HOW TO BEGIN A NOVEL: FIVE TASKS
First, do not begin with the character waking up in the morning and thinking about
her whatever as she looks into a mirror, combs her hair or brushes her teeth.
I've begun a couple of novels that way. But my excuse is that I was a teenager at the time.
What got me out of that rut were the articles I read in Writers Digest Magazine.
All accomplished novelists and authors said, Do not begin a novel with the character
waking up and commenting on (or thinking about) the sun or the birds tweeting or the
previous evening with her boyfriend/husband/significant other.
No, they said, the way to begin a novel is in the middle of the story. Or with some event
that's taking place. With action.
For the first page to be engrossing to the reader you have to develop the character before
you begin. Before you set pen to paper or touch the computer keyboard.
As a reader, I'm vaguely annoyed when I eagerly start a book only to find the first few pages
littered with the character waking up rubbing her eyes, stumbling to the bathroom, etc.
It's boring and uninteresting, but more importantly it is NOT sound storywriting or
novel-writing. You can get away with it in the middle of the book, but not at the beginning.
1-In the beginning, it's important to grab the reader's attention. What is going on with the character?
What is the problem she's grappling with? Or it could be something smaller that's symbolic of
a larger problem. For instance, I have in mind a sixteen-year old character. Let's call her Shayna.
Shayna is a high school student. She's not the most popular girl in school, but she has a few friends.
Tell me or hint at a problem she has. Dumped by her boyfriend? Best friend's father coming on to her?
Is she adopted but looking for her birth mother? Is her teacher a surrogate parent and why?
2--Another thing I find tiresome is those stories and novels whose character has no name.
She goes to the movies. She goes to the store. She looked at him ...etc.
I speak from experience. I have several stories in my files--well-written and cogent stories--
whose character has no name. It's simply "she".
One of my short stories begins as follows: "The previous summer she had played
tennis eagerly. She had worn an ivory tennis dress with blue and green edging,
white Nikes, and white anklet socks. She had taunted the shoe salesman with
sarcastic wit, even as he helped her with her Nikes, and did not cease taunting him
until her mother said she should apologize."
At the time I thought I was being experimental and avant-garde. The problem is that--
unless you're catering to an experimental market--the story (I realize now) is a yawn for me
as a reader, and, I believe, for most other readers as well. Although the story is
well-written, I want more information about the character, so that I can be intrigued by her
Spend a couple of hours (at least) choosing a name for the main character. The name gives
us clues about the character and her life. Realize that the choosing of a name is a process.
If the character changes significantly, you may wish to re-name her.
For my first novel, Porridge & Cucu: My Childhood, I used an old Webster’s dictionary
(hard copy) with a name section in the back. This section explicated the meaning and linguistic origins
of surnames and first names. For example, Miss Hildy’s maiden name is Hildegarde Blixen, since
she has Scandinavian ancestry. I arduously pored over this Webster’s dictionary. Occasionally,
I used the encyclopedia.
For my second novel, The Honeyeater, I spent a day or more choosing names for each character.
I wanted to choose names that reflected each character's personality.
3-You should answer the age-old questions: What? Who? When? Where? and Why?
These are the questions my former journalism professor demanded of us. But
they also apply to novel-writing. Do not begin a novel until you can answer
those questions for yourself.
4-Write an outline and synopsis. Set down the details of the main character's life and what happens
to her in the novel. And be certain to include the resolution.
5-Define the main character. Write down all of her personality traits. How do you envision her?
What are her quirks? What is her defining characteristic?
Once you've done these five tasks, you can begin.
---Yolanda A. Reid
Yolanda A. Reid is the author of The Honeyeater, a contemporary women's novel, and of
Porridge & Cucu: My Childhood, a YA novel. Check out her essays, "How I Wrote
My First Novel" and "Writing Tips" at http://www.porridgeandcucu.com/essays.