2011 - 2:55 pm

    Hmmmm….. Beginning a novel? I am in the midst of a novel right now, which I seem to be beginning over and over again. I am a big plot person, so I always begin with a structural outline (after the idea of what I am going to write about has come into my head of course; I always have a lot of ideas). Then comes the inspiration. Morning. A strong cup of coffee. The characters emerge, speak to me. I write. It’s a push-pull between methodology and I don’t know… The Jungian archetypes living inside of me/sides of myself that well up through the art.
    –Lara

    http://yourplotthickens.blogspot.com

    http://www.yourplotthickens.com

    • #49 by rozmorris on April 10, 2011 - 4:03 pm

      Hi Lara! Ah the midst, where everything seems complicated because there’s so much vying for attention. I know that awaits me. Keep going!

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