Sunday, August 29, 2010

How I Start My Books

For me, a book ALWAYS begins with the characters, usually the protagonist. Ask most people to recite the plot of Gone With the Wind, and they'll scratch their heads. Ask them to tell you about Scarlett O'Hara or Rhett Butler, and they'll talk a blue streak.

The character drives the action. For example, take two women with car problems. One woman might cry and sit by the side of the road, another would stick out her thumb and hitchhike. Same situation, two different responses.

Usually, a scene or a tidbit of dialogue will pop into my head, and from that seed a character will grow. My dear friend Emilie Richards once told me that she doesn't just list traits, like "trustworthy" or "brave." Instead, she fleshes those traits out by writing, "Mary shows she is trustworthy and brave by doing a good job of caring for her aging grandfather, who is angry about his worsening medical condition." It's an exercise that also helps you develop great scenes.

Once I have a few scenes or bits of dialogue, I hurry to write them down. These are elusive, and if I miss them as they wander through my head, they can be hard to recover.

When I've captured that inspiration, the real work starts. They say there are two kinds of authors, "pant-sers" who write by the seat of their pants, and "planners" who outline. I do a bit of both. I will do as much writing as I can, but I'll also plan. I work through the templates in Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love. I pull out a file with other templates and exercises. I also work through the planning tips that Alexandra Sokoloff has shared on her blog, especially the 3-act structure.

All the while, I keep writing. Often I need to start over. I'm currently working on a new idea that my agent thinks has promise, but that she also wanted me to handle differently. I had written 60,000 words when I shared it. I'm now at the 50-page mark, not counting the 32-page synopsis. Meanwhile, I have Book #5 of the Kiki series to write, and another idea I'm also trying to prep just to show my agent.

If you are wondering, "But how do you know that's not wasted time?" Let me assure you, it isn't. At least not to me. I am learning as I go. I'm in this for the long haul.

Which leads me to research. Gosh, was there ever a bigger, more delicious time waster?


As I write, there are bits of research that must be done to avoid gigantic plot pitfalls. However, I try to be very, very strict with myself. At the start, I'll use the most general research possible. I keep a running list of what I'm foggy/unsure about and try to squeeze in that research at odd, non-writing times.

For example, last Saturday I went with my husband to deliver a set of casters to a customer. We then drove over to Morven Park, Leesburg, VA, home of the Winmill Carriage Collection. The docent answered a lot of my questions. If I had visited earlier in my writing, I would have wasted my time because I wouldn't have known what I needed to ask!

I guess this sums up my best advice rather nicely: Don't get the carriage before the horse!


Camille Minichino said...

Very good advice, Joanna. And I always take my camera so I can photograph both the cart and the horse, or else I'll forget which comes first.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I did the same, Camille. I also took photos of the signs. That's faster than taking notes.

Dru said...

I'm glad to know that research pays off in writing of your books.

Linda O. Johnston said...

I love your attitude about writing, Joanna! Keep those characters, ideas and research flowing.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Dru, it pays off, but you have to be careful. It can cause you to lose momentum, and you can become too "precious" about the research, allowing it to take up too much space because you are so proud of it. Plus, as someone once told me, it's not about the truth. It's about the reader thinking it's true. So if you put in a fact that confuses the reader, you've hurt your story...and story is everything.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Linda, coming from someone who is as published as you, that's high praise. Thanks so much.

Monica Ferris said...

Joanna, I agree about research carrying a danger of becoming "precious." I ended up with a co-author of my medieval series because I kept doing more and more research in a futile effort to be accurate. Gail was more eager to get the story rolling, which was great.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Monica, we tell ourselves, "This is too good to leave out," so we shoehorn in odd bits and pieces. Pretty soon, you have a mess. I love research, really I do, but it's a drug for authors!

Monica Ferris said...

Josnna, you are so right about it being like a drug. Very addictive and MUCH more fun than the writing.

Monica Ferris said...

Josnna, you are so right about it being like a drug. Very addictive and MUCH more fun than the writing.

Betty Hechtman said...

I agree that more than things being true, they have to seem true. Just because something is true doesn't make it believable.

Camille Minichino said...

That's one of the hardest things to convince mystery writing students of -- not to tell the truth!
New writers often justify a paragraph that's not working with "but it's true."
I probably said it myself once or twice!