20 Steps to Starting Your Novel
© Robert Ray. All Rights Reserved
Note: When I finished Murdock #6—Murdock Tackles Taos—I dozed, I dreamt of Fame, that elusive imposter, and then I launched into Murdock #7, and felt a bone-chilling loss of momentum, because the work on the Taos book was wrap-up writing, little fixes, edits, careful knitting up, joyful polishing—but the writing on the new book was clumsy, dull, opaque, fitful, maddening. I was back at Beginner’s Mind, facing the blank page. I blamed writers with finished books. Desperate, I rewrote paragraphs—my internal editor, alive and robust, calling out the edits—so to rescue myself from going crazy, I jotted down twenty steps for starting my novel, and I hope the same steps work for you:
- Write 100 pages.
- Don’t stop to think. Don’t write too fast. Don’t waste time crafting exquisite paragraphs—you’ll have to cut them when you rewrite.
- Write short lines, short sentences. She slugged him. He fell backwards. She hit him with a skillet. Blood popped from his ear. (Hint: the short line forces you to look at your verbs.)
- Use strong verbs. Shoot, dance, spin, whirl, claw, jab, slice, chop, lob, whack, whip, lash drop, gallop, trot, slug, etc.
- Pack each line with objects: wardrobe items, vehicles, jewelry, weapons, tools, kitchen implements, money in envelopes, money in attaches, hundred dollar bills on the crap table, furniture, rocks, trees, scars, car parts, bathroom soap (what does it smell like?).
- If a paragraph cries out to be written, go for it. But do not rewrite or reshape or touch up the paragraph! Because when you touch it up, even a tiny bit, then you are editing and…
- …the least little edit wakes up your internal editor—and the editor will chastise your unconscious—and you got trouble. In the first 100 pages, keep your editor sedated on downers.
- Forget all the crap about rough draft and final draft. Forget about ridiculous goals like writing 50,000 bad words in 30 days. (A novel is a plot and two or more subplots—not a certain number of words.) Go for story. Go for character. Go for objects on the page.
- Write pieces of scenes—setting, character onstage, dialogue, action, intruder—but don’t stop to polish any scene because there’s a good chance you’ll cut it when you rewrite. For the first 100 pages, scenes are place holders.
- Push past page 50. If you get to page 50, you will enter unknown territory: no road signs, no map, no Sherpa guide, the elusive elf of fame dancing like a mirage in your headlights. If you push past page 50, you are way ahead. Most would-be novelists run out of gas right here.
- Be brave. You won’t know what your novel is about—sex, danger, loss, pain, betrayal, genetic success, education, space travel, love, King Replacement—until you reach page 100—or after. Be brave.
- Write about your characters. Name, sex, age, home, education, income, vehicle, wardrobe stuff, wounds, scars, childhood trauma that haunts, because you are seeking motivation, which creates agenda, which creates action—what one character does to another.
- Write about connections between the three main characters: protagonist, antagonist, and helper. The two big connections are blood (family, genetics, sibling rivalry, parental rule, childhood rebelllion) and money (greed, need, want, robbery, betrayal, homicide). Other connections arise from place and/or situation: teacher-student (School), officer-enlisted man (Military), warden-guard-felon (Jail), boss-employee (Work/Job), hooker-client (Sexual Encounter), cop-snitch (Mean Streets), etc.
- Write the first encounter between protagonist and antagonist then keep going writing the firsts—first love, first kiss, first funeral—for each character.
- If you yearn for feedback, stay calm. If you must share a few pages, do not show them to your spouse, but share with your fellow writers—nuts like you who want to write novels. When feedback comes, take notes. Don’t argue. Don’t say, “But what I really meant was…” If you feel bad, cry. Then get back to writing short lines.
- When you reach page 75 (in a projected novel of 300 pages, you’re at Plot Point One), write ten sentences about your Midpoint—what happens before and after page 150. (Hint: with these ten sentences, you are probing your novel’s structure.)
- Do a mind-map (words in bubbles, bubbles linked by lines on the page) of your novel so far. What’s in the bubble at the center? How are your characters connected? What are your five key objects? Which character controls the Resource Base? What lurks in the bubbles way out there on the edge?
- On page 90, define your Resource Base. What do your characters want? What will they kill for? What will they die for? Examples: The RB in Water World is dirt. The RB in Moby-Dick is blubber. The RB in Jane Eyre is Mr. Rochester’s money, symbolized by Thornfield Hall, a dowdy English country house, but to Jane, it’s a castle. In Road Warrior, the RB is gasoline. In As Good as it Gets, the RB is Melvin’s money. The RB in the Cinderella fairy tale is the Royal Castle, a sanctuary for an orphan girl who loses her slipper.
- Grind your way to page 100. If you don’t have a writing group—where you write with other writers using a timer—get one together now. (Hint: critique groups are useless except for leaving writerly blood-trails on the floor.)
- Page 100. You are here. Take some deep breaths. Pat yourself on the back. Do a 180 rotation and look back down the road you have built as you traveled. Check out the road signs, the detours and dead-ends and pot-holes. Read what you wrote and make lists: objects, characters, settings, subplots. Then write the next 100 pages. Short lines, no editing, nose close to the page, and when you get rolling, around page 127, try this startline to locate one possible climax: “My story climaxes in a scene called X where the protagonist battles the antagonist for….”
© Robert Ray. All Rights Reserved.