I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got 4 separate projects I could conceivably work on during this period. None of them are just blank screens. I feel like this is a pretty good situation to be in. What if I were in the situation of not having a project at the ready? What would I do? Honestly, I don’t know. Usually, I start a project with a single concept, maybe a sentence or a few words. Deep Space Help Desk was a concept that I’d been kicking around for a while without much luck. Then an overheard conversation at work, jostled my mind into the right place for it, and things started coming together. For Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I had a single phrase that I built a story around. The other two WIPs, one I’m calling The Dark Queen of Darkness, and the other Thittlebod or Penelope H. Adventure (That one doesn’t have much of a name yet), these both came from something much less tangible.
In the latter two cases described above, I started with characters. I love it when a viable story starts out this way. Immediately compelling characters offer that illusive hook that writers so often talk about. Not only that, it gives me a non-flat character right away, as my wife will tell you, I struggle with character. When a character jumps off the page with what, as a writer, feels like a bit too much force, that’s the sweet spot. The only thing to be done is to observe the world through their eyes. I particularly enjoy characters who are either completely hopeless at what they do and really don’t belong wherever it is they happen to be, or they’re full experts, but in either case are inexplicably surrounded by nonsense. I love walking the character through the nonsense because it makes the dialogue much more interesting and gives me a lot of freedom with respect to what other characters say and do. Not to mention, as a writer, I can add twists that make little sense, because the main character will be quite as confused as the reader. This is excellent. If the main character is saying “Wait. What the hell just happened?” At the same moment this occurs to the reader, the reader is on the side of the protagonist and much more likely to follow along with whatever is going on.
I think if I were starting fresh, with no real sense of where I was heading with NaNo, I think I’d start with a character and a vague sense of setting. I’d let the character’s motivations determine the plot. After all, the plot is just a series of events that prevent the MC from getting what they want and the process by which that MC overcomes the obstacles and changes as a result. Anyhow, now I’m off to pound away on my non-NaNo project before I have to switch gears. Good luck to all the NaNo participants out there!
I’m not spending much time on the beginning of my story just now, but I was thinking about this thing called ‘the hook’. It’s that bit of the story near the beginning, let’s say the first chapter, that draws the reader in and could make the difference between a sale and being dropped into the slush pile. When I hear other writers talk about it (or see them write about it), it puts me in mind of some epic event like those stupid extreme marriage proposals where a guy is arrested whilst jumping from a space-plane tied in chains or something. I’ve come to the conclusion, as a thoroughly amateur writer, that the typical advice falls ludicrously short of the mark. The typical advice being: “You need a good hook, it really needs to grab the reader.”
Here’s what I think: The beginning of the story just needs to to have enough conflict to be interesting, that is, pose some problem for the character that makes the reader wonder what happens next. I don’t think it even matters what that conflict is, though it should probably be relevant to the story as a whole. What’s really important in the hook is having something that is instantly engaging. A lot of the most enjoyable books I’ve read start with something like a conversational tone. It’s light and feels vaguely like those times when you’re having a few drinks with friends and telling stories. The sort of thing where you might say: “Oh, man, there was this time we were out hiking, and Steve saw this squirrel, and you wouldn’t believe what it was dragging around…” There’s always a lead-up in those stories, often heading to a punchline, but I would argue it’s the same for a book, except that you’re aiming for a climax, not a punchline. The point here is that it’s more in the telling than the actual events, though those are important too.
Such great advice. Not that anyone actually follows it. I’m certain I didn’t anyhow. The current fantasy project I’m working on started out as a single hand-written page concept for a science fiction story, my notes put it sometime in 2004. Although I had a character and some very basic ideas about his circumstances, I didn’t have a beginning. So, I went looking for one. The circumstances for my character were somewhat fantastical and so the history became fantastical, which eventually led me to a setting in which you would expect a high fantasy to occur. This process also introduced other characters and conflicts, which eventually eclipsed the original concept as the more interesting story. Even then, I still didn’t have a beginning. In the vain hope of a beginning coming to me, I spent years creating maps and languages, people and history. After that, I still didn’t have a beginning, so I started writing-up the back-stories of characters I’d developed for this world. Finally, in desperation, I did a global search and replace of a name in one of these back-stories just to see what might happen, and suddenly I had my beginning. The next few chapters came easily over the course of a couple of weeks. I felt really good about them too. Then, I asked several people to read over the work. Needless to say, the beginning, and the bulk of the subsequent chapters, only vaguely resemble what I started with, but the core of my story remains, and I’m still making progress.