One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever had came from a woman who would not let me tell her what happened in a story. “You’ll spoil it,” she said. "Once you talk a story through, you’re likely to feel as though you’ve already told it, and there goes your motivation for writing it."
I’m what’s known in the trade as a plotter: a person who likes a detailed roadmap before I begin a story. So losing interest in a story by pre-telling it to myself is a real danger. I've had to work hard at building a little panster into my workstyle. The panster is, of course, the person who starts a story without having much of an idea where it is going. I like to keep just on this side of knowing what happens next. Even writers like surprises.
When I begin working on a new book I try to start with one sentence: [Name of book] is about . . . , as in Simple Gifts is about never losing sight of the commitment underlying romance.
Then I ask myself where are the main characters emotionally at the beginning of the book? Our main characters in Simple Gifts are an engaged couple, Arlene and Damion. They’re late-thirty-somethings, living in a major city, and heavily involved in their careers.
When the book begins, Arlene is desperate for the most beautiful wedding ever because she never thought she would marry, but she’s so tied up in wedding plans that she’s not paying attention to what Damion wants.
Damion wants a simple wedding because it’s the vows, what they will promise each other, that’s most important to him, but he can’t get Arlene’s attention long enough to explain that to her.
Great, I’ve got immediate conflict and two characters who are on opposite poles of the question, what’s a wedding for?
If that’s the beginning, what’s the ending? Arlene and Damion will meet each other half-way. She means every word of the vows she recites, and he learns to enjoy a little pageantry.
Where did the characters get the strong feelings each brings to the beginning of the book?
Arlene grew up poor, had to go to work when she was a teen-ager, and spent half of her life watching one friend after another get married. Until six months ago, when she and Damion met, she’d resigned herself to being an old maid. Now not only is she getting married, but she’s saved enough money for a snazzy wedding; maybe not the $100,000 extravaganzas she drools over in sleek bridal magazines, but something a cut above average.
Damion is still reeling from his mother’s recent death. He can’t stop thinking about how his father took a year off from work to care for his mother during her final illness. His mother loved to tell the story about how she and Damion’s father were so much in love that they decided not to wait until they finished college to get married. She borrowed a dress from the college’s drama department, carried flowers picked illegally a public park, and her roommate took up a collection among their friends to buy ingredients to make the wedding cake. His dream of a wedding has always involved two people gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes as they recite their vows.
By the time I’ve got my conflicts and motivations half-jelled, I’ll probably notice that some words keep reoccurring. I’ll pick five of those words, jazz them up to give them more punch, then decide what the opposites—also words that pack a wallop—are.
Romantic love/practical love
I print those five pairs of words on an index card and post them near my computer. Each time I start a new scene, I try to see how many of those words I can work into the idea behind that scene.
If I set this scene in a really simple place, what would Arlene’s reaction be to the simplicity?
If Damion blows it in this scene by failing to keep a commitment he made to Arlene, how will he feel?
Now we get to the mountain goat. Imagine a goat hopping from peak to peak. What the goat wants to do is get to the top of the mountain. He’s not interested in scenery, details, or sub-plots.
Can I tell this story in ten events—ten mountain peaks—each of which is a turning point in the story?
1. Arlene and Damion fight over their wedding ceremony, but it’s a surface fight. They’re both ticked at not getting their need across to the other person.
2. Damion takes on a volunteer job—something related to a group fighting poverty—that requires a lot of his time, and Arlene feels shoved aside.
3. Arlene gets a chance to work for one of those glitzy bridal magazines she’s read for years.
4. Damion’s dad consoles him and suggests he might want to rethink what life would be like with Arlene.
5. Arlene is offered a big project that has to do with travel, money, buying tons of stuff.
6. They have a second, serious fight and break off the engagement.
7. Damion’s group is desperate for money. He organizes a fund-raising event for them and discovers that glitz can be useful.
8. Arlene is unexpectedly exposed to poverty and realizes that glitz for glitz sake is empty.
9. Damion and Arlene reunite to work together to bring off Damion’s event. As they are working together, they are finally able to talk. They begin to plan a wedding that will be special to both of them.
10. We end with the wedding.
This way I have something of a road map, thought I know good and well that it will change as I get further into the book.
So my entire start-the-book kit consists of
1. One sentence that gives me a general idea of the theme.
2. Five pairs of emotionally-ladened words, which play off of one another as opposites.
3. Ten mountain goat points.
Because those three pieces are so general, I have loads of options about how I’ll play out each turning point in the book.
I could write their first fight scene at Damion’s office, where Arlene arrives loaded down with boxes from her latest shopping trip; or in a coffee bar where Damion is trying to talk to Arlene about writing their own vows, but she’s prattling on about how she just LOVES a certain bridal magazine; or at a massive wedding show in the local convention centre. Each of those would be a different kind of scene, but all of them would allow point #1 to happen. Best of all, the story is still a mystery to me, too. Hey, I work hard at this writing game. I deserve a few surprises, too.
Writing quote for the week:
Every book starts with a what-if question. Two sentences, 25 words or less, plus a one-paragraph answer. Sharp. Emotional. Visceral.
~Tess Gerritsen, mystery writer