The Creative Writing Process: Part 3

Wow. I apologize for the delay in posting. The past week has been all about catching up with things I should have been doing over spring break. Oh the life of a college student but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, with the end of my senior year looming, I find myself wishing my under graduate career would just go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and we all find ourselves having to move on to the next phase. But enough of my personal musings and let’s get down to some writing!

So, you’ve come up with an idea that you want to expand on. You think it’s grand and you want to turn your vision into something that people will talk about and other writers will turn to years down the line. There’s just one problem: you need to start somewhere. How? We’re talking about a major undertaking and you haven’t a single word on the page. What I did to start out was to put it together like a puzzle. You can do this in your head but the problem is you will forget things. This may be a good thing sometimes. A little chaos is necessary for creativity but if you have a great idea or have plans for a plot twist you just know will wow your readers and you forget it, you will be kicking yourself for a long time. So what can you do to get your ideas down without actually writing out the story?

There are two very useful programs available that can help you trace out the possible routes your story can go down. The first is a program called FreeMind. FreeMind uses a wire diagram setup that allows you to create nodes from which other nodes can be attached and branch off. Want to brain storm a complex series of double-crossings and deceit? Make a “parent node” with lots of little baby nodes that will represent the literal web you are creating with the exploits of your characters. The same can be done for plotting and it will definitely help you keep it all straight. It’s a versatile system with a fairly small learning curve though you will have to get used to it. The second program requires far less practice time.

yWriter, now in its fifth version, can be used after you’ve completed your graph of the plot. What it does is provide a small but useful suite of functions that allow you to create folders for character biographies, setting descriptions, and finally, a robust system that breaks your novel up into chapters, allowing you to concentrate on the dynamics of character, setting, conflict, props, and other important aspects that contribute to a chapter functioning.

I used both programs in the planning stage of writing a novel but neither of them can really write your novel. Instead, you’ve got to pull the ideas together into something coherent and these programs can help with the organizing procedure. So where do you start? At the beginning is what I’ve heard works best. How do you know what that is and what’s worse, how do embark on this adventure? When I started my novel, I felt like I was about to jump off a ledge. It was a strange, out of control feeling, like if I started, I wouldn’t be able to change course. Once you’re falling, the only thing that will stop you is the ground. But that’s not true. You are in control at all times which is why you should start by thinking, “Alright, I have an idea for my story. This is a test run of sorts, a first draft of a first draft. A pilot episode of a book.” Test out a first chapter or two.

The two big questions you must ask to test the beginning of your chapter are: “If I picked this up in the book store, would I continue reading?” and “If I start here, will I be able to get where I want to go?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then you must switch things up. “But I thought my work with those programs would have fixed this!” you might be saying. All I’m saying is that even after I did all that work, I still discovered that when I went to write the novel, the ideas proved less secure than I had thought which meant that I had to modify them. I no longer have the first draft but if you looked at that then at the current and, I think for now, final draft, of the first chapter, you would think you were reading totally different books. This is okay and you should never be afraid of changing your ideas if you discover they are going to limit you and prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. Still, where do you begin in your story?

For my novel, I begin in media res which means, “in the middle of things.” In many stories, you will have to do this if you wish to avoid four chapters of pure exposition. This will force you to consider how you will get your reader to follow along with the narrative since they will be dropped into a world that is going full tilt. The up-side to this is that there is no down-time. The action or at least the intrigue begins at page one with later chapters providing the much-needed, and necessary, moments to pause and build your characters. The in media res method will give you the opportunity to introduce your problem or conflict that will be the center that your characters will circle around and it may introduce one of your major characters as well. You could begin with a description of the scenery if you wish and if you think that it will be important to adding atmosphere or revealing some important detail of the world. However, do not wait too long to introduce some human element, even if you use the method of a false protagonist in which the first character we meet is not actually our protagonist and may even be the antagonist. The fun for the reader will be the surprise that comes from the switch to the protagonist or main character’s narrative. Whatever the case, do not make the reader wait too long to encounter a human they can identify with. People want and need to have a person to ground them, to make a new and unfamiliar world you are introducing them to a little more recognizable and easy to follow. Whatever you do, don’t start off pummeling your readers with back story of the world or character. Readers don’t want a history lesson or a case study. They want a story about characters living and operating in the world you are creating then and there. So now we know that, where and when can we begin?

Start your book where your conflict starts. This is the most efficient method I know. What is the first encounter or first action that draws your character into the main plot of your story? That is where your story begins. In an action oriented book, what is it that the protagonist does or has done to her/him that brings the character into the main web of the story? Is it a plot to steal valuable secret from a science lab? Maybe your character is a con man who manages to con the people behind the theft into letting him in on the robbery and he steals the info for himself. In this story, you might start right at the heist detailing the run then surprise your audience with the character running off with the info. Why not start when he joins the group? The group stealing from the research team hired the con man, yes, but the actions of the thieves only start to affect him when they go after him. All the rest is exposition you can fill in as the story progresses.

That’s about all I can say for actually beginning your novel. Hopefully this was helpful in making that first big leap into the story. For the next time, I’ll see what pops into my head. Possibly I’ll talk about how to introduce background information and maybe I’ll talk about writing style though that might have to be a separate subject all its own. Until then, good luck starting your novel!

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