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.
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.