In honour of NaNoWriMo: how to start a novel

I happen to be planning my eighth book this week (one I don’t imagine I’ll start writing for six months, but I like to give myself a good run up) so I thought seeing as I’m starting this new project completely from scratch and it’s NaNoWriMo I’d talk a bit about what I do in each step and keep you up to date on my progress.

I start with a bullet point list on my phone that I update whenever I have an idea connected to the book, whether that’s a character or line or plot point. This can be going on for months before I do anything with it.

Then when I’m ready to start working on it I’ll transfer it to a Word document and try to build it into a description of what happens. At this point I just write down absolutely every idea I have connected to the story, because once it’s out of my head I start coming up with the next part.

I then force it into some sort of outline – really roughly at this point, with placeholders like: “and then something really dramatic happens to [x] that makes Natalie really mad at John”.

I’ll also do some character building here, but not, like sophisticated character building. Just pop culture reference points. More like “john is the ravenclaw and talks like stiles from teen wolf. Natalie is the hufflepuff and is a Lady.” At this point I just need very big picture descriptions because I don’t want to pin down the characters before I start – I want it to be flexible so it can go in whatever direction the plot needs.

I keep adding absolutely anything I think of to this planning document, shaping it into a more formal outline as I go. Anything like dialogue ideas or jokes goes in comments on the document, so I can send a clean version to my agent when the outline is done.

Right now, I’m halfway through writing my outline. Its in full sentences and has a very complete beginning, a vague middle and an end point I need to get to. Over the next few days while I work on other projects (doing the last proofread of The Quiet before it goes to print, doing an event at Clexacon) I’m going to add as many bullet point ideas to my list as I can, so I can build the outline out more when I come back to it. Then I’ll get started on writing the first chapter. After that, it’s over to my agent – if she doesn’t like it, I go back to the drawing board.

Now on the nano website because I like having a record of what I’m working on each year:

and on Tumblr:

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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