There's no definitive answer to that question, though some may reason that there are numerous books, courses and on-line 'tutorials' that will teach you where to start. As any experienced writer will warn you - check the author's credentials. Can I teach you how to fly a 747 if I read the technical manual but have never actually managed the controls? Likewise, I may hold a degree in English, qualifying me to talk about the intricacies and nuances of the English language Ad Nauseum and have written numerous articles and thesis's on the subject. Yet I have not written or published a single work of fiction. How can I be qualified to teach you how to write a novel? (Disclaimer: I don't hold a degree in English and avoid Ad Nauseum discussions whenever possible.)
So where does one, novice or experienced, start? What gets the creative juices flowing, urging you to sit down and write?
When I started writing, I had no trouble getting ideas. What to do with them is where I struggled. I would get this idea for, what I thought would be, a great story. Then I would sit behind my typewriter and stare at the keys for hours, not knowing where to begin.
Something I learned over the years and that was emphasised in a course I did from The Writing School, was that once you have the idea, you have to flesh it out. Is the idea about a person? Who are they? Where are they? Why are they there? Is it a place? Where is it? What about it is so important? Is it an event? Why did it happen? What caused it? Where did it happen?
I found creating a little question sheet for myself helped me to flesh out those early ideas. How you do them is up to you. Personally I prefer pen and paper this early on because it helps me think.
The famous 5 Questions is what you start with and elaborate on them:
Who? - Who is involved? Who is responsible?
What? - What happened? What was the precursor? What are the after effects?
When? - When did it happen? When will it happen?
Where? - Where does it happen?
How? - How does it happen? How are the "Who's" involved? How are they going to fix/deal with the "What"?
You may have to go over these questions numerous times as answers from one question evoke answers to another questions and so you keep going until you run out of answers. Don't worry if some answers contradict others. At this point you are simply exploring all possibilities. Once you have exhausted all your answers, you should have some idea of what your story will be about.
What then? At this point I like to take the answers to my five questions and start cleaning them up. To illustrate: Using these five questions for my sci-fi novel, The Survivor, I came up with these final answers:
Who? Humans and an alien race; Ambassadors, Cabinet Ministers, Alien Delegates.
What? A peace treaty is signed, despite opposition from both sides. Secret forces on both sides are determined to prove the treaty was a mistake.
When? Set in the future.
Where? Earth, an alien planet, a space ship.
How? A peace envoy is destroyed and evidence points to the aliens. Further investigation points to humans. Ultimately, forces on both sides will be revealed to be responsible.
At this point I'm usually ready to write a brief synopsis. I'm not too concerned about characters and places. Western Australia author, Simon Haynes, simply refers to planets in his Hal Spacejock series as Planet A, Planet B, until he decides what those planets will be called. Similarly, when writing my synopsis, I simply make reference to Character A, Character B, Place A, Place B, unless I already have a specific characteristic in mind, such as Burly Bloke, Waif-like Temptress (if you'll pardon the stereotypical characterisation), Desert Planet, etc.
So let's revisit the original question: "Where to start?"
- Get the idea. Even something as small as an image your mind conjures up whilst listening to a song on your MP3 player can spark an idea for a story.
- Answer the Famous 5 Questions and keep answering them until you have exhausted all possibilities.
- Review your answers and tidy them up. You will notice a subtle train of thought through your answers as your mind develops the story.
- Write a brief synopsis. The focus is to get the story down. Worry about the details later.
So now you have a reasonable synopsis to build your story from. As any writer will be quick to tell you: even the best stories will fail if your characters are not believable or your readers can't associate with them. Many novice writers struggle creating characters of flesh and blood, instead of cardboard cut-outs.
However, creating believable characters is a topic best left for another article.
In the mean time, the question "Where to begin" should no longer be as daunting as it was when you started reading this article.