To start off my Writing Advice series, what better place than “Getting Started”? This blog post endeavors to help you in deciding just how to begin writing a piece of fiction, whether it’s a short story 500 words long, a sweeping epic series with fifteen planned entries, or anything in-between.
This is such a common problem that no specific method will always be the best way to approach it, but I often find that some level of structuring at least puts me in the right frame of mind to put some words together in something approaching coherency.
Pan 1: Stop Thinking, Start Brainstorming
What Is This Floating Around Up Here?
Some people may take issue with “thinking” and “brainstorming” being pretty much the same. I believe a nuance exists between the two. “Thinking” in terms of “thinking about a story idea” evokes in me a sense of unfocused daydreaming. I have an idea knocking around up there, and it may even be incredibly vague. But as I transition from thinking about a story idea to brainstorming that idea, my collective thoughts begin to take on a mental outline. That mental outline is still very unstructured, still pretty unfocused.
But having a mental outline lets me capture some of that unfocused ephemera, put it under a lens. It enables me to take a step back, examine what I have, and ask myself:
Pan 2: The Big Question
Do I Have Something Here?
The answer to this question is usually “yes” or at least a measured “maybe”. I don’t say that because I’m so arrogant that I believe every thought I have is pure gold. I do tend to think that, but that is beside the point. There are so many topics, so many interesting things to write about, that a vague “idea” usually has some kind of merit to it that suggests to me “I need to look into this more.”
Let’s say you’ve got your idea. Let’s also say you gave it that consideration and are on the other side of it, ready to write something down. What do you write down?
Pan 3: Translating the Thought
Where Do I Even Begin?
I actually take a lesson from artists, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to watch their own version of brainstorming. They make really quick, basic thumbnails to get a bunch of variations of an idea down on paper. They’re already sifting through their mental outline figuring out what works and what doesn’t. After some consideration I thought it might not work for the initial writing process, but because I don’t like to say nay to a concept I’ve yet to try, I gave it a whirl.
I was met with meager success on the first go-round, because the visual thumbnailing process is way different than a writer’s thumbnailing process, and I initially had some trouble making it work. But if you give it some time, and commit to the idea that these are throwaway statements, throwaway sentiments, throwaway sentences, and that it doesn’t matter if they’re any good or not, you can get a lot written down in a short period of time. And if you’re anything like me, chances are you already have a strong feeling about one or more of your “thumbnails”, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore everything else. Most of writing is revision, and the more you have to work with, the easier it will be to revise and refine.
Pan 4: Structured Chaos
How Do I Get From Concept To Execution?
This is the tough part. Up to now the process can pass quickly once you start really brainstorming, but transitioning from Concept to Execution will take some time. Some people like to just sit down and start writing. Stream-of-consciousness writing with a concept in mind and see what happens. Other people try to meticulously plan out their entire story. I fall somewhere in the middle because it gives me enough structure while still allowing the freedom I require.
Usually by the time I’ve done my mental outline and thumbnailing, I’m already in the process of digging around, figuring out where I can go from there. This is where I tend to draft an actual outline.
The audible groans came through the Internet just now.
Hear me out, though. When I say “actual outline” I don’t mean that I create a point-by-point breakdown of every aspect of the story I’ve got in mind. My outlines are very rough concepts, with branching paths and possibilities to explore.
My typical outline starts with the idea, and it forms a character or set of characters that may help in the execution of that idea.
The character(s) dictate the possible points in the story that further develop that idea.
The possible points in the story dictate the tone, mood, and setting.
Everything builds off of everything else. Yet nothing is set in stone.
This is one way in which I believe I differ from a lot of writers. I plan loose and fast. The rough outline I create rarely bears more than passing resemblance to finished product. This gives me the freedom to improvise when I’m in the middle of writing and I know vaguely where I want to go or what I want to happen. Even scenes I’ve spent time meticulously plotting out usually go in a direction I hadn’t foreseen until I started writing it.
So the point of all this is to say that if you’re going to write something, give yourself some room to breathe. Never hold yourself to the concept if the story’s taking a turn you didn’t expect. By all means, write an outline. Just let the yarn unravel if it seems the right thing to do.
Pan 5: The Frustrating Bit
But Where Do I BEGIN?
Fair enough, we haven’t actually written anything yet. I sometimes get frustrated with the pre-writing process, too. But I almost always commit to some level of this pre-writing because in the end, the story will thank you. Pre-writing, even a minimal amount, goes a very long way in naturally smoothing out the wrinkles, filling in the plot holes, and answering the unanswerable questions that can and will come about from writing by the seat of your dreampants.
I like to call my pre-writing process outlined above the “Structured Chaos Method”. Things will go wrong. They always do. The looser your grip on the saddle, the easier you can adjust when the tame mare becomes a wild stallion.
At the end of the day, however, no amount of pre-writing will prepare you to take your first steps with a story. No amount of brainstorming will make those first lungfuls of air from a new world any easier to breathe in. And no amount of thinking will put your story on a page for you.
After you’ve done your thinking, and your brainstorming, and your mental outlines, and your thumbnails, and your real outline, the last thing to do is simply choose a place and start writing.
The worst action you can take after you’ve done any kind of pre-writing is inaction: not to follow through with any real writing. Even if you hate every word you’re putting down, don’t erase it. Even if you write a sentence and immediately know how you want to change it, don’t edit it. Even if you start writing and immediately know you don’t want to start here anymore, try to finish what you started. Let the scene you’ve begun come to a natural conclusion; who knows when you might need it later?
What would be my best advice in terms of “Where Do I Even Begin?” Stop agonizing about where to begin and just begin. No piece of writing, no painting, no sculpture, no anything was begun with the perfect plan. There are no artists who don’t perform some level of revision before they’re satisfied with a piece. No opening scene ever stayed my opening scene, or didn’t become a vastly different scene after I was done.
There is no perfection.
There’s only Writing.