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Neil Aitken, Writer in Residence November 10, 2021, 10:20 AM

3 Tips for Starting Your Novel Part 1

At the outset, writing a novel feels like setting out to climb a mountain or to walk across the country from one coast to the other. At least, that’s how I always feel at the beginning of a new book project. There's excitement about what I might encounter and discover, but also a lot of anxiety as I consider the sheer immensity of the task before me. 

Here is the first of three tips that might help you get started on your novel (and keep going).

Use a road map

Whether you’re a “pantser” (someone who likes to write by the seat of your pants) or a “plotter” (someone who prefers to map out the scenes and character actions in advance), having some sort of rough road map can be extremely helpful. The goal isn’t to plot out every scene and action, but rather to create a general sketch of the key scenes and conversations you know need to happen for the story to work. (You don’t have to know what those scenes or conversations will look like - just that they exist.). A good road map can help motivate you to keep moving forward. 

What that road map looks like for you will depend entirely on your own needs and preferences. I’ve tried a variety of approaches: a bullet point list; index cards with brief scene titles or descriptions, flow charts, and word maps. There are even writing programs like Scrivener that include a note card interface for doing this virtually (and each note card can also serve as a folder to contain other note cards). Most often though, I return to the index cards or the bullet point list. Choose an approach that makes sense to you.

The key advantage of a road map is its flexibility: you can add new scenes as you think of them and move them around as you see fit. Refer to it as often as you need it, but don't be afraid of taking the occasional side road and exploring where that might unexpectedly take you.

Bonus Tip:

A very good friend of mine (and a veteran NaNoWriMo participant) told me that the key to a good NaNoWriMo experience is writing forward. She explained that we need to always be looking forward and writing into the unknown -- if we spend too much time worrying about what we’ve just written, we’ll get caught in a loop. 

Make sure to check out our NaNoWriMo programs, going on all month long!


Read Part 2

Read Part 3

About Author

Neil Aitken, Writer in Residence

Neil Aitken is a Chinese-Scottish Canadian writer, author, editor, and translator with a multi-genre MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing. His work appears in anthologies, magazines, and broadsides, and has been featured in animated film, arranged for contemporary art song, and translated into Dutch, Russian, and Chinese. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, he also works on literary translations of contemporary Chinese poetry and received the DJS Translation Prize for his efforts. A former computer games programmer, he maintains a deep love of interactive fiction, digital storytelling, and tabletop role playing games.

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