Where to Start (Part 3)

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Getting Down To It.

So maybe you’ve tried writing a few short stories. Or you’ve started a novel, cranked out a few pages or maybe a few chapters, but you’ve found the process… difficult. A bit daunting. Overwhelming. So let’s boil the process down to the bare bones — and perhaps get a better feel of what writing starting a novel is all about. So, for the moment, let’s forget about developing any sort of writing style, about pushing through writer’s block and other down-the-road potential obstacles, about winning that Pulitzer or interviewing with Oprah. For the moment we’ll stick to the preliminaries.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: There’s no single, best, one-size-fits-all approach to beginning a novel. Some first-time novelists simply plop themselves down in front of a notepad, a typewriter (because those still exist!) or a PC and begin to peck out a first line, and then another. And another. You’re starting out cold turkey, ready to bang out 300 or 400 pages without a second thought. You’ve got a story to tell and, by God, you’re going to tell it. Because if that’s your style, your intent, go for it! Writers have been writing first novels by the seat of their pants (some of those efforts destined to become best-sellers) for hundreds of years. You can’t argue with tradition.

Or maybe you’re a perfectionist. You’ve been planning your novel for months or even years — getting yourself mentally prepared, but not quite ready to, y’know, do the deed. You’ve read every How-To writing book ever published, and you’ve memorized Strunk & White. Maybe you’re on your way to a Ph.D in creative writing. (Is there such a thing?) You’ve crossed your proverbial I’s and dotted your perennial T’s and only now, locked and loaded, are you ready to dare tap out those first few sentences.

Either way, realize that this brazen new millennium offers new and exciting (or new and terrifying, depending upon your POV) approaches to prepping, drafting, writing and selling a novel. The Internet has changed the way we gather and research information, interact with other writers to learn a few trade secrets or swap stories, tips and secrets — Reddit’s r/writing sub for example, or NaNoWriMo, Writer’s Digest, Writers Helping Writers, Inkitt or Wattpad — and how we find agents, editors and publishers. New emerging (or emerged) markets such: Audio, ebooks, flash-fiction and fan-fiction Websites and how-to apps proliferate. Total strangers will tell you what to do, how to do it, and will occasionally rip you and your work to pieces with the joyous dexterity of a seasoned serial killer. Emotionally drained, you’re left to wonder, Am I really a horrible writer? Or is that new best friend and critic of yours just some rando psychopath? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. But refer again — and as often as necessary — to Rule #3. Write to please yourself. I call it my self-inflicted sanity rule.

Not to mention that you’ll come across people like me; well-meaning souls who harken our presence and thrash about with an austere sincerity (or else an utterly false pretense) eager to share our fabulous secrets of fame and fortune like so many boardwalk carnival barkers. (Another rule of thumb: If somebody’s asking you to pay for their unsolicited time and advice, think twice, fact check their credentials and don’t be afraid to run screaming into the night.)

Because, basically, writing a novel can be a lonely, isolating endeavor, and trusting oneself is paramount. Your guess about what makes a best-seller is as good an assumption as anybody else’s best guess. So, yeah, relying on your own intuition and common sense is a safe bet. If you get stuck or lost along the way, sure — it’s okay to seek advice or second opinions. (Also see: Confronting Criticism.) But always remember that you’re captain of your own ship. If you find yourself sinking, it’s okay to swim for shore. But if you can weather the storms and make it to port, there’s no sweeter feeling. The first time you see your very own ISBN and/or Library of Congress PCN — few other thrills can compare. Because publishing a book feels very much like landing on the moon or skiing the Matterhorn. For anyone staring morosely at a blank screen, contemplating tapping out those first few pages, just be aware that the long journey ahead can be well worth the effort.

And if you don’t try, you’ll never know for sure.

So perhaps it’s time to explore that Yellow Brick Road. So let’s cut to the chase, bury that witch and skip forward. (Cue the Munchkins!) Because whether you’re contemplating beginning a novel or you’ve already started (or started over), here’s what I consider to be an essential first step. Optional, yes, but essential.

Give yourself permission to engage in a bit of introspection. A little self-analysis. Ask yourself a few basic Why? questions. Don’t worry, it’s painless. Ain’t nobody’s keeping score. And there are no wrong answers. But understanding your core motivation for writing is, I suspect, more important than you may realize. For instance:

• Why have I chosen to write this particular narrative?

This is the easy question. Because any consideration short of I really don’t have a clue is acceptable. Writing for the sheer joy of writing is a completely acceptable answer. Writing to make a moral or social or philosophical difference is acceptable. Writing to quiet that incessant static buzz between your ears is acceptable. What’s static after all but a frequency looking for a receptor? Writing may be that receptor. Many writers find that writing fiction quiets the brain, fills a void, provides meaning to an otherwise vacuous life. All valid reasons to begin writing. But not having a clue will only get you so far. A page or two. A chapter or two, before you realize it’s time to move along. To find another source of fulfillment. Sure, give yourself credit for trying, but perhaps your better suited for a different sort of creative endeavor? A less emotionally demanding adventure?

• What’s my story about?

Because if you don’t know, readers probably won’t know (or care) either. (Also refer to What’s Your Intention?.) Maybe you love reading fantasy, and you’re enamored with fire-belching dragons. However, sitting down to write about fire-belching dragons, but without any further consideration, won’t get you far. Not to mention that fire-belching dragons are the rage these days. Yours must be different, unique and—well, either plot- or character-driven. (See below.) So presenting a new take on an old tail tale, will be essential. I strongly suggest knowing your story before you begin to write.

What do I risk by writing this (or any) book? Is it worth the price?

I’m no shrink, nor do I play one on TV, and I expect no Freudian answers. But are there risks writing a book? Yup. A risk of disillusionment, disapproval and disappointment, for starters. Losing touch with friends and family. Losing months or perhaps years of your life while staring at a computer screen (and wondering who’s going to pay the G&E bills). Most of us will face a buttload* of rejection, and sometimes repeatedly. Most of us who begin a novel — and brace yourself — won’t finish. Of those who do finish, a majority will not find a publisher. Of those who do, a majority will not make a sustainable living. Not trying to be a total bummer here—but those are the risks we learn to accept.

Maybe you’ve heard of the old Aspiration, Inspiration, Perspiration philosophy of novel writing? If not, here’s the gist:

Aspiration is about having a desire and ambition — the eagerness — to write a particular story. Maybe it’s based on family history or a newspaper article or an old movie you once saw, and intend to improve upon. Maybe you’ve read a thousand fantasy novels and thought, I can do that! But having a specific goal in mind can be crucial to boy your joy of writing and your success.

Inspiration is simply another word for your creativity. Every chance you get, consciously or subliminally, your brain is concocting clever scenarios about this and that and some other thing. What if this happens? What if that happens? What would happen if…? Meaning, you’re comfortable concocting clever, witty characters in well-conceived settings (or realms), and then giving them something exciting, profound and memorable to accomplish or survive.

Perspiration is perhaps the most challenging of the three. Perspiration is all about your ability to persevere, page after page after page. Day after day, night after night. It’s about excusing yourself (not always, but often) when you’re friends are knocking back tequila shooters down at the Disco. It’s about potentially isolating yourself from friends and families for months or years, and about accepting criticism (when valid) and about pushing forward despite reservations and self-doubt and either the fear of failure or fear of success whispering furiously in the back of your brain. (Also see Fundamentals.)

But enough with the negativity already! Back to the fun and frolic of telling a good story.

As previously discussed, most story ideas begin as a snippet of thought or a fragmented concept, perhaps a random daydream or a tasty soundbite thrown your way from mass- or social-media. Maybe you’ve piled on additional, if nebulous, ideas as well. Once you have a basic story in mind — either a partially considered, loosely threaded beginning, middle and ending in mind, or simply that aforementioned inciting incident — it’s up to you to expand upon those concepts into an eventual, fully-formed novel.

Do realize that no set rules exist for proceeding. If my last few posts feel unhelpful or cumbersome, no worries! (And this is as close to a disclaimer as I’ll come.) But since every writer’s brainwaves, intuitions, coping skills and experiences are unique, I’m unlikely to speak with either eloquence or efficacy to every novice writer. So take from me what you will, disregard the rest and Google your way toward any number of variable alternative sources. The great thing about the Internet; There are a million different sources and resources awaiting your arrival. (Then again, the terrible thing about the Internet is: There are a million sources and resources out there.) So choose well, Pilgrim!

As previously mentioned, one can simply sit down (with a note pad, a typewriter or PC) and begin to lovingly craft a vision, such as writers have done for centuries; word by word, page by page, and scene by scene. But if blindly charging forward into the fray isn’t your style, no worries! Some writers mull their stories for months or years (it’s a kind of creative procrastination) waiting until they feel the moment is ripe. So if you consider yourself a creative procrastinator, or else suspect your impending story as being only half-baked, I offer a few suggestions that may (or may not) help you with a little forward momentum. For instance:

The Outline. Yes, I’ve already mentioned the potential value of outlining —but I shall continue to do so. Because it’s a valuable tool. The process may begin as little more than bullet-pointing a potential story line—although some writers use index cards tacked to cork board, or mark major plot points on a chalkboard; others will voice record their thoughts or simply jot random thoughts on a notepad or two. (I’ve tried that, but I tend to misplace notepads with alarming frequency.)

But whatever your tendencies, consider this: Outlining is the literary equivalent of story-boarding a movie: It helps to illuminate who did what, why and how? The better you’re able to visualize your potential story at this point, scene by scene or event by event (or even character by character), I suspect the more profound your first draft will be. Essentially you’re already giving your brain a head start.

Although I consider outlining a bare-bones approach to understanding your story, it’s certainly okay to focus on bits of minutia as well — if that minutia is important to your story and within easy reach. (Never postpone committing to paper a cogent, novel-related thought, whenever it may come. And why I always sleep with a notepad on my nightstand.) For instance, a sufficient bullet point might be as simple as:

• Jackie overhears Eduardo speaking on the telephone in the study. She suspects that he’s orchestrating his wealthy mother’s murder.

• Frightened by the implications, she returns to her bedroom and….

Or as complex/complete as:

• Jackie speaks fluent French, and yet she also knows a smattering of Italian, and when she overhears Eduardo on the telephone in the study, speaking frenetic Italian to Mr. Molano, she catches a few words—not enough to decipher the conversion but aware that ‘uccidere’ means murder. She infers that Eduardo and Mr. Molano are plotting something nefarious against Eduardo’s invalid mother, well aware of the old woman’s significant insurance policy.

• Frightened by the implications, she returns to her bedroom and….

When I outline, I’m usually aware of each scene visually unspooling inside my head, as if I’m watching some sort of abbreviated, cerebral video clip. Sometimes those scenes are quite profound, and often very detailed. Occasionally snippets of dialogue or narration will occur to me out of the blue, the sort of material I typically do not include in an outline. And yet, aware that I may not remember such detail weeks or months from now, I’ll take the time to expand those thoughts or ideas as they occur. I once wrote three-plus pages of a nuanced yet crucial conversation in an outline—dialogue that made my first draft and, almost a year later, made the final draft, almost verbatim. 

So don’t fret about giving your outline any definitive guildlines, like giving a word-limit or excluding a little color or texture or subtlety. If you wish to embellish, embellish. Make notes, give yourself options, ask questions: (Does Eduardo know that Jackie’s overheard his conversation? Would that pdditional dramatic impact? Or maybe Jackie only suspects that he’s overheard, which adds a completely different layer of psychological tension?)

S’up to you. And, yeah, I create notes to myself in red, a quick, visual reminder that certain scenes are in need of further consideration. Remember, an outline’s solitary purpose is getting you from here to there. It’s your personal, private cheat-sheet.

I also suggest updating your outline as you continue to draft your story and expand your story arc. Characters may change, sub-plots may come and go. Various plot-essential twists and turns may develop, and keeping your outline up-to-date can’t hurt. Like your manuscript, your outline should be a constant work in progress. (Because I can be somewhat anally retentive when I write, I’ll even tag my outline versions to coincide with my manuscript. If I’m working on draft version 3.1, my outline is also tagged V3.1.)

The Synopsis.

While your outline allows you to essentially expand various story ideas, a synopsis is, conversely, an encapsulation. A summary. If you’re able to define your plot in a page or two or three, you’ll begin to better understand the crux of your novel. Maybe your exciting sci-fi alien encounter is really a love story. Or your tale about two army deserters in a terrible war is basically a story of finding courage. A schoolyard tale about bullies and weaklings is ultimately a story about building unlikely friendships. So a synopsis can be a quick-glance guideline or as a daily reminder of where your story’s heading. (I’ve known a writer or two who’ll take a synopsis to their monitors. Every morning, it becomes both a prompt and a testament.

If creating a synopsis seems frivolous or overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? See if you can write an synopsis about that book, without the pressure of summarizing your own words. Practice synopsizing a few novels and perhaps abridging your own work may feel far less daunting.

For example:

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Amidst the rumble of an approaching Civil War, we find Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, teen-aged daughter of a wealthy Atlanta plantation owner, caught in her own giddy social bubble. Scarlett is clueless about the meaning of life, or the value of honor—although as the war rages, she discovers newfound courage and an inkling of character. Briefly married, she is quickly widowed by the calamity of war. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett’s beloved plantation, Tara, falls victim to the advancing Union army, and she must decide between her love of the land and her dedication to friends and family. She falls under the spell of a rebel blockade runner named Rhett Butler. The two are unsuited, but soon after the war’s end, she weds Rhett not for love but rather for his brash charisma and wealth—his ability to save Tara from the ravages of a lost war. However, their happiness quickly spirals into bitterness and remorse—and Scarlett ultimately decides that saving her home, Tara, is more important than saving her marriage. Still, she gathers the strength to hope for a brighter future.

Sure, it’s a sketchy synopsis, and incomplete (for instance, no mention of Ashley, of Melanie, or of Scarlett’s children), but it carries forth the deep core of the plot. Now, what about your story ideas? Can you define its heart and soul—even before you write word one? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel can prove useful—and the sooner the better. Finding the essence of your story is so crucial that it’s now a rule.

Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

Oh, and don’t delete your synopsis after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I’ll ask.) Your synopsis can serve as your literary calling card, whence you submit your manuscript to agents or publishers.

An expanded synopsis. (Optional.) A synopsis is a synopsis is a synopsis—but like an outline or a draft, you’re constantly creating room for growth and improvement. As your plot coalesces, ain’t nothing wrong with updating your synopsis as well. Add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. It’s okay to use your synopsis (or outline) as a fluid primer or blueprint. It’s perfectly okay to update your synopsis—so feel free to add another 5 or 10 or 20 pages, exploring any newfound ideas. Make mistakes. Think fresh thoughts. Re-evaluate. Leave blanks. Every time I finish a synopsis, even a first draft, I find myself with a few dozen gaps where I’ve typed [IDEA TO COME]—and yes, again in bright, bold red—before moving along to those ideas that are freely flowing. Trust that every idea you need will arrive—and in its own damn time. Writing a novel is funny that way.

PS: If you’re one of those people loathe to leave a blank space, who must write every word precisely in chronological order, who must pen every thought with unwavering exactitude, striving for immediate perfection, my advice is this: Get over yourself. In fact, it’s even a rule. Rule #100: Get over yourself.**

Why? Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. Certainly not while writing a synopsis or first draft! Even polished and ready for publication, there’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. Every word we write (or don’t write) is a subjective impulse. Writing Harold hated his dance classes rather than Harold disliked his dance classes won’t bring your novel any closer to Nirvana.

Perfection is an illusion—a Siren singing sweetly on the rocks of self-importance and ultimate disillusion. We do the best we can, and we also finish the book.

Character Profiles (Arias). Some writers choose to visualize their major characters (specifically their protagonist and antagonist) before they begin to draft out a story. They feel that by creating this sort of personal bio, they can better hone the creative process and even help characters deal more logically or realistically with your plot. I’ve known writers who’ll look for digital images of real folks in the hopes of better establishing a more familiar (and hence believable) entity in their own minds. Such intense scrutiny isn’t necessary—but it can’t hurt, either. For certain writers, depicting these people can help establish both a physical and emotional bond, even if most of these characteristics and physical attributes never make it to the page. The purpose of the literary aria is simply to help the writer’s vision.

I believe that some readers appreciate in-depth revelations of a character’s physical description, emotional band-width and various personal qualities. Others prefer to deduce such visual and emotional characteristics for themselves. So creating elaborate physical descriptions are obviously a matter of choice. For instance consider the somewhat pithy:

Marshal Dusty Yates stood at the edge of town, watching the sun rise. Yates had seen more evil in the last few days than most men would see in a lifetime. He absently brushed his fingers against the pistol holstered against his thigh and wondered if he’d live long enough to see sundown.

Or, conversely, the more detailed:

Marshal Dusty Yates, six foot, three inches of pure, mean Texan, stood grizzled and hungover at the edge of town, watching the sun rise. A hard-edged, ruggedly handsome man, Yates had seen more evil in the last few days than most men would ever see in a lifetime. He absently brushed his fingers against the smooth pearl handle of the Colt Peacemaker holstered against this thigh and, with a deep sigh, wondered if he’d live long enough to see sundown.

Both versions paint an adequate description of our hypothetical lawman, so a writer’s choice of embellishment is simply a factor of a specific writing style.

Where were we? Oh, yeah — so when you’re ready, you’ll begin writing your book.

First Draft. Like an outline, your first draft is a basic tool. Yes, you’re in actual writing mode (feels good, doesn’t it?) but at this point, most writers are still feeling their way forward, working out the kinks, proceeding cautiously and with the knowledge that the first draft or two are still incomplete, inaccurate and far from complete. You’re filling out your bullet points (or discovering new ones!) and you’re introducing readers to your story line—either teasing them with your plot’s imminent arrival or dropping us down the rabbit hole with sudden ferocity.

By the way, fiction is often viewed as being either plot-driven or character-driven.

Plot-driven novels are usually about events or obstacles (a plane crash, a war, an invasion of aliens or zombies or mumps) that take readers through a crisis or a series of dramatic situations, before dropping them, or at least the survivors, at the other end. In plot-driven novels, the plot or story-line is paramount and typically overshadows both your protagonist and antagonist. Characters in plot-driven novels are typically (not always, but often) quickly-sketched and auto-focused on the problem(s) at hand. Personalities and character-arcs are often externalized, as opposed to internalized. If you think of a plot-driven as pieces in a chess game, the plot would be the all-powerful queen (or king, take your pick) and the various characters are merely the pawns. Examples would be Jurassic Park (or virtually any Michael Crichton novel), The Da Vinci Code,

Character-driven novels instead focus on the fictional people who gradually evolve during circumstances and events that serve primarily to shape or change their lives. Your book’s primary focus isn’t what’s happening, but rather what’s happening to whom. Plot structure may feel little more than a series of random (and not necessarily overtly dramatic) events, but how your characters act, react and respond is your key ingredient. The so-called coming of age and heroes journey tales, love stories and tales of self-discovery are typically considered character-driven. Novels like Ulysses, About A Boy, The Great Gatsby and The Joy Luck Club are good examples.

And yes, occasionally a novel will provide sufficient plot- and character-driven elements. Titanic (the film) and Armageddon (ditto) are good examples of that near-perfect mix of a riveting plot and carefully crafted, well-developed characters. So are books such as The Godfather, Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series and The Hobbit.

But now, back to the basics…

When writing your first draft, you’re either concentrating on establishing and building your plot (plot-driven) or else introducing and developing your major characters (character-driven). You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and adding nuance—although at this stage, you’re likely focusing primarily on major story elements. This doesn’t mean you can’t embellish and add depth to your characters or sup plots, but by the time you finish your first draft, it may be filled with holes and excess wordiness, blunders and missing scenes and half-developed characters.

In fact, first drafts sometimes, most times, almost always, look like (to coin a phrase) dog shit.

It’s this realization of elusive perfection that will often freak-out many a novice writer, who’ll often and erroneously expect ‘an almost sterling’ appearance of one’s completed first draft. So don’t sweat it. Subsequent drafts, like coats of varnish, will gradually improve your book until you are appropriately thrilled with the results.

Second Draft. Your subsequent pass will be editing content and/or adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and/or honing your plot. You’re augmenting your prose with colors and sounds and smells, deleating excess verbiage and honing both dialogue (conversations) and internal monologues (deep, inner thoughts). You’re revealing nuanced character traits and subtle innuendo, perhaps including new twists and turns and, if appropriate, cliff-hangers. With your first draft complete, you’ve already built a creature of muscle and bone, but now you’re adding frizzy blonde hair and freckles and one unlaced hi-topped Keds. You’re “putting the red on the apple” as they say.

By the way, my use of  ‘Second Draft’ phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, thirty-ninth, etc.) drafts… until you feel your story feels complete.

Not all writers are alike and not all drafts will be alike. Some writers (I believe sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke among them) will craft one polished page a day — or so go the rumors — and rarely if ever revisited or redraft those finished page. If such a system works for you, great! For most of us, the redrafting and editorial processes can prove to be an arduous and difficult process. (But still fun, mind you.) You’ll see your prose improving with each pass.

Also, don’t view redrafting your manuscript as a strict, chronological process. I probably rework and edit my first 50-100 pages a dozen times, my middle second half as much and my lase few chapters—which I usually discover somewhere in the middle of my story—a few times. I often skip chapters and randomly work on troubled spots, so I bounce around various scenes and chapters at will, wherever my brain cells decide to take me.

After I’d finished my first novel’s final draft, for instance, I revisited a few early chapters, deleting one and adding several others — scenes that better suited later chapters and my grand finalé. Again, there’s no one way to write a novel. No singular approach. Each of us has varying procedures and practices. Once you find an editorial style that works for you, stick with it. (No matter how many well-meaning critics tell you otherwise!)

The Stick-it-in-a-Drawer Phase. Seriously. Put it away for a week or a month. Try to forget that you’ve ever written it. Me? I use that time to begin contemplating a new book. Or else OD on old movies…because that works too.

Polishing. Time’s up! Read your story again from a fresh perspective. Read, tweak and polish each page. Cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the gaps…even if that means adding new scenes or chapters. Trim threads from the tapestry. Be sure every aspect belongs. Speed up the action or, when it doubt, truncate or eliminate the morass. If you feel something reads slow, don’t assume it isn’t. If you think it’s clunky, your readers will think so too. Oh, and kill your darlings.

And there’s your finished novel. Piece of cake, right?

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* Buttload = 126 gallons of wine. Seriously. A butt is an antiquated but authentic unit of measurement.

** Rule #100. Unless, of course, this particular procedure works for you. Some writers (I believe Arthur C. Clarke was one, although I may be mistaken) would write a single perfectly structured thought (whether it was a paragraph or a page) before moving on. A single draft, thoroughly polished, chronologically stable, even stunning, from beginning to end. If it works for you, awesome! Ignore this rule! However, if you find yourself hovering maniacally over an incomplete thought for a week, a month, or a year, unable to push forward even a line or two—yeah, learn to love the blank space. Jump ahead and return when the mind is ripe. (And pity the poor wordsmith who lived before cut&paste!) But trust yourself. Trust the future. All good thoughts will come in time.

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