Tuesday 6 November 2018

How to Start a New Novel

By Candy Gourlay

My manuscript in progress has progressed.
Bone Talk is now available at all good
bookshops. Just thought I'd mention it.
Here I am, beginning again.

My manuscript in progress has progressed. It is out in the world now and all I can do is cross my fingers, keep myself whole by avoiding reviews and getting on with writing my next book.

I have written several novels now, I should know what to do when I get to the end of one and the beginning of the next. But my mind always goes blank. How do you start a new novel? How do you get the story motor up and running?

If there's anything I learned from all this, it's that I will always have much to learn about how to write the next book. It will want its own way of telling its story.

For now, it's about finding the way in.


I've gone back to scratch. Re-reading all my favourite novels and books on story structure, listening to podcasts, looking for inspiration.

And I'm not just looking for a way into writing my story. I'm looking for a way to tell my agent and my publisher about it, in a way that will excite them, get them on board for the next journey.

Meg LeFauve, co-writer of the Pixar movie, Inside Out, talks about an earlier career as a film executive, looking for scripts to pitch to her boss, the actress Jody Foster. "If you wanna pitch an idea to Jody, tell her, I wanna buy this script, you really need to tell her what is the big beautiful idea. What is the theme? What is the question this writer/director is asking? What is it about? Why do I care? If you can't tell her that there's nothing else to talk about."

Right. Well, I've got a little snippet of text I'm constantly working on alongside my manuscript – and it changes with my story as it begins to find its shape. What is my big beautiful idea? What is my story about? I'm not sure I know yet. I still have too many ideas fighting to be The One. But I know that as the book evolves, I will find out. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

I  have been synopsising and mind-mapping this story since I wrapped work on my last novel. I am now at the point where I know what will happen, I have a character, and yehey,  after some experimental writing, the character actually already has a distinctive voice (I think).

But where do I start? How do the random pieces I've already created fit together into a coherent, emotional whole? Here are some musings.


It is easy, when you are still building the world of your story, to be distracted by domestic detail and exposition. Why? Because you, the author, are still learning about the world of your story. Don't sweat it. Write it all in. At this early stage, you need it. But you should know better than to get too attached.

The story world for my new project is pretty epic. I have to confess I've loved researching it so much my self-awareness alarm bells are ringing. I'm definitely at risk of boring the reader with details that have not earned the right to be in my book. How do I avoid this? Character.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby writes:

'In good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.'

My favourite screenwriting vlog, Lessons from the Screenplay, explains this Truby nugget using the zombie comedy, Shaun of the Dead:


Sorry if you were born after 1992 and are unfamiliar with then presidential hopeful Bill Clinton's campaign slogan.

The point being, reading is all about the reader.

So ... I've got a character. I know her voice. I know what happens to her. I know what she looks like. And I've watched the Lessons from the Screenplay video. Is that enough?


What I need to do now is consider how the reader will experience my hero.  Ponder where to plant the seeds that would produce the emotional highlights of the book.

What does my hero believe and how will it change?

How can I test that belief?

What are the stakes?

How can I make the hero (and therefore the reader) suffer?

'To service the story you have to be worried about your hero. If you're not worried about her there's no ticking clock,' declares Meg LeFauve. 'You have to beat the crap out of your main character. A lot of youngwriters don't want to do it. They intuitively identify with them so they keep them safe. They wrap them in cotton and everyone around them has all the problems and they are just kind of floating through. That is not a story.'

Added later: In one bruising editing experience, my editor described one of my characters as akin to someone carrying a suitcase. The suitcase was a burden, yes. Getting heavier and heavier as things happened to her. But she was passive. She was not reacting. She was not changing. It's not a story unless characters act, react and change. If you hear someone muttering "action-reaction, action-reaction" at the back of a Starbucks, that's probably me wracking my brains over a character.


Inevitably, a book's success relies on the reader's last remembered experience of the story. It amazes me that so little seems to be written about how to end a story well, when that final chapter will dictate whether your reader puts your novel down with joy or disappointment. I've read many a fantastic book that fizzles out at the end as if the author just wanted to hand it in.

To truly begin a book well, you have to know your ending. 

Not every detail (she says to the horrified pantsers reading this blog post). But enough to plant the set ups and high stakes that will be resolved (or not) at the end of your story.

"Disappointing endings are fatal," says Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything.   "I don't embark on a movie or a project unless I know I have an ending – a good ending. If I don't find the ending, I don't do the project ... my creative life will be defined by 90 percent projects which I never knew the ending of and never made and never really explored, which might have been fine movies for other people. But (not) for me."

Additional thought: some people might take this to be: knowing what happens to the plot. More important at this beginning stage though is to know who your character is at the end of the story.

You might not know everything that is going to happen to her on the way to the end. But you should know what you are working towards. You should have an idea of how you want her to be at the end, when she has been transformed by her adventure.

If you know this, then you can design your plot and setting to achieve that end.


I have written a first chapter.

I'm gonna add in the setting later.

I don't think I can hear the distinctive voice I thought my character had.

I'm confident this chapter will look nothing like its first self in a few month's time.

But hey, I have a chapter.

Here comes a book!

Candy Gourlay's third novel Bone Talk is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. It has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Her first picture book Is It a Mermaid, illustrated by Francesca Chessa, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.  Meg LeFauve and Anthony McCarten were appearing in The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith podcast.


  1. So exciting, Candy! And a great read, too. Good luck with this next one.

  2. Thanks, Clare. Hope it helps. I just need impetus now.

  3. Absolutely brilliant post, though now I’m panicking I haven’t given enough space to developing the theme of my new book....

    1. I figured out the theme of mine at the latter stages of editing. Admittedly had to go back and sharpen a few things.

  4. I really needed to read this! I am being so critical of my first draft.

    1. Don't be! The first draft is a learning document and you need everything you put into it. You can be critical in the next draft!

  5. Excellent! Although, I have definitely been guilty of over thinking theme to the detriment of everything else ... living it with the reader is key. Thanks, Candy

    1. Knowing your theme is GOOD! Saces so much time! It's what you do with the theme that makes a whole lot if difference to how your story plays out. Good luck!

  6. This came at the right time. It's my first time of doing Nano - My story feels more like a beat sheet than anything else.

    1. I think with Nano you're allowed to write like a beat sheet!

  7. Love this, Candy! You always know the right thing to say. :)

    1. Aw thanks!I'm sure you know all this already.


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