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Neil Aitken, Writer in Residence November 15, 2021, 9:37 AM

3 Tips for Starting Your Novel Part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Here is the third and final tip that might help you get started on your novel (and keep going).

Listen for the story’s heartbeat

I used to think that a novel was simply a collection of scenes containing recurring characters engaged in some sort of journey. To some extent this is true (we do move from scene to scene), but this perception misses a key part of what makes a story a story and not simply a collection of images or video clips.

The key is learning to listen to the beats in the story. Within each scene there are moments where characters are being surprised, discovering something unexpected about their situation or another character, or being forced to reconsider their assumptions and understanding of the situation. There’s a brief pause as something shifts or clicks into place, or perhaps when something breaks. A story grows more compelling as we’re able to identify these moments and allow the characters to experience the consequences of these shifts as their world changes in small or large ways.

Sometimes it helps to keep in mind the emotional state of the characters as they enter the scene, and note the moments in which their emotions change. We can build on these changes, explore how these moments create tension and possible conflict, and describe what happens next. Doing so helps stitch together these scenes. It’s not that we need to constantly jump around in terms of emotion and tone, but there does need to be movement and change.

If you’re struggling to figure out why a scene isn’t working, try mapping it out one beat at a time. Think about who is impacted and what changes. Consider how these discoveries are affecting the characters and their motivations, as well as their relationships with other characters. There should be a number of beats in each scene. Some highs. Some lows. Enough for it to have a shape or a trajectory.

Bonus Tip:

The ultimate goal during NaNoWriMo isn’t to write a finished publishable manuscript (although that’d be nice if it happened) -- it’s simply to write every day with a target in mind and try to tell a complete novel-length story in draft form. Almost certainly, you will need to make subsequent edits and probably rewrite the whole thing a few times. That’s 100% expected. Just enjoy the discovery process of writing forward, heading into the wilderness of a story you don’t know everything about, with characters you are getting to know for the first time. Who knows what you’ll learn? Or what the story will turn into by the end? There’s only one way to find out - and that’s to begin writing.

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

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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