Questionable: Starting A Story

Jinx asked:

“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?”

cute-grasshopper-clipart-1 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.

31 thoughts on “Questionable: Starting A Story

  1. Just last week I cleaned out an old chest and found some ancient jigsaw puzzles that my mother had collected. There was a 2000 parts puzzle of the world map, and she had written on the box: “There is a piece of sea missing next to the coastline of Chile”.

    I don’t know why, but I just loved that sentence. It’s funny and then again, it’s not. I would like to write a story about it. I’ll have to wait until I get the inspiration of what it’s going to be about, but that’s usually how it works for me: there’s an idea, then there are people, hopefully then there’s a plot and I can get started. Let’s wait and see. I might keep you posted.

      1. It IS lovely! One of the artists I work with once said (rather plaintively), “My dog is deaf and my wife is in Brazil,” and I thought–I’m going to use that some day!

  2. I use “what if” as a jumping off place.

    What if a reserved librarian had to become an exotic dancer? Under what circumstances would that happen? And we’re off…

    What if a girl from Kansas was suddenly transported to a magical world called Oz?

  3. I’m always stimulated by an idea. The idea usually comes from something in the news, or something I read, or saw, an item that intrigued me, or a setting that inspired me. Then I begin to fantasize about characters and voices. The story in my head takes many twists and turns until something begins to gel. When I feel I have enough knowledge about my characters I begin writing. The early chapters may end up in the middle of the finished book and a whole new beginning will be written. I’m more of a pantser than plotter, but sometimes around the middle of the book I sit down and plot or plan out my story to make sure I’m on the right track. But no spreadsheets! I really don’t look at major turning points etc., until the rough draft is done.

    1. I am with you on a lot of things, Jenny. Too much organization kills my creativity. I usually start with a character. A woman who experiences moments of ecstasy where she dances and flower blossoms are magically drawn to her. So what happens if she experiences anger? Fear? Etc. She has a mysterious past. What is it? Like that.
      Reading this was wonderful. I think I am stalled because at this point I tried to impose structure and it’s not working. I need to write a bunch of scenes out of sequence. I have scenes in my head but I keep waiting to write them until I have the story entirely lined up.

  4. I absolutely love the idea of starting with a fragment and exploring where it takes you until a story starts to cohere. I suspect one reason why it’s taken me a lifetime to begin writing fiction (any minute now, I hope) is that I’m split between the person I thought I was supposed to be: responsible, organized, should have become a professional – a teacher or solicitor – and who I really am: lost in my imagination, oblivious to office politics until I was squashed by them, a creative hamstrung by over-developed critical skills.

    So I kept trying to follow my dream of writing fiction, and giving up because I expected to be struck with a full-blown story and cast of characters, and assumed I couldn’t really be a writer if this didn’t happen. It’s been incredibly helpful hanging out here for the past few years, and starting to see my way. And I’ve had a lot of fun with the discovery process. Just need to plunge in now.

  5. Given the caveat that I don’t write, but I …build? with fabric, and some paint, but I think build is the right word. I start with words and the ideas and hazy concepts those words evoke. And then I pull colors and textures from the stash, and cut or rip them up and start putting them next to each other. All while holding those evocative words and images in mind. It is easier when working in a series because I can see where I’ve been, and each piece that is concluded has two or three choices I could have made quite differently, in terms of size or shape or overall color, so I go back and follow that muse from the branching point down another path.

    The hardest part is the gigantic mental flail that goes on between series. I read obsessively, I work on other non-art projects, including housekeeping (which I generally despise) and a lot of walking and talking and visiting with friends. It always feels like I am holding my breath, waiting to see if I will ever make anything good again (I have SO MUCH sympathy for the writers with back catalog who face every deadline thinking they can’t write, and all the previous writing they’ve done is a fluke, and this time the muse won’t come…) and it always, eventually, ends. I will cop to standing in my studio just… putting random things together and seeing if anything comes of it, but usually I have to hear something, and get some kind of internal vision of it, and then I can start again.

  6. Bob and I would get along. I’m a spreadsheet kind of gal, too. Ideas are everywhere, so that’s not the problem for me. But I have a deep, abiding fear of writing tens of thousands of words and then say “Now what?” Just the thought freezes me in my tracks. So a spreadsheet with a list of scenes in the proper order gives me the illusion that I know where I’m going and what I’m doing. Often, however, I find that somewhere between the first third and half-way point, I’ve usually veered away from the strict outline I had, and have to start revising that outline. But again, it gives me the illusion of control I need in order to keep going.

    1. I haven’t spreadsheeted a plot, but I do feel like one needs a plan because if you hit the “Now what?” and have no answer, then your NaNo novel DIES. You can revise it if you like, but it sure beats the ol’ “I’ll let Future Ted and Future Marshall figure this out!” method. (“Thanks, Past Ted!”)

      I always thought the problem with certain shows was that they’d throw out something random, like a polar bear on an island or the Opera House, and then they’d be all, “We’ll let future writers figure this out!” Four years later….ruh-roh….

      (I’ll be fair to Lost on this one score: they did figure out a use for the bear. The Opera House….well, BSG tried.)

      1. If it’s a nano novel, then always bring in the ninjas when the plot dies. Ninjas, unicorns, flying tacos, talking cockroaches… anything to keep moving.

        If you’re a plotter, plot. But if you’re not a plotter, laying down spreadsheets kills something in the story and then you’re done with it.

        The thing to remember is to keep writing through. You can always cut the ninjas, the flying tacos Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address – but sometimes the stuff you throw in there to keep the action moving will trigger something that is actually usable.

        And if you’re a plotter and the same thing happens, remember the New Yorker cartoon about the two scientists facing an huge equation where the central step says “then a miracle occurs.” And the other scientist says, I think you should be a little more explicit here.” Explication will come to you. Write in miracle occurs on your plot line and keep plotting.

        1. Brian Henson says his father Jim Henson had three fallback sketch endings: eat it, blow it up, and add penguins.

          This explains so much of the Muppet Show in retrospect!

          1. Actually, those are all good possibilities, one of which I already had pencilled in for the ending of Nita.
            And now I’m thinking demon penguins . . .

  7. “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.”

    Thank you. This was a hundred light bulb moment for me, because I have been wishing I wrote differently. I will post this above my computer and remind myself every day to be grateful for what I have.

    As to how I write, I’m still trying to find my way. So far, I have discovered that I need to know where the story is going, what the problem is and how it will be solved, before I can begin writing. I usually start with a scene of a character with a problem, and keep asking why, and what if, until the story takes shape. It usually takes months, or even years. Then I write.

    On the other hand, last weekend, a four word phrase appeared in my mind – don’t ask me where it came from – and over the course of two hours I had a scene written, the main characters, and a loose outline. That was fun, if surprising.

  8. I love that you wrote this description. “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.”
    This is me and people have spent most of my life trying to change me. I tried too, but it never worked.
    And I tried to be a plotter, but that didn’t work either. I usually get a character and then the story builds around him or her. I don’t plot anything and write the first draft as it comes out of my head. Then I fix it and fix it and fix it.

  9. I have ideas all the time. Ideas are easy. What I need to actually write is the mode — a combination of the story and the way it needs to be told.

    I don’t plan. But I start at the beginning and write the thing in order, with some stopping to figure things out along the way. Sometimes I revise, often I don’t.

    And I write in bursts, however much I’d prefer it if I didn’t.

    Thirteen novels now, and every one has been different, some of the process different, but those are the things that are consistent across all of them.

  10. The current WIP has been a real revelation to me – I’m “taking dictation” (which Jinx might refer to as her subconscious writing) as scenes come to me. They’re not coming in order, so Scrivener is a real blessing, as I slot them where I think they’re going (this is a road story, so its structure will eventually be linear, as my characters go from Point A to Point B). At this point it’s messy and glorious, and the rewrite will be fun, but I’m trusting the process and just writing, which is a good thing.

  11. Most of my life is spent as a Bob: I plan and use lists and spreadsheets and calendars. I’m in demand at work for that very reason. However, when it comes to writing, I seem to use a hybrid process. Or so it seems thus far, but it’s still early days and it could certainly change.
    Book one started with a dream, full-blown, that nagged at me for six months before I decided it needed to be written down. The story now bears little resemblance to the original, but it worked great as a jumping off point. And it started showing up for me as conversations between characters in random order. In this way, my process is very unstructured and impulsive, but exciting too. I write what interests me regardless of whether it happens in story order. I have a loose outline, but I’m not afraid to change it. That draft is now at 60,000 words, and it needs more structure applied to it at this point because it started falling apart. I’m letting it sit and stew for now, but I’m confident that something good will come from it.
    Book two started as an idea from book one, and I outlined it to within an inch of its life in the hope that I could prevent it from stalling out like the first book did. Unfortunately, in trying to write the bloody thing in chronological order, I managed to suck the life out of it. I got to 30,000 words and couldn’t slog through it anymore. It bored me to tears, and I just couldn’t get the words to come out. I’m starting over, and letting my impulses work a bit more this time. I already like the characters more, feel more connected when I’m writing.
    I’ve learned a lot about myself and my peculiar process with both of these. Most importantly, I need to stop getting in my own way and let it play out the way it wants to be. I can always revise later if it doesn’t work, but you can’t revise when it isn’t even written.

    1. Isn’t it amazing how the writing process tells you what it wants to be instead of the other way round? Again and again I find there’s so much dynamic power in it – I always end up with something that is way different from what I had planned.

  12. I was recently going through my notes of the speech that Laura Esquivel made at Leicester University in England, and she addressed this. She said, “I start with the fear of my protagonist. I start with an emotion. From that I can start to know everything. Emotions that we haven’t dealt with in past generations, history repeats itself because we are trying to heal or work out a past emotion that hasn’t been dealt with.”

  13. I start with an idea and the protagonist. Sometimes I have the first paragraph or even the first chapter come to me whole. Then I spend some time figuring out the characters and the plot in a basic way (starts with X, ends with X, pretty sure X, Y, and Z happen along the way). I do some research. When I’ve got the basics down, then I outline, usually pretty extensively.

  14. I start each book with faith. Faith the characters will lead, faith the story will come, and faith I’ll see the ending.

    I’m a visual writer, so as I work through the story I capture what I see unfolding. And I have a thing for the words and the language and take great joy from finding their rhythm.

    I never feel fast enough or organized enough and frequently wish I could be a Bob type. Or one of those indie writers who pumps out six books a year. But I’m neither and am slowly, reluctantly, trying to embrace the writer I am.

    I once heard Marlo Thomas say that early on in her career her father had given her advice to not compare herself to others. To put blinders on like a horse in a race and run her own race. I think that’s wonderful advice but not always so easy to do. So for me, that’s where the faith comes in.

  15. I realize that you and Bob had totally different ways of writing but I must tell you that the 3 books you wrote together were wonderful. I give everyone -my friends, family members, anyone who asks ” What is a good book to travel with, take to the beach, take when I visit the in-laws…”? I give them a copy of “Agnes and The Hitman” I have a stack of them on a book shelf for just that reason. You guys were a good team!

    1. Thank you! That was the one we were both there for 100% and had finally found our balance. That’s one of my top-five-books-with-my-name-on-it.

  16. Honestly, I feel a bit of a fraud as a writer. I don’t believe in woo-woo, but my writing process is pure woo-woo. I’m taking dictation, and writing in order to find out what happens next. This character shows up, and because I’ve been told I need two characters, another character usually shows up at one point or another. So, I’ve got two characters. And then, because I’ve been told I need an inciting incident (which is actually some of the best advice I’ve ever taken), I wait for an inciting incident. Sometimes I can suggest one, and my characters say, “Yippee! Let’s go for it!”

    I write short, and I write fast (as fast as possible, so I don’t forget where the story is going, and the little details that get me there), and my best work is around the 4000- to 8000-word range. I’ve never written anything longer than about 40,000 words, once you take the cursing out. (When I get stuck in a NaNo, I curse at the characters, or beg, or plead. That gets written into the manuscript. Sometimes it works, and it’s always a way to inflate daily word count. Cursing and an epilogue got me my NaNo “wins”. But just getting a story down on paper is a win.)

    I wish I could write to an outline. I can write pretty good non-fiction to an outline. But somehow, when I try with fiction, my prose is always a little dead. And I get so damn bored with the whole thing.

    This makes revision a nightmare. Somebody says something’s wrong with my first scene, and I can’t just tweak a few sentences. The whole thing gets re-written — often the wrong stuff is fixed, but I introduce new errors (some times bigger ones!) in the process. So frustrating.

    One thing I can always count on, though: if I don’t try to impose too many ideas on the story, the ideas come. I’ve got ideas like a barn cat has fleas. I never worry about running out of steam because I don’t have ideas. I only worry about running out of steam because I’m out of steam . . . .

    What the hell makes up steam? Where can I get some more? Such a mystery.

    1. Must watch.
      Still recovering from the DNC. We have a woman running for President. I can’t stop crying. Never thought this day would come.
      Thank god the conventions are over. Maybe I can get some work done. And was that video.

      1. We’ve had a female prime minister. Two. One of them is now in the running for UN top job. If the worst happens, you could always move to New Zealand. Women have been voting here since 1893 (something we’re still proud of, although it took 40 years to get one in Parliament). That doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of problems, but every time that broken-ness of society and the world threatens to overwhelm, I remember that civilisations have always been broken, we just break in different ways, and everywhere around we can see things that once were broken and are now fixed, or at least on the mend.

        1. I love New Zealand. It’s so beautiful, and the people I met there were just lovely.
          And that was while I was sick as a dog, too.
          But I’m sticking with America, at least as long as its still America. I have Brexit-like fears about this election.


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