Getting Started

Charlie BrownI’m teetering on the periphery … wanting to write that first word, that first sentence, that first page and chapter of a new novel, but I just don’t know where to dive in. I know who the protagonist is, his back story (he was a minor character in a previous novel), and what his problem is. I know what his journey has to be in order for him to overcome his problem. I just don’t know how to set that ball rolling.

I heard bestselling author Wally Lamb interviewed recently. The interviewer asked him something about his writing process  – I forget exactly what it was – but there was a pause before Lamb replied, “Your question assumes there  is a master plan.” He laughed and then said that he doesn’t always know where his writing is going to take him, his stories unfold as he goes along. He acknowledged how different his process is from novelist John Irving who knows exactly what his last line is before he starts writing a novel. Both of these novelists write outstanding books, so clearly there is no one right way to proceed.

My friend, Y/A novelist Diane Tullson writes detailed outlines before she begins a project. She maps out the arc of the story, she can see where the pivotal moments need to be placed for the purpose of pacing and where the protagonist’s ‘cave scene’ needs to take place. Once she starts the story unfolds quickly as she knows exactly where she is going.

I wish I could be so organized in my approach, but I tend to be more like Lamb, discovering the story as I write. I know where I need to end up eventually, but sometimes the route is less straight-forward than I had imagined.

When I teach writing classes I tell my students to start with the crisis, grab the readers attention, then fill in the back story later. This is what I will do, but the back story is so vital to the current story that I will need to use flashbacks, which have to be inserted skilfully to avoid breaking the flow …

Hmm… maybe a little more research is required after all… on using flashbacks effectively…

Doing the research is so much easier than the doing the actual writing.

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7 thoughts on “Getting Started

  1. I particularly enjoyed this post, Shelley–it’s fascinating to get a peek behind the scenes of your writing process, and so interesting to consider all the different methodologies that are possible: tight outlining and planning, a spontaneous unfolding as one goes along, or somewhere in between. I, myself, love outlines, but also enjoy the surprises that come along as a story takes on a life of it’s own. And yes, taking that first step can be difficult, but as the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Perhaps a glass of wine might help to set you on your path? Or the knowledge that returning to an empty screen ripe with possibilities is just a keystroke away. Recently, I’ve found myself in a similar situation. How about this? If you take the plunge, I will!

    • That’s great Louisa! I look forward to hearing about your new story. Do you know where the opening scene takes place? (That’s where I am hung up.) Maybe I’ll start with the ending, like John Irving.
      Okay, let’s get started. Ready, set, go!

      • My opening starts in an art museum with the two main characters meeting for the first time. It’s funny that with my last novel, I couldn’t pin down where to start, but knew where I was going. This time it’s the reverse, but you’ve given me a good idea: I need to come up with an end point and then spend some time working backwards from there. Thanks for the insight! And yes, GO!

      • Your idea reminds me of an older Y/A novel, Louisa, Annie on My Mind. I believe those two characters also met in an art museum.
        So, have your figured out your ending? I have written the first 1500 words and it is such a relief to get started. I figured out where to start – right where it had to start – which is exactly where his story ended in the last book.

  2. I particularly enjoyed this post, Shelley—it’s fascinating to get a peek behind the scenes of your writing process, and interesting to consider all the different methods that are possible: tight outlining and planning, a complete unfolding as one goes along, or somewhere in between. I, myself, love outlines, but also enjoy the surprises that come along as a story takes on a life of its own. And yes, taking that first step can be difficult, but as the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Perhaps a glass of wine might help? Or the knowledge that returning to an empty screen ripe with possibilities is just a keystroke away. I’ve recently found myself in a similar predicament. How about this? If you take the plunge, I will!

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