Tabula Rasa: 6 Ways to Begin Writing a Novel

In the 17th century, John Locke wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in which he posited that at birth human beings are born as if they were a blank slate.  Many of you reading this post right now may be at this stage with your novel, the blank “slate” staring at you, be it a yellow legal pad or a computer screen.  I know you have a novel sitting there as a germ inside your brain.  It wants to get out.  It needs to explode out of you.  It is my hope that the following five tips will be the match that lights the fuse.

1.  Write Something Shorter – Anyone who has written a novel knows that it is not an easy task, so start smaller.  I suppose you have an idea that could be a novel, but maybe it might make a really good short story.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story “Winter Dreams” long before he wrote The Great Gatsby.  It was a technique that can help all of us.  Take that small idea you have and write a short story about it.  You could also jot it down in the form of a poem.  Write a sonnet (because the form will force you to think of stronger imagery).  After you finish the short story, you should have a better grasp of the characters you wish to create and the plot line for a longer novel.

2.  Read the Genre – As I was preparing the plot of my current post-apocalyptic novel, I read several post-apocalyptic books by great authors: David Brin’s The Postman, Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, Robert Heinlein’s Famham’s Freehold and J.G. Ballard’s The Burning World and, of course, the book of Revelation.  These novels pulled me into the genre like no other.  I began to populate these author’s settings with my own characters, began thinking about the possibilities of how these settings would be different if the cataclysm had been slightly changed, and found myself creating a post-apocalyptic world of my own loosely based on prophesied events from the book of Revelation.

3.  The Soap Box – I have written about this gem before.  If you are human, you probably have some kind of political problem, religious problem or moral problem that sticks in your craw and will not allow you to sleep sometimes.  Sit down with that legal pad and start jotting down everything that bugs you about that problem.  Think of ways the problem could be solved even if your solutions are too idealistic and may not work in the real world.  Think of ways that the problem could get much worse than it is now.  Write about them, journal about them or write short stories and poetry about them.  When you finish, you should have an idea for a novel that is close to your heart.  Think about ways to build a story around the problem and the solution, sprinkle it with characters based on people you know and you have the makings of a novel.

4.  Outline – I cannot stress the importance of this crucial step when writing a novel.  I you are staring at a blank page without a detailed outline laying on the table next to you, this novel of yours will be very difficult to write, indeed.  I’m sure you have a few ideas.  Start jotting them down in a workable form.  During the process mentioned in #3, you should be able to jot down several ideas and then through that process write a preliminary outline of a novel.  Outlining will save time as well.  Many writers will write themselves into a corner who do not plan.  If it is in outline form you only have to erase three lines for three chapters, whereas writing without one means you just erased 1000 words.  These sentences may have been beautifully written, but now belong to a plot that is going nowhere or is boring.

5.  Two Brains Are Better Than One – I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a writing group.  Nothing is more encouraging and helpful than a group of people who criticize your every step.  Bounce ideas off of them and then see if they will give you springboards for those ideas to fly.  Start a discussion about your soapbox problem and see what comes of it.  Maybe you will see the other side of your problem and have to rethink your ideas.  Maybe the group could create a character for you who is multi-layered, believable and full of tragic flaws.  All writers should have a support group like this.  My wife doesn’t write and she doesn’t really read much at all.  She loves to read to our children, but that is about the extent of it.  I can bounce ideas off of her all day and she will probably not be the best person to give me feedback because even though we are honest, she doesn’t think about writing like my writing friends.

6.  Free Writing – This is probably the most interesting way to get the ideas moving.  Sit down and start writing whatever comes into your head.  Do not try to make the sentences make sense or worry about grammar or punctuation.  Start throwing words on the page like Jackson Pollack paints paintings.  Keep going until you have written a couple of pages of stream of consciousness gibberish and you will have several ideas lying on the page when you are finished.  Many times I have come up with ideas for a novel from simply writing down my thoughts and journaling each day.

I hope these tips help you on your journey to create a novel.  If you have always wanted to write one but have not started writing, then I have one thing to say to you: The only think that will get your novel written is bum glue and fingers moving, so get moving.


Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

11 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa: 6 Ways to Begin Writing a Novel

  1. These sound like good ideas. I’m trying to visit all the A-Z Challenge Blogs in April. My alphabet is at

  2. More good for thought …. the two suggestions that stand out for me are ‘write something shorter’ and the ‘soapbox’ – I don’t think I have a book in me, but I’ve thought perhaps something shorter and having a ‘nugget’ around which to wrap it might spark something …. I’m enjoying your blog.

  3. Thanks,
    Never thought of the writing group idea. Do the others and they help:)
    Now I have to go an coerce my writing friends into doing my bidding… I mean agreeing to help each other.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: