“Recently I read a description of how one of my favorite writers began a book, and she described it as getting a scene in your head very strongly — any scene, from any point in an overall story, and then just sinking into that scene and imagining each character in it, what they were like, what they wanted, what had led them there to the scene, what had made them the way they were, and so on, until the rest of the story just sort of unfolded.”
“In a way it sounds like just letting your subconscious write your books, which sounded quite scary, and maybe wouldn’t get you to a thing in the end that was a book. Does that make any sense to you as a method of starting/first drafting?”
There are many roads to Oz. Which is the short way of saying, “There are many ways writers conceive of stories and many ways they build them and no way is right or wrong; you have to find your own path.” Grasshopper.
It comes down to the way you order reality, the way you approach life, because when we construct stories, we’re doing consciously what we do subconsciously all day. That is, we’re bombarded with images, sounds, people, problems, and we automatically select what’s important to us and shut other things out. With those selections, we construct a logical reality out of the illogical chaos that is the world around us. But the way we make our choices is reflective of our personalities and world views. So when we sit down to make up worlds, we use the tools we’ve been using all our lives to construct the realities we live in.
I used to write with this guy named Bob. He grew up in the Bronx and was a retired Green Beret, and if I had to choose two words to describe Bob they would be “orderly” and “aware.” Bob always knew where everybody in the room was. He always knew where he was going next and how to get there, and had a schedule to make sure he got there on time. And he automatically had a plan for contingencies; he planned ahead without thinking “I should plan ahead.” It was just the way he saw the world, and he watched the world all the time.
I grew up in a very small town in Ohio and I am a retired English teacher. If I had to choose two words to describe me, they would be “impulse” and “instinct.” I routinely forget things I need, like my glasses, my phone, my inhaler. If I absolutely have to be some place at a certain time, I obsess over it and it makes me very unhappy because I have to pay attention all the time. My idea of perfection is nothing on my schedule and my way of handling surprises is to wing it, and I miss most of what’s happening around me because I’m always daydreaming.
So of course we decided to collaborate. And the first collision of our partnership, one of many, was when we discovered that we were completely different in our approach to starting a story.
Bob thought everything through until he had the Big Picture of the book, broke his plot out on a spreadsheet to keep track of the details, started writing at the beginning and kept going until he got to the end. Very efficient.
I started writing in the middle of the book as soon as I heard my characters’ voices. I made collages out of the details I didn’t have to keep track of them because I am fabulous with detail, but I had to put them together so I could see them merged into one Big Picture, which I am lousy at. I wrote the scenes as they came to me, completely out of order and when I had many thousand words, I put them in chronological order to see what kind of story I was writing. Then I rewrote. And rewrote. And rewrote, trying to find the story by instinct.
Bob could finish two, maybe three books in the time it took me to write one because he was focused and organized. But I couldn’t write the way he did, organization makes me unhappy, so instead of him making me more organized, I slowed him down. Bob also has the patience of a saint, so that worked out all right, but it did cement for me the one solid truth I know about writing: You have to do it your way. So possibly the most important thing you discover as you start out as a writer is finding out what your way is.
And then, for God’s sake, embrace it. Don’t second guess it. Don’t wish you could write faster or write any way other than the way you write. The way you write is your gift, don’t try to exchange it for somebody else’s.
So that writer who followed her characters into the story, the one you said sounded like letting your subconscious write the story? That’s her gift. If the idea of that makes you uncomfortable, your gift is different but just as good. Maybe you’re a Bob and need to think your stories through first. Maybe you like outlining or mapping. Maybe you need to start at the beginning. All that matters is that you write it your way. (Get out of here, Frank, we do not need a theme song.)
As for your last question–“Does that make any sense to you as a method of starting/first drafting?”–yes, that’s exactly the way I start my first drafts. But the way I do it is irrelevant. How do you do it?
No, seriously, Argh People who are writers, how do you start your books? Keeping in mind that there are no wrong answers, I’m assuming there’ll be a variety of approaches in here, but even if there isn’t, even if everybody else agrees, you still have to do it your way.