Search for a Bestseller: Keith Stuart's top tips on starting a novel.

Thursday 17 May 2018

As far as I’m concerned there are only three difficult things about writing a novel: starting it, continuing it and finishing it. Everything else is easy. But it’s usually the starting part that really stumps new writers, there are so many decisions to make before you even start actually typing anything onto that intimidating blank page – and so may reasons not to start at all.

I’ve now started three novels: A Boy Made of Blocks, Days of Wonder and the current project I’ve literally just begun so I feel like I’m getting a handle on what you need to get going. Here are some (hopefully useful) tips!

Write a treatment
So you’ve had an idea for a book, but don’t know where to start? I’ve found writing a one page synopsis of the plot can really help. You just need to explain the characters and narrative in a way that makes sense to you – and in around 400 words. This is useful in a lot of ways: it helps you begin the structuring process and it forces you think about the perspective from which your tale will be told.

Think about structure right from the start
Having a good idea for a story is only a very small part of the process – a lot of people overlook the importance of establishing a good, solid emotional structure. So much of the impact of a story exists in how it is ordered, how you ‘plant’ and ‘pay-off’ plot elements, how you build toward big twists and reveals and how the obstacles facing your protagonist are spaced out. I always think of my novels like (very long) pop songs – they build toward emotional choruses and toward the end you need the literary equivalent of an amazing guitar solo or key change. Write down plot points and look at them, use graph paper, use post-it notes stuck on a wall, use little paper cards, move everything around until it feels like an exciting or emotionally involving journey.

Establish what you’re trying to say
A story isn’t just a sequence of events – it has to mean something, you need something to say. I really feel like this is something you should consider right from the start – what is the subtext of your story, what are the ideas you want to explore? You’ll find just thinking about this helps you shape the plot and to write your characters because they can all nod toward these consistent themes.

Just write
This is such a cliché but it’s true – just start writing. Don’t edit as you go, just let yourself get into it. Even if you’re not entirely clear on all the points above, sometime just getting 1000 words on a page tells you vital things about your book – who it’s about, what it’s about, where it’s going… the process of writing is in itself inspiring, because it forces you to concentrate and be present in the moment. It helps to create an inspiring environment – be somewhere you like, put on some emotional music and just start. If nothing else, you’re practising style and sentence structure, which is never wasted! Show it to someone
Letting other people read what you write is really tough, but it’s something you need to get used to. I show my wife every chapter I write as soon as I’ve done it and I trust her to make suggestions or let me know if it’s not working. Do you have a few friends who’d be interested in starting a little writing circle with you? Is there a local writing group you could join? As with everything else in life, writing is easier if you have people to share it with.

Go easy on yourself
Give yourself manageable targets, perhaps 500 words a day, and don’t beat yourself up if there are times you can’t manage it. Some people say you should write everyday, but I complete disagree – there are times it just isn’t happening and forcing yourself to get something on the page can make the whole process really stressful. Instead, read something, watch a film, go out for a walk (another cliché but these really work), let your mind clear. Some of my best ideas have come when I’ve closed my laptop and fled the house. Always remember – there is nothing more inspiring than the life going on around you.

Keith Stuart’s new novel, DAYS OF WONDER, is available from 7 June.

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