One of the hardest decisions you’ll make when starting your novel is deciding where, exactly, to do just that. Where do you start your novel? Start too soon and it becomes a yawn fest for both you and your reader. Start too late and the reader feels like they’re thrusting out of murky water, desperately trying to clear the muck from their eyes. Too soon, too late—where are to begin without needing to begin again? How on earth can you begin when you don’t even know where you’re going to end?
One was too soon.
If this is your first novel, or even if it isn’t, if you’re joining #NaNoWriMo today without much thought (which, by the way, makes it all the more fun) you have essentially three choices to get started: brainstorm and outline a good chunk of the novel, free-write or pearl-write (the last of which may be an atrocious misspelling and inaccurate memory from college).
Outlining—Creating a dual outline: one with the plot elements of your manuscript and one with the character development as it coincides with that plot (the second part isn’t necessary in a novel outline, but may help you decide the best place to start)
Freewriting—Just write as you think in a stream of consciousness. Many include unlrelated thoughts in their freewrite, but just as many keep it to the story, leaving out the unrelated thoughts.
Pearl-writing—Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write down all the ideas you have about the beginning. At the end of the fifteen minutes, choose the best “pearl” of thought you had and start over with that as the focus. Keep doing that until you pull the right pearl out that lets you just keep going.
You may find it beneficial to sit all of your characters down in a room and let them have a conversation. Get to know their personalities. Who’s going to be funny, who’s going to be laid-back? Are they wearing coats for winter, jackets for fall? Are you going to use the seasons as a literary tool? Starting a novel with all of your characters up front is not a good place to begin your novel, but it may be good place to begin to write to get that out of your system.
You can even free-write them up to the rising action, then go back and redraft the exposition, once you know what and who you need to take you to where you want to be. However, when you’re trying to write a novel in 30 days, redrafting is technically against the rules, so if you go this route, plan on having a redraft to add to your edits once you’ve completed your 50K.
One was too late.
If you don’t know where you want the novel to start, but you know where you want it to go, then just write like the beginning is already written. Don’t try to weave in character introductions. Simply start at the rising action and write the last 50,000 words of the novel. Once November concludes, you can go back in and write the exposition with the best starting place in mind.
Remember, though, by the rising action, all of your characters have been introduced to the reader, even though you haven’t met them yourself. So, it’s going to be difficult not to force character A to run into character B, just so you have a reason to bring them up.
Another bit of trouble when you begin too late is that plot is usually shifted and character development gets kicked to the curb. Remember, we’re along the ride to see how the character fares and what decisions are made along the way.
If you have the desire to start too late, try this: write the ending of your book. Then decide what character development you want to have come from that. Was the character at the end strong and courageous? Were they patient and understanding? Great. Now, where do we need them to start in relation to the plot to take them through that change (example of Goldilocks below). Now you’re ready to write the beginning and middle to hook on to that pre-written ending.
One was just right.
To narrow in on just the right place to begin, in one sentence write down what your story is about, including plot and character development.
Example: An intrusive little girl looks for food and comfort in someone else’s house and learns how her actions affect others.
From this, we know that the main protagonist is a girl and that she’s intrusive. We also know that we want her to learn a lesson in the end about how her actions affect others. Finally, we know that we’re going to be in someone else’s house. Now, how do we put that all together?
If we start from the very beginning, where Goldilocks wakes up, we’re starting too early. We don’t need to know her morning routine or witness her whole trip getting there, because that’s not essential to the plot. We do, however, need to know how she happens upon the particular house in question and what motivates her to go inside for food and comfort.
If we start her in the house, we leave open too many questions about why she’s there. We don’t know that we’re in a house all by itself out in the woods. We don’t know if she intended to break in. We don’t know what our character’s motivations are. For all we know, there was a tornado outside, and coming in wasn’t intrusive—it was an act of survival.
As you know, the choice is made for her to be walking in the woods one day (random). That sets us up to find a solitary house (we can focus on choices other than which house this way), and it gives her a reason to be hungry and tired—she’s been walking in the woods all day. So, that’s where we start: she’s walking in the woods and stumbles upon a house.
Start here► What makes the character unique?
With Goldilocks, she’s intrusive. She’s out in the woods, decides she’s hungry and decides to help herself to someone else’s things to fill her own need. We just needed to give her a reason to get hungry and the rest takes care of itself.
Now, with your story, it’s going to be a tad harder than that. Start with a “day in the life” of your characters. What parts of their daily life make them unique? Do they work three shifts a day and go home to kids who barely know them? Are they an obsessive runner, sustaining injury after injury, but go to work and get praised for their athleticism? Are they OCD and trying to navigate a world that doesn’t play by their rules (think “As Good As It Gets” movie)?
Then, think of your book as a mildly-assisted reality TV. “What happens when these characters are confronted with this scenario?” That way it’s your character’s uniqueness that decides the outcome and the best place to begin. After all, the best beginnings are often just the endings rewritten.