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20th August 2016: Four tips for starting your novel

It has been a good couple of weeks since I last wrote a blog post- so where have I been? Well apart from a wonderful, slouchy two-day spa break with my wife, I have started writing my first novel.

I love to write. But I rarely manage to finish anything when it is formal, and by that, I mean not a journal. Since my teenage years, I have kept a journal on and off. Regretting the reams of what was probably incessant whining I threw out, I now keep everything I write, some of which is blunt, some of which is poetic, but all of which shines a light on my soul.

I remember reading an interview with J.K. Rowling. She told the journalist that Harry Potter flitted into her mind fully formed, and that it was easy to write that story. At the time, I thought that this was utter rubbish. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that is what has happened to me.

I have several stories waiting to be written. In particular, a play about mental health has been at the top of the list for at least 4 years. So why haven’t I written it? Because although I know the characters inside out, and the structure, plot and major crisis has been planned, when I sit down to write nothing that interesting comes to mind.

My J.K. Rowling moment came to me when I was out for dinner one night. Armed with a Ravenclaw notebook (how apt), and a bright green pen, I blurted out an idea for a story to my wife (who doesn’t mind books and notepads brought to dinner). Over a bottle of wine, we fleshed out ideas and by the time she came home from work the next day, the first two chapters were complete. Today I hit the 22,000 word mark. So here are my tips to get that writing project off the ground- and novels that exemplify my points if you need to find examples.

Tip 1: Start with the protagonist

There is no point thinking about a fantastic plot until you know who your main character is. A detailed description of how they look is far less useful than a list of traits and mini-stories that exemplify their personality. When I was teaching in secondary schools, I always started by telling the kids why I wanted to be a teacher. After being brought up on benefits by a single mother, I wanted a reasonable salary, but that meant less than my real driving force- my brother. The complete opposite to me, he left school with few GCSEs where I did pretty well. We had the same upbringing, but our aptitudes and interests made more of an impact on our lives than anything else. Given that he is only 14 months younger than me, I don’t think it is acceptable for him to fail English and for me to teach it. The lesson- who your character is means much more to the reader than what trainers they have on.

Real characters are flawed. A great way to think about this is to read a novel that you read as a child. I loved The Famous Five, but I read them now and think what snotty-nosed kids they really were with little characterisation. Harry Potter breaks rules as if they are non-existent and puts many of his friends in danger, but that doesn’t stop him being loved by millions. (Read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

Think about the following questions:
·        What is your character’s relationship with their family like?
·        What is most important to them- both possessions and values?
·        What is their main failing?

Tip 2: Decide on the antagonist

The antagonist of a story doesn’t have to be another person: it can be an idea, a possession or something that troubles the very being of your protagonist. My novel starts with the main character complaining about being in the shadow of her brother, who is a genius. Without explanation, the sibling rivalry is introduced to the reader- not all ideas need to be elaborated on, and sometimes less is more.

Although the brother is not the main antagonist in the story, it brings depth to my main character, because we all have moments of feeling jealous and resentful, and including negative emotions as well as positive allow your readers to empathise.

Other characters have the situation thrust upon them, and they have to find a way to cope. Quite often these are classified as coming-of-age novels. (Read The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness)

Think about the questions:
·        What is the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist?
·        How does the relationship change throughout the story- and is there a resolution?

Tip 3: Bring in the unexpected

Stories which are predictable are far less enjoyable to read than the page turners that have your heart in your mouth and leave you bereft at the end. In teaching young people how to write stories, we often use the 5 part sequence: 1- introduce the characters and setting; 2- something happens to the character; 3- the climax; 4- the resolution to the climactic problem; 5- the end (think about the characters move on). This is a basic approach, but it may be helpful for you to get started.

In many of my chapters, something significant is revealed and the character has to work out the problem. Some of these problems will take time and will be explored across the novel, but others can be solved more quickly. It means that I can keep readers on their toes. (Read Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh)

Some authors find a chapter summary is useful for plotting the story and character development, but for me, on this project, this approach hasn’t worked. I know what the ending is going to be, and I know which problems will be substantial enough to develop in detail, but I am allowing the character to take me on the journey.

Think about these questions:
·        How is your character going to be different at the start to the end of the story- what will they have learned?
·        Will all of the problems be resolved?
·        Are there sub-plots, and how do they affect the main action?

Tip 4: Decide on the voice

Who is your story aimed at? Children? Young adults? Adults? You will be unable to perfect your character’s voice until you can answer this question. Ask yourself what the age of the main character is. This often determines your audience. Below teenage years and it is likely to be aimed at children; between 13-17 is a perfect age for young adult and 18 plus would be suitable for adults.

Does this matter? Yes, it does. When teenagers read, they often want to read about characters who have the same issues as they do, and a narrator who is in their mid-twenties won’t hold their interest quite as much. Particularly when it comes to publishing, stories can be categorised by the narrator’s age, so think carefully about this decision before you write.

Issues relevant to your character will be the same regardless of your genre. Set on another planet after a destructive vaccine, Jayne, my main character, still faces family crises and at times, crippling self-doubt. (Read The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood)

The other thing to consider is whether you are going to write in 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, and whether it is written in past or present tense. Normally I hate to write in present tense, and I actively discourage my students from doing so because of the difficulties of switching back into past tense. If you are writing in present tense, remember to check ALL of your verbs when you proofread; there is nothing worse than mixed-up tense.

However, when I started writing this story, present tense seemed right for the character, so that the audience can find out things at the same time she does. Jayne is a first person narrator, which means that the reader only has her version of things. This can be particularly interesting if you have a manipulative narrator. (Read Emma by Jane Austen)

A third person narrator can allow your reader an insight into the feelings of all of your characters, and if done well, can skew your reader’s perception. Remember when we found out that Snape was a good guy? (Read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

And don’t forget the option of writing from multiple viewpoints. This can be done in 1st or 3rd person. (Read Wonder by R.J.Palacio)

Think about these questions:
·        Do you have a strong enough character to write in first person?
·        Do you have more than one main character?
·        When are you setting the novel?

Hopefully you will find some of these tips useful, and if you still aren’t ready to start then try some of the recommended reads!

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