Monday, March 19, 2012

When you’re not sure how to start your new novel, a map of emotionally resonant scenes can help you find your way.

Out of everything a writer goes through in the process of writing a book, starting can be the hardest part. I’m not talking about the idea phase. That phase is fantastic—a carefree time of unleashed imagination and no responsibility.

No, I’m talking about the day you have to start writing the actual words that will appear in the actual book. And making the title page doesn’t count.

You will stare at your nearly blank document and nerves will churn in your stomach. You’ll think of all those hopeful scribbles you so lovingly scribbled about the book’s world and plot on napkins, the backs of receipts, and old plane tickets (you’d be surprised how many times I have done this last one). You don’t want to betray the promise of those scribbles by writing a story unworthy of them.

This is when you have to decide if you not only love those scribbles enough that you don’t want to let them down, but that you couldn’t fathom never writing about them. It can be the early end of the project for some.

Other writers may remain sure that they want to write the book, but have trouble finding just the right words to begin. So I thought I’d share what I do when caught in a case of cold feet such as this. (Considering you write entirely with your hands, I feel I should call it cold hands. But that just sounds weird.)

When I get intimidated by a new story, I latch onto the characters. I forget about my complex world, the twists and turns of my plot, and how the many strands of this story are supposed to tie up nice and neat in the end.

Instead I focus entirely on the key players in my book—how they got to where they are when the book first starts, and how their pasts are going to affect their reactions to the events of the plot. I’ll often write out detailed backgrounds for each character so I can keep their histories straight later on. This is an especially handy thing to do when writing a series with lots of characters.

Once I have a rough idea of who these people are, I turn my attention to how they would respond if forced to interact with one another. Would they make fast friends? Would they hate each other? Would they have potential for a deep relationship, but only once both parties mature a bit?

Sometimes I’ll write hypothetical conversations between these characters just to see how they play off of one another. You have no idea how helpful this can be. Not only do these conversations tell me more about who the characters are, but they can give me new ideas for where to take the plot.

You’d also be surprised to learn how many of these conversations make it into the final book. Some of my favorite scenes in Renaissance Lab were written out of context before I even started the novel. Practically all of my favorite scenes were at least written achronologically.

You see, once I have a handle on these character relationships, I tend to get very, very invested in them. As the writer of a book, you are also your own first reader. Hopefully you’ll get as involved in your protagonist’s victories and triumphs as your readers one day will.

In my favorite books, I become so intrigued by the characters that I feel tempted to skip ahead and find out what will happen between them. It is a sign of serious respect for the author if I don’t do so. But when I happen to be the author of the book I’m reading, I don’t have to wait patiently for those relationship-shifting, emotionally resonant scenes to arrive. In fact I know it benefits the overall story if I skip ahead.

I’ll look at two characters and think, “Aw, I can’t wait until those two stop hating each other and become friends.” So then I’ll write the scene that will serve as the turning point in the relationship between those two characters. Now that I’ve written a scene of where I want that relationship to go, I’ve provided myself with a destination to reach within the story. Every scene I write between those characters from now on will build toward that particularly resonant moment.

It took me a while to learn that I am an outlining kind of writer. I wish I could write by the seat of my pants like some kind of swashbuckling writer-pirate, but I’m just not that cool. I like the security that an outline can provide. I treat it the same way I would treat a map on a hike. I’m likely to barely even look at the map while hiking—I’ll go where the finest views and my own curiosity take me. But I will be damn glad I remembered the map when I’m passing that tree with the weird moss for the seventh time.

While outlines provide a map for my plots, the handful of emotionally resonant scenes I write before beginning a book (or at least long before they’re chronologically due to appear) serve as a map for my characters. This is an even more flexible map than the outline. Sometimes relationships between characters shift in a way I never could have anticipated, and render many of my already-written scenes moot.

But out of the nonlinear scenes I’ve written, I would say about 75% of them are eventually used in some way or another—even if I just extract a few lines from a five-page scene. And those are often the scenes that require the least editing down the road. They’re the scenes my writer’s mind just couldn’t wait to pounce on, and I’m always glad I wrote them ahead of schedule.

If you’re having trouble starting something new, try taking some time to get closer to your characters. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Writer’s Diary: “…I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.”

Spend some time digging those beautiful caves—write scenes in which the caves connect and come to daylight. These scenes may not make it into the book later on, but they will help you to decide if you really love these characters enough to see them through to the end.


  1. That's some good advice. I've always been a very... ah... disorganized writer. I have an outline, sort of. it takes up one, maybe two post-its.

    I'd never really thought about imaginary conversations. Perfectly timed post for me, I was literally just saying to a friend "I can't get a hold of this guy at all. He's driving me crazy!"

    Do you use any sort of outline for your character backgrounds?

    1. Thanks! I really hope the imaginary conversations work for you--they can do wonders for me.

      My character backgrounds are my stream-of-consciousness musings on the pasts of certain characters. So, no, I don't use an outline for those. I just loosely summarize the pivotal events of a character's past that I think helped to make the character who he or she is at the start of the book.

  2. As Ms. Eyez says, some very good advice. Also like Ms. Eyez, I especially like the part about writing conversations between characters as a way to get to know them better and create story ideas. This is definitely going into my routine (although I occasionally get too attached to my characters already. I have to do something very unpleasant to one very soon, and I'm dreading the scene).

    The headline for the post is itself great advice. Big, powerful, character-driven scenes make a ready narrative framework, and also set the story tempo for the reader.

    1. Thank you! I particularly love writing dialogue, so maybe that's what pushed me toward trying the imaginary conversations thing in the first place.

      Ugh, yeah, it can be tough if you get too attached--which I pretty much always do. I'll throw my characters into these dangerous plots and then clutch at my chest, all, "Oh no, my BABIES!!"

  3. Writing out of context conversations sounds like a great idea to get things rolling, although later I'd be afraid of writing something really good and then having to cut it. I'm super with adding things on top of already solid material, but I get nervous when it comes to taking things out.

    One other thing that works is writing a good hook to open each chapter. It can be a clever contrast, an ironic observation or a dramatic description.

    1. Thanks very much! I've had to learn to make my peace with the fact that much of what I write won't make it into the final book. You just have to think of it as part of the process--writing those scenes still might help you to get to know your characters and make the project an overall better book, even if you don't end up using the scenes themselves.

      Thanks for the tip on hooks. I have a particular love for starting chapters with dialogue, much to the chagrin of editor-types I've worked with :)