Exciting, But Simple

.

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

Next post • Previous post • Index


Exciting, But Simple.

I’m not sure if there’s a sage in the world who can teach the secrets of exciting writing. If they can’t, I certainly can’t either.

Those same sages likely can’t define the various elements that ultimately define a truly thrilling novel. By exciting, I’m not speaking about a constant, continual barrage of chills and spills, page after page after page. Your intent is not to provide an unyielding roller-coaster rush, nor an incessant, thunder-and-lightning sort of excitement—but rather the finesse to transport readers to another realm and/or reveal the depths of an entirely fictive being. If successful, readers will stay with you until the final word of the last page. Exciting novels can be told in a whisper, can be written without the stench of death or the horror of mass destruction; without a single tear drop or belly laugh or even a boffo, surprisingly twisted last page that defies the reader’s expectation. Exciting novels simply must be told in exciting ways.

My idea of fictive excitement? It’s a combination of developing a witty and engaging style, an active—not passive—voice (see Active Voice and Show, Don’t Tell), and the ability to tell a complete story. Excitement is in the eye of the beholder, after all. And, in my opinion, excitement is simply a writer’s ability to prompt readers to, without hesitation, turn to the next page. And if I knew the secret formula every time I sat down to write, I’d own the New York Times Best Seller List.

I do not.

I do happen to believe that writers, like ball players, concert cellists and chess masters, are born into this world fully equipped with the ability to succeed. Some will never have the chance or the perseverance to fully explore or hone our true talents. Others will spill blood, sweat and tears, but never catch that lucky break. (Sorry, yeah, it’s about luck, too.) Sometimes, good writers simply encounter bad timing. Or the wrong agent, or editor, or the wrong publisher. And don’t think I haven’t lost a sleepless night or two fretting about that last quandary. I have.

And sometimes, the most diligent of souls, the sweetest of people, simply aren’t creative or technically skilled enough. Almost, but not quite. The world is filled with manuscripts, piled high in milk crates crammed into back corners of countless closets. As my old granny used to say, “You can’t make a Ferrari out of a Studebaker.”

She’s right. But the biggest tragedy is never knowing. Never trying. The world may indeed be overladen with Studebakers pretending to be Ferraris, but I suspect the world also has its fair share of idling Ferraris, glumly assuming they’re Studebakers. These are the writers who’ll never allow themselves the chance to experience themselves flying balls out down that literary speedway of life. And that’s a shame.

As hopeful authors, most of us are capable of crafting and honing our mechanical abilities—we can read creative writing books, we can study language and craft and attend workshops—we’re able to eventually intuit a noun from a verb. Because a writer can learn the simple stuff. But you can’t learn what can’t be taught. You can’t learn writing excitement.

So when I talk about excitement, I’m talking about a writer’s ability to create an individual style, that unique blend of panache and enthusiasm and articulation. Style can’t be bought or taught or handed down, generation to generation. Nobody taught Picasso Cubism. Nobody taught Babe Ruth to hit homers. Nobody taught Einstein to think. They each had it in ’em, all along.

If you have it—and Tom Wolff would call it the right stuff—good for you. Aim for the center field bleachers. If you don’t have it, you’ll discover that soon enough and move on. Ninety-five percent of wannabe fiction writers move on, and often to even greater endeavors. Ain’t no shame in crossing off write a novel from your bucket list, before skiing the Alps or designing a home or discovering cold fusion.

So… do I have advice for those of you attempting to determine your own stylistic prowess? (Does a goose have paté?) I can offer a few suggestions to flint that spark, to perhaps ignite something inside that might never extinguish.

Suggestion #1. New to fiction writing? Overwhelmed by the concept of writing 300 or 400 pages end-to-end? Unsure of your own abilities or talent or stamina? Start with smaller bites. Write a short story. Write an idea. Write a slice of life—a simple scene, a simple page with no beginning or no end—with no other agenda than pure enjoyment. Write for yourself. Make yourself smile. If that works… write another page. If you find yourself pouring out your soul, or simply amusing yourself with your own creative genius, perhaps you’re onto something. But writing a novel is kinda like giving birth. Give it time. Give it room. If you start pushing too hard at three months you’ll only hurt yourself, and the kid’ll be thinking WTF, mom?

Suggestion #2. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. As a reader, what excites you? When I write, I keep a favorite novel on my desk and, most mornings before I begin working, I pick a random page and begin to read. Sometimes I read a few paragraphs, sometimes a few pages. I read until I’m filled with awe and appreciation and amazement that, yeah, that’s great stuff. And I can do it too.

By reading snippets, I’m not suggestion that you emulate a writer’s style or content—my attempt isn’t to plagiarize substance or verbiage—I’m simply trying to jump start my own creative juices by absorbing another writer’s creative juices. It’s the literary equivalent of a Vulcan Mind-Meld.

Suggestion #3. Concentrate on dialogue. If not on quantity, then on quality. The eyes may be the portal to the soul (as the poets like to say), but in fiction, dialogue is the portal to a character’s soul. (See Dialogue.) I personally believe dialogue to be the single most important asset to a unique voice. Try writing a few pages of dialogue; two people simply talking to each other. No other modifiers (i.e.; he said sweetly, or she chuckled insanely.) Simply two voices. Don’t think about it—just begin a dialogue. You might be amazed at how spontaneous (again, as in don’t think about it) you’ll find a situation (no matter how irrelevant) developing. For instance (and with zero contemplation) here’s my brain’s random output:

S’up?”
“Nada.”
“Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy.”
“Is that your elephant?”
“Nah. My mom’s.”
“He’s big, huh? What’s his name?”
“Buster.”
“Buster?”
“He don’t come when you call him, though.”
“No, I don’t think he’d give a shit.”
“Unless maybe you have ice cream.”
“Peanut butter?”
“Strawberry.”
“Man, you’d think peanut butter, huh?”
“Seriously, yeah. But Buster’s always been his own pachyderm.

Random, unrehearsed, out-of-nowhere stuff.

Why dialogue, you ask? Why spit out words without deliberation or expectation? Because you’re removing all mental parameters and preconceived notions about your writing. Fictional dialogue (like IRL dialogue) can be as ethereal, as eccentric, as quirky as your brain is willing to stretch. You’re disrupting the organizational structure of a few trillion synapses by crayoning outside the lines.

Will this sort of nonsensical (or at least unprepared) dialogue translate into a story? Maybe. Probably not. But do realize that you’re channeling your inner self here. You’re allowing yourself, if only for a moment, unfettered creative freedom—and mental exercises such as this may lead to a little personal insight about your own creative abilities. Creativity begets creativity after all.

Again, refer to Rule #3: Write to please yourself. If you find yourself writing for the various expectations of a vast and often fickle audience audience, you’ll eventually lose yourself in the crowd. Even if you’re successful, sooner or later you’ll maybe even sell your soul. So read a ton, learn the craft, study the mechanics of writing—and then write whatever makes you happy.

.


Next post • Previous post • Index
.

.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Simple, But Exciting

.

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

Next post • Previous post • Index


Simple, But Exciting

If I could distill the fundamentals of potentially great storytelling, my advice would be this: Keep it simple, but exciting…exciting, but simple.

While such advice may seem paradoxical (“Paint it black, but paint it white.”) you’ll find a marvelous co-dependency at play in writing a novel that: A) moves the story forward with clear, comprehensible language, without confusing or unnecessary intrusions, and; B) imparts a breathlessness, a passion, a cerebral metamorphosis that transforms the reader’s reality into a fictional realm of your choosing.

One manages such duality by keeping: A) the fundamentals simple, and; B) your voice exciting.

Simple: The mechanics and structure of your writing, the clarity of your language. (In other words, grammar.) Note that simple doesn’t mean uninteresting or brief—nothing synopsized, summarized or truncated—but rather articulate and concise.

Exciting: The unique personality of your style and voice, the ebb and flow of your journey (that is, the structure of your plot), your joie de vivre. Your subtle—but oh-so-witty—nuance. Your tantalizing dialogue. (See Exciting, but Simple. Also see Dialogue.)

Even those writers who attempt to climb (metaphorically speaking) the Mount Everest of epic adventures or those who navigate the Pan’s Labyrinth of complicated plots, the basic mechanics of fiction remain fundamentally simple: Write in clear, precise sentences. (That’s Rule #7, by the way.) Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession of relevant information. Don’t stuff various, complicated ideas into a single sentence. Give yourself permission to expand complex ideas into multiple sentences or paragraphs.

Think of writing a novel as being similar to a long trek through the Sahara. As a reader, I’m following the trail you’ve intentionally set out on page one. I must be able to follow (e.g.; comprehend) each footstep you take along the way. A misplaced thought or a convoluted sentence will give me pause. What did you mean? A muddled page and I may be stymied. A misplaced or badly written chapter and now I’m lost in the arid wastelands. Where am I? Which way did you go? Lose readers midway through that proverbial desert and they’re likely gone for good.

My advice? Don’t get deviously clever or snarkingly cute with readers. Don’t withhold necessary information or keep secrets—intending a sleight of hand later in the story. Yes, your characters can be mysterious, but no, your prose shouldn’t be. Do not write under the influence of an advanced thesaurus. Do not assume readers will meticulously ponder your words attempting to comprehend your subliminal brilliance, your existential aura, your interpretive, Nureyev-like rond de jambe. Sure, your plot can be multi-layered, but not your innuendo. Maintain a precise, lucid writing style. Once again—for emphasis!—write in clear, precise sentences.

Three Simple, Necessary Components

We’ll utilize three necessary components to successfully navigate a story—and we’ll continually weave these elements throughout our novel, like the spiraling filaments in a thread.

In no particular order, or importance:

• Scene-Setting. As a reader, I want to be grounded early in each new chapter or scene. Give me a glimpse of where I am, and who I’m with and, if appropriate, when. (After dark? Before lunch? Late autumn?) Depending upon one’s writing style, setting a scene can be elaborate enough to fill several pages (a la George R.R. Martin), or as sparse as a few suggestive words. For instance:

I’d spent half the night searching in vain for Patrick McMartin. I walked into Charlie’s ramshackle Bar & Grill a little before ten-thirty. The place smelled like old cigarettes and older sweat. You know, the kind of establishment where patrons paid in dimes and quarters, where cockroaches and winos came to die.

Meaning that we’re not obliged to fill pages and pages with unnecessary minutia. As my old granny used to say, “You don’t need to eat the whole pig if all you want is a slice of bacon.” So it’s okay to impart juuuuust enough information to ground readers in a scene, to establish the where and when, perhaps the how or why—and to reveal any pertinent changes that might have transpired between the previous scene and this one. If the current location, time, characters present (…etc.) are similar/identical to the previous scene, then additional scene-setting may be minimal or unnecessary. Your job is simply to be sure that readers remain grounded in the reality of each particular moment. (For more details, see Scene-Setting.)

• Character Development. Give readers enough initial information to  identify (or at least tease) the relevant strengths and weaknesses of every major character. Not all at once, of course, but after giving readers an initial visual (or emotional) rendition, continue to reveal additional quirks and idiosyncrasies, little bits of nuance here and there throughout the novel. Creating memorable characters often relies on highlighting subtleties—physical, emotional, psychological, unusual—all at an appropriately opportune time.

• Plot Development. Reveal essential information that continually builds or strengthens your plot. Keep pushing the plot forward, either aggressively or subliminally, but constantly toward an inevitable conclusion of your design.

Note that, in each scene you write, you’ll combine elements of scene-setting, plot development and character development. Include nothing else. Seriously. If you find yourself writing material that doesn’t A) further the plot, B) further develop a character or, C) ground the reader in time and place, those scenes probably don’t belong in your novel. (And if those scenes somehow feel intrinsically important to the story, look closely—they’re likely touching upon one of the above ingredients.)

These three key elements, by the way, comprise Rule #5: Continually scene set, character build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Okay, so here’s a brief hypothetical:

Barnaby awoke before dawn, shivering beneath the insufficient weight of a blanket that smelled of manure and wet straw. The frigid air lay heavy with smoke drifting from a myriad of scattered campfires that burned in the meadow. He gazed upward through the misty tendrils, into a coal black winter’s night. High amid the heavens, he could see the constellation Orion. The hunter.

…Come daylight, he knew, they would all become hunters.

He could hear a distant murmur of sleepless men, of braying horses. Somewhere in the tall grass, a young soldier sobbed. Even though he’d slept, Barnaby instinctively sensed dawn’s approach—soon the drums and bugles would beckon the war, and with its arousal, an unmitigated savagery would descend upon the brigade. Before sunset, many of those stirring restlessly around him would lay dead.

Not long ago, he might have wept at the thought of the carnage that morning would bring. But staring into the heavens, he wished for only solace. He longed for an eternity absent of fear, of hatred, of misery. For the first time since the fighting had begun, Barnaby found himself anticipating the absolute surrender of death, and relished its embrace.

…….….……
In the above paragraphs we find a piecemeal semblance of scene-setting and character development, although not much plot. Yet by the end of the passage, we infer a battle’s brewing (basic plot development) and, if properly scene-set, we suspect our character to be a soldier of some bygone era. Campfires. Horses. Bugles. Even by the discreet choice of names—Barnaby—the writer implies a subliminal clue. No, we don’t know which war…but we assume we’ll be told fairly soon and, if the writing moves us, we’re willing to wait. Nor do we have a clear physical description of Barnaby (our protagonist we presume, although still uncertain)—and yet we’ve glimpsed the lost fear in his soul. Another important character trait.

By juxtaposing well-considered snippets of information, each sentence becomes an integral piece of an enormous puzzle, yet none of the overall picture which will be revealed in haste. The writer utilizes only those pieces that properly fit, and has already begun interlacing individual filaments (of plot, character and grounding) that will eventually weave into a narrative tale. We may not know key elements of the character until far into the novel. We’re learning about this man piece by piece. We may not learn about the writer’s true intent in telling his story—perhaps not the war itself, but rather a young man’s journey to find himself, through various aspects of fate. The writer’s only begun to build a mystery of voice, of plotting, and yet each sentence is precise and methodical, like so many footprints in the sand, one after another after another in meticulous formation toward an inevitable conclusion.

One last note: When is simple too simple? When simple becomes passive. So keep your simple sentences active. (See Active Voice.) For instance:

Passive: John was sleeping. (Simple? Yes. Exciting? No.)

Active: John’s snoring reverberated through the house with the fury of an approaching thunderstorm. (Better.)

Remember: Simple, but exciting.

.


Next post • Previous post • Index

.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Good Writing, Bad Advice

rules-header-full

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

Next post • See Index


Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m an acquisitions and content editor for Muse Harbor Publishing. My job is to: 1) read manuscripts, 2) reject most of them as incompatible with our needs, 3) accept a limited number of promising tales for potential publication, and; 4) edit the living daylights out of those same pieces—then expect the writer to do likewise—before MHP commits to a publishing contract.

I have few friends.

However, I do have a modicum of knowledge for those of you seeking advice. Whether you’re already a contracted MHP author, a promising talent or simply passing by, I can offer a bit of insight. Because I certainly know what excites me as a reader.

Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. More good timing than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well doesn’t hurt. And knowing a few rules won’t hurt either. Success may be elusive, but to an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is little more than a pipe dream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging, and the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” Although if you can overcome that particular obstacle, you’re already closer to success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what MHP seeks in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s a polished, professional voice. Yes, voice. We’re far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a fancy plot structure. Lock two characters in a dark closet, give them great dialogue and personalities worth exploring, and we’ll consider that manuscript more closely than a story about brain-sucking aliens coming to digest Earth. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, we’ll look at them, too.)

Let’s face it, only so many plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, a unique voice infusing excitement into a distinctive character is money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. Although I do have one significant bit of advice to share: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given, but I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a writers’ conference. (And a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… but, again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of Internet Publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.
.


.
Next post • See Index

.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Where to Start (Part 3)

rules-header-full

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

Next post • Previous post • Index


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:

.

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 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?

– – – – –

* 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.

.


Next post Previous post • Index

.

.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Where to Start (Part 2)

rules-header-full

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

Next post • Previous post • Index


Writing that first line.
(Also: When Outlining Might Help.)

One’s first line(s) need not be plot specific, nor allude to any sort of inciting incident, but the opening of any story should be, must be, profound. Poignant. Riveting. Either in-your-face riveting or very subtly so. Teasing. Provocative. Your opening’s sole intent is to immediately immerse readers in whatever impending story you’re about to present. Personally, I often fool around with my opening, tweaking, nudging or even re-writing that damn sentence over and over, even after I’ve finished several drafts. And yet, somehow, I eventually find the perfect (for me) expression.

How important is your first line? Important enough to be Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers. (The only line as important is your story’s last line. So the same rule apply.)

I’ve gathered 25 fictional first lines (and corresponding 2nd lines, if appropriate) from previously published authors. I believe these openers grab readers exceptionally well. Most of these books were or are hugely successful, but widely vary in substance, tonality and mood. These intros provide the necessary allure (whether wit, pathos, humor, suspense or a teasing overview) to read on. Some will hint of an impending inciting incident. Others are far more opaque or elusive. So, in chronological order:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. (1813)

“It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet.”The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper. (1826)

Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic, A Tale of Two Cities, is already (in)famous for its breathless prose, and while the book’s familiar first line would be torn apart by today’s editors (or at least separated into several distinct sentences), Dickens’ emotional perception of Victorian-era London helped launch the book into Wikipedia’s Top 5 Best-Selling Novels of All Time list.
. . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

H. G. Wells’ opener is rather amazing, given the book’s pub date. Unknown to readers, of course, but Orwell’s first line foreshadows his entire plot, and even hints at the book’s brilliant conclusion.
. . . .No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells. (1898)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1925)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarletin twins were.Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. (1936)

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. (1937)

In the corner of a first class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political new in The Times. And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. (1939)
. . . . An interesting aside, the British version of Christie’s book was first titled Ten Little N – – – – – – . (Yup, the infamous N-word; and the title of a familiar children’s nursery rhyme at the time. The rhyme’s plot factored prominently into Christie’s story.) In America, the title was changed to Ten Little Indians and ultimately became known as And Then There Were None. The book remains one of the best-sellers of all time.

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984. George Orwell. (1948).

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)

It was a pleasure to burn.Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. (1953)

The two transports had sneaked up from the south in the first graying flush of dawn, their cumbersome mass cutting smoothly through the water whose still greater mass bore them silently, themselves as gray as the dawn which camouflaged them.The Thin Red Line. James Jones. (1962)

The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. The Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin. (1968)

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut. (1969)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — The Last Good Kiss. James Crumley. (1978)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.Neuromancer. William Gibson. (1984) This is the novel, btw, that coined the term Cyberspace.

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.Glitz. Elmore Leonard. (1985)

Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.Postcards from the Edge. Carrie Fischer. (1987)

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. (1988)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. J.K. Rowling. (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. With the others, they take their time.Paradise. Toni Morrison. (1998)

The creature watched and waited.The Past is Never. Tiffany Quay Tyson (2006)

Micky and the naked blonde are giggling in the Jacuzzi. On The Edge. Me! Me! This one’s mine! (2012) …because I’m not above a little self-promotion (and I really like the line!).

I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years. The Good Lord Bird. James McBride. (2017)

We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? How Beautiful We Were. Imbolo Mbue. (2021)

So begin… but do so with forethought and with a profound sense of purpose, of teasing or mystifying or exciting the reader. And yet I’m aware that staring at a blank page, at glancing toward that distant finish line, some 300 or 400 pages in the future, can produce a wee bit of anxiety. Of uncertainty. The common, cliché-ish and yet ultimately sage advice is to begin at the beginning. Although I admit the adage isn’t entirely helpful. Where to begin is often a writer’s state of mind at any particular moment.

But take heart. The truth is that very few writers know exactly where the beginning begins. My best advice is, for the moment, don’t sweat it. Don’t sit for hours, or days, petrified into inertia by worrying about precision, fretting about perfection. Just begin writing where you think your story may begin. At the moment, you’re more or less groping around in the dark. And that’s normal.

…because at any point in time, you’re allowed to change your mind.

A dirty little secret is that many writers won’t know exactly where to begin until we’re midway or even fully through a draft or two. Only when we have a more complete understanding of our characters personalities and our story’s resolution can we fully determine the best starting point.

Me? Once I’m more fully aware of my characters’ intentions, I’ll revisit my first page with a keener eye and a more astute sense of purpose. I’ll sometimes add pages or delete pages until I come upon what feels right. Once I created an entire new first chapter that better represented the foreboding tenor of my story—so just know that options always exist. For the time being, don’t dwell. For the moment, you’re creating quantity (pages) over quality.

Where to Start: What Not to Worry About (Yet)

When you begin writing your book, your brain will most likely be aswirl with various sorts of panic or pandemonium. How do I…? What do I…? Where do I…? (For most novice writers, this uncertainty is normal.) The key is not to worry about what’s going to happen 10 or 50 or 100 pages from now. You probably have a vague notion of where you’re heading—and perhaps you’ve only solidified a scene or two in your head. But we need only about one page at a time. This word. This sentence. So keep your head in the moment. Focus on one coherent thought at a time. (See Rule #8: Focus on the Now.)

Me? I love staring at that initial blank page, not a single thought yet written down and a cautious optimism building inside my head. I’m often without a clue as to where my opening few pages will take me. Certainly I have a few characters in mind and a potential inciting incident firmly established as well. (Refer again to Where to Start, Part 1.) My first two novels were crime thrillers, so I knew that nefarious intentions were afoot, and that my opening would contain a sense of dread, of dramatic urgency, and that I’d likely produce a dead body or two before the chapter ended.

But after that… no idea. While I’m a firm believer of outlining, I don’t begin outlining until I realize that I’ve lost any sense of definitive direction, or else I have two or three possible paths to explore before I find the best route forward. Instead of wasting time drafting (and possibly then deleting) another 25-50 pages, which can be time consuming, I begin to outline my possibilities. Even though I’m blissfully flying blind for those 40 or 50 pages, fueled by adrenaline, I know when to hit the brakes and stake stock.

While I’m aware that some (most?) writers abhor outlining — admittedly, it’s not the most creative part of writing a novel — I’ve found that outlining can be a crucial, necessary element of story telling. Basically, you’re creating a cheat-sheet for yourself; a roughly scribbled road map containing just enough info to remind you of where you’re going and why. But while outlining, you’re also free to explore a plethora of new What if…? concepts.

When & Why Outlining Might Help.

So let’s say we’re writing a love story that takes place in early 20th century Boston, at a time when immigrants were flooding the Atlantic seaboard states and seeking safe communities in an overcrowded, crime-infested city. Politicians were little more than crime bosses. Young Bobby, who’s second generation Irish, falls in love with Marie, who’s second-generation Italian. Their families live on the edge of that teetering, cultural dividing line between the Irish and Italian communities.

Our beginning is pretty standard fare. Bobby (18) meets Marie (17) at the corner apothecary/soda shoppe down the street. He flirts, she giggles and despite Bobby’s best intention to dismiss her, he begins fall in love. Despite Marie’s father’s (Joseph) warning about those ‘no-good, thievin’ micks, she’s smitten with Bobby as well. They begin to sneak away to the apothecary, or else meet at a little nearby duck pond, and talk away the long, summer afternoons. At one point Marie’s older brother, Vincente, catches sight of them holding hands. Vincente beats up Bobby, but that only reinforces his intention to marry Marie. Bobby’s older brother, Patrick, then beats up Vincente—their mothers bicker at the corner grocery, screaming in both Italian and Gaelic, and their fathers repeatedly threaten each other with bodily harm. Bobby’s father, Michael, demands that his son stay away from this greannach girl, and yet Bobby and Maria aren’t dissuaded. They secretly plot to run away together…maybe to California, if they can save enough pennies, nickels and dimes.

Okay, so let’s say we’ve written about 100 pages of dramatic, intense realism, building the foundation of our story, with fleshed-out characters and brooding relationships. It’s time for Bobby and Marie to make their move. Come midnight, they’ll sneak away to board that long awaited train to California.

But perhaps that’s as far we’ve visualized the story line. We’ve reached as far as our romantic daydream has taken us. All along we’ve assumed that Bobby and Marie would elope and leave their families behind—but we suddenly realize that, once they’ve boarded the train, we’re leaving most of our carefully orchestrated, dramatic roadblocks behind as well. Freeing Bobby and Maria to be themselves, and happy, will suck much of the raw emotion out of the story. Do we provide new dangers on their way to California, or keep them in Boston until we can complete a few more story arcs?

Basically….so now what?

Ah, the perfect time to outline any number of possible solutions. So after a number of false starts — ideas that, when outlining, are far easier easy to delete or alter than dumping 25 or 50 carefully drafted pages — we find a couple of worthy concepts. So here goes (Option A):

Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Marie. Because Bobby’s big bro is wary of Bobby’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Marie’s house, they find her father, Joseph and her brother Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding baseball bats. ‘

Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Marie and vowed that he won’t be deterred.

In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy pulls a small revolver from his waste band and shoots Vinnie dead.

• Panicked, Bobby grabs Marie’s hand and pulls the sobbing girl away from the fray.

• Running from the madness, neither Bobby or Marie see Marie’s father kill Paddy with a blow to the head.

An Irish cop, by happenstance, sees Paddy go down, and shoots Marie’s father. No! Joseph will provide far more drama as a foil if he’s still alive!

• Meanwhile, Bobby and Marie find refuge in an unoccupied, dilapidated tenement home a block away. Bobby’s tries to comfort Marie — but the girl’s distraught about her brother’s death.

An indigent wino attacks Bobby, but Bobby knocks the old guy out with a punch. No! Keep the plot taut here. No need for non-specific violence. The scene is dramatic enough without the distraction.

• Marie tells Bobby she must return home in shame to comfort her parents and, sobbing hysterically, she tells Bobby she still loves him, but that her brother’s death means they can never find happiness together. She kisses him goodbye.

…and now we’ve given ourselves a new set of hurdles before the two lovers can board that train and flee to happily ever after. Note that when I outline, I will often make notes to myself, and/or cross out those ideas that don’t feel right and even include (in red) a brief rationale for my decision, should I wonder later why I found those scenes ineffective or unnecessary.

Or. . . .

But what if we’re not fully convinced about this new direction. Perhaps we’re still looking for other possibilities. The great thing about outlining: It’s quick and easy and, at this point, hardly definitive. Maybe we’re still thrilled about that train ride to California, and whatever obstacles that trek may provide. So what if…? (Option B):

• Bobby’s insisting upon eloping with Marie. Because Paddy is wary of his little brother’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Marie’s house, they find Marie’s father and her brother Vinnie waiting for them in the shadows, holding a baseball bat. ‘

• Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Marie and vowed that he won’t be deterred by Vinnie’s threats of violence.

• In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy knocks Vinnie unconscious with an uppercut to the chin. Bobby grabs Marie’s hand and the three of them hustle off to the train station.

• A moment later, Vinnie comes to. And aware of Bobby’s plan to flee to California, he follows them to the station.

• Paddy gives Bobby a wad of cash and they hug. Bobby and Marie board the train and wave goodbye.

• A moment later, Vinnie shows up. Seeing Paddy watching the train depart, he pulls a small pistol from his waist band and shoots Paddy dead. In the ensuing panic, Vincente makes his getaway.

Vinnie returns home, explains that he saw Bobby and Marie board the train to California, but was a moment too late to stop them. (Does Vinnie tell his father he killed Bobby’s brother? Does he keep that a secret? Not sure yet!! Pros and cons of revealing the murder now???)

Enraged, Joseph tells Vinnie that they’re going to California on the next train and bring Marie back home. (Will two train tickets cost Joseph his last cent? Will they have to revert to robbery to fund their journey westward?) Since Vinnie’s a murderer, do we want to make Joseph a full antagonist, or ultimately more sympathetic to Bobby’s plight? Meaning, might Joseph be redeemable? If so, probably not yet.

And thus, with relatively little effort, we now have two paths of forward momentum to choose from. Even with three or four variations outlined, eventually one will emerge as ouf best approach, and once we decide the most dramatic, exciting choice—we’re back on track and ready to draft another few scenes.

Oh, and one last option: If the spirit moves us, we can complete our outline — finish our story — before we begin drafting again. If we can discover a direct route from the train station to that final page, and outline the remainder of our book, we have a distinct advantage of having a complete roadmap between here and there. With a complete outline, we’re pretty much assured of how to proceed to the end of our tale. We’ll make far fewer wrong turns and blunders, and follow our map and that final destination: THE END.

Remember, an outline is simply a brief, short-hand list of what goes where. One need not add color or dialogue or innuendo. (We can if we like, but it’s not essential at this point.) We’re simply jotting down enough of our bared-bones, essential story-line to remind us of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. And, if we’ve begun our story somewhere in the middle, we can outline backwards to our first chapters and eventually connect the dots as well. And then, when satisfied, continue outlining chronologically to the book’s ending.

Do note that I don’t consider outlining a Rule-worthy necessity. While I consider it a crucial writer’s tool, I still believe it’s a writer’s choice whether to outline or not. For many writers, it’s an ‘only as needed’ obligation, and many writers don’t outline at all. S’up to you. (But keep it in mind, the next time you find yourself stuck in the middle.)

CONTINUE to Part 3: Discovering your story’s core elements.
.
.



.
Next post • Previous post • Index
.
.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather