Thursday, October 05, 2006

Starting a Book

Let's say you have an idea, but can’t figure out how to get started writing. What do you do to jumpstart yourself?

Usually, for me, the first step is researching. If there's any area I'm going to have to know more about, I like to research as much as I can before I get started. I know I'll be doing additional work during the writing of the book, but the more I can get done up front, the less interruption of my flow of thoughts I'll have later.

Don't feel like you're a train stuck on the tracks. While you research, keep a notebook where you can jot down ideas or comments on characters, scenes, plot twists, the book climax, so on. All the time you're working on one aspect of your book, you're thinking about other points. Sometimes I see characters doing things. (Usually this happens just before I fall asleep, which is why I keep a lighted pad and pen by my bed. In an earlier post I referred to it as focused dreaming.) Sometimes I hear a particular character's voice. (No, I'm not insane. At least not more than other writers.) Write down the phrases they use or their pattern of speech. If the setting is important to your book, you might begin to see the layout of the town or house or whatever. Go ahead and draw it out or make notes.

By the time you're through with your research and brainstorming, you'll probably have a pretty good idea of where the book is going. At this point, we could probably divide writers into two categories. Those who write extemporaneously and those who do an outline.

I'm in the latter group. I might write a few chapters, because I'm excited about the characters or plot and want to get started, or because I have the opening firmly established in my head. But I like to do an outline.

By outline, I mean a listing of the scenes or major events of the book, nothing formal with Roman numerals. This happens, this happens, then that occurs, and so on. One way to do this so it doesn't seem overwhelming is to start with the 10 to 12 major points of the plot. I'm talking about the big things that turn the story. That's not too hard, right? Just the dozen big scenes essential to the plot.

Then divide those plot points into smaller, necessary scenes. What has to happen before this first big scene? What five or six events occur before this next plot turn? What do I have to set up here in order for there to be a payoff later? By doing this you'll end up with 50 or 80 scenes or events. Your plot will be "fleshed" out. At this point in your preparation, you'll most likely begin to see what the theme of your story is. What the major goal of your protagonist is. You're beginning to really know your story.

Now, set it aside.

Remember, you're not a train. You can leave the tracks. Write your story. Let your characters talk, move, live. Watch your setting expand and flourish. Your outline is a guide. If you feel you've strayed too far from where you thought the story was going, refer back to it. If you realize you haven't a clue what should happen next, dig out the old outline and remind yourself of your original intention.

Or you can keep the outline in clear sight, tacked to the wall beside your computer. Refer to it daily, if you want. Just don't let it stifle your creativity. Sometimes you have to surprise yourself in order to surprise your readers. And sometimes your characters will surprise you.

So ... how do you start a book? Come up with a whiz-bang idea. Do research either on information you don't know, or on your characters or setting or dialect, or whatever you need to know for this book. Do an outline. Write.

Ah, if only it were so easy, huh?

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