October 7 – 13: “Is it hard to start a new novel?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5ITW members Elizabeth Goddard, James R. Hannibal, D. P. Lyle, Mark Atley, Marietta Miles, J. H. Bográn and Dana King are here this week to address the questions on everyone’s mind: Is it hard to start a new novel? Is there a difference between writing a series or stand-alone? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss this!


Elizabeth Goddard is the bestselling author of more than forty books, including Never Let Go and the Carol Award-winning The Camera Never Lies. Her Mountain Cove series books have been finalists in the Daphne du Maurier Awards and the Carol Awards. Goddard is a seventh-generation Texan.


D. P. Lyle is the Amazon #1 Bestselling; Macavity and Benjamin Franklin Award-winning; and Edgar(2), Agatha, Anthony, Shamus, Scribe, Silver Falchion, and USA Today Best Book(2) Award-nominated author of 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He has worked with many novelists and with the writers of the TV shows Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.


As a former stealth pilot, James R. Hannibal is no stranger to secrets and adventure. He has been shot at, locked up with surface to air missiles, and chased by an armed terrorist. He is a two-time Silver Falchion award-winner for his children’s Section 13 mysteries and a Thriller Award nominee for his Nick Baron covert ops series. His first Clandestine Service thriller, the Grypyhon Heist, is out now from Revell.


Black Rose Writing published Mark Atley’s debut novel, THE OLYMPIAN, at the end of June 2019. His short story “Amber Alert” won Honorable Mention in a local contest. Recently, Ink and Sword Magazine (Twitter) featured Mark in their December 2018 Crime Issue. Mark holds two degrees in journalism and works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK. He has overcome learning disabilities and struggled with dyslexia.


Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, Marietta Miles currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children. Her shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland, and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and a contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog.


J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”


Dana King’s Penns River series of police procedurals includes Worst Enemies, Grind Joint, and Resurrection Mall (all published by Down & Out Books). His Nick Forte series has two Shamus Award nominations, for A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window. The third book in the series, Bad Samaritan, was published by Down & Out Books in January 2018. His short fiction has appeared in Spinetingler, New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash as well as the anthology Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, edited by Todd Robinson.


  1. For me, starting a novel is a little easier than it used to be. Since I’m working on numbers 21 and 22 it should be easier. Right? But that’s not the main reason. The first 10 or so novels I wrote were extensively outlined. I felt I needed to know as much as I could about the story and about whether the concept had long enough legs to carry through an entire novel before I started. This would require weeks and sometimes months of tinkering with the plot and getting the outline at least mostly correct. But I no longer outline. At least not much. The run-up to actual writing is spent more with thinking about a few scenes, sometimes only one or two, and deciding if this would be a fun direction to go. If it feels comfortable, I sit down and start writing the first chapter. I enjoy the freedom that this approach gives me. I found that simply going with the story rather than over planning it actually makes the writing a lot more fun and makes starting a novel easier.

    I’ve written several series previously, but now I have two that are ongoing: the Jake Longly comedic thriller series and the Cain/Harper series, which is darker and more traditionally a thriller. I try to write one book in each series every year. If you’re writing a standalone, either a novel or a short story, you’re free to go in any direction that feels right. But you have to create an entirely new cast of characters, with their backstories, and typically a new setting. That can be both freeing and challenging. With so many things to consider, this can often lead to a delay in starting.

    With a series, the trick is to remain true to what has come before. You can’t alter the characters, their backstories, or really very much about them to any significant degree. Some, but not in their basic nature. On the other hand, you already have the main characters in the story worked out. Here, starting might be easier, but keeping the story fresh and not a rehash of what came before is the trick.

    So each type of writing, standalone or series, has advantages and disadvantages in how you develop and begin your story.

    DP Lyle

  2. Is it hard to start a new novel? Starting a new novel is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. The fun part is the creative freedom to explore new settings, characters and premises. That said, writing the first words, paragraphs, chapters and pages of a new novel are the hardest thing I do in the writing process. For me, starting is absolute anguish. I struggle with choosing the right place to start and the best possible opening scene—that first scene will either hook your reader or bore them. That all important first page can make or break the sale of a book.

    Is there a difference between writing a series or a stand-alone? Most of my books are in a series but I usually loosely connect the books so that they can also be easily read as a stand-alone. What I mean is that previous characters might drop in for a scene in the story, but they don’t have a subplot or a point of view. I like my main characters to be front and center of the novel.

  3. Because the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page are the most critical for a book, I often find myself daunted by beginnings. Where to begin? It won’t matter if I have a fierce story to tell if everyone gives up before the end of the first few pages.
    I consider why I should begin, at all. Is this story worth telling? What will readers come away with after spending their time with me? Does what I’m trying to say really matter? If I come away believing in what I’m putting down, I close my eyes, imagine the story and begin the first place my mind takes me. Initially, I must trust myself. After the book is in editing, I’m happy to be told what to do.
    Regarding a series versus a stand-alone project, though MAY and AFTER the STORM are two different novellas, that was not the intention. Initially, we tried getting it all under one title, but it didn’t work out. Now, the two are seen as a series.
    I enjoy writing both. In a series you have more time to develop and realize characters and the over-reaching, umbrella story lines. With a series it is important to keep up with the timeline you’ve created, keep the story fresh by adding new but natural and necessary sub-plots and characters, plus keep the details clear enough in each book that a person who has not read the previous releases can pick it up and understand. It’s also important to resist repetitive story telling habits. There is a lot to keep track of with a series. With a stand-alone you have your beginning, middle, and end tied up in one shot. I think writing a series might be more challenging than a single novel.

  4. I have the classic answer: it depends. I mostly write series novels, so starting a new book is in many ways a continuation of what’s come before. The crimes are new, but the town and the characters’ lives are already established. All I need to do is see what comes next.

    On the other hand, I’ve been “starting” a Western for quite a while now. (I’m embarrassed to say how long, so don’t ask.) I keep finding things I need to have in the universe to meet my standard of verisimilitude, which requires me to re-evaluate the original plan. Fortunately I’m writing this one in a different manner than any other book I’ve tried by writing the scenes I know have to be there in the order I feel ready to write them, not sequentially as I usually do. It’s going to make it easier down the road to insert what I feel is needed to create a believable universe.

    All of that notwithstanding, looking at that has only “CHAPTER 1” on it is daunting. My history as an outliner, even relatively sparse outlines, helps greatly there. At least I’m in good company. The great composer Igor Stravinsky once said there was nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of staff paper.

  5. I think I love starting new novels almost as much as finishing them. Fresh faces. New locales. New tech or fantasy creatures. The start of a new novel is like escaping into a new world.

    This applies to series as much as stand-alone. Certainly, in a series, much of the milieu is already set, but worlds may be expanded. New characters arise (new villains, especially). A stand-alone or first-in-series brings with it the challenge of a major shift from what you’ve done before. I definitely experience that now that I’m jumping back and forth from thrillers to middle-grade mystery/fantasy. The creative process—understanding the similar points and movements within all stories—helps a great deal when making the leap.

  6. One of my favorite parts about starting a new novel is the research, so to me, the whole process is exhilarating. I also take the opportunity to challenge myself with the aim to improve my craft, from choosing a different POV, to developing a full outline that I then translate into a list of chapters. It helps when you’re struggling to write and would like to do a piece out of the sequential order in the novel.

    In short, it looks like I enjoy it.

    Now, the most difficult part for me is to finish the novel. Figuring out when the tale is done is one trick I still have to master.

  7. My novels start themselves. Often I start what I think will be a short story and it becomes a long story. Then sometimes it becomes a novella and sometimes it evolves into a novel. I let them go where they need to go.

  8. For me, it’s not hard to start a new novel. I just have to have an idea first—something to say.
    Usually that consists of two parts:
    One, I need some characters I find interesting. My debut novel, The Olympian, consisted of an Olympic Swimmer, a thief, a bondsman, and a reporter. I built everything else around how those people could come together, why are they there, what’s going to happen when they interact, and how does the story play out.
    Which leads to the second part, a situation in which I can place them. One of my rules to storytelling is everyone wants something. My goal is to get that on the page, across to the reader, and see how what the character wants influences the characters around them. Everyone’s their own main character and I try to write that way.
    When it comes to finding the characters, I like to try someone out in a short story to see how they sound, how they act, and find out what drives them. Once I start work on the novel, I let the personalities come out during the course of the 1st Draft. If someone doesn’t work as a character, I ask myself, do I really need them or what do they want? Usually, I haven’t done a good job showing what the character wants.
    There is a huge difference between writing a series over a stand-alone. My first publishing contact, which ended up not working out, was for a series, where I’d already completed drafts on the first two, but hadn’t finished the third. I stalled out on the second, barely finishing it, and had just sketched out the third. I couldn’t figure out where the story was supposed to go. Ultimately, the publisher and I understood we were both were heading in different directions and separated on good terms. I didn’t feel like that series was where it needed to be and I wanted to transition to stand-alone, ensemble pieces, which is where my passion is. I love stand-alones. They allow me to put everything out there in one novel and not hold anything back, which makes writing fun.

  9. Once I’ve thought about the story line enough and (you’ve heard this before from authors) the characters start talking to me, I have no trouble beginning the story. For suspense/thrillers, it’s key to start at a ‘grabber’ beginning. What really gets to me (yes, even after writing 40 plus suspense novels) is the middle of the book when so many subplots and characters are being juggled. I call the middle of the book ‘the muddle of the book.’ Maybe we can have some helpful hints from authors on that topic too.

    1. The middle is a scary portion of the story creation process for many writers, but it doesn’t have to be. We tend to have big ideas about how our stories begin and end, but the middle is a fog. However, when you go back and look at the common points and movements in all stories over time, you find guidance.

      The stories that consistently connect with us tell us that the middle has a tent pole setting holding it up. This is the Hades of the story, the Death Star. The setting in the middle of the story is a character all its own, taking action against the hero either physically or psychologically. It could be something as simple as a shed, but in some form it is as terrible as the Death Star or the Underworld to the hero.

      Okay, so we have this big tent pole setting (in The Gryphon Heist, it was the London Shard, playing against Talia’s fear of heights). The hero needs a reason to go there—someone the hero needs to see or some objective the hero must accomplish. Your grand beginning and end will help you determine what this should be. The middle is beginning to build in both directions. Working backward, your hero must gain awareness of this place and the need to go there. The hero and her allies must make a plan of attack (usually not a very good one—How do we approach the Death Star? Fly casual).

      Once the awareness has occurred and a plan is made, the hero must infiltrate this setting. And once inside, before obtaining the information, object, etc she came for, the hero must face a challenge—one of the biggest of the story. For the greatest reader satisfactions, this challenge should bring together both the plot and character arcs. In The Gryphon Heist, Talia falls (spoiler), for what better way to challenge our hero who is afraid of heights. But the circumstances surrounding that fall are a crucible of plot and character. She emerges with the psychological tools she’ll need to complete her character arc, and she emerges with both a major clue and object she’ll need when solving the primary plot issue.

      As I mentioned before, the tent pole setting builds the middle in both directions. We had awareness of the need to go, the plan of attack, the attack, the crucible inside, and now our hero and allies must escape and analyze, leading toward the new moments of awareness, plans, or attacks that will carry them to your story’s end phase. Boom. Middle complete.

      The middle, for me, is one of the most fun parts of story creation. When you struggle, start with that tent pole setting that lives and breathes as a character working against your hero, and build forward and backward from there. It may sound formulaic, but the fact is, all good stories have them. Whether it is the Death Star or Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley, the tent pole is always there to support the middle.

  10. When you write a series is it common for the middle book to just feel like a big long sagging middle? Also, how do you remind yourself that your story is good even when you don’t feel like it’s good during that middle part?

    1. Great questions.

      The sagging middle book is a common fear/problem, but the same principles I stated before apply. Look at The Two Towers. The Shire and Rivendell gave us a start. Gondor and Moria will give us an end. How did Tolkien handle the middle of his Middle Earth story?

      The ultimate way to defeat a sagging middle series book is to view every book as a stand-alone. In my opinion (and in the opinion of many other professionals I’ve worked with over the last decade), every book must have a complete story arc (both plot and character) even when set within the larger story arc of a series. And on its own, a complete arc will support a middle book.

      You know your middle story is good by viewing it as its own complete beginning, middle, and end, and then stepping back and taking another glance at those common elements that permeate all stories. If the book feels flat, it may be missing something because you as the story creator viewed it as a part rather than a whole all its own. It has to be both.

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