How to Start Writing a Novel for Beginners: 5 Tips for Starting Your Story

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

You've got a story inside of you.

And in this week’s Digital Writing Compass we are going to break down exactly how you can put your imagination on paper and get started writing your first novel so you can finally bring your story to life.

Let’s dive in.

Can You Really Learn How to Write a Novel With No Experience?

Your first novel (probably) won't be your best novel.

So, don't overthink it. Your first novel is more about learning "how to write your first novel" than it is about writing a best-seller.

Remember kindergarten, when you learned how to write? What did the teacher make you do? Trace each letter. Then you had to write the letter on your own. Next, you combined the letters to make a word (still tracing). Then finally, you wrote an entire word all on your own, And off you went.

You can't learn how to write a novel if you don't start writing a novel.

Time to (trace) learn.

The Benefits of Learning How To Start Writing A Novel For Beginners

Writing is a powerful tool for personal growth for any type of writing: fiction, non-fiction, essays, tweets, etc.

It's an act of self-reflection and self-expression, which allows you to clarify your thoughts, build confidence in your ideas, and take ownership of your beliefs.

  • Writing helps you form a thinking habit
  • Writing leads you down the path of making creative leaps
  • Writing uncovers self-imposed obstacles and clarifies your “excuses”

And writing a novel can help you develop a better understanding of the world around you. It allows you to explore new perspectives and ideas, and it gives you a deeper insight into human nature and the human experience.

When you write, you can’t help but grow (on paper) and in life.  

How to Start Writing A Novel For Beginners: 5 Tips On Writing a Novel With No Experience

Cole spent 4 years working on his first book.

That was a mistake.

He hid away in his apartment. He didn't share it with anyone. He re-wrote the first chapter alone over 100 times—not counting the hundreds of read-throughs to check for commas and adjust sentences. He rewrote the entire thing 4 times completely over, telling himself "it's not ready yet." And every time he wrote it, he loved it for a day, and then the next day he decided it wasn't right.

It took him 4 months to write his second book!

What changed?

He realized how much work it takes to truly understand what it is you want to say. He stopped hiding his drafts and instead started practicing online, gathering feedback from others. He expanded on what worked well and stopped overthinking every detail.

He hit publish and moved on.

We want you to take what Cole learned and apply it to writing a novel.  

Let’s go!

Name The Genre

Knowing what kind of story you're telling will help you decide what characters and plot points you need.

  • Are you writing a romance novel?
  • A thriller?
  • A mystery?
  • A dystopian science fiction story?

Many people start with an idea of what their story will be about, but the mistake they make is not identifying what genre (or genres) the story falls in. The reason this is important is because all genres come with expectations. Expectations that readers have from years of reading about and watching stories that other people have created. You don’t pick up a thriller if you want to read about two people obtaining their “happily ever after.” These are patterns that you as the writer need to know.  

Knowing genre expectations will improve your story writing and will help you identify who your story is for.

Choose The Story Pattern

In his master’s thesis for the University of Chicago, legendary writer and thinker, Kurt Vonnegut, defined 8 common shapes of stories. He plots good and bad fortune against the beginning and ending of a character’s journey.  

Vonnegut outlines each story arc in the video below.

Find the story pattern that best represents your story idea and write down the inflection points.  These inflection points are the major sections of your book.

For example:

  • Somebody gets into trouble. They get out of it.
  • Somebody starts off poorly. And they never recover.
  • Somebody finds something wonderful. They lose it. Then get it back.

Photo credit: Maya Eilam.

Answer The Questions Every Novel Reader Wants To Know

Once you know your genre, and the pattern your story will follow.  It’s time to answer the 6 questions every story needs to answer.

  • Who is the story about? Think about your character and their goals. Who is the hero?
  • What do they want? You need to know what your character wants, and how badly they want it. This will help you figure out how much trouble they'll go through to get what they want.
  • Why can't they get it? Identify what stands in your character’s way of getting what they want—and how much of a challenge or an obstacle this will be.
  • What do they do about that? Now you know the problem (the obstacle), but you also need to know how the character goes about solving it. How do they deal with the problem? What kind of plan do they make? How do they approach solving this problem?
  • Why doesn't that work? Now that your character has tried and failed, you need to know why this attempt failed—and what else might happen.
  • How does it end? What does your character finally do? Eventually the story ends, and the character gets what they want or they don’t.And whatever they do get is a result of what they had never tried before.

Don’t stop there. Keep asking even more questions to build the story.

  • Ask who, what, when, where, why, how?
  • Where is your character from?
  • How did they get there?
  • Why are they afraid of heights?
  • Why do they love that person?

Every time you ask a question and get a specific answer, you get closer to writing your book.

Write A 280 Character Description Of Your Novel

A novel is a long story.

But all stories start with a simple premise.

For example, two people fall in love on the maiden voyage of the Titanic and struggle to survive as the ship sinks into the ocean. Or, three groomsmen who lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during a drunken adventure in Las Vegas must retrace their steps to find him.

You have a character trying to achieve a goal: win the girl, defeat the enemy, or find the groomsman. There is something in the character’s way. And what they do in the face of the obstacle makes the story.

Use this simple template to create your one sentence description:

In a world where <the situation>, <your character> has to <overcome obstacle>, otherwise <problem> will happen.

Write it in less than 280 characters, short enough for a tweet.  

Hit Publish, Get Feedback, And Iterate

Before you run headlong into writing your entire novel, share your one sentence description as a tweet, share it with your neighbor, even your dog (reading what you wrote out loud helps).

Take notice of how people react to your premise.

  • Are they intrigued?
  • Do they ask questions?
  • Do they change the topic?

All of these are tiny signals that will let you know if you are on the right track.

Many beginner novelists believe they need to start with a massive, multi-faceted story, but this can actually be overwhelming and lead to writer's block. Instead start with a small, focused idea that can be developed over time. This allows you to build momentum and confidence.

Keep adding and expanding. Expand on your single sentence into a paragraph. Then two. Then two pages. Press forward on building on each of the major sections of your story. Tell the stories within the stories. Keep getting feedback. Hold on to the ones that work, get rid of the ones that don’t.

For a good example of how to do this, check out @asmallfiction on Twitter.

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