Writing Your First Novel: How To Get Started.

Manual for First Time Fiction Writers

If you decided to learn how to do your own plumbing around the house, where would you start? Assuming, that is, that you didn’t want to attend a trade school? You might consider a self-help book like Plumbing for Dummies, right? That’s just the way I got started on writing my first novel. That, along with some very good bloggers like WD’s Chuck Sambucino and C.S. Lakin, and Kristen Lamb.

I found Writing Fiction for Dummies coauthored by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy very helpful for learning the basics of novel writing. I had my story premise and a list of main characters thought out before purchasing this book. That was helpful, but not totally necessary.

The authors divided the book into four main parts:  Part I, Getting Ready to Write Fiction, Part II, Creating Compelling Fiction, Part III, Editing and Polishing Your Story and Characters, Part IV, Getting Publishing, and a special part V, The Part of Tens (ten steps to designing your story and ten reasons publishers reject your work).

The first four parts are broken into chapters and chapter parts that get very, very detailed. This makes it is quite a comprehensive guide for building your story, your story world, and developing your characters and plot. One of the first things I learned is that to be effective, your story must create a powerful emotional experience in the reader. And my favorite line: The only rule there is in writing fiction is that there are no rules. But, that doesn’t mean just anything goes, either. Rather, there is a first time for anything that works.

Pantsters and Outliners

The authors point out that everyone’s writing paradigm is different falling somewhere between an out-liner, writing by the seat-of-the-pants, and edit-as-you-go. An out-liner takes a top-down approach, outlining the whole story and then writing it. A pantster (a la Stephen King) just writes, outlining and editing  last for a bottoms-up approach.  An edit-as-you-go approach falls in between.

I thought of some of my best ideas while writing my novel pantster-style, but I did edit along the way. I tended to outline chapter-by-chapter rather than the whole thing at once. I don’t think that approach would work for me. I found myself doing what Stephen King describes as “digging and finding fossils and brushing them off carefully to put the whole together.”  I did, however, know how the story was going to end. I found myself making a very rough outline of all of the chapters to end of the book about half-way through my first draft.

Five Pillars of Fiction

This Dummies manual explains the five pillars of fiction: setting, characters, plot, theme, and style.  It explains the seven elements of novels: action, dialogue, interior monologue (thoughts), interior emotion, description, flashback, and narrative summary and how to use each effectively. All of the different points of view that novel writers can choose to use are explained with tips on how to use them. (Third person, past tense is the suggested POV for beginning novelists).

The authors divide the novel-writing process  using a layering approach. The storyline and the 3-act structure is the top layer. The middle layer gets more concise and consists of synopsis, scene list, and scene. Then it really gets helpful with action, dialogue, and all the other elements that make up the lowest level of the story.

One thing that really helped me was the explanation of writing in “clips.” A clip is one paragraph that contains either public or private information. A private clip is information that the POV character does, says, thinks or feels. A public clip is what the POV character sees, hears, smells….think the senses. This gives your reader the uncanny feeling of being in the story.

A section on how to create real and compelling characters was helpful.  The authors suggest conducting character interviews to help you create these imaginary people. Ask questions about how they think, feel, likes, dislikes, how old they are…just brainstorm questions and record what your characters “say.” This really helps you “get into the skin of the character.”

The authors include chapters on how to scrutinize and edit, polishing and submitting your work, and some reasons why novels get rejected. Fiction Writing for Dummies is a very comprehensive resource for writing your first novel.

“Composting” Your Story

I discovered that a story idea is like planting a seed in your mind that grows. That seed is called a premise, and it’s quite simply the answer to the question, “what is your story about?” It is also called the storyline or log line. The best example I can give is the storyline for the movie  Pretty Woman  which goes something like this: A wealthy gentleman falls in love with a hooker he hires for a business trip. I also found out that this very storyline will be of utmost importance when it is time to write your synopsis and query letter. It forms the basis of your pitch should you attend a writer’s conference.

But until the story is told, that seeds sits there and grows with ideas. It is “composting,” and I found this to be the most fun of the whole novel-writing process. I still have the notebook that I used to write down ideas. It includes bits of scenes and conversations that may or may not have made it in the final story. That process, along with my character interviews are the two methods that helped me the most.

And whether or not you get a book deal or self-publish, if you complete enough words (at least 40,000) to make a story, you have accomplished something that not just anyone has, and you should be proud. I know I am.

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