I’m a lucky woman. Kate and K.B. aren’t just two of my best friends. I have close working relationships with both of them and, therefore, I just so happen to know that all three of us are starting new projects right now. Beginning new books. It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? The blank page, the first word, the abyss of 90K stretching out endlessly before you, it can all feel so overwhelming, so thrilling but scary. But fears are easier to manage once they’re shared (or so I’ve heard).
So here it is: Our take on getting started. How we do it. What we need in order for it to happen. How we feel when we’re sitting at our computers, hands hovering over the keyboard, waiting to write the first few words. How/when we know we’ve hit a project that will last past the first ten pages and carry us off on a grand adventure.
We hope it helps you with your beginnings. And we hope you’ll share a bit about your process, too.
Lisa, Kate and K.B.
Naturally, it begins with an idea, though in my case, “kick upside the head” is more to the point. My ideas don’t creep in softly; they gobsmack me, often right when I wake up from a deep, seemingly dreamless sleep. The ideas are vague things, concepts really, though sometimes there are characters lurking at the edges, holding up those signs you see limo drivers flashing at airports. They want me to climb in, go for a ride, let them take me where they will, and who am I to argue?
This leads to me scribbling a half-page or so of random notes and shooting off e-mails to Kate and K.B. (I won’t read those notes again until after I’ve written the book. So why bother writing them down? Because it’s funny to read them afterwards; they so rarely have anything to do with the final project.) Then I brush off my hands and file the idea in the back of my brain to let it percolate, since I’m always in the middle of some other project when the Muse strikes.
Sometimes, the ideas fade quietly in the interim. That’s a good thing, a writer’s version of natural selection. Other ideas stick, pestering me like a deep splinter, working their way to the surface until they simply won’t be ignored any longer. How do I know when I’m onto something good? I get a strange, tingly sensation on the top of my head whenever I think about/talk about a new project. (No really. My crown chakra buzzes, the same way it does when I have a profound spiritual or emotional realization.) I’m not one to disregard my intuition, so when that starts to happen, when the characters wake up and start whispering (or shouting) in my head, I take a deep breath, clear the desk, roll my sleeves and get myself geared up.
Things I Need to Begin a New Book:
1) Whiteboard space. I’m a huge scribbler and I never use notebooks. I like to see the writing on the wall, preferably in colorful, fruit-scented dry-erase ink.
2) Faces. It’s a trick I learned in Screenwriting 101. Cast your script before you write it. It makes visualizing your characters – and describing them – so much easier. You can use Pinterest to keep track of your cast if you like; I prefer pinning pictures on corkboard.
3) A skeleton playlist. This will undoubtedly grow and expand as I work; most of my playlists shoot past the hundred song mark, especially if I’m writing a series. But to begin, I need a handful of songs that set the tone and capture the mood I’m hoping to set with the story.
4) A title. I really hate starting without one. I can do it – and I have – but it bugs me.
5) Location. I can’t write a story without knowing where it will take place. Ideally, the setting is a place I’ve actually visited, but if it isn’t, I’ll spend a day or two surfing travel blogs, reading official city web pages, studying maps, looking at photos on the web, trying to get a sense of the flavor of the place because for me, as a writer and a reader, setting always informs the story on some level.
6) The first line. Obviously, I can’t begin without it and I’m not one for writing a false start and then going back to insert the real beginning during edits. I know that works for some folks, but not for me.
It’s difficult to follow Lisa because my process is so different and yet, in some ways, so much the same. I spend a whole lot of time envying her because she’s so clear about what she needs, how it works, and articulating it to others. That’s much more difficult for me, for a whole bunch of reasons.
But the first and most important reason is this.
I am the ultimate fogwalker and, because it’s worked for many years, I hate to do anything that might change it. So I’m uncomfortable—and more than a bit superstitious—when talking about my process. But I’m going to do it.
I’ll begin with the concept of fogwalking. For me, that means I have absolutely NO idea of what’s going to happen next. I don’t know what the next sentence is going to be, or where it’s going to lead me, let alone where the next paragraph or chapter will take me. I simply sit down and start writing. I might do that with a pen and paper or on my computer, but the process is the same. Get myself into the Zone and write. I can’t tell you what the Zone is, or even how I get there, but it’s important. It’s the only thing that is and it’s miserable—both for me at times and for you—that I’m unable to tell you what it is or how I get there. But I can’t. Or perhaps it’s more that I won’t. I’m scared that if I figure those things out, if I intellectualize them, they won’t work for me anymore. So I don’t.
So there are no notes for me, not even the vaguest of outlines. That would stop me from writing, and has done so many times. My process, if you can call it that, seems to be fixed in stone. And it’s a stone big and heavy enough that I can’t shift it.
Things I Need to Begin a New Story (I’m not saying book because I write a lot of short stories and novellas, as well as novels):
1) Words. Everything begins for me with words; generally a phrase or a short sentence. I don’t know why this is, but it is. I have many directories in my computer that are simply that—a phrase or a couple of words that will one day turn into a story. I find these everywhere. Sometimes I make them up, sometimes I see them in a magazine, a story, or written on a wall as graffiti. It’s all about the rhythm, I think.
2) Pen and paper: I begin every story by hand because, in the beginning, it takes time to get into it and I type too fast and get bored too easily when my hands are on the keyboard and I’m waiting for something to happen. I use, mostly, a very specific type of pen and paper—the pen is a uniball that flows easily (blue, never black) and a pad of yellow lined newsprint.
3) Title: This goes back to the first point. My title is often, though not always, that phrase or those couple of words that have fascinated me. When that’s not true, I might write a big piece of the story without a title, because I’m waiting for it to come to me as I write.
4) A feeling: I know, I know, this doesn’t make any sense but I think it’s a big part of the Zone. Whatever the feeling is—and no, I can’t articulate it, even to myself—I sink into it when I’m writing well. Oh, and to make matters more complicated, it’s different for each story.
5) Characters: They come with the words, with the voice that begins the story (notice I don’t say I begin the story)– and now that I’m thinking about it, maybe the words are simply a way for my fingers to translate whatever it is in my subconscious?
6) A Deadline: This isn’t crucial, but it helps. If I have a deadline, I find it easier to get into the Zone because I write more consistently and don’t walk away when I’m stuck.
7) First line: My first line is always the words I begin with or a slight variation of them. I can’t begin without it and I rarely change it.
Gobsmacked. Ha! *laughs* Yeah, that’s pretty much how I get new ideas. Most often in the form of a “vision” or a character kicking me in the head and announcing their presence. (The best ones happen at 3am, or so they’ll claim.) I get story ideas from songs, random poetry, one-liners, seeing someone smile, even from Christmas tree ornaments. Used to be that I’d start scribbling madly on whatever I could find…and yes, before you ask I have written down ideas on my hand before. *sticks out tongue* You use what you’ve got. Man, the invention of smart phones was a godsend though!
I also used to let story ideas take me wherever (and whenever) they happened on the wild ride that was normally promised to me. Now I don’t have that luxury and I have to be a little more discerning about what I choose to focus on. So, much like Lisa, I let myself mull it over for a while. If it’s still at the forefront of my brain then it’s a go. If not, it gets relegated to the dust bin. *shrugs* Not gone forever, sometimes I scavenge bits of stories, characters, plots for other ideas. Sometimes I even resurrect them in their entirety.
My list is really close to Lisa’s. *laughs* Probably one of the reasons we’re such good CPs. But it does differ in a few key ways.
Things I Need to Begin a New Book:
1) Voices. I don’t make any bones about the fact that my characters talk to me. (Sometimes loudly and at great length.) Or that I’m not so much “making up” a story as I am telling it. This is, for me, just one piece of my characters’ lives. They all come with histories and futures – that sometimes they share with me, sometimes not – and I’m really just getting a glimpse of this moment in time. Without these voices the stories inevitably end up in that dustbin, if I can’t hear a character then I figure my readers aren’t going to either.
2) Scenes. I “see” my books as I write them. For me, this process is pretty much like going to the movies. Because of this I do a lot of the same things that Lisa mentioned in her “Faces” category. I make collages (either on paper or on Pinterest) with people who resemble my characters. I’ll also often reenact scenes before I sit down to write them to help me get the feel for what needs to happen in writing.
3) Music. All my books end up with soundtracks. Sometimes (often) they evolve as the project does, but there are usually one or five core songs that will hold true for the whole book.
4) My CPs/Readers. In the early stages of a project I bounce a lot of ideas off those closest to me. I’ve found the feedback to be extremely valuable, especially in the formation of a plot – something that’s often elusive in those first heady days of story creation.
*grins* If some of that seems paradoxical that’s because it is. No one claimed this business was either linear or sane. I have found that I don’t really have the tried and true method like Kate does, my process changes with every story I write and every world I am invited to visit.
Your turn, folks. The comment thread awaits your input. Tell us how you begin…