Getting Started

One of the most frequently asked questions I encounter is how do I go about planning a book, outlining plot, designing characters, etc.

There are specific tactics for those tasks, of course, but no matter how methodical, disciplined, and professional I try to be, I still make sure I allow time for thinking. Just thinking, sifting, mentally evaluating, letting my story sense guide me toward what’s right and what’s not quite there. It’s like driving in the fog. You can almost see the road. You have to go slow. You keep the headlights dim. And you trust your training and skill in maneuvering the car.

Often, I’ll go ahead and run with any spark of inspiration I have as an idea begins to take shape in my mind. I’ll write a few pages–not many–just enough to capture an image or a partial scene. It’s not plotting. Usually I write these fragments as a way to gain a nodding acquaintance with a character.

I need my story people to start moving about, doing things, before I can gain an inkling of who they really are and what they might be going for.

At the same time, I drape names on them much the same way little girls dress their dolls or a placid cat. Maybe the little girl is an Alice. No, she’s an Efner. No, neither. She’s blonde and delicate, frail even. She needs a more ethereal name. {I often don’t know what the character looks like until I start the naming auditions.} One process sparks another … the creative imagination at work.

My mind zigzags back and forth. I’ll consider names and appearance. Then I’ll think about what the character is doing and why. I’ll pause, waiting for a glimmer of emotional life inside the construct. Scared? Why is the little boy afraid? Is something hunting him? Is he running? No, he’s swimming for his life. He’s fallen in the river and the current is sweeping him along.

Then I go back to see if a name has stuck yet. Is the boy called Will? It’s such a relief when character and name occur to me simultaneously. Many times, though, I’m less lucky and have to keep searching.

Once the name clicks into place, I get insight into personality traits. Maybe a couple of traits, to start with. Then I’m back at the plot again, trying to figure out what my frightened boy is doing, where he’s going, what’s after him.

I may write another fragment, this time working on the setting. It could be from a different viewpoint.

All of this is preliminary, most of it in my head. This is when I tend to stay off the expressway and take the slow streets home. I’m too absent-minded at such times to be driving 70 mph in rush hour! Sometimes I pull into my driveway and come out of the creative trance with no clear recollection of driving home at all.

With names in place, a couple of important characters in mind, an inkling of what the setting is, what two or three of their personality traits are, and what kind of trouble they’re possibly in, I can then settle down to work out the rest.

That’s when I reach for the technique of character construction. I’ve intuited the central core of my protagonist. The rest can be added from my trained knowledge of what makes a viable character. I’m building from the Legos of story role, goal, character self-concept, personality traits, flaws and contradictions, and motivation.

When I get stuck, I switch to plot development and work out the protagonist’s goal. As soon as I have that, I check through the shadowy, half-built cast to see if I’ve got an antagonist. If not, I start building one, making sure he or she has a directly opposing goal.

And if the goals won’t line up in direct, clear opposition, I’m forced to step back and rethink the characters. Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong individual to be my protagonist. Who else can do the job? Who? So the boy in the river isn’t my star player. Is he the story catalyst? Does he need to drown and wash up on the bank for the real protagonist to find?

And so forth … until there’s an outline from start to finish, and I have enough plot worked out that I can write a true draft of Chapter One. And Chapter Two. And Chapter Three. I’ll pause there and double-check my outline, assuring myself that I’m on track and nothing feels “off.” Then it’s full throttle forward.

Some of my writer friends are able to sit down and start outlining plot right away. They don’t meander through the intuitive process first.

If I could do that, I would. It would be more efficient and better economics when dawdling can sometimes cost me a contract.

But that’s not my process. It’s not the way I like to work. Writing is always a challenging job, so I might as well go about it the way I prefer–as much as possible.

My way isn’t going to work for everyone. We each have to figure out our own path, then trust it.

Your story sense will tell you when it’s time to truly start writing. Practice and experience can guide you there, as well. If you listen–truly listen–to your story sense, it’s the best mentor you’ve got and it rarely steers you wrong.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Getting Started

  1. Thank you, dear friend. I needed to hear all of this.

  2. Reblogged this on Curtiss Ann Matlock and commented:
    There is no better writing teacher, or teacher of graceful living, than Deborah Chester. Once again she reminds me to trust my own process. I now remind you to trust your own, too. There is no wiser friend than the one inside each of us.

  3. I found your blog by listening to a podcast interview of Jim Butcher. He stated that all aspiring writers should “Do whatever Deborah says and fill out whatever forms she gives you.” I have a question. What forms? I have worked on an outline and character dossiers for a novel I am working on. What else do you suggest?
    I am slowly working my way through all of your posts. They have changed my thinking significantly. I have picked up Dwight V. Swain’s book “Creating Characters”. It has helped a great deal.
    Thanks for all the help.
    LauranceS

    • Hi, Laurance, and welcome to my blog. Jim was referring to the exercises and handouts that I give my students in class when I teach Novel and Short Story Writing at the University of Oklahoma. They’re not available outside of my classes at the moment, but I’m working on a writing textbook that will offer some of those drills in the future.

      Meanwhile, the Swain books will be very helpful. You should also dig into any of Jack Bickham’s texts on writing as well. These are the guys that taught me what I know.

      -Deb

      • Assuming UO hasn’t got an online course you’re involved in, when might we see your text? I’ve had an awful time trying to figure out how things like plot outlines actually look on paper.

        The detailed approach failed me as we discussed. Do I just start with a list of scene questions and their disasters, then go?

      • laurances

        Thanks very much. I look forward to your text book. I will check out Jack Bickam’s books.
        LauranceS

  4. Thanks for this. I feel rather reassured that my meandering thought process isn’t hopeless, and that with some practice I can get it harnessed productively.

    The last couple of story ideas I had, I wrote little vignettes to illustrate the characters to myself and to crystallize my thinking on them. I was really pleased with how that work led me to think more deeply about the characters and fill in their details – what they wanted, who they were inside, what their voices sounded like, and so on. This helped me to figure out who was opposing them, and why. I didn’t really realize this was what I was doing, but in hindsight – especially looking at your explanation of it – this is very much what was going on.

    Now, I need to finish the plots for these two :-)

    How many can one expect to keep in the air successfully at a time? I’ve assumed I’m doing one, then the other … is this a mistake?

    Thanks again for your description of how this all works on the back end. It’s very helpful.

    • I’m glad this was helpful.

      It’s fine to juggle two plots at the same time, for a while. Then you need to put one on the back burner and really focus on the other. At least until you have a completed first draft.

      I’ve written two books simultaneously from time to time. I don’t recommend it, though!
      :) Deb

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