Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Starting your Book

Terry here:

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

There is another choice—just start writing and see where the story takes you. I did that far too long before I realized that being a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants)  doesn’t mean just opening your computer and hitting the keys. That’s a little like starting to cook a meal and taking everything out of the refrigerator and throwing it in pots, setting the pots on the stove, lighting the stove and hoping for the best.

I have a few complete manuscripts that I did that with, and each of them came out a hot mess. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a story. Yes, each has a story line, characters, and settings. But not ones that are readable.

The second mystery I wrote (the first one was a sci-fi story) was a nightmare. When I got to the end I realized that  I had never given the slightest thought to “who dunnit.” Nor had I thought about how the protagonist would solve it. Which means my clues were all over the place, my characters the same. At least the setting was nice. I rewrote that book many times. The only thing that stayed the same was the setting and some of the minor characters.

When I finally landed on a good protagonist, I wrote a second book with the same guy, same setting. This time I had a bit more of an idea of what happened, and it was a smoother ride.
 Another one I wrote, I continue to pick at occasionally like a tasty carcass, revising, messing with it. It may be a good book by now, but I haven’t looked at it in a while.

Others I wrote and just moved on. These manuscripts may have served me better had I sat down and thought about them first. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I had asked myself the following:

1)What kind of book is it? If it’s crime fiction, what corner of the crime fiction world will it inhabit? Is it a romantic mystery? A police procedural? A thriller?  

2)Who is my reader? What do I want them to get from the book? Do I want to include social issues? Do I want the reader to be entertained? Enlightened? Scared? Do I want them to sit down in front of a cozy fire and feel like all’s right with the world when they finish it? Do I want a puzzle for people to solve? Do I want adventure?

3) Who are the main characters? The protagonist and the antagonist. What do they each want? What do they need? How do they usually attain what they want? Are they used to getting it?

4) The situation: How did they get in the situation they are in now? Where do they want to be by the end? Do they know, or is it part of their journey to find out?

5) Who are the important minor characters? The protagonist’s helper? His secret friend? Her staunch ally? Which of them will be betrayers?

6) Where will the book be set? Do you know the place well, or will it require some research (Oh, please, no, don’t make me go to Florence!)

7) Are you the right person to write this book? This isn’t a question that gets asked often. I don’t mean is it an appropriation of someone else’s culture. I mean, is it a situation, a setting, and characters that you either know well or that you are willing to put in the hours of hard work to find out what you need to know. In other words, how passionate are you about the idea? I have an idea for a book based on a real story, set in the 30’s and 40’s—in Mexico City. I’ve never been to Mexico City. It involves the KGB and madness. I know only what I’ve learned superficially over the years about the KGB. And I only know madness through tearing my hair out when I’m writing. The only thing I know is that I keep thinking about, mulling it over. Maybe I am the right person.

You don’t have to know the complete answer to all these questions before you begin, but it helps to at least give it some thought before you start flinging words around.


Paul D. Marks said...

Terry, you make a lot of good points here. But especially #7. I don't think that's one we often ask ourselves, but it's one we should.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

It's interesting how you arrived at an approach that works for you, Terry. Whatever works, right? And I totally agree that you need to stay passionate about a story you're working on.

James W. Ziskin said...

This is a great post, Terry! Thanks!

James W. Ziskin said...

By the way, the “I am not a robot” verification is a major pain. I almost gave up on posting my comment.