How to Start a Novel
The question of how to write a novel is a sticky evergreen thing on which many books have been written, many talks have been given, and many videos have been made. Everyone has a different opinion based on their different experience, which is why writing advice articles are an infinite vortex that will forever alienate and encourage their readers. However the first step to writing a novel is to begin one, and as someone who has finished and failed quite a few novels by now, I feel, however misguidedly, that I have a perspective to offer.
In order to start a novel, you need to figure out what you’re interested in. I think this is paramount, and it comes above finding a character, realising a plot, or crafting a voice. You have to be interested in what you’re writing about. I’ve heard this described in many different ways, but I’m going to call it the vital spark. The vital spark is the thing that makes you start writing in the first place. It’s the thing behind every character and every plot point, the magical gleam in every scene, the sine qua non of the story. It is the thing that drives the story for you as a writer. It’s not the same thing that will drive the story forward for a reader. This vital spark is for you alone.
In Monkeys with Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas breaks this down into a matrix. She provides a graph for you to fill with important events that happened to you, philosophical or moral ideas that interest you, current objects or ideas you’re fixated on. The idea is to pinpoint what is fuelling your creative and thoughtful energy at this point in your life. The contents of the matrix may change over time as your interests change, but by filling it out at the beginning of an idea, you narrow down what you’re genuinely interested in, not what you think might make a good story.
For the novel I wrote during my Masters degree (where I first encountered this idea of a matrix), I knew I was thinking about summer, betrayal, family, gender, religion, and beliefs. In terms of setting, story, and some of the characters, the novel I started at the beginning of the course was rather different to the novel I ended up finishing at the end, but thematically they were identical. The vital spark was the same in both ideas.
There are many writing books that look at why certain story structures work so well and why certain story types have existed for so long, and the answer is usually connected with the idea that humans are programmed for story. There is something innate within us that responds to certain ideas and tropes. I think it’s the same on a personal level. There are specific themes and images that you, as a human being, will respond to and feel a strong interest in, and those are what you need to tap into as a writer. These specifics don’t need to be political or grandiose. You don’t need to write about the benefits system or women’s reproductive rights or the Taliban. The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream, but it’s also just about loneliness. Wuthering Heights is a classic of Victorian gothic literature, but it’s also just about love. Sometimes the smallest ideas are the ones that resonate the loudest.
There is an idea in certain circles that pain equals merit. I loathe this idea with every fibre of my being, and especially when I see it in reference to creating art. You do not need to have suffered greatly in order to write a good story. Pain is not the most valuable tool in your writer kit. If you have had a painful experience and you write about it with depth and truth, you may make an amazing story that can touch readers who have been through similar ordeals. But I cannot stress enough how little you need some great tragedy in your life in order to create something worthwhile.
The most important thing you need to start your novel is that vital spark. It’s not always an easy thing to find, and some soul-searching may be required before you hit on the thing that will drive you onwards, will keep you going through the lack of motivation, the multiple revisions, the self-doubt, the hard work of butt-in-chair and fingers-on-keyboard. But once you find it, the spark is what will carry you through.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.