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Block | Beginning

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 shoved under blocks for lack of a better place.

How to get a novel going is an extremely individual process. I’m sharing mine, many other writers have shared theirs (check out the library). 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.

This seems to be how things go with me:

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

I start thinking about that character during waking hours. I play with different scenarios, figure out the name, maybe get a sense of who she talks to. (She’s usually female) And then I either write down the idea of the character or I think about her before I sleep as I watch events unfold in my head - sometimes the same ones I saw the night before. And then I write down that idea.

Since the character by now has been in one or two scenes I either write notes, outline, or full on sketch what I’ve seen. Then I start building. The other characters show up, fully formed, with an opinion on everything. Usually it’s just the protagonists at first but I hesitate to say that is always the case. And most of the time a minor character takes over to the point of occasionally shoving out the original protagonist.

I spend some couch time thinking about the characters some more, then I jot down notes about what I thought about and then my brain goes splat.

What I mean by that is what follows has no order to it whatsoever. My brain spins into different directions at once and what I flesh out first just depends on where the wheel happens to be tilted at that given moment.

Since I usually write in a series I might 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 I might have lots of scene sketches and concepts to dish out.

I may have an sense of the climax of the story.

At some point I will start to wonder where my antagonists are. And this is the part that is interesting. Digging out the bad guys is 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.

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

Then I move scenes around endlessly, adding sketches and outlines as things pop in my head. And I structure and restructure a base for the rest of the novel. I jot down key events, when I want them and then figure out what I need to do to build up to that and what the repercussions would be.

I usually have a couple of stabs at different arcs as I refine and reorganize my plans. Some parts I ditch as soon as I write them, some I keep, most get picked apart for the best bits. Some characters get dropped. Some stories get 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.

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’s pretty regular that I get to around 100 pages of total combined notes and then my brain says, “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 do that a lot. (I think the largest number of entirely ditched work was 400) 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.

Currently I have my main series, my vacation series and a project that will be published under a different name. (I have my reasons) And I spin around all three. Other projects have come up, gathered my attention for about a month or two then been put on a waiting list after some initial exploration. I don't lack for ideas I lack for time, patience and concentration. Oh my lord do I lack concentration.

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.

Last updated March 16th, 2018

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