I love to hear other writers talk about how a novel evolved, from the first tiny seed, to a critical mass, to all the extras. It’s fascinating—and at the same time, completely unhelpful! Because there’s no best starting-point from which writers generally begin the creating of a novel. An image, a character, an atmosphere—it’s different for every author, and every time. Gloriously random!
Thinking back on some of my own novels, I remember that The Dark Edge began from a feeling—the feeling of being hunted across the universe by some implacable, retribution-seeking force; Ferren and the Angel began from a dream, which became the book’s first chapter; The Black Crusade began with the words of the title, which I picked up from a passing phrase in an M.R. James short story; Sassycat began with a sense of Sassycat’s personality; and Worldshaker began from a dream of falling down a slot-like cavity past endless levels of unbelievably constricted living-quarters.
Sometimes those starting-points stayed central, sometimes they ended up more on the outskirts. For example, the falling-down episode doesn’t come into play until Chapter 26 of Worldshaker, and the hunted feeling in The Dark Edge appears only in a very late revelation of the novel’s pre-story.
What matters isn’t your starting-point, but how you accumulate other material around it. Old ideas drawn in from notebooks, new ideas generated before and during the writing-process. Perhaps one character leads on to other characters, who lead on to a story, which leads on to particular settings. Or contrariwise, a setting leads on to a story, which leads on to characters. What matters is how you accumulate other material in a way that makes it impossible to recognise your starting-point!
If the reader can guess that, say, a particular character came first in the author’s mind—bad! That shows you haven’t brought the rest of the novel up to the same level as your initial inspiration. If it looks as though elements in the novel are merely servants to some master-idea, you’ve got a problem.
The actual history of the making of a novel should disappear into the novel as made.