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Becoming a Writer: How Do I Get Started?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Becoming a WriterLast week, I posted a “Dear Prudence” letter that got my head spinning with story ideas. This weekend, after a conversation with my grad-school “sorority” sisters (not a real sorority, but it’s the closest most of us have ever come to one), I wrote up a story treatment based on an idea for a character inspired by a certain news broadcaster I think is good looking.

But there’s a huge difference between “getting an idea” for a story and actually beginning to write that story. So there are two issues we need to examine: how to choose the story idea and how to get started writing it.

How do I choose which story to write?

“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve.”
~Madeleine L’Engle

As of the writing of this post, I have completed six manuscripts. Before I started seriously studying the craft of writing and preparing myself to pursue publication, I would write and toy around with whatever I felt like working on at the time. For ten years, as I’ve mentioned on this blog many times, I wrote and rewrote a manuscript that grew to almost 200,000 words (though with as much rewriting as I did on it, I probably wrote something more like 500,000 words when all was said and done). It isn’t a complete story—it’s a collection of scenes and vignettes—really just things that I wrote to spend time with the characters I’d come to love so dearly. But before, and even during, the time I worked on that manuscript, I had so many story ideas that I would start writing—and usually got a page or ten into before setting it aside from disinterest. (See this post from the First Lines series for an example of some of those started and abandoned ideas from over the years.)

So how did I choose which stories would be the ones I would spend six, eight, nine, twelve, thirty-six months writing? How did I choose which of the many ideas that bombard me day-in and day-out?

For me, the stories I’ve written—either the unfinished ten-year project, or the completed manuscripts—came from ideas that just wouldn’t leave me alone. And for me, it stems from the characters. Characters are where my stories begin. Many of those partials that I have on my computer—those abandoned ideas—were started because I had an idea for a character in some kind of situation that might be interesting, but it never grew from there. Either the character or the situation ended up not being interesting enough for me to want to come back to it time and again to see what was going to happen next.

There’s a difference, though, between discovering your story/character isn’t interesting enough to sustain a novel and getting to a point where you feel like the words just won’t come anymore. In the second case, you’re most likely just blocked—and you’ll probably discover that if you continue to focus on the story in other ways (such as casting your characters or putting together graphic storyboards), you’ll find yourself overcoming your creative block and getting back into the story again.

There are several things to consider when choosing which story idea to pursue:

  • Are the characters interesting enough to you, with sufficient mysteries and depth to them, that you’ll want to spend month upon month thinking about and talking to them? Are they real enough? Is there something they’ll need to learn/do that will give your main character(s) a growth-arc over the length of a novel?
  • Even if your idea is character-driven, is there sufficient potential for a plot that will drive the story on to a climax and conclusion? If someone asked you what your story is about, would you be able to tell them?
  • Is this a story idea that’s been formulating in your mind for a while and just won’t let you go, or is it something you came up with on a whim?
  • Is there more than just an interesting character or a flashy plot to your idea? Will it have emotional depth? Spiritual depth (even if it’s not inspirational fiction, the story should have some kind of connection with something greater than the characters)?
  • Do you have a theme? Conflicts beyond the main plot?
  • Now, not everyone goes through these questions when beginning to write a story. But when you get to a point where you’re ready to give up on an idea after three, ten, or twenty chapters, these questions may come in handy when trying to determine if it wasn’t a good choice or if you just have writer’s block.

    How do I get started writing a book?

    “The empty page is a Sphinx, blankly ferocious.”
    ~Richard Rhodes

    Putting the first words of a story down on page is like someone who’s never sewn anything cutting into an expensive piece of silk to make a dress. If that seamstress doesn’t know how to sew, doesn’t know what a dress pattern looks like nor how to read the instructions on it, she’s going to end up ruining the silk and being discouraged from ever trying again. So what is the amateur to do?

    In sewing, we start with simple patterns and cheap fabrics—but we still choose to make something that we’ll like in finished form. Just like the first-time seamstress wouldn’t expect to turn out a perfect red-carpet evening gown on her first attempt, you can’t sit down to start writing expecting to turn out a perfect story/manuscript.

    Where do you start? It depends on what kind of a writer you are. I have to start at the beginning and write through in linear order to the end—even though I stink at writing openings. I have to see the story evolve on page just as if I were reading a book from cover to cover. Upon a rare occasion, when a scene comes to me fully formed, I might write ahead, just to make sure I don’t lose the idea—and many times, this might help me gain momentum in the linear writing, to write toward that scene. However, sometimes, I end up not using that scene—but it did teach me something about the characters I might not have otherwise known.

    Before I started full-steam writing A Case for Love a month ago, I had several bits and pieces of scenes, dialogue, and narrative as a way to start priming the pump and getting into the characters’ heads to figure out exactly where I wanted to start the first draft. When I finish the first draft, I may decide that it wasn’t the right place to start. But until the draft is completed, I won’t know that. And every story has to start somewhere.

    The most important thing to keep in mind when you sit down to that Sphinx-like blank page is that you’re not sitting down to write “a book.” You’re writing a Chapter or a Page or a Paragraph or a Sentence. If you sit down at the beginning of a project with the weight of a 100,000-word manuscript hanging on your shoulders, you may find yourself crushed by it. If you write a page a day, you’ll have completed a novel in a year.

    So, now, since most of my readers are also writers with more than one manuscript finished, I’ll turn these two questions on you: how do you choose which stories to write, and how do you get started writing?

    1. Tuesday, February 3, 2009 10:27 am

      For me, it’s more of a case of the stories choosing me. Although this latest one is proving to be very frustrating, like an adolescent struggling to figure himself/herself out as the mother tries to cope through it all.

      My first three stories were far easier to grow and finish than this one, but still, this one calls me to nurture it, so I guess I have more to learn from it.

      As far as starting my stories. They steep in my head for a while as I tweak an old story. When the time seems right, I jot notes down, scenes that pop into my head, character traits that seem definitive, the message the story is telling me, etc. And then I get started on the actual manuscript writing. Up until this story, that part went fairly quickly (as ill written as they were in the first draft), but this time around the writing seems more like teasing. Not liking this, but yet I can’t totally let it go yet. I either have something more to learn from it before I give it up, or it’s a lesson in perseverence for me.


    2. Thursday, February 5, 2009 4:01 pm

      The ones I’m focusing on right now are the ones that won’t leave me alone no matter what I do. Others have been temporarily shelved because the market won’t take them or I don’t know enough particulars yet to develop it properly. If it’s practically impossible to sell a Revolution story set in the US, it would be even more impossible to sell one that also involves Russia during that decade!

      An idea has to germinate. I play with it, imagine different scenarios, add or delete secondary characters in my head to see what happens. Skip around in the story line, jot down notes. But above all else each character must have the correct name. If they don’t have the right name then nothing happens.


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