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Writing

How to Start Writing Your Novel: 6 Tips for Beginner Novel Writers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 6 min read

Writing a novel is a daunting task for even the most ambitious of authors. Thousands of novels are written every single year, some from major publishing houses that land on The New York Times Best Seller list, while others are self-published debuts from novice fiction writers. While all stages of novel writing come with their own challenges, perhaps the hardest part is simply getting started.

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Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative WritingMargaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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What to Consider Before Starting a Novel

Most writers wait to begin composing the first sentence or their first chapter until they feel reasonably confident about their plot, characters, themes, and structure. Notwithstanding the joys of freewriting and stream of consciousness improvisation, most novels are written after a period of intense brainstorming, research, and outlining. Some authors have already solicited notes and feedback, based on their ideas and outlines, from editors and trusted friends before they even write the first line of their novel.

6 Key Tips for Starting the Novel Writing Process

Starting a novel for the first time can be daunting, but if you have these elements in place before you draft your opening line, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

  1. Choose a world you want to spend a lot of time in. Your novel will require your readers to immerse themselves in a specific world for the hours that they spend reading. More importantly, it will require you, the author, to immerse yourself for weeks, months, and even years in this world. Pick a setting and a time period that interests you and keeps you engaged.. Have more than one setting? That’s okay, too, but don’t underestimate the value of simplicity when it comes to storytelling, and don’t overstuff your novel with location changes.
  2. Find a story idea within this world you want to immerse in. Novels are more than just a series of settings and time periods. They must be driven by a story that remains compelling throughout its beginning, middle, and end. So decide what story you want to tell and be sure it can sustain a whole novel. If you think it may not hold a reader’s interest for several hundred pages, consider adapting your work into a short story instead.
  3. Assemble a cast of characters. Now that you have a world and a story, figure out who the key figures in this story are. Your main character is obviously the most important among these. A strong main character will have a rich and detailed life that you, as the author, will know about—from personal backstory to character traits to greatest successes and failures. The more you understand your characters, the more you will have to say about them to an audience.
  4. Plan your ending. You may not have planned the beginning or middle of your novel yet, but think ahead to a reader’s experience. The part of your novel that will linger with them most will likely be the ending. Make sure you’re giving them a fantastic one, whether you’re trying to write a bestselling thriller or a brooding, character-driven work of literary fiction. From your standpoint as a writer, having a clear ending in place may help you build a story and set of characters that all drive toward that ending—how are you going to get to this ending you’ve planned?
  5. Break the story into acts. Now that you know where your story is going, it’s time to reverse engineer your narrative by breaking it into acts. Classic stories follow a three-act structure, with each act ending on a significant moment in the overall plot. If you pace your narrative to develop progressively throughout the novel, you’ll end up with a book that’s consistently good from beginning to end.
  6. Start writing before you get cold feet. Planning is fantastic—essential even—but don’t let overly meticulous planning keep you from the task at hand, which is actually writing your novel. The first draft of your first chapter may be terrible, and it may end up being totally rewritten once you’re done, but it’s important to dive in before you’re paralyzed by second guessing.
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3 Tips for Hooking Your Reader With A Good Beginning

Although you’ll have many chances to revise it, bear in mind that your book’s first chapter will influence grab your reader’s attention in the first chapter:

  1. Start in the middle of a story. Novels don’t have to begin with long descriptions of a room’s appearance or a character’s personality. You can provide these descriptions indirectly if you launch right into some action. This “action” doesn’t need to be the inciting incident of the main plot. It might just be a short episode that introduces the world of the story and perhaps some ancillary characters. Involving the main character on page one is purely optional.
  2. Offer a bit of mystery. Another compelling way to start a novel is to make it cryptic. If you craft some high-stakes dialogue but don’t fully explain what’s going on, you may pique your readers’ interest and inspire them to keep reading to find out what it all means.
  3. Introduce your antagonist first. Whether or not they want to admit it, a lot of readers can’t resist a well-written bad guy. Introducing your readers to the world you’ve built via your antagonist is a provocative way to get their attention and make your novel stand out among others.

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3 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Novel

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Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

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Some novels can be derailed by unfortunate choices in the early stages of writing. Here are three common mistakes to avoid.

  1. The main character isn’t the most interesting person in your book. Some first time novelists seem more invested in quirky sidekicks than in their lead protagonist. While supporting characters can be fun, funny, and daring, your story will mean very little if your protagonist isn’t a compelling three-dimensional character. Think critically about who you’ve chosen to center your story around. If you realize that you find that lead character a bit boring, maybe they shouldn’t be your protagonist. Either reimagine their character to make it more compelling, or ask yourself if perhaps one of your supporting characters should actually be the protagonist. Learn more about writing great protagonists here.
  2. You cling to a scene that isn’t important to the overall narrative. Some first time authors get emotionally attached to a particular scene that may be enjoyable on its own but does little to develop the novel’s overall story. This unwarranted attachment can often involve the first scene of a novel, or perhaps a big event, sometimes called a “set piece” in writing and screenwriting circles. In many cases, these scenes may have been one of the very first parts of the book that you wrote. But good editing requires some tough emotional decisions, and you may need to cut a part of the book that you feel attached to in order to make the overall story stronger.
  3. Your narration isn’t consistent. The style of your novel’s narration is just as important as the story you’re telling. To create a consistent narrative style, you’ll need to make some choices. Is your narration lean and spartan, in the style of Ernest Hemingway? Is it florid and detailed, as in the style of Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad? Your narrative style may evolve over the course of your writing process, but before your work is done, make sure that the novel has a consistent overall voice to make it one coherent piece.

Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Margaret Atwood, who is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass on the art of writing, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, David Baldacci, and more.

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