Monday, October 27, 2008

Writing Advice Mondays: Where Do You Begin?

A lot of you might be getting ready for the insanity of National Novel Writing Month, which kicks of November 1st. If so, then you might be wondering...

Where the heck do I start? You have already decided that yes, you have a big enough idea for a book, but you're sitting at your computer, stymied by what to do next. Just where to put that first word, where EXACTLY to START the story.

One of the most common questions I am asked as a fiction author is where and how to begin a book. Many writers have an idea but aren’t quite sure where they should start -- or how. An entire book can be a daunting undertaking, and knowing where to start is often the biggest first step.

Stephen King says he always starts with the “what if” question. I agree with this tactic. It’s how I start a book, too. I begin with a situation -- a woman wakes up in the wrong man’s bed three weeks before her wedding (THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE, Sept. 2004, Kensington), a man suddenly realizes that he's in love with his female best friend, just after agreeing to fix her up with Mr. Right (SIMPLY THE BEST, December 2008, Kensington), two old lovers get stranded in an airport together on Christmas Eve--but their planes are headed for different destinations ("Snowbound Bride" in CHRISTMAS WEDDINGS, out now), the girl next door battles the former playboy in a “Survivor” type contest in an RV (THE BACHELOR’S DARE, December 2003, Silhouette), etc.

I try to think of a situation that is unusual. If my first idea has been done before, then I keep brainstorming. The banana suit, for instance, isn’t your usual choice of attire for the heroine of a romance.

This is the kind of brainstorming I do when I’m completing a mindless task -- driving, washing dishes, cooking soup. I let my brain toss it around, try different scenarios on. Sometimes, this can take a few days, even weeks, as I let the idea “percolate” in the back of my head. It’s usually happening while I’m finishing up another book since I write at least five books a year and several proposals each year. I find that when I’m in the “home stretch” of one book, I’m able to take some brain power away and focus on the next project. Not only does this keep me excited about finishing the current book (because I want to get to the next one -- the old carrot on a stick trick), but it also keeps my mind turning over new ideas and often leads me to come up with unique twists on the work in progress.

The second step is to figure out who the character is in that situation and WHY he/she is there. It takes a certain kind of person to get wrapped up in your particular “what if” scenario. They also need to have a certain skill set to survive and thrive throughout this event. If you’re writing a mystery or a thriller, for instance, then you may have a dangerous opening situation. You’re going to need a character who won’t run in fright or be too weak to battle the bad guys.

Then you have to understand your character’s motivations. Motivation is KEY to everything that happens in a book. If you have good enough reasons why a character is doing something, then you can pull off just about anything.

Ask yourself: Why is that character there in the first place? What drove them to be in this unusual situation at this time in their lives?

Remember, a book is a snapshot in a character’s life -- one moment of time when they make a change, a growth in their selves. This opening situation has to be the first step in a catalyst for change. Thus, you need to know why your character is ready (or reluctant) to change at that period, rather than at any other point in their lives.

Third, you should determine what is getting in your character’s way. Maybe it’s another character. Maybe it’s their hang-ups, problems or issues. Maybe it’s the weather (“Twister”) or alien forces (“Independence Day”). It could also be another character (“Die Hard”). There’s always something to battle against. Why? Because battles help characters change, too.

Now you have your beginning situation. A rough idea of who the character is in that situation. And an idea of why he/she has put themselves there, along with some sketched-out plans about what’s standing in his/her way.

What’s the next step? Write the first few scenes or chapters! Simply write at this point and let the characters talk to you for a while. Next month we’ll talk about shaping a plot to help carry a book forward.

BTW, if you are feeling doubt about pursuing your writing dream, I recently guest blogged about this very topic. Stop by here, and read my post about not letting self-doubt stop you from writing.

PS: One lucky commenter will be entered to win an advanced copy of SIMPLY THE BEST--before it even hits stores, you can read it!


  1. Shirley, thanks again for some great advice. You always have just the right thing to say. :)

  2. Glad to hear it, bousmama! Have a great Monday!


  3. When I came up for air, I realized it was Monday...already. LoL I glean something from every post/hand out you do. Today's is a reminder to check out motivation. Thanks!

  4. I like your approach very much! I use to read about authors who "let their characters lead the story" and it is absolutely not like that for me or, at least, not at the beginning of a story! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who rationalize her writing! But you do it in a much more systematic manner than I do. Thank you for the advices. It'll help me a lot!!!!


  5. LOL, Patty! I feel that way all the time. Oh my gosh, Monday ALREADY? ;-)


  6. Glad to help, Catherine! After writing 30+ books, I have more of a system, most of it internalized, because it becomes a much more intuitive process the more you do it. That's the great thing about this job (and any job, frankly). The more you do it, the more many aspects of it become second nature, so you don't have to worry about every little thing and can concentrate solely on improving your craft! :-)


  7. Cathy S.3:16 PM


    I think the beginning is the most difficult part. If you don't start with the basics of good characters and have them with enough appropriate conflict, you get stalled.

    Don't ask me how I know this. :)

    Thanks for the tips. A huge help.



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