Where to Start

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Where To Start.

New to novel writing? Or maybe you’ve tried it, and found writing… difficult. So why don’t we boil the process down to the bare bones—not of writing, but of starting. For the moment forget style, forget nuance, forget about winning that Pulitzer. Let’s talk about a before-we-even-sharpen-our-pencils kind of basic. Ask yourself this: What’s my story about?

If you don’t fully comprehend that tickle lurking inside your mind, it’s time to find out. It’s that eyeball-to-eyeball moment in the mirror. Answer that question—else your story may bump and thrash about like some gigantic, magnificent creature without a backbone. It might roar and scream and seem very impressive… but it ain’t going nowhere

Prove to yourself that you know your novel. Define your story in a page or two or three. Sit down and create a short synopsis or plot summery. Introduce yourself to this astounding—yet desperately needy!—lover who’ll soon capture your heart, but in return will demand a great deal of your attention and affection. (And kiss more than a few weekends goodbye!)

If that request seems overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? Write a synopsis. 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.

It’s a sketchy synopsis, it’s 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? What is its heart and soul? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel is essential. So crucial that it’s Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

A typical progression of a new idea—getting it out your head and onto the page and ultimately into a book shop—will look something like this:

A brief synopsis. (Short and sweet. See above.) Oh, and don’t delete it after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I will.)

(Optional) An expanded synopsis. It’s okay to add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. Give yourself another 5 or 10 or 20 pages to explore your ideas. Make mistakes. Think new 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, 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.* Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. There’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. 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.

The outline. This process is little more than bullet-pointing the story, scene-by-scene. It’s the literary equivalent of story-boarding a movie. You’re puzzle-piecing a plot into place, with methodical, mechanical deliberation. No fluff, no poetic license. And it’s OK if the finished book bares little resemblance. The outline is strictly a tool to use, change, update and tweak as you so choose.

First Draft. Now you’re ready to fill in the outline with crucial basic information. You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and introducing characters, keeping in mind how you foresee each character arc—that is, how you believe each character may grow during the tale. Now’s the time to point a direction for your plot—what’s necessary, what’s not—with an understanding that so many facets of your story may change over the duration of this journey. (Some writers have an iron-clad plot already in mind and, if you do, congrats! I usually have a hazy whisper of where my plot may go, although my characters are fairly well developed before I begin writing.) Dialog is important—but worry less about polished dialog and more about the basic necessity of keeping your characters and plot on a forward trajectory. (And much more about dialog as this blog develops.) You should see a basic writing style begin to emerge—but sometimes finding your voice takes a bit of “warming up”…so don’t panic if you find your first few pages raw or clunky. Relatively few writers manage to pretty much finish their book in a single pass. If you’re one of those skillful few… by all means, go for it. However, most of us need room to maneuver and an eraser (metaphorically speaking) the size of Philadelphia.

Second Draft. You’re adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and story line. Adding color and sounds and smells. Augment your dialog—revealing character traits and subtle innuendo. You’ve already built a creature of bare bones, 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, the “Second Draft” phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc.) drafts… until you feel the story you’re telling feels complete.

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.

Polishing. Read your story again with fresh brain cells. Tweak and polish and cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the blanks. 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 is, your readers will think so too. Definitely find ways to truncate or tweak the slow spots. Oh, and kill your darlings.

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

 


* RE: 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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