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The Essential Guide to Starting Your First Novel

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


The Essential Guide to Starting Your First Novel

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago


Embarking on the journey to write your first novel can be exhilarating, daunting, and, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding creative endeavors you'll undertake. Whether you've been nursing a story idea for years or have recently been struck by a bolt of inspiration, the path from the first word to the final manuscript is a marathon, not a sprint. This guide is designed to walk you through the essentials of novel writing, from laying the groundwork for your story to developing rich characters and immersive settings. Plus, we'll share some invaluable tips from successful novelists and how our creative writing classes can scaffold your efforts to bring your novel to life.

Start With The Basics

Finding Your Idea
Every novel starts with an idea. It doesn't have to be complex or groundbreaking, but it should be something you're passionate about. Ideas can come from anywhere - personal experiences, a news article, a snippet of overheard conversation, or even a question that keeps you up at night. Once you have your idea, it's time to expand it into a story. Ask yourself, "What happens next?" Keep asking and answering this question, and soon you'll have the skeleton of your plot.

**Swan Huntley, the author of the novels Getting Clean With Stevie Green, The Goddesses, We Could Be Beautiful, and I Want You More (2024), with an MFA from Columbia University and fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, is teaching Start Your Novel, a 6-Week Generative Zoom Workshop to get you writing your book.**

Plotting Your Novel
Plotting is the process of planning the events of your novel. You can use several methods, from detailed outlines to a simple beginning-middle-end structure. Some writers prefer to plot everything in advance (plotters), while others discover the story as they write (pantsers). A hybrid approach often works best for beginners; outline the significant milestones of your story but allow yourself the flexibility to explore as you write.

** L. M. Elliott, winner of the 2024 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and a New York Times best-selling author of fourteen historical and biographical novels, is teaching a new Zoom seminar titled How to Write Exciting, Evocative, & Commercially Viable Historical Fiction. She has written on a variety of eras for a variety of ages. Her works include Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves; Under a War-torn Sky; Hamilton and Peggy!, DaVinci’s Tiger; and two Cold War docudramas, WALLS and Suspect Red. Her novels have received multiple starred reviews and been named NCSS/CBC Notables; Bank Street College of Ed. Best Books; Kirkus’ 100 Best YA Novels, winners of the Grateful American Book Prize and the VLA Cardinal Cup for Historical Fiction.**

Key components of your plot should include:

  • The Inciting Incident: What event thrusts your protagonist into the action?
  • Conflict: What challenges does your protagonist face? What are they fighting for or against?
  • Climax: The turning point of your novel. The moment of most excellent tension and conflict.
  • Resolution: How does your story end? What has changed?

Character Development
Your characters are the heart of your novel. Developing complex, believable characters requires understanding their motivations, desires, and conflicts. A well-developed character should have:

  • A clear goal: What does your character want more than anything?
  • Obstacles: What stands in achieving their goal?
  • A personal arc: How does your character change throughout the story?

Spend time getting to know your characters. Write character bios, explore their backstories, and consider how their experiences shape their actions and decisions within your novel.

Setting the Scene
Your novel's setting provides the backdrop against which your story unfolds. It can influence the plot, affect the story's mood, and reflect your characters' internal state. Whether you're writing about a real place or creating a world from scratch, consider the following:

  • Physical environment: Geography, climate, and the natural landscape.
  • Society and culture: Norms, values, laws, and technologies.
  • Period: The historical context or future setting.

Research is critical to developing a convincing setting. Even if you invent a world, grounding it in realistic details can make it more relatable to readers.

Tips from Successful Novelists:

  1. Write Regularly: Set a writing schedule and stick to it. Consistency is more important than bursts of inspiration.
  2. Embrace the Rough Draft: Allow your first draft to be imperfect. The goal is to get your story down on paper; refining comes later.
  3. Read Widely: Reading other novels can inspire you and improve your writing skills. Pay attention to how experienced authors develop their plots and characters.
  4. Seek Feedback: Share your work with trusted beta readers or writing groups. Constructive criticism is invaluable for improvement.

How Our Classes Support Your Novel Writing Efforts

Our creative writing courses are designed to offer personalized guidance and support throughout your novel-writing journey. From workshops focused on the fundamentals of storytelling to genre-specific classes, we provide the tools and community support to enhance your writing skills. You'll learn from experienced novelists, receive feedback on your work, and connect with fellow writers who share your passion.

**Chas Gillespie, an editor, writer, comedian, and teacher whose work appears in The New Yorker, The Onion, and McSweeney’s, where he contributes regularly, is leading a new One-on-One 7-Month Novel Mentorship Program. He graduated from Harvard College, where he studied English Literature, and Warren Wilson College, where he received his MFA in Fiction.**

Embarking on your first novel is a bold step toward realizing your creative potential. By focusing on the basics of plotting, character development, and setting, you're laying the foundation for a compelling and engaging story. Remember, every novel begins with a single word. Start writing yours today.

Let this guide be your launching pad into the enthralling world of novel writing. With dedication, persistence, and a bit of guidance from our classes, your first novel can move from dream to reality. Welcome to the beginning of a fantastic journey.

**Meg Eden, the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (2017), the poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (2020), and the forthcoming novel-in-verse Good Different, a JLG Gold Standard Selection (Scholastic, 2023). Meg is teaching Writing a Novel in Verse, a new Zoom seminar.**

And we'll leave you with quotes on writing a novel from some of the greatest to ever do it:

  • Stephen King: "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot."
  • Toni Morrison: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
  • Ernest Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is shit."
  • Margaret Atwood: "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."
  • Neil Gaiman: "The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can."
  • J.K. Rowling: "I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totally for myself."
  • Kurt Vonnegut: "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action."
  • Ray Bradbury: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."
  • Nora Roberts: "You can fix anything but a blank page."
  • George Orwell: "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

Read more: The 8 Specific Elements to Writing a Bestselling Novel

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