On Starting a New Novel

Starting something new

Starting a fresh new project can be daunting and scary and challenging and exciting and a few other things. Having completed my re-re-re-rewrite of my long time project, The Silent Symphony, I had the itch to start fresh. So fresh, in fact, that I’m diving back into my first love: fantasy.

I have a bit of grit. All it needs to do now is form into a pearl. So, at this early juncture, I thought it would be interesting to share my planning process with you. Obviously, there is no ‘right way’ to start the process or the planning – in fact, the pantsers out there are scoffing at the idea of a mind-map or a stack of cue cards.

Nevertheless, here we go.

Start with the Characters

This is an important step for me – no characters, no story. I used to begin large projects with world-building. I figured that characters would naturally emerge from the rules of the world and I could go from there.

However, this never seemed to work as I hoped. I often found myself cutting characters to size to fit into the scope of the lore, the factions, etc. This resulted in flat characters that merely existed to move the plot and protagonists from point A to point B – like vapid NPCs in a generic RPG.

It is far better to start with your characters. Find out who they are. This might entail filling out a bio with everything from their age to their favourite meal, or maybe writing small scenes in which she/he has a conversation with you or another character. I tend to use a combination of both. Whatever method you use, it is important to ascertain the following:

  • What does your character want?
  • What does your character need?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What is she/his connection to the theme?

We will dive into the first three bullet points in a later post, but for now, here’s a brief rundown: Want (sometimes called ‘desire’ in books on creative writing) is something your character actively (consciously) seeks. Need is a hidden something that your character (unconsciously) requires to become fulfilled (usually the ‘want’ informs this). Fear is the thing that hinders the character, often preventing her/him from fulfilling her/his need.

Lastly, theme is an important aspect to consider. This can be tricky, especially if you’re just starting your project.

Starting with a Theme

Theme is less important to some writers, but it’s something that’s essential to my writing. Deeper meanings in all forms of literature (novels, movies, and even video games) is what attracts me to the art-form in the first place.

The same goes for my own writing. If I don’t know what the novel is about (at least thematically), I struggle to ‘hear’ it.

Don’t get me wrong, the story should be about the characters [write that down and read it each time you sit down to write]. However, the kinds of characters that you employ and the kinds of wants, needs, and fears they have has a bearing on your theme.

For example, in my nascent project, I knew that I wanted to explore gender identity – especially deconstructing the male fantasy hero. Male adventurers – at least in the scope of fantasy books I’ve read – tend to be (1) a blank slate, (2) a lovable rogue, (3) Conan the Barbarian (i.e. hyper-violent, because that’s manly). So, I asked the question everyone asks: What happened to the Aragons?

Sorry, getting side-tracked. The point is: I know my theme is masculinity in its different forms. I’ll take a deep dive into theme in a later post, but for now, know that contrast is key. So, I already know that I need characters who embody different forms of this identity: gentle, toxic, inept, fatherly, oppressive, exploitative, etc. Also, what does this mean for the female characters of this world? How are females/males/other expected to act? How can we subvert things?

Now you’re starting to write a story.

Starting from a Scene

You’ve experienced this – I know you have.

In the shower, on the toilet, when you’re on the cusp of drifting off to sleep… An idea comes to you. It might be a snippet of dialogue between characters – or an action sequence – or a touching moment of loss. It came to you in a flash. You might not know who the characters are, where they are, or why they are doing what they are doing, but you can see something. It’s there in your mind.

You must write it down.

It is perfectly acceptable to start with a scene. That’s how I started with Symphony: I saw a young man kneeling in front of a typewriter trying to make things work at all costs. I didn’t know the rest yet – it took many rewrites, direction changes, many years, and several keyboards to finish. I didn’t use that scene – not exactly.

But it’s where I started.

You might have that. That’s probably why you are reading this post. You have that bit of grit and it’s starting to become something. Keep at it. Don’t be precious about it. Nothing you write is gospel – it won’t be for some time. You’ll kill your darlings, but that’s okay…

You’ve started.

Now finish it.

Top Image: Dido Building Carthage (or the Athenaeum) by J.M.W. Turner [Wikicommons, Public Domain]

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