The last book I wrote took shape behind a very un-peek-behindable curtain, for reasons of personal sanity and also laziness. But the more I’ve begun to hang out with writers, the more I want to talk about writing (and also write, duh). And even though many, many others have written longer and better about how to write, my dear friend (and totally accomplished writer) Simi asked me the other day for tips on, you know, actually starting a novel. In response, I wrote her a novel’s worth of information, and now I’ve adapted it to share with you.
And! I’m starting my next book, so I’ll have lots of bare-laying to do in the coming weeks. We’ll see this thing through together, you and I. Sharing is good for you!
So: write a novel. What’s the worst that could happen?
No, I’m serious. I need to know—you need to know—in the universe of your fiction, what is the worst thing that could happen.
Got an answer? You’ve got a story.
Based on what I’ve done personally slash absorbed from my very minimal writing workshop experience, I believe that ideas for stories can come from one of two points of origin: either you come up with a CHARACTER you love and want to write about, or a SITUATION that will become the plot/problem. (The third, secret idea-germ is THEME, but TBH I don’t think a lot of writers think in themes—we’re much more likely to latch on to the specific details than the more abstract, overarching implications…at least at first).
Once you’ve got your idea-germ, the trick is in taking specific details that surface in the Petri dish of your brain and culturing them into a complete, dynamic arc. This sounds so much fancier than it is! But that’s the gist of narrative: beginning, middle, end; exposition, action, climax, resolution; whatever. You probably know these things fairly intuitively, so don’t sweat mapping everything out to the last detail—as you let ideas percolate in your head, they just sort of fall into place.
But! You can still tease them out, like so. Daydream your way to a novel!
Option 1: you have a character. If you’re like me, the character is NOT AT ALL complete when you first imagine (encounter? discover?) her or him—there’s just a strong feeling about the way they act, or a specific reaction they have in one moment, or even a physical description of what you want them to look like. All valid! Once you’ve got that little bit, then you need to extrapolate outwards and make them into a whole person.
For example, let’s say you want to write about some badass lady with a nose ring who lives in New York. You really have no idea what she’s about except that 1. she has a nose ring and 2. she lives in New York, but for some reason those things are really speaking to you. Who knows why this happens? Anyway, take those two attributes and connect them to her emotional state: what’s with the piercing? Why New York? Then, once you know how she feels about herself, via these two things, spin them out into what she wants. Maybe she hates New York and wants to leave. Maybe she desperately needs to cure the tetanus she got from the shady piercing salon. And finally, once you’ve got the wants down, throw a wrench into her path with some obstacles. She’s broke. She just got fired. She doesn’t trust doctors because her father was a doctor and he emptied out her college fund.
This is a really janky way of getting to what all the writing books call “goal-motivation-conflict.” I’m not big on thinking of it that way because it feels artificial, but in the end, you do need those three things to make a story. The story is the story of the character overcoming the odds (or not) because of whatever particular fire is burning in their belly. And the most important thing, I think, is why this particular conflict is happening to this particular person. It’s cruel, but you once you know your character, you have to throw them under the bus and into the lion’s den: give them the one thing that crashes into their beliefs, challenges their strengths, and plays to their weaknesses. Why is this problem in particular the worst thing that could happen to this particular person? THEN you’ve got intrigue (though it doesn’t have to be HEAVY and dramatic—it could be as fluffy as “Jane is a timid high school senior who’s suddenly confronted with her worst nightmare: she’s the lead in the musical! Oh noes!”)
Option 2: you have a plot. Basically, you’re going to do the same thing, in reverse. For example (based on a true fictional story I wrote once!), let’s say you really want to write about a girl who suddenly finds herself saddled with the responsibility of writing the anonymous advice column for her high school paper. What kind of person would get in the most trouble if this happened? I made Emily (my heroine) a good but highly private writer (she’s a fanfiction nerd) who doesn’t have a great grasp on social interaction…but has to take the column as extra credit or she’ll flunk English (too much daydreaming about Harry Potter makes for bad grades). This worked pretty well because she messed up a lot writing the column, and hijinks ensued! Then, I worked to bend the arc of the narrative towards some mild lesson-learning (trust your friends, be true to yourself, blah blah blah) and all’s well that ends well (what?! it’s a romantic comedy!).
The takeaway here is that if you know the kind of situation you want in your story, you can also use that to suggest character—and character, ultimately, is what makes or breaks your story. The real trick is getting your plot and characters to weave together, affect each other reciprocally, and most important, change over the course of the story, thus creating something bigger than the sum of their parts (or, as an English teacher would call it, theme).
Phew. You made it. Now answer me this: what potential next-time sounds good? Research? Plotting? Advanced Butt-in-Chair Studies?