Tuesday Craft: The First Step

The first step to writing a novel is an interesting thing, and I have a feeling that everyone’s step is going to be a little bit different.

I usually start by making a mess. What the mess looks like depends a great deal on whether I have my computer in front of me, or I’m working on paper (I have the most godawful-atrocious handwriting—you have no idea).

When I first start to develop a concept for a novel, I like to work out the broad points using the “cloud” or “cluster” method of brainstorming, except halfway through, I usually start forgetting to cluster, so it begins to look like lists of questions and directives, which often have a certain accusatory quality.

Everything I can think of that might be a story-concern goes into the cluster. As I move into the later phases of developing a plot, I usually find that I’ve missed a lot of things, and that plenty of what I had in my first cluster just isn’t relevant and needs to be stripped away. However, that’s a refining step, and so, has no place here.

Here are several examples of preliminary work from a novel I wrote about demons. Also, a sample of hieratic for visual comparison.

notebook 1notebook 2

hieratic 1

So, tell me, how do you like to (have to) start

11 thoughts on “Tuesday Craft: The First Step

  1. I’m still figuring out what works best for me in novels.

    So far, I have learned that it keeps me on track if I write the story all out longhand and short form beforehand — possibly because I used to write all my stories by hand when I was a kid — and my writing is… not necessarily legible. Interestingly enough, except for personality differences in writing, my neatest handwriting looks similar to yours.

    Sometimes I have to stare at a scribble for a long time until I figure out a word.

    When I write comic scripts for a set amount of pages/panels, I sketch out the pages and panels and highlight where the suspense should be and where the cliffhangers go. That helped me with pacing the story. Unfortunately, adapting this trick to novels or short stories didn’t work as well.

  2. Usually I find that one or more characters start talking to me. I hear some bits of dialogue and then I make scene lists. I try and start with thirty or more scenes and am very fluid about where they go. I am an organic writer and find that when I write my first drafts fast they have an energy that is missing in novels I’ve written over more time [and also tend to have things like actual endings too]. I am comfortable with this process even though I am to date unpublished.

  3. I find that I’m also very fluid about scenes in first drafts, but I’ve never tried starting with a handful already in mind (super-organic, right here). However, I’m trying to change, so maybe this is a tactic that will give me structure while tricking me into thinking it’s still all spontaneous 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  4. I too like the feeling of doing the preliminary work longhand. There’s something official and engaged and permanent about it. Even though coming back to it is kind of like code-breaking sometimes 😉

    That’s really neat about the comic scripts. It’s a shame that you found the technique didn’t work the same way for your novels. Not being a very visual thinker, I can’t even get very much use out of a timeline, but I think that being able to depict a story spatially would be a very cool thing.

  5. Code breaking — no kidding. And I never got a secret decoder ring after all that super-sugared cereal I ate growing up.

    Maybe it’s because comic books are a visual medium that storyboarding the script works so well. Novels are a different monster entirely though. Building timelines don’t work for me either. I tried to do one for the book I’m writing now, and never got past a timeline for what I already had written, which didn’t help much!

    If I try writing off the seat of my pants, it goes a few chapters and then stops, going nowhere. A friend of mine chuckles at my despair.

    “You crack me up,” he says. “You come up with great characters and settings. Cool concepts for the main characters. Your bad guys are the kinds of people I’d like to hang out with. But… PLOT… You need a PLOT…”

    And I protest, “I have a plot. I do! It’s… um… It’s in there!”

    I go nowhere fast until I start writing the story out by hand, because writing it out brings my left brain in. The more I have on paper, the more my right brain jumps up and exclaims in glee, “See! There IS a plot! There it is! I told you!”

  6. :)The word outline gives me hives. So I call my attempt at organization a scene list, not scary at all! Happy Beginnings!

  7. Holy crap. I feel so unanalytical in comparison, Brenna! Seriously, you ask all these Important Questions that stupidly never occur to me until after I’ve already started.

  8. Ah, but as you will notice, there is nary a word about plot in any of that analytical rambling. My default setting is to think almost exclusively in terms of theme and character, so people wander around for about, oh, 50-60 pages, not doin’ anything, just hanging out, just being themselves . . .

  9. I have a couple books full of notes on books to write. Ironic? I live in First Step.

  10. Ah, but when you transition to Second Step again, you’ll have a stockpile of material to choose from. And let me tell you, I’m looking forward to it.

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