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Novels, On Starting Them

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I reckon this must be the time of year for starting novels, because I’ve gotten asked about ten times in the last month how it is that I get going with my novels. I thought I remembered posting something about it before, and I had: here and here. I read back over them, trying to see if they would have helped me back before I’d written a novel, and I guess they are sort of lacking in the practical nitty-gritties that I would’ve wanted. So I’m going to try again. I’m in the beginning stages of another novel right now, myself, so I’m going to try to pick apart my current process. It’s weird to think that this will be published novel #7. One would think I’d be quite handy at this by now.

Okay, I think I have what I want to add.

1) Are you telling the right story?

I can hear the gritty sounds of millions of eyes rolling in their sockets now, but come on, bear with me. Before you sit down and drive yourself crazy in front of the computer, I want you to be sure. I want you to be in love with the story. I want you to be unable to stop thinking about it. I want you to be on fire with the desire to write this story. Because if you aren’t, save yourself the trouble and stop now. Before I ever write a single word of any of my novels, I spend days brainstorming about them — the characters, the plot arcs, the villains, the ending. If I can’t bring myself to spend a week doing nothing but contemplating the possibilities behind the idea, then I’m writing the wrong story. It’s like getting married. If you aren’t in love with it now — and I’m talking the sort of love that is so overwhelming that it annoys onlookers — it’s not going to get any better.

2) Do you know the ending?

I have dozens of unfinished novels from my teen years. I would zoom off the mark like a crazy person, pounding out tens of thousands of words, and then . . . fizzle. The aliens would come and kill them all. The characters were turn on each other and die in pools of blood. It was ugly. It took me a long time to figure out that I needed to know the end of the story before I started, or they’d always end in travesties. And by "ending", I mean a final(ish) scene. I don’t need to know how everything works out, but I do need a concrete destination point.

3) Do you know your characters?

I can’t start my novel until I know what my main characters need and want (often two very different things). I need to know why they don’t already have these things. I need to know how they’re going to change from beginning to end. Because I have to signal all this this subtly to the reader — if not in the first scene, then pretty darn close. If readers don’t know what the conflict is going to be until halfway into the novel, I’m in trouble. My mom’s kind enough to give me that long to build up my story, but no one else is.

4) Do you know your setting?

If your answer is "in a suburban town somewhere," you haven’t done enough homework yet. Setting counts as a character, and that means that it deserves as much brainstorming time as your people. Why does your story take place there, and why can’t it take place anywhere else? Setting often requires hands-on research for me. That’s why I was so insane in visiting every set of cliffs I was anywhere close to last year. You never know when you’ll be standing on location and a great idea for your novel will hit you.

5) Are you ready to stick it out?

I generally swing from wild elation to deep depression with my story in the first 10,000 words — I don’t know my characters as well as I want to, I don’t know if the pacing is working, I haven’t gotten to the first big switch on a switch, everything is slow and uncertain. I need more chocolate and tea than should be humanly possible to keep my spirits up. But for me, 10,000 words is that magic switch. That’s when I hit my stride. Until then? It’s only the knowledge that I’ve done this before that keeps me going.

If the answers to 1-5 are yes and why yes and of course yes and double ja, then take one of the following options:

A) Find beginnings you like and pull them apart.

Back when I first started, I did this a lot. I would pull five of my favorite books off the shelf and study the first pages to see why it was I found them so compelling. And then see if I could apply those broad principles to my writing. You’ll notice I said BROAD. I’m not talking about reading a chapter about a dead body and then putting a dead body in mine. I’m talking about picking apart where in the timeline a novel starts, what sort of character voice pulls me in, how much action or inaction I see working in a novel.

B) Have the whole first scene in your head before you start writing.

Basically this is the same thing as having the end of your novel in your head before you begin. I don’t need to know everything that will happen in a scene before I start, but I need to know the purpose of it.

C) Make absolutely certain you chose the correct narrator.

Sometimes your story isn’t at fault. Sometimes you just picked the wrong person to tell it or the wrong side to look at it from, and this is hard to change later. So think about these things now.

D) Write until you don’t know how the next scene will end, then stop.

If you push forward in a frenzy of delighted word-count-checking, you might end up traveling quickly to places you don’t know how to get out of. I like to use the end of scenes as stopping points. If I know my story three scenes in advance, great — that’s what I right. If I know one and a half scenes ahead? I’ll write one. If I know half? I brainstorm more.

E) Ignore all these rules.

This is really my process, and it’s not a lot like my critique partners’ process, and their process is not like mine. It’s good to start somewhere, but if you feel like you’re being cramped by one of these rules and something else is working, don’t be afraid to follow the muse.

I’m not sure if that’s helpful or merely more, but there you go. Feel free to ask me more specific questions in the comments.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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