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Best 10 Steps for Starting the Novel - All Genres

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As you explore the nooks and literary crannies here, you'll find considerable words devoted to warning you away from foolish and terrible advice. 


But what about professional, tested, and proven advice? Below are ten bullet points for aspiring authors designed to help them overcome any confusion or misdirection when it comes to starting the novel. However, before you investigate, make certain you've already prepared by reading this sensible prologue.

Note: the list below makes a base assumption that the writer is a relative novice and currently searching for direction and focus--the same stage we've all endured. For those in the second stage, or higher, the list might well begin further down. Nonetheless, we cannot stress enough how important it is to fully understand your genre. Eat and breathe it. Know the currents in the market, what makes for a "high concept" story in this context. You'll never be published otherwise.

KEY CONCEPTS: genre, high concept, Publisher's Marketplace, self-editing, readers, core development strategies, craft and research, story premise, SATG Novel, novel hook, first draft outline, inciting incident, plot point.

Choose Your Genre

Historical, thriller, women's fiction, mystery cozy, etc. Focus on one that will consume you, one you have passion for. Passionless choice never bodes well (can you guess why?). If on the fence, consider what kind of author do you wish to be known as five years from now? A thriller author? Horror author? Mystery?... Makes a difference, no? So be specific and take a slot (no "slot" shaming). You are attempting to break into a crowded and tough marketplace with a breakout novel. As of this point, you have no real idea how difficult it will really be in a country as big as America. Best to begin wisely.

WARNING: failing to locate yourself firmly in one genre will only result in failure. And believe us when we tell you that agents and publishers will be merciless in their demand that you understand and obey the rules of that genre. From the heart, but smart. One last thing--you cannot invent your own genre. Don't try. Don't even ask. For the love of all that is holy!

Mercilessly Immerse

Read the classics in your genre combined with the latest and hottest. Look up "best book" lists, read reviews on Amazon, dive into review journals dedicated to your genre, and obtain a membership at Publisher's Marketplace. It's never too early to familiarize yourself with who is publishing what in your genre. At PM it's all there. And no, we don't get a kickback. As a bonus, you get to review expertly written hook lines for new novels bought by publishers, thereby also getting a chance to note the type of high concept stories in the works. Invaluable! Truly. 

Via obsessive immersing, you'll also get an idea which authors and novels might compare favorably with you and your own work. Strongly consider analyzing story progression, character introduction, and scene development in three to five of the best in your genre. Take notes. Compare what you've learned to what you read here at NWOE.

Avoid Writer Groups

Do not join a local or online writer group, however socially alluring it may be, and regardless of what its apostles tell you. Don't fall for it. We know, it feels like the right thing because so many recommend it, but it's the wrong thing by a mile. You *might* consider it a year or two from now once you've developed enough novel writing savvy to actually know the difference between an amateur group that *might* be somewhat productive and one that could be potentially ruinous or time wasting at a minimum. Review carefully our notes on this crucial and controversial subject.  


Begin the Reader Hunt

Following on above, attempt to engage upwards of five good readers, if humanly possible. It will take time to ID the right ones, so begin the hunt early. Take note, they will not be in a group. They will not meet to discuss your work. If possible, best they do not interact or know each other. This condition will disallow the inevitable evolution of group politics, groupthink, imagined slights, false flattery, etc. Yes, it can happen. Regardless, can your picks be reasonably trusted to provide generally intelligent reaction to your narrative? You might have to jettison a few. Be prepared. Additionally, serving as a reader for them will provide you with a form of editorial experience that might prove invaluable.

IMPORTANT: utilize "beta readers" for narrative purposes only (prose style, clarity, imagery, dynamic motion, dialogue quality--that sort of thing), NEVER for novel development, i.e., premise, plot, character roles, important setting details, etc. Engaging in the latter imperiling act will only threaten your progress with those insidious major flaws inherent in 98% of writer groups.

Study Self-editing Technique

Do it carefully, it's an art form, even if you're not onto your second draft yet. No reason to delay. It takes experimentation and practice. Relying exclusively on your readers or future freelance editors is a mistake. Ultimately, you are responsible for the final product. Faith should not be necessary. Also, keep in mind, the more refined your fiction narrative waxes, the more productive the future editorial professionals engaged to review your work can be, i.e., if you've already ascended to level 8, they can bump you to level 10. Now, what about that contract?

Craft Until Your Head Hurts

While researching your genre, immerse simultaneously into your core novel development strategy. Don't rush it or fret over it. You will inevitably revise. Meanwhile, utilize NWOE as a staging platform for the illuminating pursuit of obligatory craft technique. This is NOT an option. Devour every single article or essay on development, drama, plotting, prose, and viewpoints. Set aside a space for experimentation. Practice writing scenes, dialogue, complex descriptions for starters. Additionally, consume only the best books on novel writing. 

You will ALWAYS be an apprentice to your craft. Let Truman Capote be an inspiration.

Conceive Primary Premise

Given that you've chosen your genre and you're well on your way to possessing a true literary skill set (it's not easy, so don't be impatient), and given you've taken careful note of the quality of new novels coming to life at Publisher's Marketplace (have you?), you may now begin to formulate your own novel premise, the "high concept" story that will form the development, writing, and marketing basis of your genre novel from title to last sentence.

Uncertain on how to go about it? One way to initiate a bit of productive pondering is to visit the High Concept page first, followed by the Loglines and Core Wounds page. Read carefully. Note the three "hook line" examples. Consider WHAT WILL BE YOUR CORE CONFLICT, AND WHAT WILL BE THE CORE WOUND? (all caps for emphasis). Play with it. Write down options. Choose wisely. Seek discreet professional advice if necessary.

Begin the Planning Process

Engage in a careful examination of the Six Act Two-Goal Novel. With your embryonic story concept nearing the birth canal, use the SATG Novel outline to assist with beginning to conceive smaller parts of the bigger picture. At each separate stage, from Act to Act, take a deep breath and sketch ideas, circumstances, characters into your electronic notebook. Be free and easy with the process. Jot down everything that comes to mind. Keep in mind it's all in dynamic flux. It can change. Just as importantly, attempt to finalize insofar as possible your novel's major setting. Extremely important. Organize your thoughts, questions, commentary, and scenarios as needed. Have fun with it.

Imagination is truly your best friend (even if you don't like the original Willy Wonka).

Sketch a Draft Outline

No need to engage in overmuch detail. Make certain your story premise is commercially viable and your chosen setting is simmering. Have on hand sketches of your major and secondary characters. Use the SATG to locate and ruminate over your major plot points.

Sketch your inciting incident and first major plot point. Go from there to your first major reversal, pinch point, etc., all the way to climax. Keep in mind this is all a draft, yes, however it should reflect your efforts to date at fleshing out your genre story. Consider also, not just your basic plot but those special points, twists, and turns demanded by your chosen genre, e.g., if writing a cozy mystery you best get that body on the first page (or pretty close). Refer to steps 1 and 2 above.

Draft Your Hook Scenes

Don't think of the novel in units of chapter. Think of it as units of scene, each scene dedicated to a particular task, and each driving the plot forward (a must) in one way or another. I use the term "hook scenes" to refer to that combination of opening scenes that will lead us through the initial set-up to the inciting incident and from there to the first major plot point that begins the next Act of the novel--30 to 50 pages into the novel, roughly. There are always exceptions. 

Download the Algonkian Study Guide for necessary additional references and a breakdown of hook scenes up to and beyond the first major plot point in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a favorite for the application of classic dramatic technique in the novel).


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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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