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Books Distilled » How to Write a Novel » How to Write a Novel: #2, Begin.

How to Write a Novel: #2, Begin.

I could just type the title really big and call it a blog post.



Not very satisfying, though, right?  I’ve written before about just starting to write.

Today I’ll go a little deeper in a two-pronged approach, discussing mindset and process.


Start super small.  When I began my novel, I couldn’t even call it a “novel” in my own mind.  It was too big, too scary.  It was “a piece that I was writing, that might someday become a novel.”  My friend started writing her next book by committing to writing 500 words a day.  (Not 500 good words–just 500 words.)  Likewise, I tricked myself into beginning this blog post after a long day at work by committing to writing three sentences.

Don’t expect great things.  Commit for now to quantity, not quality.  Quality comes later.  As Anne Lamott says, write sh*tty first drafts.  Commit to practicing.  Writing is a practice, much like yoga:  you don’t achieve.  You only grow.

Set a routine.  In the same way that going to bed and waking up at the same time set your circadian rhythm, writing around the same time of day structures your creative unconscious to kick in.


The good news is, you have options.  The better news is, although writers have strong opinions about how to write novels, we all do it differently–so there’s no wrong way.  But perhaps there are easier ways.

Dream it out.  In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler discusses his writing process.  He begins with a character’s yearning.  He then dreams through the entire novel, writing ideas for scenes on index cards.  Sometimes he’ll have conflicting ideas for scenes–the main character does one thing, or another thing.  He writes them both on index cards and keeps daydreaming until the path of the novel is finished, and then he goes back and decides which scenes make the most sense in the flow of the story.

Then he begins writing.

I wish I’d done that.  I floundered through three drafts before the “first” draft of my novel in its current iteration.  But I needed to start somewhere, so I did.

Write where the energy is.  I wrote those beginning drafts more like a patchwork quilt–scene by non-chronological scene–than like Butler, whose process perhaps more looks like knitting a scarf that’s still in one continuous piece at the end.  I sat down, and I thought about my character and her place in time, and I started writing whatever felt the most exciting.

Honor the process. Writing is not really about the product–it’s about the process.  I find this so, so hard to honor. I am a product-oriented person–check it off the list, it’s done.  But when I realized that every scene I wrote fed my understanding of my characters–even if I cut the scene the next day–I understood that no writing is wasted.  We writers, says Sarah Selecky, must learn to practice the way other artists do.  We must warm up.

Don’t let fear of not being good stop you from starting. No one’s good at first.  Just write one sentence after another.

Exactly how I wrote this post.

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One Response to "How to Write a Novel: #2, Begin."

  1. 500 words, one day at a time … slow and steady for the win! ;)

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