How to Eat an Elephant
How to Start Writing That Novel
By Kevin M. Kraft
I recently reconnected with a dear high school friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen, or spoken to, for over 20 years. With a single telephone call all of the years seemed compressed. While I struggled with the fact of the two-decade estrangement, I enjoyed catching up and letting her know what I’d been doing. Namely, writing. After I filled her in, she expressed her desire in writing a novel, which, in turn, reminded me that she too had been a very talented writer. She had shared some of her work with me when we were young. Her challenge, she explained, was starting it, and I could hear in her voice a real desire to do so. She was just uncertain as to how.
There are many closet novelists in the same place with a hundred-times as many advisors as to how to begin—with advice as individual as they. But remember what Creighton Abrams famously said: “When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.”
The First Bite: When to Begin
As one who has written his share of novels, I believe one can begin writing by first having a story, at least the plotline, firmly in mind. You can do that now. Come up with a logline, a sentence which describes the basic plot of your novel-to-be. It’s something movie script writers know to be an important element in what they do. Here are some famous examples:
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES (1983) – A Pennsylvania steel-town ambitious and hot headed high school coach tries to spoil a football hero’s scholarship dream
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990) – A suburban mother brings home a freaky young man who has scissors instead of hands.
BIG NIGHT (1996) – Two very different brothers promote their struggling 1950s New Jersey Italian restaurant by inviting Louis Prima and his band to take part in a sumptuous dinner there.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – A lonely young small-town girl is swept away to a magical land in a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the Wizard who can help her return home.
Get the picture? If you can sum up your story in a single “high concept” sentence, you’ll have taken a significant step in getting your fantastic novel started. In fact, you’ve already begun!
The Next Bite: a Larger Portion
Now try and write the story plot, even if it’s three sentences that describe the beginning, middle and end, the main character and his or her goal. You may ask, “But what if I don’t know the ending?” Well, then, you don’t really have a story. At least come up with what could be the ending. That way, you will psychologically “complete the circle of thought” so you can begin writing something.
Beginning the Main Course
Most people with a novel steaming up their cerebellum have in mind at least one vivid scene that they know will be in their book. It could be a climactic action sequence, a romantic scene or a gut-busting comedic scene–something. Write it out. Write it out in present-tense; the real-time feel will be easier psychologically for you to write. You’ll convert it to past-tense in the novel itself. Just write it while it’s ablaze in your mind. That’s one more bite taken. If there’s a second-most-important scene, write that one next. And write the third one after that. You needn’t start your novel at the very beginning. You can start it anywhere. The very first scene I wrote in my cryptozoological thriller, MOMO was the one I saw most vividly. It was where the protagonists, father and son, Mark and Evan Taylor, first encounter the terrifying creature from which the title comes. It’s a very harrowing and emotional scene that got my adrenaline up whenever I envisioned it and was the first piece of the novella I wrote. The second scene I wrote was the very last scene of the book. See what I mean? Keep doing that and eventually you’ll find your rhythm and pace. Even if you don’t actually finish the scene from beginning to end right now, you’ll have at least written something. If you don’t know how the scene will end now, you can finish it later. But don’t stop there. Start another scene! Bit by bit, you’ll be almost done with your novel before you realize it.
Consult Other Meals
It has been wisely observed that “good writers are good readers.” Read a lot, read a lot of different authors and styles, especially those in the genre you wish to write. And when you find an author whose work you want to read again and again, take note of what exactly about their writing you love and appreciate and try to incorporate into your own writing, at least in spirit and energy, their style and methods. ’Nuff said?
Writing is like a muscle. More precisely, it involves creating neural pathways which, like muscles, become stronger over time. The more you write, the easier it will become, even at the beginning stages of your novel. What’s more, writing, even when you don’t feel like it, will cause writing to become that much easier when you’re feeling good. As an example, I suffered from chronic insomnia from childhood, which ended up temporarily disabling me for a time. Anyone who has suffered from sleep deprivation knows how it can affect the mind and body in the short term. Imagine the effects over the course of years! And I’m not talking about a few days of sleeping six hours instead of eight. I’m talking about days on end with no sleep whatsoever! That was my world and I could tell you some horror stories about those times. But no matter how bad it got, my ability to write never left me. It was amazing. During some of the worst times, I completed a slew of short stories and four novels. I was a tortured slug except for that, during the worst times. Anyway, the point is that now that I’m cured of that, writing comes to me very easily because I did it when things were at their hardest. (I’m sure there’s an inspirational lesson in there somewhere.) So…write something every day, even if it’s just a logline for another story idea.
Because, of course, anyone who has one good novel in them surely has at least one more besides. Be encouraged by that. When you’ve finished eating this elephant, you’ll find the next one will be handled even more easily. After sharing some of these tips with my high school friend, she emailed to tell me that I had inspired her to finally begin writing her novel. When I last heard she had already outlined the entire plot.
I can only hope that I, in some small way, inspired you to begin as well.
About the Author
Kevin M. Kraft has been an avid writer from early childhood, growing up in upstate New York. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies. He is also a novelist and a multi-award winning screenwriter and CEO of T E K Productions, a motion picture production company, in Kansas City, Missouri, where he lives with his wife and children.
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