Writing Tips Season 2 (Writing A Novel) Episode 3: Beginnings    


I had the kind of week that started off with me feeling like I was totally on top of things. And by the end, I was in a freeform of overlapping edits and deadlines. I don’t recommend the tagteam approach, at all. You think you can work on one project, get it to its editor in time for another editor to return with notes on another project, and so on. It never works out that way. It inevitably results in everything smashing together.

This week, I handed in a film script draft to my producer, only to refresh my inbox and find the copyedits for my next book had arrived. :gulp:

Anyway, this week, I’m going to talk to you about opening a novel, starting it, getting your reader (be it an actual paying/borrowing reader, or a prospective agent/editor). As ever, these are free but there are ways you can show me some love. One is to buy one of my books and tell social media about it and leave it an Amazon and/or GoodReads review. Another is to petition Marvel to let me write a Spider-Man comic. And the easiest is to buy me a coffee through this freelancing site, >> ko-fi <<. It’s a super-easy site that uses Paypal to give freelancers coffee money. This newsletter took me two coffees to write.


One of the most persistent pieces of writing advice I’ve seen is: if you’re doing the whole seven beat story arc, which has stasis then a trigger then a quest then some obstacles, etc, spend some time setting up the ordinary world of the main protagonist. What is their every day? What is their day-to-day that is about to be disrupted? How can we show that this everyday demonstrates our protagonist is not fulfilling their potential?

Sure, but having them waking up and making a cup of tea and going to work and then having a packed lunch and then going home to watch television, just before the alien invasion hits… is boring? It’s so easy to take this advice at face value and do pages of journaling for your main character before anything happens.

You have to keep your reader reading. Especially in those early pages where they’re working out whether they want to spend the next 300 odd pages in your world.

Put your novel on its feet. Start with some dialogue, or an interaction, or a conversation. Set up the main relationships. If the novel is about how this teenager is going to break free of their strict parents and come of age, start in the middle of one of their arguments with their parents. The film Ladybird does this brilliantly. It starts quietly, with mother and daughter, more alike than they would admit, in the car listening to an audiobook. Once it finishes, they argue about Ladybird’s aspirations for college. The culmination of the argument is that she jumps out of the car. Extreme, sure? But this argument is probably at the more extreme end of ordinary, the question about Ladybird’s college choices will run throughout the whole film, and they will veer from unity (audiobook) to extreme reaction to the same argument again and again.

Sure I’m using a film as an example. But I think it’s a good way of throwing your reader directly into a story, giving them the ingredients for the main relationships and also giving us some drama to keep us invested. All while setting up the every day of Ladybird.

So, when I say, put your novel on its feet, what I mean is, your characters need drama and conflict and things to do, and the best way to start is to not be quiet, but instead think about the loudest possible version of their every day. By setting up their every day, also, you don’t have to tell us what they have for breakfast, unless it’s relevant, or what their boss is like, unless it’s relevant, and so on. Think about action. If you’re wondering where a good place to start is, think about the Ladybird version. Put your character in an every day situation or scene that shows the reader that perhaps the way they live their life is no longer fit for purpose, even if the character doesn’t know it yet. Use that scene to telegraph the journey they will eventually go on. Drama! Conflict! Dialogue! And never, ever, start with them waking up.


Write a 500 word opening for a novel that starts with the line: I was willing to do anything to win. That’s why I did what I did…


My next book is a memoir. And because it’s about me, I should be the expert in everything that happens in it. However, I asked someone to do a read for me. This person wasn’t my editor, and they weren’t my agent, and they weren’t employed by the publisher. In fact, they are a writer who is also a friend. What I wanted them to do was give me an objective opinion on some of the stuff I’d written. Writing in solitude means you miss things. Especially if you’re writing a manifesto memoir for how to be a good dad. You want to ensure you haven’t said anything stupid or problematic. It wasn’t that deep. To be honest. She came back with some great notes on some dumb mistakes I’d made or where I’d been appropriative or got stuff wrong or made some judgements or sounded ignorant.

And I wasn’t offended. I didn’t accuse her of censoring my free speech. I didn’t swear at her or call her wrong. In fact, I changed a bunch of stuff because her outside perspective was very helpful. I did the same thing with The Boxer. Much as I box, I’ve been been in a match, so I asked a writer who has to do a sensitivity read for me, and he gave me lots of helpful notes.

And it wasn’t that deep. I wasn’t offended. I didn’t accuse him of censoring my free speech. In fact, I was grateful. We don’t always get it right. And we certainly don’t on our first draft. It’s totally fine to get outside perspective. You’d do the same writing a legal thriller. I don’t know why people get so weird about it. I’ve used a sensitivity reader for every single one of my books. And where I can, I pay them.

Tweet me how your novels are going. Tell your friends to subscribe. Just a reminder to buy a book or buy me a >> ko-fi <<. Thank you.

Good luck.