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Tuesday, January 17, 2006



Before you begin to write . . .

Writing begins with an idea. The idea comes to you without bidding. Before turning the idea into the great American Novel of the Twenty-First Century, there are many steps you might choose to take before you begin formal writing. Here is a listing of some of them:

The beginning of story writing doesn't appear on page one. As a matter-of-fact, it doesn't appear in the manuscript at all. The beginning of a story takes place in the mind of the writer, or perhaps in a notebook if you are very organized (which I admit I am not).

Much writing by new writers appears to skip the critical steps I just mentioned and will describe at greater length below. The list below is not in a particular order. To discuss each issue would take an entire book, and we will come back to most of these issues in depth later. For now, it is important to become familiar with the fact that there are many issues we must deal with before a word is committed to paper. We need to make, amongst others, the following decisions:

* The nature of the protagonist. We needs to create a three-dimensional character and sets her loose in a plot. Our character must have many facets that, in combination, can make her unpredictable -- even to the writer.

* The basic storyline. What is the story about? Here is an example of a storyline that gets the action going but has no input into how it will get to its destination. It differs from a plot outline in that a plot outline is a detailed account of what is going to happen and who is going to make it happen. Here is a storyline sample:

A storyline for a bank caper might look like this: Three men who met in reform school and the former girlfriend of one of them meet again twenty years later. Each has a reason for needing a large amount of money quickly or a reason for turning to an illegal activity to get it. Two meet by co-incidence and involve the other two as they develop a plan to rob the former employer of one of the four.

The storyline brings us to the next set of important decisions in the beginning process:

* The individual major characters. What is the back story (history of the character that you may or may not share with the reader) about each one that you need in order to develop the story? What are their strengths and flaws? What in their background makes them susceptible to becoming a believable part of the scheme? What in their lives creates the potential for conflict and chaos when they join with the other protagonists?

* The narrator. Now that you have a story and the primary characters, you need to
pick a narrator that fits best with the style and substance of the story. Will you use a First-Person POV (Point-of-View) and choose one of the characters? Would this story be written best from a Third-Person limited POV, a Third-Person omnicient POV? Perhaps you are overlooking a minor character who hasn't been introduced yet who would make the best POV. What kind of voice do you want to give the narrator? Does the narrator have to have the same kind of background as the characters? Decisions, decisions.

* Plot outlining. Each decision you make creates a need to make further decisions. Do you make a plot outline with a conclusion now, or do you allow the characters to develop the story so that the conclusion will become a natural outcome of their interactions with each other, with others who are introduced as the story develops, their strengths and weaknesses and outside elements they can't control?

* Back story. How much of the information about the characters do you need to share with the reader? How do you share it in a manner that doesn't impede the forward motion of the story?

* The major problem. How do you introduce the protagonist's major problem without being too obvious about it? How do you pull the reader into the conflict without appearing to force the issue?

* The hook. How do you get the reader to want to read on to the end? The first hook is a key that you want to develop that represents your style, the nature of the manuscript and will help the reader suspend disbelief.

* The introduction of the characters. How do you plan to bring your cast on to the stage? You want to be realistic, yet not waste too much time with introductions? How do you plan to build the characters so that they change as events and other characters impact upon them and they impact upon events and other characters?

* Dialogue by each character (the character's voice) as well as between characters. Does your dialogue immediately distinguish your characters? Does their dialogue contribute mightily to the progress of the storyline? Is there tension and conflict in the dialogue to move the story forward from page 1?

* Description. Does your description of the characters list all their attributes and characteristics like the slats of a picket fence or do you allow your character to grow in the mind of the reader? Does your description of events and locale overwhelm the reader with adjectives and minutia? Do you show your story rather than tell it?

* Setting. Where have you placed the action? Does your story need a particular locale? If it does, do you know enough about the locale to describe it and use it accurately? The example I always recall about the description of locale bears repeating. It killed the veracity of a mystery I once read. The scene was placed on Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. There is no Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. Between Thirteenth Street and Fifteenth Street is Broad Street. It is the core N - S street in that city and was designed by the city's founder, William Penn in the seventeenth century. It was and still is the focal point on the N - S axis of that city all these years after he drew the first Platt maps. Without that knowledge, a careless writer and and editor allowed that faux pas to pass muster and be printed.

* The time frame and date. Another task is to set the amount of time you will use to conduct the business of the story: Hours? Days? Years? Also, you need to set the era in which it takes place: Now? Some identifiable time in the past? Some identifiable time in the future?

* The format. Are you writing a book-length project, a short story, a short-short, a novelette? How you approach the material will vary according to what format you are writing. How many characters, who will narrate, the time span, the focus will depend on what kind of writing you are doing.

* A working title. Sometimes a title can serve as the parameters around which you will build the story. It may not be the one the marketing department of a publisher will use, but it allows you to get the story in focus and to the editor.

* The opening line. If it is: "It was a dark and stormy night," your name better be Snoopy or you can forget it. It may be raining, cold and windy, but you better find a unique way fo bringing it into your story. You can bring the same concept in from a personalized place.

I was wet, cold and angry. My first thought was to throw in the towel, but not until I used it to dry myself off.

Ok, that was pretty loose, but you get the idea. Be original, no cliches -- not even in your outline. Even in an outline, write your best, so you won't use an opening that was ineffective a hundred years ago.

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