Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stuck at the Starting Line

I recently received this message from a writer friend:

Dear Lynn,

I’ve had an idea for a novel for quite awhile, and I’m anxious to get started. Anxious being the key word. I typed: Chapter One, wrote two paragraphs and that’s it. For two weeks now. And I’m not too thrilled with those two paragraphs. I have a pretty good idea of the plot, so why won’t the words come?


Stuck at the Starting Line

P.S. I hope to enter my novel in a contest in fall 2014.

Dear Stuck,

To use an agricultural analogy, you are expecting a harvest, but you haven’t cultivated the fields. Take a deep breath, and put the calendar away. This is going to take—well, as long as it takes.

Now, I don’t know a thing about your particular writing process, so I’m going to throw out a bunch of writing exercises, each designed to work the soil of your story. Do one, a few or all:

• CHARACTER: Come up an item that one of your characters has tucked away and takes with him whenever he moves – something from childhood, maybe, or from his first marriage. From this character’s point of view, describe the item and tell its history. Explain why you keep it, and how it would feel if you lost it.

• SETTING: Don’t sit and stare at the blank page if that makes you anxious. Go outside with a notepad. What do you see that is reflective of a setting in your story? Pine trees? Fine, what kind? Is the sky above your head right now similar to the sky in a scene of your story or not? In what ways? Now imagine what this setting looks like in the dark of night and describe it. Keep your random notes for reference when you are setting the scene in your story.

• SCENE: Why start at the beginning? Forget backstory or anything else for the moment. Where does the big trouble start for your main character? Start there. In scene. What is he/she doing? Write action and dialogue only, for now.

• CHARACTER: Write a letter, as your main character, to another character in the story. Write about why you are pissed/thrilled/confused, etc. Most likely, this letter will never become part of your manuscript. But until you, the author, are clear about how the main character feels, you can’t put that in the story.

Hopefully these exercises will loosen the ground, fertilize your creativity and plant a few seeds that will germinate in time. Be patient and remember Ernest Hemingway’s words:“The only thing a first draft needs to do is get written.”

Dear writers out there: How do you get started with a story?


Anonymous said...

I get started with the scenes living in my head and figure I can fill in the rest later. The parts that feel inspired. It's easier to conceive of writing a critical scene than it is to try to envision a big, finished work. Bits and pieces in digestible chunks.

Anonymous said...

I have to have a general idea of the whole story from beginning to middle to end. If I don't, I get stuck. This happened to me several years ago when I had what I thought was a great idea for a novel. I wrote eighteen chapters and then hit a roadblock because although I knew how I wanted it to end, I wasn't sure how to get there. I decided it would work better as a short story instead.

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