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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 15: When Do You Know When to Begin Your Story?

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 15: When Do You Know When to Begin Your Story?


Key Points: When do you start writing? Don't wait for the perfect wave, get your feet wet. Which scene do you start with? In late, out early. Get things moving! And bald guys blush all the way from their eyebrows to the back of their head.

[Brandon] One of the main questions that I am asked by aspiring writers is how -- not how to begin, but when do you know if you're ready to begin. This is part brainstorming episode, part talking about first lines. We've done some of these things before. I want to see if we can approach it from a new tactic. Howard -- I made you do it first last time. Dan, how do you know which scene to put first in your books? How do you make that decision?
[Dan] So what you're talking about is -- you have the story in your head and you know what happens, all these strings of scenes, which scene do you pick to be the first one? That's your question?
[Brandon] You have the story in your head... Yeah, how do you do that?
[Howard] You've already established that you're not ready to begin if you don't have the story in your head? Is that true?
[Dan] Those are two different... that's what my question was?
[Brandon] Do you think it's true?
[Dan] I think that there's... when are you ready to begin writing, and at what point in the story do you begin writing it down.

[Brandon] Let's back up then. When do you begin writing? How do you know if you're ready to start your book?
[Dan] As soon as you say I want to write a book and you sit down and start writing, that's when you're ready to write a book...
[Brandon] Are you sure?
[Dan] That's not necessarily when you start... ready to write... yech. That's not necessarily when you're ready to start writing a good book.
[Howard] That's not necessarily when you are ready to start writing chapters that you are going to keep. You have thrown away some chapters.
[Brandon] I do that a lot. Do you guys do that?
[Dan] I almost always throw away my first one or two chapters.
[Howard] I throw away nothing. Luxury. But I have an advantage in that I'm working on something, a serial, and so when I finish the current story and start looking at the next one...
[Brandon] [garbled]
[Howard] I know that I need to start kind of clean and so I will pick a conflict that is fairly obvious, but doesn't need a lot of setting up, but that was maybe left hanging in the previous story or maybe I will just introduce a conflict and I will start writing a few strips to kind of reintroduce the characters. They have to be funny, they have to be interesting. It breaks the cardinal rule of "in late, out early" which I think is so important for first chapters, where you want to come in late on the action and start things moving immediately. I may not know what the action is, I can't do that.
[Brandon] You're in kind of an interesting position, where what you're really doing is you're writing a little bridge short story between big plot line and big plot line until you figure out your next big plot line and then you actually will officially start it.

[Brandon] I think this is an important question to ask because it gives an insight into the minds of writers. When do I start a book? How do I know when I've got a book good enough to start writing it? Because sometimes I have started writing on a book before I was ready and it hurts the book. I have tossed books before even during my professional career when I wasn't ready to start it and usually how I can tell is the first two or three chapters are great. Chapter 4 -- somewhere around there -- it starts to fall apart. What that means is I've run through the first few chapters a lot in my head, I've focused on them, I really know what I'm doing, and then I start working and they come out just like I want them to, and then what? The then what can really throw a big curveball to you.
[Howard] Well, you're an outliner, though.
[Brandon] I am an outliner.
[Howard] You are an outliner. So what's happening in these situations is your outline is not complete and you're hitting discovery writing and you're not feeling very discoverer...
[Brandon] Discoverish?
[Dan] I think I'm very similar to Brandon in that because when I know a book is ready for me to write, is when I know what happens in the middle and at the end. Because otherwise I don't have a book, I just have a beginning. The book itself is, at least for me, it's the ending.

[Brandon] Targeting this toward newer writers who... let's say again, we'll lump our writers into two general categories. We've got our outliners, we've got our multi-drafters -- our discovery writers.
[Howard] Okay.
[Brandon] The outliners -- they come to us and say, "I've been working on this book for a long time in my head. How do I know when it's ready to finally blossom? How do I know when I have cultivated the ground enough that a great book is going to come out of it?" What do you say to that person when they come up to you?
[Howard] Start writing. I have got to tell you, there is nothing more powerful than just sitting down and starting to write. If you're outlining... you described two kinds of writers, you described the discovery writer and the outliner. There are also two kinds of people who never finish anything. And that is the eternal Chapter 1 and the...
[Brandon] World builder's disease?
[Howard] World builder's disease. So if someone has been outlining and outlining and outlining and outlining, that starts to smell a lot like world builder's disease. Start writing down what the characters are doing.

[Brandon] So why don't they start? I want to look at this. Is it fear do you think?
[Howard] Because they haven't talked to me yet. To have me throw down the gauntlet...
[Brandon] You haven't punched them.
[Dan] I don't think it's fear.
[Brandon] If you need to start your book, come to Howard's house, he will punch you in the face and tell you to start writing.
[Dan] It's worked wonders for us.
[Howard] Meet me at Dragon's Keep, don't meet me at my house.
[Uncertain] 'Cause then he'll call the cops.
[Howard] And they'll punch you too.
[Dan] I don't think the eternal outliner is doing it out of fear. I think they are doing it because they are too harsh on themselves. They want it to be perfect the first time, and even as an outliner, you have to allow yourself to write a bad draft and then start over and write another draft. You have to be able to work yourself into it.
[Howard] But there is an inherent fear in there -- the fear of failure -- that the outline at some point is going to let you down, and you realize, "Oh, no, I'm a discovery writer for this chapter and I don't know how to bridge this gap..."
[Brandon] And you run into people who... in their head, this book is the platonic ideal of a book. It is not yet, it is potential energy and it is not kinetic. Which means looking at it in their head, it is perfect. It's how they want it to be. It's like when I would try to play jazz actually. I played trumpet all through high school. I loved playing trumpet. When I sat down to try and play jazz, I had not done the legwork. I had not learned my skills to the point that you need to, I was not willing to invest that. I could hear a great jazz tune in my head, nice improv, and when I hit that solo, it never translated to my fingers. And I think there's that problem that they realize this is not going to translate to my fingers.
[Howard] Another way to look at it is that podcast we did on writing the boring bits. You don't outline the boring bits, you outline principal actions. And so unless... if you've outlined and you've actually outlined all of the boring bits, for goodness sake, sit down and write and finish the book because it's already done. But I think they're hitting the boring bits and saying, "Oh, my gosh, my outline wasn't complete."
[Dan] I suspect a lot of it as well is like you are saying is an inherent fear in there of... fear of they look at their outline and say, "This is not yet alive. This is not vibrant enough. I can't start writing it." But that vibrancy won't come into it until you start writing it.
[Brandon] I think another big problem is you don't know. This is a problem. Writers don't know if they are an outliner or a multi-drafter until they've tried both. Even if they think they are one, they very well could be the other. Now, most of the time, if you think you are one, you probably are that one. But I say you have to give them both a try and see what produces the best material for you.

[Brandon] All right, we've got a multi-drafter. Let's talk to them for a minute. The discovery writer. How do... they say, "How do I know when I'm ready to start this book? How do I know when I'm done practicing and I'm great to write the book that's going to get published?"
[Howard] I'm a discovery writer after a fashion and I think that I'm ready to write a script or I'm ready to write a series of scripts when the characters in my head have found their voices. They're kind of yammering at me all the time, and at some point, it just feels like, yes, this is now ready to be written down. So, yeah, if you can hear the character's voice in your head, it's time to start writing or that voice is going to go away. In fact, it's time to start writing because you need to get that voice out on paper so that there's now room for another voice to come in and start participating. Does that make sense?
[Brandon] Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense.
[Uncertain] Either that, or you're just schizophrenic.
[Brandon] All writers are schizophrenic.
[Dan] In some ways, I don't think that getting started is the main hurdle for a discovery writer.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's probably true. Keeping going...
[Dan] Because it's very easy for them to get started. It's hard for them to follow through. I've known several writers, often excellent writers, who will start a book, and then they get excited about another idea, and they'll start that book, and then they'll get excited about another idea...
[Howard] We've talked about that with the... I think though that there are discovery writers who haven't yet figured out that they are discovery writers and they feel like I kind of need to outline this whole thing in my head and so they are letting it take shape in their head, but unless you are Albert Einstein, there just isn't space for the whole book in there, you have to start putting things down in paper.
[Brandon] And I do want to throw out the caveat, just a reminder that not everyone fits into one of these two categories exactly. A lot of people discovery write some places and outline other places. The only way to learn how to do this is to practice. And I hate to keep coming back to the same thing, but I honestly get this question a lot in e-mail. How do I know when to start, Brandon? How do I know where to start? Where do I start? You start by practicing. Maybe you'll write the Great American Novel right when you start off practicing, but probably not. The way you learn how to know all these things just instinctively is by doing it and practicing and writing some bad books.
[Howard] That's... it's like... have any of you guys surfed? Surfers?
[Brandon] No.
[Dan] Just the Internet.
[Howard] Neither have I. So I'm going to use a metaphor that none of us have any experience with.
[Brandon] Well, we do that all the time. We're writers.
[Howard] Exactly. If a surfer wants to learn how to catch the perfect wave, how do you tell him what the perfect wave is? You don't. You get out there on your surfboard, you start catching waves, and eventually you realize, "Oh, that's what it feels like when the board is right at the right spot on the swell." But you can't watch surfers and listen to lectures and figure out how it's done. You have to go out and get your feet wet.
[Dan] Oho.
[Howard] See what I did there.

[Brandon] All right. Let's come back to my original question then. How do you pick the right scene? Is the answer to this simply practice a whole lot and then you'll know? And if that's the case, why are we even doing a podcast to help people? [Garble]
[Howard] I like "in late, out early."
[Brandon] Okay, "in late, out early." Start as close to the action as possible. Dan, how do you decide which seem to use to start your books?
[Dan] What I did with Serial Killer was I figured out who the character was, who the bad guy was, how it was going to end, and then just kind of traced it backward and said what is the best way to set this up. You know we often say that your first sentence, your first chapter, is a promise you make to your reader. All right, then, what promise do I want to make? And then I wrote that. It's kind of the thesis statement for the book is how I look at it. This is what I want the book to be about condensed into this capsule.
[Brandon] We've said before, Serial Killer you did a freewrite getting John's voice first and submitted that to writing group telling us this is not going to be chapter 1, this is me trying to get the character locked down

[Brandon] I've been thinking about this a lot because on my next series I haven't come up with the right scene yet which is kind of bothering me. I don't know what the right scene is to start the book. It's a big balancing factor. It's got to introduce the characters strongly, it's got to be exciting, it's got to have a good hook, all of these things and it's sometimes troubling. What do you say to me? Dan, I don't know where to start my next book. I haven't got that scene in my head yet.
[Howard] I'd say, Brandon, you told us that on several of your previous books you threw away the first three chapters. Write some chapters because you need them in order to be able to throw them away. It's a horrible thing to say because you know and I know that those chapters take time, and you hate wasting work, but I think it's going to be more productive than sitting around waiting for the perfect wave.
[Dan] Sorry, you did that one already. I think you can look at what is the best possible introduction to this. If you're working on a fantasy series, say well what is this series going to be about? What do I want people... if this is the first thing they look at in the bookstore, what is going to hook them? And more than that, what is going to let them know what is coming? And is that... I want to focus on this character, this is going to be a book about fight scenes, this is going to be a book with really pretty prose in it, and then find the best part of your story that matches that purpose.
[Howard] You may be looking for the promise you can make to your reader that's going to be fulfilled not only at the end of the first book in the series but also the 10th book in the series or whatever...
[Brandon] Right. That's the [garble -- struggle?]
[Dan] That's the hard part.
[Howard] Wow. That's a lofty goal and I encourage you to do that, but it may be that the better promise to make to the reader is the promise that is fulfilled halfway through the book, but in between the making of the promise in scene one and the fulfillment of the promise in chapter 20, you make another promise to the reader that is little more long reaching.
[Dan] Another element in this conversation I think is the prologue. You see this a lot especially in fantasy. Whatever the eventual story is going to be about, is a prologue... Game of Thrones is a fantastic example of this.
[Brandon] Gives a promise for the series, and then the first chapter instead gives the promise for the characters of the first book.
[Howard] Or you could pull it off with chapter quotes. Those little Encyclopedia Whatsica at the top...
[Brandon] Encyclopedia Whatsica -- I like that. I'm going to use that.
[Howard] By all means.
[Brandon] Are you going to charge me?
[Howard] No.

[Brandon] All right. Writing Prompt?
[Dan] Writing prompt -- your main character is wearing shoes and no pants.
[Howard] I'm blushing. I'm blushing on a bald guy. Boy, it goes all the way from the eyebrows to the back of the head.

[Brandon] No. Write an ending and start your book with it.
Tags: beginnings, writing excuses

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