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Seven Steps To Starting a Novel

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I get asked a lot about starting novels. The questions come in via e-mail, facebook, twitter, in person, library visits, vet appointments, and at the post office. Everyone has a novel in them and everyone wants to know how to start it. The idea’s too big, they say, or it’s a funny shape and they can’t see the outlines of it to get it down there. They don’t know if it’s the right idea. They don’t know if it’s an idea that is sellable. They wonder if they will get better ideas later. They wonder if they should put kissing in it, because kissing sells books. There are millions of potential authors out there and ever so slightly fewer reasons why those potential authors cannot start their books.

Here’s the thing, though. Well, here’s the several things. I have said some of these things before, but I’ll say them again.

1) Anyone can write a novel.

No, it’s true. Really. I say this a lot. You might not have GONE WITH THE WIND or THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER or THE GREAT GATSBY in you, but I’m quite certain you have a serviceable novel that won’t embarrass anybody in you. This is because

2) Novel-writing is a learnable thing like painting, penmanship, and making play-doh snakes.

That means that anyone can learn to do it. Again, you might not make the best play-doh snakes out there, and your first one will be lumpy and have that annoying seam that sometimes happen when you work with Play-doh on a dry surface, but with practice, they’ll be lovely and even and rainbow colored. Your friend Stephanie Meyer may be able to make them longer than yours, but still, you’ll be able to make play-doh snakes acceptable for playing with in most circumstances. But that doesn’t change the fact that your first play-doh snake is going to look like ass. This is because


That means that the trick is not just cunningly putting your pen to paper and coaxing that brilliant novel out of you with gin and Teddy Grahams. It means you need to learn. A lot of would-be writers I encounter seem to . . . gloss over this aspect. The aspect of suck. And oh yes, my dears, your first novel will suck. Don’t take it personally. You, like everyone else on this planet, including artistic geniuses, need to practice. Van Gogh didn’t paint masterpieces before he learned how to mix colors. My artistic beloved, John Singer Sargent, spent years learning from a master. You don’t get into a car for the first time and expect to tear donuts around the parking lot (though that is why you learned to drive, right?). Everything else in the world requires sucking and practice — why are people surprised when that first paragraph comes out and it looks like someone sat on its face? You know what we call those people who write a sucky paragraph, follow it by 1,200 more, and then start all over? Novelists. You know what we call people who think of a brilliant idea but never actually write it down? Everyone else. Is that not mean enough? I can do meaner. You know what we call people who think of a brilliant idea, write down thirty pages, and then stop? Everyone else. You only get points for starting, middling, and finishing a novel. There is no second place for almost finished. Which is why the advice you will see all over the internet is the same and its

4) Just write the damn thing, folks.

As I’ve said before, it’ll suck. Don’t let yourself get sucked into preparation. Yes, prepping is important, and plotting is important, and character development is key. But every writer does those things differently, every author has a different process that works for them. A process that develops over several novels. If it’s your first novel, you don’t know what works best for you. You don’t have a process — you’re inventing the process as you go. The most important skill you will learn this go round is not character development or pacing or how to write a beautiful line about the best sunset ever. The most important thing I learned that first time round was how to finish a novel. So, that said, the practical version of #4 is

5) Make a routine, and stick to it.

Write a sentence every hour on the hour. Write a chapter every Wednesday night for two hours (that’s how I wrote LAMENT). Write every afternoon from 2-4 p.m. Write on the subway. It doesn’t matter what the routine is, just that you make the decision to write, and you do. And then keep it up, even after the flush of that first passion wears off and other insanely better ideas begin waving and offering you skittles. And remember

6) No more excuses.

You don’t need to do more character profiles. You don’t need to do more research. You don’t need to know how they get to the reactor in Chapter  11. You’re good. Really. You’re good. What’s that you say? You don’t feel safe? Secure? You feel silly? Yeah, it’s going to be that way. More prep-work isn’t going to make that go away. There’s always revising for the stuff that isn’t perfect. Which will be everything. So you might as well get started. Oh, and one last thing.

7) Find a new beginning.

Actually, find as many as you can. Sit down at your computer. Get a stack of your favorite books. Read just the first page of each and see how they get you into the story. Close the books. And start your own.

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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Copyright 2012