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  • Writer's pictureLeeyanne Moore

The Challenges of Writing the Beginning of a Novel

Updated: Mar 7


teen writing on laptop

Writing a successful beginning of a novel is a fabulous thing. Possibly, it's also the hardest part of the novel--aside from the middle. I’ve a great professional tip at the end of this post about the best way to write a successful beginning, btw. But first, let’s appreciate that while we read novels all the time, writing the opening of a novel successfully is much harder than it looks. There are many layers involved, so when many of the gifted teens I work with do it intuitively, I’m amazed.

 

What makes the opening of a novel go right?*

·      Engaging character/s

·      compelling plot

·      That elusive something else – setting, mood, atmosphere, writing style, deep point of view, etc. A good novel opening is a mélange of writerly craft that binds together to form compelling reading. No wonder its hard for beginning writers. The key is to finding a process that works best for you, and then get a lot of practice using that process.  

 

Below are the most common road blocks:

 

·      Self-consciousness: It feels weird when you start writing and it’s not for an assignment in class. You have to ignore this feeling and eventually, it goes away. So jump over this one and focus on the steps below. If you can’t, I can help you.

·      Staring into the Void, part 1: Too many choices is sometimes too much for some people. Your novel could be anything and so you have no idea what your novel will be. You have all these ideas in your head, and it feels delicious to simultaneously have all options available at once. Try writing an outline, because what you really want to do is constrain your choices. An outline will force you to start making some specific choices and order your ideas. You can see which ideas work together and which ones clash.

·      Staring into the Void, part 2: Brainstorm ahead. You’ve started writing but suddenly you need a name for the town, or a name for a character, or the name of the cabal trying to end humanity. Fishing around for a name, and then another, and then another--it can really bog you down. Meanwhile, you are ready to move to the next bit of the story and you hit a big blank wall of ‘I don’t know…’ Who are the characters in this chunk of the book? What is the new setting like? When your mind is a blank, a little research could help. (But not too much.) When working with teens we will often brainstorm before starting the story. We make lists of names, we make maps, we do quick internet research. We also do this a bit in advance of writing the next chunk, so we don’t stare into the void again at the next turning point in the novel.

·      Massive info dumps: The temptation is to pour out backstory or take a long time to describe a location/setting, or who’s who. Do it! Letting words pour out of you is a fabulous way to start writing a novel. You can always pull back and omit things later. But at a certain point, if you start feeling bogged down, it’s a sign something is wrong. There is an art to scattering information throughout the opening without stopping the forward action of the plot. Feel free to tell the reader only what we absolutely need to know (which often is only part of the backstory) for the action that’s about to happen at this point in the story. Save the rest for later until just before we absolutely need to know something else.

·      The False Start: You wrote 10k to 30k with no problem, but then your story seems to bog down or come to a halt. You’ve picked the wrong place to begin a novel. What’s happened is that you’ve just written out the whole backstory for the novel—but not the actual novel. I can help you recover from this.

·      Pseudo-writing: You’re writing outlines, snippets of dialogue or description, and ideas all together in one file. At the end of doing this for an hour or more, you have the satisfied feeling of having written. But you haven’t actually written anything that is a readable scene or chapter for a reader. Technically, some people call this pre-writing a ‘zero draft’ and it’s a valuable part of their writing process. The problem for you is this: just the idea of going back and translating what your wrote into actual scenes and chapters feels like a slog. If you feel that way, then do not make this a pre-writing habit. Preserve that story telling energy for actual manuscript pages.

 

Just because you don’t write novel openings intuitively – doesn’t mean you can’t learn. What pathway will work for you? If you can manage to weave characters, plot, and some other savory aspect all together into an opening of a novel—fabulous! If you can’t—that’s why I’m here.

 

VALUABLE TIP: The number one best way professionals write the beginning of a novel if it just doesn’t flow is this: write the bad opening of a novel and keep going. Let it be too long, boring and saggy. Let it be too short and sketchy. You left out a whole mystery plot or seeds of a romance--so what? Write it and then move on! By the end of the novel, you almost always have to go back and re-calibrate the beginning anyway. Save yourself energy and time for that first rewrite by plopping down an opening and then keep going. Isn't it logical that the different strands of character, theme, and story should weave themselves together more easily when you are super-familiar with them from having just written the entire book?

 

(*Conventionally speaking—innovative fiction, avant-garde fiction, and speculative fiction can all bend the ‘rules’ on this one.)


As always, if you or someone you’re raising is interested in writing a big project, you can let me know in the contact form and we can chat about you/your learner and the project to see if I can help.


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