Thursday, May 10, 2012

Take Control

Writers write because they have an idea. Something comes into the writer's head, be it a compelling opening scene or a character that won't quit talking to the writer, or a dream or even a particular phrase that catches the writer's imagination. Something causes the writer to begin writing or plotting.

Before you put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, I recommend you pause. Do you know where this character's story is heading? Do you know what this fabulous scene in your head means? Is it the opening scene or the culminating scene? If the protagonist is speaking to you, is what s/he's saying the beginning of the story? Are those five (or twenty) words that will cause chaos and be the catalyst that changes lives?

If you don't know, take time to try to envision where the story is heading. If you can do that, you will save yourself a lot of time and work.

A few years back, a character came into my head and would not go away. So I began writing her words. I was probably 30,000 words in when the Brown Foundation offered me a four-week fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center. I basically wrote and walked for the month. It was a fabulous experience. When I went home, I had around 90,000 words.

Problem is nothing had happened to move the story forward. The character was still 12 years old. Yes, she was fully developed and I knew everything about her. But the real story had barely begun.

So I had to completely start over. The book now begins with her as an adult. All that I had written before then was not wasted, though. I knew all that had happened to her as a child and I pulled on that in flashbacks or as foundation for her drive and motivation.

I also learned that for most of us, while knowing the character's backstory is important, it's also a time-consuming process to write it all down. The sooner you know when the real story begins, the better off you are. Knowing where the story is going is also important. If you let the character lead you, I've found that characters want you to know everything and will take you off onto side roads and minutiae that have nothing to do with the story you're telling.

Write an outline. Or compose bullet points for the story. What are the major events in this book? Where is it going? Where does it begin? Who are the characters involved? You don't have to be a slave to your list or outline, but just having a guide will help you stay on track. You may veer off that track, but just having it will help you get back on it.

I’m hoping Angel Sometimes will be out soon. Here is the teaser:
Angel had a plan: Go home to Oklahoma and ask her mother why she loved her one day, then threw her out like garbage the next. Since her mother was never going to come looking for her, she'd go to her mother. Before finishing the trek home to confront her parents, she needed three things: a high school diploma, a car, and a gun.
As you can surmise from that, what happened in her childhood is important, but it's not the story. The story is her life now and what happens when she goes home.

If you understand what your story is really about, you can save a lot of time and work.
 Helen Ginger is an author and blogger. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its thirteenth year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Co-Partner of Legends In Our Own Minds® and Coordinator of Story Circle Network’s Editorial Services.
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  1. Hi Donna. It's a lesson I learned the hard way!

  2. Hi Donna,
    Great post about a lesson I'm still learning!

  3. You don't have to spend time with a lot of back story if you are able to grab a hold of the reader by the lapels with the sense of urgency of the present.

  4. Good stuff, Helen ... oh, and reminds me that when I went home to confront my parents I needed three things, too: a razor, a clean shirt and a winning lotto ticket.

  5. Great advice, Helen. This is another reason why I outline. Even rough markers keep me on the road instead of going in circles.

  6. Wonderful post! I also learned this the hard way. I'm an ideas person, but I work better as a planner. I'm still learning how to do this as a writer, trying to translate things like organizing my blog posts and article ideas (for a site I write for) into pre-planning a novel. I get so antsy to write that I take off and like you said, 30k in I'm wondering where it's all going.

    I think it's something we get better at through time and experience (I hope!)

  7. Stephsco, I certainly hope I get better with each manuscript!

    Christopher, anyone with a winning lotto ticket is welcome in my house!

    True, Stephen. I also think it builds suspense for the reader to keep reading if they don't know from the first page what exactly happened in the past.

    Elspeth, outlining is a great thing. I have trouble sticking to one, though.

  8. My first novel was attempted seat-of-the pants. It meandered all over the place and included everything but the kitchen sink.

    Never mind, it had that, too.

    But it also had a compelling situation, and a great cast of characters. So now, a dozen years later and much wiser, I'm reworking it by doing just what you suggest here, Helen. I'm dying to start letting my fingers loose across the keyboard! But I'm holding myself back, making sure I have a good handle on the story structure and character arcs first. Why? Because I'd love to keep my rewrites in the single digits this time, lol.

  9. Helen, this serves to emphasize how well we need to know our characters. If they aren't real and multi-faceted to us, they won't be to our readers.

    Knowing the right starting point means knowing the hook that will bring readers into the story. Knowing that story's direction is the hook that will keep them there. However, it never fails to amaze me when my characters take a path I didn't plan for them. Sometimes they know better than we the right time to take that "road less traveled," the way that leads to surprises and insights that could not have been anticipated.

    As Kathryn noted, new writers often let the words fly to fall where they may. Experienced authors pick up the pieces and shape them into a mature whole that significantly outshines the original.

  10. Excellent post, Helen! I'll be sending my pantser clients here to read this! Might save them a lot of time and frustration.

    And your trailer is very intriguing - I definitely want to read this story!

  11. This is an excellent suggestion. I do have a character now who started telling me her story...and I have NO ideas where it is I stopped writing. Perhaps I can construct where I want it to go and get moving again...if it changes fine. But yes, I need to set the compass.

  12. Oooh, love the teaser!! Makes me want to read the book! Congrats.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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