10 Steps to Starting
Your First Novel


     Many people, especially in bars, tell me about the story that they want to write. Most of them will never write anything.

     Writing is frightening to most people because they fear that they will be judged by the quality of what they write.

     NEWS FLASH: All writers are judged by the quality of what they write. Accepting this is part of being a writer. If you easily succumb to the fear of rejection, don't waste your time.

     However, if you have the courage to write something and then show it to someone else, how do you get started? Do you need an interesting idea? Do you need a unique plot-twist to end your story with? Do you need a complex storyboard and fully-filled out character psychological summaries before you even begin?

     No, you need none of that. All of it helps, but there is one simple fact that makes all of those things unimportant: few writers start out as great writers. To become a great writer takes practice.

     Writing happens in two parts: get it written ... and get it right. Your first goal is to get it written, from first sentence to last, even if it has errors in it. Don't fix the errors at this point; make a list of corrections that need to be made and keep working on that first draft until it is done. Then go back and fix things. The more polished that you can write first drafts, the better, but recognizing poor writing, and fixing it, is perhaps the most important part of learning to be a writer. First drafts are the fun part of writing. Second, third, and fourth drafts are where the work of writing happens, and where most writers learn their craft.

     With experience comes clarity; your third first draft will be more polished than your first. Never write to throw something away; always write your best. Eventually, good writing will become habit. But to get there, you must follow these steps.

Step 1: Define the person and their problem.

     To start your first story, all that you need an interesting character. An interesting character is someone who has a problem. How they are going to resolve their situation isn't important yet; define the person and define the problem in great detail. Perhaps it is an urgent problem: they have been slipped a slow-acting poison and have an hour to figure out who killed them. Perhaps is it a mundane problem: their girlfriend is pregnant and they are only sixteen years old. It can be a good problem: perhaps they won the lottery, but don't know what to do with the money. Any problem will do.

     The person should have some trait which compounds the problem, such as a man who loses a leg, but only had one leg left. Or a small, weak person who is bullied by a big, strong person.

Step 2: What situation would trigger or display the start of this person's problem most dramatically?

     The opening scene sets the pace and tone for the whole book. It must be interesting. How people deal with a problem is usually interesting. The attempt should describe the person: a smart man is likely to succeed at resolving their problem quickly; a stupid person is only going to make their problem worse. Both resolutions work; solving the problem doesn't always end the story. For example, the lottery winner may select a company to manage his new-found wealth; this may seem like a solution, but only if the writer wants it to. The little guy may try to avoid the fight by dialing 911, then buying drinks for the bully until the cops show up.

Step 3: What new problems would the character's attempt at resolution generate?

     This may take longer to write and should not be written until the opening scene is complete. Since no solution is perfect, the opportunities for further trouble abounds. The lottery winner discovers that the agent of the company that he chose stole his money and fled the country. The bully who was dragged away by the cops has a brother who rules the local biker gang. The guy who had one leg left feels like he has suffered enough and loses his faith in God. In this world, or any that you can dream up, wherever there are people, there is always another problem.

Step 4: Go back to step 2 (with the problem from Step 3).

     How many times you go back to step 2 is up to you. Are you writing a short story, a novel, or a novella? This process continues until you reach step 5.

Step 5: End the story.

     Problems escalate, and eventually become life-changing. This is what you want: teenagers think that they rule the world until they discover that they rule nothing. A small, weak person learns to fight back. A lottery winner loses his wealth but finds love; some problem will become a big enough that the main character can't resolve it without changing themself. Once this happens, resolve the current problem and type "The End".

Step 6: Perfect your story.

     At this point, you have had the fun of writing. Now you face the work of writing. Now you can ask yourself the important questions:

     Is my story too long or too short?

     Is my main character sympathetic?

     Would people who read my story like it?

     The last question is the most important, and the hardest task facing new writers; you have to get feedback from someone. You may do one edit pass, no more, just to clean it up enough that you can print it out, and then hand it to someone who can recognize the first line from a classic novel; that person is a reader. If your mother doesn't read much, her opinion will be worth little. The best feedback comes from other writers; find a local or online writer's club and join it.

Step 7: Shut up and listen.

     Don't talk while someone tells you what they thought about your story; this isn't the time to make excuses. If you have to explain something, then take notes, because you failed to write it clearly enough. FACT: Readers seldom misunderstand a well-written story. The best option is to get more than one person's opinion; if one person suggests that you should change the sex of your main character, then consider it, but if three people suggest the same thing, then do it. Every comment is valuable; always give out a clean printed copy of your story so that each reader can review it without being influenced by the comments of others. After a while, you may get to the point where you can predict feedback; that is one quality of a good writer.

Step 8: Make the changes.

     This may be harder than it seems. You may have to add new subplots or delete whole chapters that you struggled to write; for this reason, keep older versions in case you want to recover something that you deleted. Smoothing out rough parts, making sure that everything is consistent, from the spelling of names to the color of each character's eyes, and adding drama is hard work, but that is what separates writers from dreamers.

Step 9: Judge your work.

     Is this story worth submitting/self-publishing? Does everyone like it? Is it good enough to sell, or just plain bad? You must decide this; is it worth fixing, and all stories need some fixing, or should you start over? Or, if you've done all of your work right, remember that your task is not over. While you self-publish or try to sell this work, you need to start on your next novel; that's what makes you a writer. Either way, hopeless or finished, you go back to step 1 and start again. If you need to do more fixing on your first novel, then go back to step 6; this is why being a writer sucks.

Step 10: Backup everything.

     Even if you decide that your novel is beyond repair, don't delete it. Football players don't start in the majors; most start in high school, graduate to college ball, and only then make a single dollar from playing ball. You may not be able to fix your story right now, but if you keep writing, then your skills will improve, perhaps to the point where someday you can fix this story and make it something worthwhile. Save your story permanently; send it to your friends to store on their computers, send yourself an email with your story attached (so that it is stored on a network computer), burn three CDs, keep one in your house, one in your car, and one in your office. (Having your story on both your laptop and your desktop won't help if your house burns down in the middle of the night.) Real writers may trash their own stories; they don't lose them to a failed hard drive. Backup frequently, and make sure that the backups are never stored in only one place.

     Do all of these steps sound intimidating? Once again, before you attempt step 1, deal with the fear ... like real writers face their fears every day. The rest will come in time.