Starting a Book: Part the First


I’ve been thinking about how to start a book. Mostly because I’m working on starting a book. So I thought I’d share a little bit of my process with you. Now when I say that, it actually sounds like I have a process. It sounds so organized and careful and planned. Not so much. Every time I start a new book it’s different. I’m going to do some talking about the different ways I start a book in my next couple of posts.

This book is annoying. It’s the fourth in a series and I know the characters well and the world and the situation. Here’s the trouble. I don’t have an obvious endpoint. This is very difficult because I work best when I know where I’m going to end up. I may not know how to get there, but at least I know where I’m going. Only this time I don’t. I’ll admit, this isn’t the first time that’s happened. But it is the worst kind of way for me to start a book.

You see, I have a lot of ideas for this book. I’ve journaled pages of notes about things that I want to happen. It’s all great stuff, but trying to figure out how they weave together is the problem. Without an endgame, it means that I’m writing the whole thing off the seat of my pants. I do not like doing that. I feel panicked during the whole process. It terrifies me.

On the other hand. The terror can work for me. It stimulates creativity and because I don’t have an end point, my mind isn’t locked into any particular path and I can let it rove and play and that’s a really great thing. If only I wasn’t terrified that everything I do will totally screw up the book. Only really, I can’t screw it up that much. I mean, I can always start over. Um. Kill me now. But you know what I mean. Add into that turbulent mix the deadly deadline, and the fear ratchets up and I start wanting to stay in bed all day with the covers over my head.

So what’s a writer to do? In a nutshell: write. Jump in, hold your nose (against the stink), and write fast. Let things flow and trust your lizard brain to be working on the plot and the connections while you’re pouring out the words. Trust yourself. This isn’t my first novel, or my fifth, or even my tenth. I’ve been around the block and i can do this. I can even do it this way, painful as it is.

So that’s the take away: Shut up, sit down, write.

(Next time in Part the second: what happens when you have No Freaking Clue how to start a book because you can’t capture the character voices.)


12 comments to Starting a Book: Part the First

  • I’ve got an old WIP tucked away where, while I knew the beginning and what I thought the book was about, I had no idea how it would actually end. But I did what you suggest. I just wrote. Luckily I was saved by a character who decided to just walk onstage two thirds of the way through who lead me to my ending and what the whole book actually turned out to be about.

    Someday I will pull that WIP out of my trunk and rewrite the whole thing with the knowledge of what actually story I was trying to tell.

    Thanks for this post. Looking forward the next part (character voices) as that is my current struggle. Progress is being made but I would love to hear the insights of a published author whose books I love.

  • admin

    Diana, I get that way often when I start a book or series That freedom (while terrifying and stomach dropping and awful) is fabulouss. Keep us informed on the process and how it goes.

  • Unicorn

    I may just be going crazy (crazier, anyway) but whether or not I know the end depends a lot on my main protagonist. The older WIP, now in its second draft, has a cautious hero who likes to plan a lot and I knew pretty much exactly where I was going. The newer one, in its first draft, has a hero who is totally the opposite – he never has the foggiest idea of where he’s going, if this scheme will work, or how he is going to defeat the bad guys. Nor do I; it will be interesting to see what happens. With a deadline hanging over your head it must be really terrifying. One good thing about not being published: No deadlines, except the self-imposed ones.
    Thanks for the post, Diana. The latter hero approves of “sit down, shut up and write”. He’s been trying to get me to just listen for the past week. “Forget the dragon! This is cool stuff I’m giving you!”

  • You are far braver than I, Diana, but that may because you have “been around the block,” as you put it.

    I personally can’t stand the idea of sitting down to write my next book until I know how it will end. I just know that pantsing my way into a story would produce a huge mess to clean up later (as cedunkley indicated). That mess would be so intimidating and demoralizing to me that I would probably never do it.

    But that’s just me. Many authors seem to love the process of discovery that pantsing gives them, and feel that their creativity is stifled by structure. I guess the moral is to do whatever works best for you!

  • Shut up and write is almost always the best advice I can give myself, particularly at the beginning of a new project. I think you and I have fairly similar processes, Di — I like to have an endpoint in mind, too. And yet, when I don’t, I tend to do some of my most creative plotting — panic does that…. Anyway, best of luck with it, and thanks for the post.

  • Rhonda

    I’m trying, for the first time, to figure out what the end of the story is before I start. I’m finding it very difficult; all my previous stories I started with not a clue where it would go. I let the characters tell me what they wanted, then I denied it to them… a decent ending usually developed from that.

  • cedunkley: luckily that lizard brain is always at work for us, sending new characters onto stage and making connections for us. You’re right though. Take it back out and go with it, now you know where it was going. You can shore up themes and ideas and so on. Whoohoo!

    admin: I’ll be sure to keep people posted. Agony or ecstasy, whichever happens.

  • Of the three WIPs I rotate between, one has an end-point, but how I’ll get there is weak, so I’ve stopped for a bit to work on shoring it up. The other two started off as pure pantsterisms. I have absolutely no clue where they are going! Love the concepts, love the worlds, characters, etc., so I just started writing. Now, I can’t go any further without risking investment of 100K+ of … bleah. So, for them as well, I’m back to scritchy-scratching on reams of note paper trying to build a story for them.
    Pantstering works really well for me for figuring out who the characters are and finding voice, how the world works, establishing the politics, religions, etc… but after a point, if I still don’t know what the story is about, I have to stop and do the heavy lifting. Sad thing is, looks like I’m going to be doing a LOT of heavy lifting for the next little while.

  • My first book (on the back burner) was fully planned from start to end. I wrote a stack of stuff about each character and the politics and so on. When I finished I realised that all my planning was for naught as the ending was wrong and the main character turned out to be the secondary character and the main plot turned into the sub plot.
    In essence it wasn’t until I had finished the book that I knew what the book was actually about and who the main character was. So for my second book I spent longer planning it out and it turned out exactly as planned, but only 60,000 words which felt only half done. The book I’m working on now I only planned the start and just started writing. I’ll see where it goes. I look forward to seeing how you manage unknown character voices.

  • […] 8.  Starting a Book?  It Might Help to Know the Endgame […]

  • Unicorn: always listen to the books. I find that different characters can make a difference to the way I write a book. And some characters chance enough between books that I have to completely change.

    D.R. Marvello: I hate pantsing really. But sometimes there just is no choice. It’s one of the stresses of writing that things happen quite differently from book to book. You can’t count on the same process, and worse, you never know if you’re up to the job. But on the other hand, it makes for tension and sometimes it pushes me to ratchet up my writing. It’s true, I think, that we never want to be too comfortable.

    David: Yep on the panic. Sigh.

    Rhonda: that’s an excellent method. And if it works for you, why not keep it?

  • Lyn: One of my issues is that I can’t work out some things unless I’m actually writing on the book. The notebooks help so far, but then I have to be in the trenches to figure it out. So sometimes I just have to commit to the risk of having to toss a lot. Which I hate with a passion. So I totally get where you’re at.

    Scion: it’s funny, I don’t do a lot of heavy plotting. When I have an endpoint, I try to figure a loose path to get there, but then I just start writing and seeing where it goes. The thing is, if you try to force it into a shape without leaving leeway or permitting change as your creative juices flow and things just happen, then you rob your work of some wonderful elements. So maybe you should try a little bit of structure with some creative license.