Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The First Two Questions to Ask When Starting to Write a Novel.

I’m not in the habit of quoting Zig Ziglar, but the dude once said this: You don’t have to be great to start you have to start to be great. It’s a nice quote if you can picture saying it sans the fist pump and jazzercise music playing in the background.

Beginning a novel is daunting. Ever since Patti Hill talked about writing as stuffing an octopus into a mayonnaise jar, I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head.

How does a writer go from holding an octopus in one hand and a mayonnaise jar in the other to a tidy stack of papers with his name neatly typed on the cover page?

If starting is the most crucial step (and it is), then starting well will save hours (months? Years?) of frustration in rewrites.

Writing fiction is personal. No two writers come at it in the same way, and no one can say, “This is the definitive method of how to begin writing a novel.”

One writer begins with a character that shows up in her head and won’t go away. Another follows the crumbs of a plot, a series of “what if” questions. For another it’s the setting. Yet another (and this is how I usually begin) it’s theme.

Regardless of what jump-starts you to dive into writing a new novel, there are two questions you need to ask yourself before you put pen to paper.

The first question is: Who is telling this story?

When you discover the answer to this question, you lay the foundation for a myriad of complex literary devices. Discovering your narrator means you’ve discovered:

 Your setting. Real people live in real places—they come from somewhere.
 When (in time and history). Narrators live in the present—even if they are dead (The Book Thief, American Beauty). 

The tense you will use. Past tense (the current champion in novels everywhere), present tense? Which is best. Is anyone out there writing in future tense? 

Voice. Ah voice, that misunderstood device of writing. Both simple and baffling. Knowing who is telling the story means you can listen deeply to that voice that lifts the words off the page and lives in the reader’s heart and mind. 

And the biggest of them all Point of View (POV). Knowing your narrator means the POV (almost) decides itself. First person? Third person limited? Omniscient? Second person (rare, but wonderful when it’s done well)? 

Now, I’m not going to say that if you choose this kind of narrator then you automatically will have this kind of POV. It doesn’t work that way because each novel is different, and the more complex the story, the more layers of questions arise. But. If you spend a good chunk of time fiddling with the question of who, something amazing happens: you get traction under your story at the very beginning.

The second question to ask is: Why must this story be told now?
The word “now” is key to the question.  It’s not asking “is my story timely?” or, “is this culturally contextual?” Those are questions about things that lie outside your story.

Why must this story be told now is a question that, when answered, brings a sense of intimacy, urgency, and intrigue to your novel. That tingly feeling you get when you open a novel and feel pulled in immediately.

Why now? What desperate thing has happened that means the narrator is compelled to speak? Now. Immediately. Today. That not telling the story now would be wrong, perhaps tragic.

Why is now the best time to tell the story? Knowing this will help you know where your story begins.

If you’re starting a new novel, ask yourself:

Who is telling this story?
Why does this story need to be told NOW?

These questions will lead to more questions, which will lead to answers, which will lead to you typing THE END with a flourish.


Megan Sayer said...

Once again this is such a timely post. I'm right at the beginning stages of writing a novel again, and it's a strange sensation of knowing how much I don't know about something that feels like it's already there, that I could just google it and answer all the questions I have about this story and these people.
I tend to start with endings. I don't know why, but it's becoming a pattern. I know what happens in this current story at the beginning and at the end, and I'm trying to find out who they are, and what happens in the middle that makes me care enough to get to the ending I love.
I like your questions. Who is telling this story has an obvious answer for me, but I'm not sure of the last one. I think it comes back to "because I care". Or even deeper, because it matters to me. And if it matters to me, then the likelihood is that somewhere, sometime, it will matter to someone else as well.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Well, Bonnie, I didn't know why the story needed to be told now until I read this post. Now I know!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Pure brilliance.

Off to tweet.
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: Try to use these questions inside the story structure. Yes, you care about the story you are starting to write, but that answer lies outside of the story itself.

When you ask "why now?" you are asking an internal question regarding the narrator and the story.

So, once you have a narrator, it's up to that voice to show the reader why this story must be told now.

Does that make sense?

Susie: Hurray!

Wendy: Aw shucks, thanks!

Zan Marie said...

Excellent post, Bonnie! You've summed up a lot of wisdom here. Thanks for sharing.

Megan Sayer said...

Oh, perfect sense, thanks Bonnie! And exactly what I needed to hear right now as well.
Once again I'm pretty sure that Novel Matters was written purely for me. How cool is that? : )

Bonnie Grove said...

Thanks Zan Marie! I'm basking in the few seconds that the word "wisdom" might apply to me before I come crashing back down to earth. So kind of you.

Megan: So glad. I find I often get tussled in the sheets of what questions/answers lie inside the story and which lie outside--because much of what a novel will speak to is exactly those outside things, yet those things aren't questions that will inform the story.

Now I'm dizzy.

Niki Turner said...

Oh my goodness, this is like manna from heaven! Thank you!
My struggle with my current manuscript is with the second question... if your story IS culturally contextual and timely, how do you find the answer to that question within the story?

Bonnie Grove said...

Niki: No doubt your novel is both timely and contextual--and I bet it's personal too.

Personal to the person telling the story. So, within the linear plot, what crisis point rises to the fore and makes the telling of the story urgent?

Cherry Odelberg said...

Hmmm. Why does the story need to be told now?
Well, I know why it needed to be told ten years ago when I began the narrative...
Ah, "why does the story need to be told now?" that holds the key to which chapter to place first. Okay, scrap all that boring back story and cut to the chase.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: Good point about backstory. No need for all the explanations -- the narrator has a reason for telling the story now (this is totally separate from the author having a reason to tell the story now), and it's the now that matters out of the gate.

Good stuff.

Kathleen Popa said...

Tussled in the sheets???

Bonnie Grove said...

Well, it's not a BAD thing. . . heh heh