Beth Bernobich: Hello, Story


BethBernobichAs I said in my last post, not all writing advice works for all writers. We each find the approach that works best for us, and for the project at hand.  But! I do believe it’s useful to share our approaches with each other. Maybe we add a new technique to our writer toolkit. Maybe we try out this other technique and learn it doesn’t work for us.

So in the spirit of sharing, here is how I turn my ideas into stories.

Ideas. Those wispy scraps of “what if” that float through our brains. Most of my ideas are fragile things that never survive discovery. That death of the story can be quick, as quick as me noticing the idea, only to have it fade into nothing. Or I might jot down a few notes about a possible story, to find the story feels dead in my imagination. But that’s okay. Ideas are like gnats on a pond. Lots and lots of them buzz around.

Idea plus people. I call this phase the “what if this person did this” phase. This, for me, is the true seed for a story, when the idea makes the leap from the abstract into characters moving through their world. Stories can still die at this point, but less often. So. I wait and let the ideas and images build until…

Full-color video in surround sound. By this point I’m getting snippets of scenes and dialog, all colored by emotion, invading my brainspace. Here is where I take the first tentative step in putting those images into words.

Step one is to write as much as comes easily to me. That might be a single scene, or it might be three chapters. I pour the words into my document without stopping to think about prose or worldbuilding. Research, edits, plotting can all take place later. Here I’m trying to capture that first sense of story and character that fell into my brain.

TheTimeRoads.CoverSometimes, the story dies here. I write a chapter or two and find that the inspiration dies out. Or sometimes the story lives, but I discover I don’t have the skills to do it justice. In the first case, I delete the document. In the second, I file the document under “future ideas” and leave it to simmer. (So far, I’ve never regretted deleting a half-born story. Either it comes back later, better and stronger, or I never think about it again.)

But other times, this initial burst of writing calls up all kinds of new details about my characters, their world, and their personal history. Here is when I know if the opening is the right one. Here is when I find out the ending.

Up to this point, my approach is what writers call pantsing—figuring out the story by the seat of your pants. And if that works, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that outlining is required.

But I have discovered through experience that pantsing the entire novel seldom works for me, so here is where I take a step back from and work out the story’s overall shape. I save my existing scenes and chapters in one document, then open up a new one and start jotting down a very rough outline.

I know the opening, so I write a brief summary of what I’ve written so far.

I know the ending, so I write a page, or sometimes a couple pages, about what I think happens there.

Then I write anywhere from six to ten milestone markers to connect the opening to the ending. Each “marker” might be as short as a single sentence, or long as a page, with dialog and other bits of real prose.

Then I stare at those paragraphs. Frown at the cats. Chew my fingernails. Walk around the office. Research some plot points and tweak the outline. Shut down the document and go re-read one of my favorite books. Meanwhile, more details about the characters and their story are flooding my brain, so I add them to my notes document as well.

At some point, I start writing again. I check the so-called outline from time to time, but mostly I let the words spill out. The outline is just my launch point. It can change. It will change. And that’s okay. The important thing is getting words onto the page.

This approach has worked for me for the past five books. Will it always work? Maybe, maybe not. I no longer worry about that. I used to write my books in sequential order, only revising once I had a complete draft. Then I realized it was fine to stop partway through and revisit the outline. Then I realized that it was fine to write the scenes out of order.

So I write. Here and there.  A patchwork of scenes that get stitched together until I have a story that runs from end to end.

What works for me might not work for you. And that’s okay, too.

What matters is finishing that first draft.


BIO: Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. Her short stories have appeared in, Asimov’s, Interzone, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Her first novel, PASSION PLAY, won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Epic Fantasy in 2011. Her newest release, THE TIME ROADS, is available from Tor Books October 14, 2014.


5 comments to Beth Bernobich: Hello, Story

  • princejvstin

    Getting that first draft done is paramount. There are many roads to it, but you must see a road through.

  • I like the ideas in your post, but especially the six to ten milestones. I’m going to try that. Thanks.

  • Razziecat

    I like the milestones, too. I don’t write formal outlines; if I do, I know too much about the story, the excitement of discovery is gone, and I lose my momentum and my passion for the story. But I do like to have a general idea of where I’m going. For me, the characters come first, always; I could almost say they ARE the story, because their problems are what brings the story into existence in my mind. I always keep a document called “Notes on [name of story]” and here I jot down impressions and ideas for scenes, dialog, etc. If I know something about the ending, I note that, too, but not in too much detail. Thinking in terms of milestones is a great idea, as a way to mark the progress and development of the story and keep my from getting lost down all the little side paths that spring up! 😀

  • I’m glad the milestone approach sounds useful. It helps me keep on track, but leaves me lots to discover. (Especially in the dreaded middle section.)