Believe it or not, it is the same principle when you sit down to write a novel. If you are focused on the “jobs” you have to do, such as the what and the where of your various plot points and how many words should be between them, the story will hang over you like a massive assignment that you are desperately trying to “get right.” All of the “rightness” of your plan will most likely result in a flat, soulless piece of writing. What you need, at the beginning, is a passion for the story you want to tell. It is your love of this story, of how it will resonate with the reader that will power you through all the sticky points and the messy stuff as you explore the best possible way to tell your tale. Writing must come from the heart. When you are irritated and itchy to get the story on paper, when you wake at night thinking of how you will tell your story, when you find your mind jumping to it in the middle of the day, you’ll know this is a story you have to tell. Don’t write what you know–write what you love (or maybe hate, but the passion is there just the same.)
When I begin to feel pressure with my manuscript and it begins to feel like a “job” to complete, I revisit why I love writing. No one is making me write after all. I list all of the things I love about writing and the creativity of the experience and get myself back on track. Sometimes it’s a matter of not working so hard at it. Sometimes I need to skip the tricky part for a bit and just have fun.
If you have a story that is bursting to be put on paper, but you don’t know where to start, try the following exercises:
- Write a scene that shows the main character in a conflict which will set up the story that is to follow. Don’t think about it as an opening scene. Don’t worry about dumping in a lot of information. All of that can come later. Write with passion. Make the scene as dramatic as possible. Melodramatic, even. Don’t hold back. Let your character unleash her feelings. In my current ms, I knew that Lily needed to be angry with her father and that her father needed to be frustrated, but wanting to help. He wasn’t a jerk, but he had no clue what to do, or how to handle this new role. He had lost his wife. Lily had lost her mother. They were both suffering deeply from the loss and neither of them knew how to cope. I couldn’t figure out where to start the story, and every beginning was worse than the previous one. But then I realized that I could write this scene, because I understood clearly what had to happen here. It was a strong scene and as it turned out, it was a perfect way to begin the story. But, I didn’t know that until after the fact.
- Write a scene in which the character takes a good, hard look at himself, and then decides to take action to change things. This is usually around the middle of the story. James Scott Bell in his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, calls it the mirror moment. In Winds of L’Acadie, it is the moment when Sarah decides she needs to go back to Acadia to try to save her friends from being deported. I didn’t know about the “mirror moment” at the time, and it isn’t exactly in the middle, but it’s there! This is another scene that needs to be a strong scene. By writing it before you begin your novel, you’ll have a clear sense of the point of your whole story. Don’t flounder around for hundreds of words, hoping it will come to you. What is that turning point in which your character decides to go from passive victim to assertive hero?
By writing scenes instead of chapters, it means you can focus on the “meat” of what needs to happen. You don’t get stalled out trying to write transitions or decide if this is truly the best way to begin the story. In The Journal, I rewrote the beginning tens of times. Seriously! What a waste of time. I should have just left it, focused on getting all of the scenes in the novel written, and then gone back to determine what the most effective beginning would be. Don’t get hung up on the sticky stuff. Just keep going and have fun. You’d be amazed at how much easier it is to revise once you have an entire first draft in front of you.