June 8, 2009

How do you do it?

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 7:40 am

A writer named Amanda Hatfield posted the following question on a terrific site for mystery lovers:

“I need some tips on how to start writing my novel. I have a plot, characters but I dont know how to start it out. Can any one help me?”

So I wrote back the following:

The first thing I would do is sit down and see what comes out. Start with “Once upon a time” (you can always cut it later) if nothing else leaps to your fingertips. Writing is 90% about sitting in front of your medium (computer, tablet, stone side of a cave) and putting in your time there. At the end of the day (or three hour block, or one hour one) you should have something to work with, and editing is easier than creating (or hard in a different way).

Ask yourself some questions. What is this character you’ve come up with doing when the story opens? What “incident” starts his or her story off? At what moment does the character’s life begin to change?

I would also buy a book on writing the novel, a practical guide on the subject versus a great writer’s musing on his particular process (such as the terrific ON WRITING, which has been talked about here). Writer’s Digest has a great series on various elements of the novel (plot, character, dialogue, description) and James Frey writes volumes I & II on the novel overall. It’s not that this kind of concrete advice will teach you what to do (although it may), but I’ve found that it really triggers ideas and can be a great source of inspiration.

If you find that you yearn for more explicit teaching, you might look to take a writing workshop at your local community college.

Finally, I would not talk too much about what you’re doing, at least at first. I know this differs from writer to writer, but personally, I find that it can drain the energy off your gestating baby, that there’s a secret source of excitement when you anticipate unfurling this great thing you’re working on once it’s finally done. That alone can propel me toward the finish (although it helps to really, really, really need to find out what happens)!

I think this writer asked a great, elemental question here, and I admire her bravery, not just in posing it, but also in beginning this momentous process. What’s the quote? The journey of ten thousand miles starts with the first step? Amanda really nailed what that first step is.

I have a story. Now what do I do with it?

Some people think that finding the “idea” (the plot/characters) is the hard part. That’s why sooner or later, if you admit you’re a writer, you’ll probably get the ubiquitous, “I’ll give you my idea, you write the book, and we’ll split the proceeds.” (Assuming the thing, once written, gets published, AND that there are proceeds to split, you, the writer, have now done 99% of the work.)

Good luck, Amanda! You’ve begun a great journey.

Do other writers have different answers? A writer named Terry Odell talks about her method today. Maybe we could start discussing a stream of approaches right here, and between them all, this writer will find the way to HER way of writing a novel…


  1. Hi, Jenny. (BTW, I’m a “her” not a “him” — the picture of me on my website is really me. But it’s all about name recognition, right? Gender doesn’t matter.)

    I normally start with a character. The story board approach I’m testing with my current book is a new one for me, and I’m still not really plotting.

    I don’t think any writer doesn’t plot. (Double negatives there, yowser!). It’s a matter of how far into the future we plot. Some have the entire journey mapped out like a AAA Trip-Tik (oops — dating myself. How about a Mapquest printout, or a GPS readout?)

    Others might only need to see as far as their car headlights will illuminate. I normally have an idea of where the scene is going before I write it, and what plot points it needs to cover to move the story forward.

    For the beginner in question, I’d say, just write it. Put your character in a situation and see what happens. And I’ll even say, ‘write the back story’. Just remember you’re writing it for YOU, not for the reader. I compressed the first 8 chapters of one of my first books into 3. I wrote a prologue for the first book after I finished it, and the insight it gave me into the character led to some important parts of her emotional mindset that needed to show through in the book itself.

    Since most of my books have a mystery element, I normally spend most of my pre-writing time figuring out the crime and the villain’s motivation for committing it.

    I could go on way too long here — I’m still new enough so this is a process I’m discovering daily. But I think my comment is longer than your post!

    Comment by Terry Odell — June 8, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  2. Terry,

    There is no such thing as a too long comment–this is just the kind of thing I was hoping for! Thank you, and multiple apologies of getting your gender wrong! How inattentive of me…I’ve been to your blog dozens of times and never noticed the picture. (I am very word focused, clearly; all I do is read.)

    I love that car/headlight metaphor, and I agree that with mysteries understanding motivation is especially key. How many times have we come up with the most fabulous, shocking, chilling premise only to have a trusty reader say, Who would do this?

    Who indeed?

    Thanks, Terry, and very nice to cyber meet you!

    Comment by jenny — June 8, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  3. I start with plot–I *have* to. Otherwise I will wind up with great characters that stand around not doing anything. LOL. I write in historical fiction, however, so if I find a character in history I am interested in, a certain amount of plot is pre-written. Research can take up a lot of plotting time. However…ahem…history’s not always as interesting as a fiction plot. So there have to be themes, subplots, mysteries, all that. Character is important too, of course, but I need to know, literally chapter by chapter, what the characters are going to be doing. I’ve found that to be more effective than wandering around and re-plotting and re-editing till the cows come home.

    Comment by Savvy — June 8, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  4. Wow, great answers. I like to start with a where. Where does the story start? Describe the time, place. Why is the character there? What is he/she feeling? How does the place/time/mood affect the character’s actions?

    Then things can take off. As Jenny says, you can always trim and refine later, but get these thoughts into your story.

    Good luck!

    Comment by Tom — June 8, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  5. Do you know–chapter by chapter–in advance of writing, Savvy? I’m really interested in how a writer achieves that level of understanding…before the book is finished.

    Comment by jenny — June 8, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  6. Oh, gosh yes. I come up with the overall plot, then decide what I want to happen chapter by chapter, literally. Then I write it out that way. Of course, as I go, certain things grow, evolve, change…but this way I have a good road map and always know what I’m doing. Maybe it’s because I love the shorter form; each chapter then becomes a short story.

    Comment by Savvy — June 8, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

  7. I have on other writer friend who does that (and I can’t fathom how she does it either :)

    Tom, I like the idea of “where” starting you off. That’s a new one to me…

    Comment by jenny — June 8, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

  8. I write historical mysteries so I always begin with the dead body. In other words, I start with the problem and use the rest of the book to solve it. Since I have series characters — two nosy Puritans as detectives — I know my hero/heroine in advance, which helps. I think it’s a good way to start a book — get your problem out there from the first page. Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

    Comment by M. E. Kemp — June 9, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  9. I love it! In what other profession could you say, I start with the dead body? Maybe Medical Examiner. But as author Marilyn gets to feel GOOD about her dead bodies…

    Comment by jenny — June 9, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  10. Very cool, Marilyn! Love that idea.

    Comment by Savvy — June 9, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  11. You’re at the start of an exciting experience, Amanda! If you need a book to help you along, there are some good ones around: a very useful recent one is “How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries” by Kathy Lynn Emerson (2008, Perseverance Press.) She has some good tips on starting a novel, and the sub-heading of that particular section is a good tip in itself – “Start with the day that is different.” Good luck, and enjoy!

    Comment by Jane Finnis — June 10, 2009 @ 7:36 am

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Jane. I always love to learn of a new writing book–devour them like cookies when I’m writing a first draft!

    By the way, up on the regular blog is an ongoing post about how I found my way to my first novel. I’d love readers to weigh in with their own particular journeys there…

    Comment by jenny — June 10, 2009 @ 7:56 am

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