The Crime Writers' Association

The Debuts

How To Start Your Novel – a step-by-step guide by Cal Moriarty

If you are thinking of entering the Debut Dagger next year then bookmark this blog as, over the next few months, I’ll be providing you with all the key elements you need as you start writing your first novel.

Right now you may be feeling a little overwhelmed, wondering where on earth to start.

Pace yourself

Firstly, relax. The average crime novel is approximately 90,000 words, but all those words don’t all have to be written this week, or even by the deadline. In fact, like all projects, whether at work or at home, if you break it down into manageable chunks it immediately becomes less psychologically overwhelming and less likely to provoke an attack of writer’s block. If you can commit to 500 words every second day, or 2000 words every Sunday you will most likely be half-way through the novel by the end of February (which is, of course, the Dagger deadline).

Whatever chunk of time it is, commit to it. The aim is to be relaxed but focused.

Think about all the places/times in your day/week you might be able to carve out a bit of author-time. It might mean sacrificing your social media addiction or your favourite Netflix show, but it will be totally worth it when you can type The End on your first novel. When I worked for a major film & tv studio I used to get up earlier than usual and go to a café near work and write for an hour or two before heading into work. All those early morning writing sessions resulted in me finishing my first screenplay (after many redrafts). I was lucky enough for it to then garner industry acclaim, screenplay awards, getting optioned and many years later resulted in me being invited to attend the illustrious BlackList Labs in Vegas through whom I am now developing it. When you sit down to put in the hours, you never know where that work will get you: maybe to be an older, wiser author or a published or produced author. Unless you put in the hours, you will never know.

Scottish author S J Holliday has great advice for debut authors :

“Don’t be precious about how/where/when to write. Try for several short bursts of writing in a day and the words will soon stack up.”

Place yourself

I often find it much easier to write away from the demands of home, this might be as simple as going out into the garden, finding some winter sun and cracking open the laptop or heading off to the local coffee shop armed with some earphones and the Evernote app on my phone. One friend, fantasy and crime author Tarn Richardson, writes in his car whilst waiting for his kids school rugby games to end. Whatever and wherever it is, this is your time, time for you to escape to another world, even if it’s only on paper.

Best-selling crime author Mel Sherratt has some words of encouragement for debut dagger authors:

“Just get the words down and keep going. You can’t edit a blank page. I find my best ideas and plot twists come up as I’m writing my first draft – once I get to know my characters a little, they often dictate how the story should go too.”

So, check your calendar and carve out your author-time over the next few months. Tell everyone who needs to know: your partner; the kids; even your boss (especially if you’re hoping to write at lunchtime at your desk without getting fired) so they can support you in finding the author-time you’ll need. To prepare, think as much as you can in your day about your characters and your story, developing them in your head rather than in front of a blank computer screen — the more you do this the more will get out of those moments when you finally get your author-time in your favourite coffee shop. Best-selling award-winning Irish author Liz Nugent has this advice to help focus the mind on your novel:

“Start now. Find the time. The only thing stopping you writing is you. It’s free.”

Next time I’ll be looking at character and story and how you might find your way to both.

In the meantime, if you want to take a look at my notes on character they are available as part of my Red Carpet Writers Club (sign up via the mailing list on my website, which is listed on my CWA author profile page).

Cal Moriarty is an award-winning screenwriter, director, producer, novelist and educator. Her debut novel The Killing of Bobbi Lomax was long-listed for the CWA John Creasey New Blood award, 2015. Her second, Ten of Swords is out next summer from Faber. She is currently writing her third. Cal loves sharing her knowledge and has taught screenwriting to some of the world’s finest authors

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