Starting a Novel

I wrote previously about my 2020 writing goals and my commitment to finishing the fourth draft of my science fiction novel in 2020. As part of that commitment, I intend to blog every two weeks about what I’m learning from the writing process. In this post, I intend to address my struggles with completing the first few chapters.

There’s a lot of material required in the first chapter of a novel, and the pressure to fit it all in is causing me to over-analyze and continuously outline instead of write. However, this constant analyzing is causing me to grow anxious because I’m not truly writing.

Many writers I previously interviewed discuss the concepts of beginning a novel at length.

  • The first sentence is essential in capturing the reader’s attention.
  • An agent will decide if they will read on based upon the first paragraph.
  • The main characters need to be introduced on the first page.
  • The story world should be clear by the end of the first chapter.
  • Conflict should be established to create forward progression of the story.

I find it overwhelming. Without planning and outlining the entire novel before writing, how can I pack all that material into the first few pages? I just want to write!

In a recent blog post, Cal Newport discussed how Charles Dickens had “A Christmas Carol” planned out in its entirety prior to writing the book. That’s an impressive feat. While I’ve had the novel’s story world in my head for several years now, I’m still struggling with how to write a story within it – at least one that is compelling to the modern reader.

These are the moments not often discussed regarding the writing process: the amount of thinking and planning involved before one begins. I’ve thus come to believe at least for myself, I need to spent almost as much time plotting as I do writing, if not more. Near the end of 2019, I realized it is foolish to think I can sit down and simply type and a story will reveal itself. This may work for other writers, and maybe one day I’ll get there after more writing practice, but until then, I must continue to plot the story so it is character-driven and deep in its thrills.

When I originally wrote the first few drafts of the novel between 2017 and 2018, I ran into problems due of a lack of planning. There were too many characters and their motivations weren’t not clear. The ending was poor because it doesn’t provide a satisfying resolution to the conflict. There lacked a strong resolution because the conflict wasn’t strong enough to push the characters to their limits.

For inspiration, I recently read the first chapter of Harry Potter. It’s fantastic. The entire story is foreshadowed there. Whether J.K. Rowling had it all worked out when she wrote it, I’m not sure, but it shows that planning ahead of time and creating a great first chapter is essential to writing a compelling story.

Because I intend to write a great novel that will be widely read and enjoyed, I’ve realized I need to put the critical thinking in and I need to be okay with it. If I review the mistakes of the first draft I previously mentioned, it’s clear I need to spend more time on the novel before I can actually write it.

Hopefully this post helps others struggling with their first chapters. Good luck, and keep writing.

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