Blockades - Beginning

How do you start a book at all?

Transferred by Melissa Devlin on May 7t, 2023

I have made an important distinction between starting and beginning. The terms could be interchangeable but as I have used them, problems starting is a straightforward writer’s block issue. Problems beginning a book is something I've categorized as blockade for lack of a better one.

How to get a novel going is an extremely individual process. I’m sharing mine, many other writers have shared theirs. It’s something you need to piece together for yourself. There is a lot of great advice out there. Mine is a combination of a lot of things I read about and experimented with until I finally began to find my own way. Then I reached maximum on potential stories and had to hit the stop button on developing new ones.

This seems to be how things went with me:

I would have some kind of crazy lucid dream that introduced a character. I didn’t dream about myself very often, it was usually not a good sign. So new characters come out every night. But one would often stick out as someone I should pay attention to.

I started thinking about that character during waking hours. I played with different scenarios, figured out the name, maybe got a sense of who she talked to. (She was usually female) And then I either wrote down the idea of the character or I though about her before I sleep as I watched events unfold in my head - sometimes the same ones I saw the night before. And then I write down that more developed idea.

The dreams of yesterday are the hopes of today and the reality of tomorrow. Science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year and yet far too little for the next ten.

Since the character had by then been in one or two scenes I either wrote notes, outlined, or full on sketched what I’d seen. Then I started building. The other characters showed up, fully formed, with an opinion on everything. Usually it was just the protagonists at first but I hesitate to say that was always the case. And most of the time a minor character took over to the point of occasionally shoving out the original protagonist.

I spent some couch time thinking about the characters some more, then I jotted down notes about what I thought about and then my brain went splat.

What I mean by that is what followed had no order to it whatsoever. My brain spun into different directions at once and what I fleshed out first just depended on where the wheel happens to be tilted at that given moment.

Since I write in a series I would sometimes have title ideas pop into my head. Ideas that I may or may not keep as I try to get a handle on what is going on.

Or had lots of scene sketches and concepts to dish out.

I often had a sense of the climax of the story.

At some point I would start to wonder where my antagonists are. And this is the part that is interesting. Digging out the bad guys was a unique process each time. (please don’t give me that we’re all good and evil crap. Ghandi. Hitler. End of story) Depending on what the bad guys want and are willing to do to get it, depends on what kind of story we are looking at. I'm interested in the shades of gray, but between them.

Sometimes beginning a book is like being walking out of the mists towards an enchanted castle.

Then the gears sped up again and provided a new mess of different concepts to spread out.

Then I moved scenes around endlessly, adding sketches and outlines as things popped in my head. And I structured and restructured a base for the rest of the novel. I jotted down key events, when I wanted them and then figured out what I need to do to build up to that and what the repercussions would be. (I’m still doing this with a lot of series)

I usually had a couple of stabs at different arcs as I refine and reorganize my plans. Some parts I ditched as soon as I wrote them, some I kept, most got picked apart for the best bits. Some characters got dropped. Some stories got merged.  

Then I read and reread what I have in a system that is a mystery to me. I chalk it up to the fact my subconscious is smarter than I am, thus so long as I know when to listen, I’ll be okay. This I still do too.

I might reread everything. I might bounce over certain connected scenes. I might bounce over scenes that seem to belong to a different plot line but lo, when I examine them they also thread together. I may become obsessed with a single scene and read and reread it endlessly until a sentence pops out at me as needing more.

I may have a general idea for something like a car chase one day. And the next day I know what happens in the chase. And the day after that the conversation that follows leads me to a whole new angle to reveal the characters.

I might even have parts of the novel I want to write.

I do that for a while and soon enough I have the basic skeleton to start fleshing out. It was pretty regular that I get to around 100 pages of total combined notes and then my brain said, “Yep, I’m happy with that. Let’s go for it.”

Of course I have gotten to page 97 and gone - “yuck this is terrible.” And started again. I've also done that at 200 pages. Indeed I did that a lot. (I think the largest number of entirely ditched work was 400 of a whole book) But in the early phase I don't even write everything out, just action and dialogue in sketches so it's faster and less painful when I drop a draft.  

And when it does come time to make sentences that sing? Everything slows down and it becomes a huge chore and I wonder why I do it but the characters intrigue me so I continue.

Confused yet? If none of this makes sense don’t worry. My brain is very non-linear to the point of having issues with linear order. What works for me is unlikely to work for someone else but I've included it to give you ideas of things to try. Terry Brooks and Ann Lamott have really good advice that is a little more straightforward. If you are really, truly, utterly stuck at the beginning of your book? Start with them.