How to Begin a Novel

My process has always been the same, whether for short stories or novels: I create a scene, put a character in motion, and throw in an obstacle. From there, it’s seat-of-the-pants. While this works fairly well for me with short stories, novels are a different matter, since it’s pretty easy for my characters’ lives to wander the way they often do in real life, without clear direction or goals.

The book Story Genius by Lisa Cron explains why that process is rarely successful. She could have used some of my writing as bad examples.

So I started a new novel with a general idea of where it was heading. My protagonist is a man driving (literally) into the past to save a little girl from suicide, in part just to be decent, but significantly because he’s been tormented by the memory of her all his life. The novel begins with him driving the car that will take him there, but because he’s moving into the past, he has no memory of where he came from or even why. It’s a cross between Memento and Back to the Future.

I wrote 10,000 words, much as I would have before reading Story Genius, but then put it down and began working on a one-page summary. I didn’t need all the details of where my character was going or what he was going to do, but I really needed the broad description of that summary. For the past week or so I’ve been getting feedback and revising the summary, and when I’m sure what story I’m telling, I’ll continue drafting without the anxiety that comes from not knowing what happens next.

Story Genius details a complete process for writing, which I admit to not following, even though it sounds like good advice, but I am using the central idea of knowing where the story is going before you begin (or at least get too far). I’ll know in a few months if it works.

Copyright 2021 by Philip Tate