Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
— Gene Fowler
Whether you’re writing a cover letter for your job application, an essay for school, or a blog post about middle-grade books, you know the feeling of staring at a blank screen or an empty white page, waiting for the words to come. Sure, there are moments when writing flows easily and the author loses herself in the rush, but that is not usually the case for those first words. In fact, for me, the first words are always the hardest.
I have a good friend named Meghan. She is brilliant and always full of funny anecdotes and worldwide trivia. Whenever I have a conversation with Meghan I make sure I have pencil and paper handy because inevitably she will share some valuable tidbit with me which will then inspire a story. In fact, it was Meghan who first introduced me to historical figure, Alferd Packer, Colorado’s infamous cannibal from the 1870’s. Packer became the star of my forthcoming novel, The Secret of Ferrell Savage.
So, in answering my own question, “How do you start a book?” I start by having a stimulating conversation with someone like Meghan who can get my brain rolling. Then I sit down and start throwing words on the computer screen. I try not to worry too much at first about making the writing beautiful because that’s what revision is for. And revision, well, there’s a good topic for another post.
I’m always fascinated by other writers’ styles and methods and I am curious to hear the personal story behind the written story. So for today’s post, I asked my fellow Mixed-Up Files authors how they start their novels. These are the answers they gave me.
Katherine Schlick Noe
I don’t feel that I start my books — it’s more like they start themselves. My first novel, Something to Hold, is inspired by my life living on Indian reservations in Washington and Oregon. It grew out of a question I’ve been asked repeatedly by other non-Indians: What was it like living on reservations when you’re not Native? After thinking about that question for my entire adult life, I finally started writing about 15 years ago. I began with memories of living at Warm Springs, Oregon during those formative years between seven and twelve — things that had happened to me in a reservation school where I was one of 17 non-Indian students. I wrote in episodes which gradually morphed into the thread of the novel as it exists today. I’m now working on a second book, entirely different, that began with a hazy image of a teen leaning on the railing that rings the loading platform of the Monorail, that icon of the 1962 World’s Fair at Seattle Center. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew right away that something was terribly wrong. When she suddenly started to tell me her story, I had to start writing.
How I Start a Book…
Light incense to invoke the muse and then stare at the screen until the blood drips from my forehead—or until I hear voices.
Okay. I lied about the muse and the blood. My stories have come from various places:
The story I’m working on now came from a childhood memory triggered by an essay on Bruce Black’s wonderful Wordswimmer blog. Another was inspired by a funny situation spun off from something that happened to my son. My first was inspired by a place my great grandparents once lived. Other stories have seemed to come from nowhere — a line pops out of my head and into a notebook and it’s my task to discover who said it and why.
The next step is to immerse myself in research, bookmarking sites, taking page after page of notes, and generally procrastinating as long as possible until I’m so disgusted with myself that I have to sit down and write. Also, starting a book requires lots of coffee.
In my writing, I tend to start with a basic plot concept – a one or two sentence idea of what the story could be about. But the way I decide if the concept really has enough legs for a full-length book is to look for the main character, because they are the ones who will really shape the story and give it life. Once I have my hero, I have my story.
Karen B. Schwartz
Character first. Love my characters. I usually come up with a strong, quirky female heroine and then come up with a situation to throw her in that will have her flailing about until she ultimately learns/grows enough to come out on top again.
The book that made me a writer was the one my student’s needed to read and couldn’t find. In my first year of teaching my Quinault students asked why, even when the book had a Native American protagonist, the story was never about them. We had a long and very interesting (at least to me) conversation about why it was important for them to have a book about their tribe specifically. I never forgot and when about 10 years later I saw the Makah resume their traditional whale hunting rights–rights they’d voluntarily given up 70 years before–I knew I had the premise for a great cultural survival story. So I worked and researched and reworked and consulted with the Quinault and Makah and thirteen years later, I was able to place Written in Stone with my editor at Random House. It will be out in June and here is the gorgeous cover they gave me!
Michele Weber Hurwitz
I start with a character, a feeling for his or her voice, and an opening line. I have found that a character comes to me when I’m least expecting it. Before I sit down to write, I definitely need to let the character roam around in my head for a while. I walk, think, scribble notes, have imaginary conversations…almost like I’m getting to know a new friend and finding out his or her story. My first middle grade novel, Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House 2011), is about a quiet girl in a loud, intense, overachieving family. I had been thinking about Calli’s emotions for a while, so when I sat down to write, the story just poured out of my heart!
How do I start a book? Every story start is different, as is every drafting and revision process. I keep thinking I’ve found the magic formula for writing and polishing a novel, but then the next manuscript unfolds in a whole different way. One book came to be because of a character who had an unusual gift, and another story came about after years of volunteer work in a certain setting. I had one idea come to me in the night and then revisit me months later after I hadn’t taken action (I’m still struggling to write that one). I wrote a book based on a photograph, and brainstormed another narrator specifically for series potential. See? No method to my madness.
Plot ideas come easily to me (from listening to the news, watching my kids interact with their friends, standing in line at the grocery store…) but I always start with character. If I can’t visualize the main character or imagine having a conversation with them, the story never gets written – no matter how much I am enticed by the potential plot! The first thing I do is a character profile. I can write without an outline but I can’t write without a character profile. For me, knowing and understanding the character is essential to creating the right voice and giving them control over how the story will unfold. From there, it’s just blood, sweat, and word count.
T. P. Jagger
I am definitely a get-an-idea-for-a-first-line-and-start-writing-and-see-where-the-story-leads kind of guy. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever started a manuscript for which I had a clear idea of where it was headed. I usually just hope I’ll find a clue within the first chapter or two. If I make it to Chapter Ten and remain ignorant of where I’m headed, that’s when I start to worry.
An example of my patent-pending, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-but-I-don’t-care approach is the excerpt below, which just spewed itself into my computer earlier this evening:
I’d probably have an easier time solving all my problems if I weren’t so stupid. But I am stupid. Which is a problem all by itself. I know about the me being stupid part because that’s what people have been telling me since I got smart enough to know what stupid means.
No, I don’t know where those lines are headed. I don’t even know how old the storyteller is or what he looks like or where he lives or what his family’s like or whether he really is “stupid” by the world’s standards. But I sure am looking forward to finding out.
Starting a book is always about finding the emotional core. What did I observe/experience/imagine? How can I build a story about that true and human feeling we all experience at one time or another? Once an emotion is found I begin to build the character in my head. And then I write a poem in the voice of the main character, to encapsulate the emotional nugget that is her or his problem. From there, I think, what happens to make this character feel that way? I don’t have much free time, so the story is a puzzle I will turn over and over as I commute to work or right before I drift off. I write story arcs (Yes! this one is it!) and then later reject it for one reason or another. And from there, you know it’s all about hands on the keyboard! Just start writing. Lately, I’ve been giving myself permission to audition the characters–writing scenes that are just trial runs.
A strong sense of place is always important to me. All of us have at least one place deeply, powerfully, evocatively imprinted on us. We carry it with us all our lives. Setting for me is not just background, but a character itself. Like most kids, my characters don’t get to choose where they live, but their communities have a big impact on them. So once I know my setting, off I go! Right now I’m at work on a middle grade novel set on a tiny island in Lake Erie. My desk is heaped with bits of Lake Erie limestone and fossils!
I think stories come to us in different ways. For me, most of my stories start out with an issue or topic that interests me. With my first novel, HAVEN, the issue was the unfairness of the foster care system in the 1980s. In BEST FRIENDS FOREVER it was the unfairness of the internment of Japanese Americans. (Gee, as I’m writing this, I see I tend to write about unfairness!) In my latest Work In Progress, it started with my interest in a famous person in the 1890s (not saying who! Bad juju and all that;) and how she may have been misjudged (ha! more unfairness!). I usually read up on the subject, take notes and then do a lot of free writing in a notebook – interviewing my characters, plot ideas, scene lists, etc. When I get so excited that I just can’t stand it, I start the ‘official’ writing on my laptop. But it is never a smooth road, no matter how much pre-writing I do – lots of false starts, re-imagining, re-visioning. Lots of going back and doing more free writing!
If you want to know more about the writers at From the Mixed-Up Files, take a look at our Author Bios.
Now it’s your turn! Tell us in the comments how YOU start writing your projects. We’d love to hear.
Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage, Atheneum (Simon & Schuster), February, 2014.