JWAM reader request no. 6: Getting started

Bran-la says:

The thing that i always have trouble with is getting started. I never know what to say in the beginning or where the setting should be. What helps you get started? Any hints and tips would be wonderful!

It is a scientific fact that the majority of first chapters never make it into the final version of the novel. Here’s the very first chapter I wrote of Magic or Madness and here is the published first chapter of Magic or Madness. You will notice that the two have pretty much nothing in common.

This is good thing to know. It means you can relax and not worry whether your first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter is perfect. Odds are they won’t be in the final version.

When you’re getting started I find it’s best to just let yourself go and not second guess yourself on grammar or even spelling. Just type! When I was little all my stories began, “Once upon a time . . . ” I know it’s corny but it really helped me to get going. You can always edit out that phrase later.

I’m one of those writers whose first drafts are unspeakably bad. Total rubbish. It’s only in rewriting that they become readable. I suspect that some beginning writers are put off by the idea of their writing not being perfect straight away.

You need to give yourself permission to be bad. You’ll fix it in the next draft, or the draft after that. The first goal is to write a complete draft. It don’t have to be pretty.

As for kick starting ideas—have a read of this post, it definitely applies to getting started.

Once you start writing you’ll likely find you’ve gotten many things wrong. You don’t have to know everything about your novel before you start writing it. I never do. I usually know close to nothing about my novels when I start.

I have a novel that I originally thought was set in an alternative mediaeval Russia. It was rubbish and kept stalling and going no where. I abandoned it for a few years before I realised it was really set in an alternative fourteenth century Cambodia. I was several chapters into How To Ditch Your Fairy before I discovered it was set in an imaginary place called New Avalon.

Diana Peterfreund mentions in a comment that while writing one of her books she discovered ninety pages in that her protag was afraid of water. It changed her plot. She had to go back and rewrite everything up to that point to accommodate this revelation.

Happens all the time. Books change as you write them, as you learn more about the world you’re creating, and the people in it. This is why the first chapter is usually the most frequently rewritten chapter in the entire book. That is, if it escapes the cutting room floor.

Other kinds of writers

Now, none of this advice will be useful to you if you turn out to be one of those writers who has to know exactly what the first sentence of their book is before they can move on. My condolences!

There are also writers whose first draft is their final draft. They write slowly and painstakingly, crafting and shaping as they go. What I achieve over the process of many drafts they achieve in one but they probably take the same time with their one that I take with my many.

There are writers who cannot write a single word of the novel until they’ve figured out the entire plot in their head. From first to last sentence. If you were one of those writers than perhaps that’s why starting is so hard for you.

I know other writers who work out their novels in a detailed outline and don’t start the real writing until they’ve nailed every plot twist and character quirk. I remember someone once telling me that Tim Powers’ outlines for his books are longer than the books themselves and include maps and diagrams.

So it could be that what you think is slowness in getting started is, in fact, all part of the process of writing the novel. Some people work things out on the page, some in their head, and some in an interperative dance with finger puppets. (*Shudder*)

The only way you can figure out what kind of novelist you are is to write one. And be aware that with your second novel you may discover you’re whole different kind of novelist.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.


  1. JJ Cooper on #

    More great advice there, Justine.

    I think a first chapter should introduce the main character in a situation of conflict. Captivate and hook the reader right from the start while avoiding backstory or flashbacks.

    I don’t outline, but I find writing each chapter with a beginning, middle and end helps.

    Also, some people are linear thinkers while others are able to take scattered thoughts and make sense of them (mind-mapping). If you can identify which one you are, it may make a difference to how you write. I’m linear, my stories are linear and I can’t write anything out of order. Just me.


  2. Carrie Ryan on #

    Yep, I’m the one who needs to know the first line. At least that’s the way it’s worked with my first four novels. Though in my defense, I do try to move on when I don’t have it. In fact, I wrote about 5 drafts of my recent WIP with various first lines that were great for those drafts, but ultimately scrapped them all for the one I’m working on now.

  3. Nicholas Waller on #

    I had to have a perfect first line to get a college essay started, sometimes wasting several pieces of paper (this was in the days of typewriters, not computers). once that was done, I was off.

    As for stories, sometimes the blank piece of paper and the hope/fear that lots – thousands – of other people might read the resulting screed causes paralysis: If I don’t get it right right now I’ll never get it right.

    So every now and then, to kickstart myself, I pretend I’m really writing a letter to a named individual friend, and pretty much tell the story to him. Afterwards I can go back and knock off the “Dear Ady” bit and rewrite.

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I know a writer whose first chapters in her published books are always the third chapter in her drafts. The first two chapters are for “discovery.” Having read a LOT of unpubbed books in contests, I think more writers could benefit from this advice.

  5. Carrie Ryan on #

    Diana — I couldn’t agree more about the contest thing. I think I learned the most about starting a book by judging contests and seeing a lot of examples of what DIDN’T work.

  6. PixelFish on #

    Apropos of not much, I had a fantasy also set in an alternate 14th century Cambodia. (Or if not quite the 14th, about fifty years after the reign of Jayavarman VII.)

    I blame my parents’ pile of old National Geographics and the May 1982 issue with the fold out diagram of Angkor Wat.

  7. Michelle Madow on #

    “You need to give yourself permission to be bad. You’ll fix it in the next draft, or the draft after that. The first goal is to write a complete draft. It don’t have to be pretty.”

    Thank you, Justine! This is a huge problem I’ve been having. I’ll be writing and start wondering: Should I put this character’s motion before or after they speak? Would this sentence sound better in the beginning or the end of the paragraph? Which verb should end in -ing in this sentence? And then all of this thinking takes away from getting sucked into the writing zone, and all I’m worried about it making everything sound perfect.

    I copied that quote, and will keep it near me when writing. Whenever I start over-analyzing, I’ll re-read it and remind myself that I can go back and edit later! 🙂

  8. Professor on #

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