Monday, November 10, 2008

Taking the Labor Out of Starting a Story

Part One:

Don’t be the author that might have been because starting a story is too cumbersome to master. The blank page (or in modern-day vernacular, the blank computer screen) is your friend, not your enemy. Too often, writers get stuck even before they start, and because getting unstuck seems impossible, the starts never happen. Is this you? It’s been me many times, but I’ve learned a few things in the 30 years that I’ve been writing, and I never get “stuck” anymore. I am going to share with you a few skills and practices that will help you unlock that great story brewing in your mind, and allow you to put to the page those all important opening words, the words that will grab your reader and thrust them into the heart of your story. Notice I said “skills and practices” and not “tricks.” There are no tricks to successful writing. Each author has her own style, her own impetus to write. However there are a few fundamentals that every writer should know and practice BEFORE beginning the writing process. By learning and then following these fundamentals, the process will not only become easier, but far more enjoyable.

Arguably, a writer’s most important practice is to read. Seems rather rudimentary, but it is surprisingly the one thing of which many writers do too little. Reading is, as the axiom goes, fundamental. For the writer, it is nothing less than essential. Perhaps one of the reasons the simple act of reading seems so daunting to writers is that the volume of choices is so astronomically grand. Therefore, the question becomes, “What do I read?”

Many successful authors would answer that question by asking you in return, “What do wish to write?” If you wish to pen mysteries, then you should read mysteries. If your desire is to write historical fiction, then you should read historical fiction. Are children’s stories your style? Then, of course, read children’s stories. Makes sense, and the advice is sound. For whatever genre you are looking to specialize in, you should be an avid reader in that genre. Go to the bookstore in your local mall, or check out and see what the best-selling, best-reviewed books are in your genre. Then read them. Ask your friends, family, co-workers what they are reading, and if they answer they are reading something in the avenue of which you wish to write, then borrow the book.

The advantages of reading are many. First, reading helps the writer define exactly where his passion lies. If you think you would be a great mystery writer, but find reading well-received mystery novels less than pleasurable, then you must ask yourself, “Why do I want to write mysteries if I don’t enjoy reading them?” If the answer is, “Because I think mysteries will sell,” then you are writing for the wrong reasons, and you will likely not become a successful mystery writer. On the other hand, if, while reading your forty-third romance novel, you look up at the clock to discover that it’s three in the morning, and you’ve been reading for six hours and you have to be up at seven, but still can’t put the book down, well, you might be on to something.
Once you determine that you in fact do have a passion for the genre in which you wish to write, then reading serves another purpose. You have already perused a plethora of well-written novels, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Now, reread the ones you loved best, and study the format, the structure, the formula perhaps. Take notes on language and characterization, transition and plotline. Denote the balance between description and dialogue, action and rest. How much time does the author dedicate to the start, rising action, climax and denouement? Are there twists, red herrings, subplots, and subtexts? How many characters are there? How many settings? Etc. Etc.

Another benefit is that in reading you expand your mind. By reading, you open yourself up to experiences that you never thought imaginable. You take in ideas that could not have been perceived without having read a particular book. You expand your language and vocabulary, learn new dialects, patois, and other regionalisms. You discover what works for you in a certain story and what doesn’t. Even the best-written and most notable novels don’t appeal to everyone. Soon, you will find that you can decipher specifically what holds your interest and what slows down your reading. The more you read, the more your mind grows. The more expansive your mind, the better equipped you are to write.

Now, you’ve read enough books to know you want to write certain kind of story. You have studied the genre to a point where you believe you should be ready to start, but as you click on your computer screen, you still find yourself staring at a blank page. Where to begin? I could say, draw an outline. Many authors do. But, some award-winning, highly successful writers simply begin at the beginning and make notes as they go. Again, each writer has a different style, a different motivation, a different approach to writing. No one approach is more correct than another. All that matters is that it works for you. So, then, where do you start? How do find those elusive all-important first words that are essential in grabbing your reader? You sit, alone, pondering, wondering, thinking, “What to write? What to write? What words are the right words to write?” And those words don’t come. Why? – The answer likely lies in your plot sentence. Do you have one? While explaining to a friend what your story is about, you find yourself digressing and rambling in many directions, unable to formulate a cohesive description, it then becomes evident that you don’t have a clear understanding of your story at all and therefore are not ready to begin writing it. Even if the story changes, you should have an initial plot sentence before entering the story. Formulate one sentence that, in a nutshell, effectively describes the main plot, the main story arc, and more often than not, the protagonist of your story. The effectiveness of your story’s beginning depends largely on the structure and specificity of your plot sentence. Make certain the action of your story in your plot sentence comes before the noun or the mention of the main character. And by all means, avoid being vague. Ask yourself the necessary questions that will fill out your plot and your main character. For example, let’s say this is your plot sentence: “The story is about a college student who comes against life-altering obstacles that threaten to destroy his dream of becoming a professional football player.” Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the college student?
  • What is his name?
  • Does he actually play college football?
  • If so, what’s his position on the team?
  • What year student is he?
  • Is he any good at the game?
  • What are the life-threatening obstacles?
  • Are they chance obstacles, like he develops cancer or his house was washed away in a flood, or are they purposeful threats – someone is out to get him to intentionally hurt him.
  • When deciding on the life-threatening obstacle, how did it happen and when?
  • Why does he dream of being a professional football player – prospects for fame and fortune - love of the game - his father was a pro ball player - his father is pushing him to be a pro ball player - He was a 90 pound weakling who proved himself to be a powerful force on the football field.

Sounds like a lot for one sentence, but it really isn’t. You can condense all of your answers into one or two words and it is not against the rules to have more than one clause in your sentence (But be careful to not have too many as you may fall victim to the run-on sentence.) Once these questions are answered, then structure your sentence so the action is up front. Instead of “The story is about a college student…” turn it around.

“After a violent and suspiciously purposeful rogue tackle from rival Jack Snow, Blue Devil’s running back and senior college football favorite John Foxworthy is paralyzed from the waist down, left to struggle with his broken dreams, more importantly his father’s broken dreams for him, of becoming a professional football player.”

OK, it’s not perfect, but you get the idea. Now you have your plot sentence. So, how do you turn this into the opening lines of your book? Easy. The opening lines of your story should directly connect with the core or your plot. If you are writing about a college football player who dreams of being a pro, then start the story on the football field. If your story is about a town threatened by deadly forces from outer space, then begin the story with a spacecraft crash landing in the middle of a Midwestern town. If the plot of your novel circles around finding a serial killer who preys on college women with long dark hair, then open your novel with the murder of one of these women. From there you can either flashback or move forward. It’s up to you. Notice that in each example your story is opening with an action. It isn’t a student sitting at his desk in World Geography class, or a Midwestern family gathered around the dinner table in prayer or the young woman primping to go out for the night. That all may have a place later, but right at the start, jump into the action!

There’s one more element that is vitally important in creating that all-important opening scene, and that is the picture that you paint. How vivid is the scene, how specific the action. How clear is the scene. Will the reader be confused about what’s happening? What is the mood that is being set? Don’t be overly comic if the genre is literary drama, or draw out a graphic death scene if the book is a comedy. The mood must be instantaneously set. Later you can add comic relief, or dramatic reinforcement, or whatever you need to round out your story. At the start, the mood should be set. But how do you create a mood with words? How can you paint a picture with text? If you weren’t having fun before now, then here’s where you’ll start. This is where you begin the real creativity in your creative writing. And it all comes down to poetry. POETRY? Yes, poetry. As a poet, I have mastered many of the rhetorical devices used in writing verse and applied those devices to my prose writing.

Think about it. What is poetry? Poetry is taking one moment in time, one tiny slice of life, and presenting that moment to the public in the least amount of words possible. That is the opening of your book. Successful poetry concentrates on the concrete images and pictures that depict the emotions of the poet. By focusing on the concrete and eliminating the abstract, the poet is able to pinpoint the precise emotions they are trying to convey. If a poet were to do the opposite, that is focus on the abstract, then the meaning of the words would be open to too broad of an interpretation. By turning emotions like love, hate, fear, anger, frustration, depression, etc. into concrete images, the poet is able to more clearly and accessibly convey what she is trying to say. Take the emotion of the scene, the rush the football player feels as he’s racing for the goal, the disruption of peace in the sleepy Midwest town, the fear of the young woman walking alone at night, and turn it into an image. I will help you through that process in my next blog.

For now, send me your comments or questions regarding what you’ve learned or read so far in this blog, and I will be happy to answer you. Let’s make this interactive. You may know something I don’t regarding how to successfully write the opening pages of your novel or story. You may want to add to what I’ve already said or contradict some ideas. You may want to send some examples of what you’ve written for critique or just to share. Remember, if you are critiquing someone else’s work, be as constructive and kind as you would wish others to be to you. The purpose of critique is to enhance an existing work, not to interject ideas of your own or to simply say you like or don’t like something. We are looking for positive reinforcement and constructive advice.

Don’t worry, if you are eager to continue with the use of poetic rhetorical devices and concrete imagery in the writing of your prose fiction…It’s coming! In the meantime, I am looking forward to your comments and thank you for reading my blog!

Eileen Albrizio - Author: Messy on the Inside (poetry), Rain: Dark as Water in Winter (poetry), On the Edge (a recitation of poems on audio CD), Perennials: New & Selected Poems (poetry), Alision’s Weight (young adult novel), Dragonfly Net (mystery novel), What’s a Mother For? (one-act play –co-authored by Connie Magnan-Albrizio &-recognized by Writer’s Digest in 1996), Rain (one-act play – recognized by Writer’s Digest in 1997), The Blind Side of Night (compilation of short stories – in progress)
Winner of the 2003 and 2008 Individual Artist Fellowships from the Greater Hartford Arts Council. Former award-winning news anchor and journalist for NPR and its Connecticut affiliate.