Writing Tips: How to Start Your Novel

Okay, so recently, I turned in a novel I'd written to my agent. She read it (loved it--phew!) and gave me some feedback. Her only comment? It's going to blow your mind. Are you ready? Mind-blowing tarp all set up?


She said: "It starts too fast."

Okay, stop the pony. Starts TOO FAST?? Isn't that what we're always told? Toss the reader into the action? Grip them with the first word, the first sentence, the first scene??

Now, I'll admit that I'm very sensitive about the way my novels start. I don't like it when someone tells me to start my novels in a different place. Since I don't write in order, I don't write the beginning first, and I feel like I have a really organic process for finding the opening scene of my books.

So my agent told me this particular book was opening too fast. I re-read my first chapter, and saw her point. So I read through it. Made some light edits, etc. Could not for the life of me see a different way to start it. So I did what any writer would do: I opened a blank document.

I was going to write a new first chapter, dang it!

And I did. Like 10 times. They all sucked. None of them were right. Or even close.

I could feel the haze coming, the need for sour patch kids and bacon and a good long vacay from writing.

Then the fabulous girls in my critique group gave me a book that changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE.

I think they were skeptical that I would actually read the book. But I proved them wrong! Ha! I even filled out NOTE CARDS and MADE A FREAKING STORYBOARD.

That's right. Believe it (picture proof, FTW!). Now, those of you who've been here a while know that I simply don't do this. I don't outline. In fact, the mere thought of it makes me shudder and throw salt over my shoulder to ward off evil spirits.

Well, guess what? This book that changed my life? It showed me how to outline in a way that makes sense to me. MAKES TOTAL SENSE!

I know by now you're all screaming: How?! What book??! Spill, Johnson!!

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It's about screenwriting--and there's something magical about relating outlining and story construction to movies. I can "see" it. I can watch a movie and "see" everything laid out in only a matter of hours. I can't do that when I read.

So I read SAVE THE CAT, and voila! Just like that, I realized the missing piece of my book: Beat One.

That's right. Out of 15 beats, I was missing the first freaking one! And since The Fabulous Blake Snyder tells you what should have in each beat, I could suddenly "see" how my book needed to start.

I wrote the first chapter the next day.

SAVE THE CAT people. It will save your sanity. Buy it for all your crit mates. Get it yourself. Read it. Love it. Cherish it.

And I made my own Blake Snyder beat sheet for novels using the resources Blake has on his website.

Do you have a book on writing that changed your life? Do tell.

**I'll admit that this is a recycled post from my own blog. Sorry! I'm under edit deadline. :)


Anonymous said...

Fun post! I do have a book that has changed my writing life. It is called Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke. The approach is to assign an MBTI type to all of your characters and use that to develop who they are, how they will behave, etc. Amazing.

Also, what critique group do you belong to? I'm finally starting to write more seriously (and trying to share my work, get feedback, and all that). I could use some advice on how to do that effectively.



Andrea Mack said...

Elana, I've used the Save the Cat storyboard too. It really does change the way you look at your novel. I love your storyboard!

Matthew MacNish said...

Even if it's old, this is still good.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

I just bought this book a month or so ago, guess I should crack the spine! Thanks for photographing and sharing your storyboard. Awesome.

lotusgirl said...

I've heard a lot of good things about this book. Maybe I should just get the thing.

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

Save the Cat, huh? I'll have to take a look at that one. Thanks for the recommendation!

Mary Ann said...

So far, the books that have helped me the most are "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" series by James N. Frey. He wrote all of his books like the courses he teaches. I wish I would've read them years ago. He speaks very highly of outlining.

Jenn said...

Sounds like a great book, thanks for the recommendation! I learned a lot from The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. :)

Sally said...

I hate storyboards and outlines - but I need some help on my manuscript, I guess I need to rethink them. Looks like I will be finding a copy of "Save the Cat".

Kelley said...

Cool blog. Cute post. I've heard a lot of people <3ing this book, but I haven't tried it yet. Maybe I should?

From your newb follower :)

fakesteph said...

Save the Cat is so good! I love the beat sheet and the board! :)

Anonymous said...

I loved Save The Cat! Especially the titular tip. If you liked that book, the book I read right after that expanded on it and was the one that truly blew me away. That is, "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogle, also a screenplay book. It takes the Hero's Journey mythic structure (one that's found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies) and translates it into something usable for writers. It does structure beats, like in Save the Cat, but expanded, and also talks about character archetypes and roles. I can't explain how much it helped me push my novel and understand it on a deeper level.

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