A Novel Beginning

“So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours. The history of literature — take the net result of Tiraboschi, Warton, or Schlegel — is a sum of very few ideas and of very few original tales; all the rest being variation on these.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”

Where do you start a new novel? According to the famous words in A Sound of Music’s Do-Re-Mi, the “very” beginning is a very good place to start. But for my new novel, I don’t think the very beginning is the right place to start.

I mean how can a writer know so early in the writing? Often nothing much is happening in the “beginning”. Hence the value of backstory and flashback. Sometimes important incidents shaping the character or journey might be found in the past, but are these the best starting points? Or, are you best to start in media res (in the action)? Or in a poignant moment.

You know what, it doesn’t matter, because…

Yay! I’ve started the writing. And my initial chapter one starts not at a birth or even when characters first meet, but at a significant event where all their lives are about to change. The moment in time is inevitable and unpreventable.

Whether this start remains as the beginning one, two, three years from now when I finish this novel, I am yet to know. What I do know is that it’s fantastic to have started and to have met one of my main characters. I cannot wait to get to know them all.

I have lots of scene ideas and a storyline. It’s complex and going to take time. I do know this novel is not going to be written like the last with a chronological narrative. That’s exciting in itself. And opens up a whole new way of writing for me. I’m usually pretty linear. But because I have lots of ideas and multiple viewpoints, I think this story and characters will lend themselves to growing and weaving into each other. Of course, it might all tangle into one hell of a mess too, but the beauty is the freedom to write in disconnected scenes. Of course I envisage the connections in my mind, but it’s going to be a little like a jigsaw putting it together.

I’m excited to have bought the new Scrivener for Windows program and am hanging out to try it. I’ve just got to put aside a couple of hours to go through and learn the basics via the tutorial. I love that I’ll be able to write in scenes and then shuffle them and draw them all back together via the program. I can see lots of possibilities. I’m also eager to try the digital index cards and cork board, though I’m equally impressed with the value of laying out hardcopy index cards to map a manuscript too. (If you’re into index cards, and haven’t already done so, you might like to check out my previous post on manuscript mapping.)

I’m glad I’ve had a few months to begin to separate from my last novel. It was very funny and quite strange to see in the new writing where the main character is supposed to be a young Aussie male that the voice and speech mannerisms came out fuddled with the unique voice of Maire, the main character from my recently finished novel. Funny because she’s female, young and Scottish. Hmmm. Perhaps the distance from the first is not great enough yet.

I have lots of research to focus on before progressing too far with the writing. Though I am writing in a similar era to my previous novel so have the benefit of a great starting knowledge on the history, lifestyle and culture. Really I’m just thrilled to have made a start.

The writing process is different for all of us. American author John Irving begins with his novel’s last sentence and works his way backward through the plot to where the story should begin. I don’t have such a process to  start. Though with my background in writing for children and YA, I try to go with action, or start the point of story where things begin to happen, hot up. I’d love to know if you begin your new story by a set process or how you begin. I wonder if it affects different genres, age groups, styles. Please share if you’d like to in the comments.

(The photograph above is the birth of my new baby zucchinis, or they will be soon. Writing novels takes preparation just like vegetable plants. Only I’m not sure that my new novel will look as beautiful for awhile. I’m sure I’ll be eating these zucchinis long before my novel is ready.)

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Karen Collum" alt="Karen Collum">

Karen Collum

I don’t know if I could write in a non-linear way, although it’s something I often think about and would love to try at some point. Good luck with your new novel writing adventure, Chris 🙂

December 1, 2011 at 10:39 pm
christinemareebell" alt="christinemareebell">


Hi Karen,

I’ve always written my chapter and picture book length texts in linear and/or chronological order. Probably because I pretty much know where they’re going before I begin. With novel I might know where they’re going to end, but there’s so much that happens in between that I don’t know, or that changes along the way. Especially when someone unexpected turns up or one of my characters does something I didn’t see coming.

I’ve only gotten adventurous in novel length. Sometimes when I get stuck or aren’t so inspired, and I know a strong scene is needed elsewhere or just burning to be born, I write it out of order. They always come out all the more powerfully if I write them then.

Thank you for your good wishes. Good luck with polishing your Nano novel to a diamond. 🙂

Best, Chris

December 2, 2011 at 9:51 am
Corinne Fenton" alt="Corinne Fenton">

Corinne Fenton

Good on you, Chris. Sounds totally daunting to me – think I’ll stick with picture books even though I’ve already been working on the current one for five years!!!
Writing, all types, simply takes time.
Good luck with your new project.

December 4, 2011 at 8:09 am

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