Fiction: How I Start

Not that you should necessarily take writing-life advice from me.  Perhaps you ought to listen to Jo Rowling and spend seven years plotting.  But this it the irrational, backward way I start a new story.

1. I have a tiny idea.  Teenaged wards of the state in hospice care.  That’s nowhere near a full-blown idea, let alone a plot, but it’s enough.  Just a tiny idea is all I need.  But I have to love it, have to want it.

2. Characters.  Whatever-this-is-going-to-be is going to be nothing without a handful of characters.  I start with names and photos, which I find by scouring the internet until angels start singing.  Again, this seems backward, doesn’t it?

Yes, I think.  Her name will be Macaulay, and she will go by Mack.  And this will be her.

mackThat’s fascinating, I think.  She has purple hair.  I didn’t know that.  Now I do.

Repeat this process for the others.  Meanwhile, little snippets of their conversation start to play out in my mind, and I write them down.  Save them for later.

3. Research– but only a little bit.  There will probably be a lot more research to come, and a lot of things will change, so I don’t want to put too much time into this upfront, nor do I want to be too committed to what I learn.  So I poke around and find what these teenagers in hospice care might be dying from.  I talk to my friends who work in the medical field and in hospice care, and I learn a little bit.  This keeps making the characters more and more real in my head.  I keep thinking of their conversations, and I keep jotting them down.

4. Sink or swim.  I dive in and write a terrible first draft, reminding myself every ten minutes that it is only a first draft and that first drafts are, by nature, going to be terrible.  I remind myself that I will revise the hell out of it later, but that there is nothing to revise until it is written.

5. I learn the story as I go.  I take that handful of characters I’ve created, and I put them in my hands, shake them up and then toss them into a room– or, you know, a hospice center– together and see what happens.  I’m as fascinated to find out what they’re planning as the next person is.

6. Later on, I revise.  Only after it’s written do I really understand what I was trying to say with the story– and, let’s be honest, it probably wasn’t me trying to say anything.

Your turn.  How do you start a story?  Do you plan and plot, or do you just dive in?  Where do you begin?

P.S. I really did write Mack’s story about living and dying in hospice with other teenagers.  I’m submitting it to a contest this month, where I assume nothing will happen.  Once nothing happens, I’ll probably share it on my blog or over on Crux.

P.P.S. I won the contest.

P.P.P.S. Read “Covered Up Our Names” here.