1-through-N Steps for Beginning a Novel
I'd like to relate something that has occurred not once but thrice after receiving a great idea for a novel. These ideas seem to come from some strange nether place, if not handed from on high, so I'll add: I'm feeling pretty darn lucky if I get a good idea at all.
Basically what would happen is this: I'd plan and plan this novel for about two months. And then when the time finally comes and I have what I need to execute the novel, nothing happens. Sure, I'll have written the first few thousand words by this point, so as to admire those words and keep them in a drawer like a shiny Sacagawea dollar, ready to be redeemed for a complete novel at any time.
But those first few thousand words always needed revising. Then, the outline itself has to be changed. Maybe I'd add or delete one or two characters . . . And then, what if this idea I had could be retrofitted with schnazzy language, better villains, and a heart-thumping techno soundtrack? Well, I've wasted a grand total of a year on these miserable attempts, and I always know why:
A) The idea wasn't that great to begin with, but I got attached. B) The first chapter was great, so I got attached to that. Too bad the idea was a snoozer. C) I got attached to something that was a snoozer. (Snore . . . )
Anyway, I've devised some steps that basically defeat all the mechanisms that have so far prevented stories from being written. These steps work on the basic principle that the Internal Editor has a short lifespan. I've used these same steps to begin and complete my first novel, (still in revision) as well as every short story I've written since Spring 2004, AKA, the "impact point." Without further ado, here's my 1-thru-N steps for beginning a novel:
1. Start writing words more or less randomly, without any advanced thinking. (Sometimes I'm working off of some image I have. None of that's fully worked out. The story is basically pulled out of the void.) Usually the story sucks. It doesn't matter . . . just keep writing until about 500-to-2000 words have spewed forth. Write some more or start another story.
2. About three-to-six months later, reread the stuff you've put away. Usually, you'll think what you wrote is good, and you'll have a fresh enough perspective to finish it. Sometimes, it takes a very long time to finish. But when it's working, then it's working and you'll magically know a few things . . . like how long it'll take to finish it, what the ending will be like, and who the characters are. You'll know if this is novel-worthy, or simply a longish short story.
N. Before you get too heavily involved with the story you've picked up, start up another couple of stories and put those away. The good ones become like magic eggs that you can pluck from the air at any time and redeem--only this time, for far more than what you can get with a Sacagawea dollar: What you get is a sense of security. It's the exact same feeling some people get from having a million friends. You just aren't as attached as you used to be. Objectivity kicks in. I can't say if any given work of fiction can be objectively bad or good. But I would argue that objectivity is good for writing. (At least, when it comes from within the writer.)
(This post was reproduced from my forum post at the Twin Cities Speculative Fiction Writers Network)