Johnny writes... Thomas Rowlandson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons 1815 	Hand-coloured etching and aquatint - How to start a novel - Charles Harris


I’m at that wonderful, scary, exciting, fearful point of starting to plan a new novel. The first glimmerings of ideas are beginning to come.

The romantic view would be that they are like whispers in the night from the muse. More often, they arrive painfully like darts, or darkly as doubts, or nagging like small children, tugging at my sleeve, demanding to be played with.

What to do? How to start a novel – or indeed a screenplay – so that it will be fun: a holiday rather than chaos?

How to start a novel or indeed a screenplay?

Writers say that they are either “planners” or “pantsers”, flying by the seat of their pants. The truth is that nobody ever plans every single moment, whatever they say. And writers who say they plan nothing are also lying. You can’t not have a glimmering of an idea of where you’re going.

(Actually all novelists lie. Our job is making things up. That’s what we get paid for).

But the real question is: to plan a lot or plan a little. Planning little risks chaos – like going on holiday without checking when the flight leaves, or whether the hotel has been built yet. Could be tremendous fun, and could leave you sleeping in the street.

Planning too much, on the other hand, risks having the kind of holiday where all flexibility is forbidden. It’s 9.30 am and the schedule says we go to the beach, no matter that it’s pouring with rain.

Overplanned books risk dying on the page, for lack of freshness.

So what am I doing now?

Right now, I’m researching the background to what I think the story is going to be. Of course, that might change. Probably will change. It can be intimidating, going to look at strange places, approaching experts who I may not know personally. Trying not to sound like a mad person, asking all kinds of odd questions of detail (why do you do what you do? what type of shirt would you be wearing? what colour are the walls? – Who needs to know such things? A novelist or a screenwriter, that’s who).

Much of what I learn will never go into the finished book, yet I never regret a single second spent on research. A single word may spark a whole chapter, an exciting character, even a better ending.

At the same time, I’m working on how I might pitch the finished story. Even at this early stage. Because I’m the one who has to buy it first. I’m the first person who’ll have to commit time and money to this mad idea. Maybe. There’s still a long way to go.

Jazz doodles

I’ve started a “scrapbook.” It’s a process I stole from David Nicholls (“One Day”, “Starter for Ten”, “Us”). Nicholls is a tremendous writer, funny and moving. He starts off writing scraps. Little bursts of extemporising, like a jazz musician jamming up and down the scales. An argument here. A love scene there.

Like research, these scraps may not appear in the final draft. Probably won’t. But like jamming, the warm-ups will give flavour and richness to the finished book. Or at least, that’s my hope.

At this point, I just have a few characters. Two people in particular who have knocked on my door and insisted I invite them in. It sounds romantic, but they bring the need for hard work. What’s their story? Why should I care about them?

And who will the audience be?

I doodle some more scraps. Begin to build up their characters. They’re going to need friends. Maybe relations. They will change, but how? How much can I insist on what they do and how much will they resist, wanting to go their own way?

Taking the leap

Much of this lies in the future. I have to leave parts to chance, to the whim of the moment. Those sparks of surprise that you can’t plan for. That keep that holiday feel. The hotel will be built, but who knows which days the sun will shine?

Thelma and Louise - car goes over cliff - movie still - How to start a novel? Charles Harris

Other questions fly at me, to be swatted away or pinned down. What kind of book is this going to be? How funny? How serious? What’s the tone? Who’s narrating?

What are the key moments? The few essential guy ropes that stop the whole caboodle being blown away in a gust of wind.

Holiday or chaos? I still don’t know. I begin to glimpse a possible route through the mist. Nothing can be certain, though, till I start to write the thing itself. Scenes that sound inspirational in planning can die in the writing. While minor characters who are supposed to stay in the background can suddenly explode into life and demand to be centre stage.

Holiday or chaos? I think it’s in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece noir movie “Double Indemnity” that Fred MacMurray – plotting to murder the husband of the woman he loves – says that you can only plan so far. At some point, you just have to take a leap.

At some point, I’ll leap into the first draft.

How to start a novel? Will I be MacMurray, Butch and Sundance or Thelma and Louise? Freeze frame. Watch this space and I’ll tell you one day if I survive.

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