I Can’t Get Started

I spent eighteen-plus hours of Labor Day weekend in the back seat of a car going to and from Arkansas. For a major portion of the journey I had my iPad and notebook on my lap, while one of my traveling companions had a giant artist’s sketchbook in which he wrote rough sketches of characters and dialogue punctuated by suggestive illustrations.

Both of us were preparing to tell stories.

A friend of mine said to me the other night that she found creation a daunting task because (and I agreed) every story begins with an infinite amount of possible choices and the writer has to narrow them down to the best possible box that a reader or actor or artist could lose themselves in and dissect from top to bottom. Over the years I have worked hard on my method of the work that goes into stories before writing the first draft, and since I firmly believe every new tale is better than the last, I have to think the method is working. Everyone has their own method, such as the cartoonist-in-the-margins stylings of my traveling companion, and none is better or worse than the other, but I offer this as help for those who feel that they can’t get started.

(Optional soundtrack here)

My biggest jumping-off point is to ask myself this question: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT? Every time I’ve started a story with a situation, that story has gone nowhere. But when I start with a theme that matters to me and that I want to spend years living with, then the story comes to life around that theme. Examples:

Amelia grew out of Stephen Christy’s desire to tell a story about “love and time.” I still remember walking back to my car the night that we had this conversation and thinking “love and time equals death.”

Form of a Question gestated far too long until I realized (with Stephen and Rebecca Taylor’s help) what the story was about: believing that what makes you unique is an agent of separation when it can be an agent of connection and making a place in the world. The multitude of story elements grew up around that theme.

The Wrong Foot (one of the two great works in progress) was my chance to tell a story about the world I saw around me and the hopes and fears of my generation.

And The Nonexistent (the other one of the two) came from my desire to make a tribute to one of my idols, Jorge Luis Borges, and his view of life as full of magical absurdity. As this theme grew and the characters and basic plot emerged, I realized I also needed it to be a story about feminism and how people others want to put on the margins truly matter. (A strong Tamora Pierce influence crept in as well but a strong Tamora Pierce influence should be in a lot of things.)

Once I have the theme and the situation comes the plot. Michael Tabb, one of my great mentors, encouraged me to fill three pages with free-form writing of ideas before logically organizing them into a structure. My uber-organized mind still often begins with a “here’s the beginning, middle, and end” but has gotten better about letting things flow naturally.

After plot comes character, and another lesson I learned from Mr. Tabb is to have a biography for every significant figure in your story. Some writers may say this isn’t necessary and they may be right. So much of what I come up with for biographies never makes it into the final product. But they do let me play with a character, understand how their mind works and why they make the choices they do, and they help me ensure two maxims I was given: you have to like and feel for EVERY character, good or bad, and they must have an ARC. Biographies help me find what to love in characters, and how who they are when they’re introduced can tie in with their psyches to get them where they need to go in the end. But don’t go crazy on biographies: Ross Richie, the fearless leader of Boom! Studios, made the very wise comment on Facebook the other day that too much backstory can keep your tale from moving forward. Know enough to get a firm psychological grasp on your worl and move from there.

The last step is something I note down and now come back to after I’ve finished the first draft: speech patterns. Nothing kills a story quite like having the people you create sound the same or talk like a narrator. I always jot down one or two vocal characteristics for every person, then go back and alter the dialogue to match these ideas. It’s now one of the most fun parts of rewriting for me and is definitely worth it.

With all this done, the first draft can take shape.

How do you lay the groundwork for your stories? I would love any comments on Facebook and Twitter.

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