The 5 Things I Ask Myself Before Starting a Writing Project
1. What’s the opening scene?
In my earliest novels, I would start things off with a bang, often in the middle of action or even dialogue. It can be disorienting to a reader to not know what is going on or who is speaking. Some stories need this but most stories prefer a clever/beautiful/interesting opening line. I want to draw the reader into my world and I don’t want them to start off confused (unless that’s my goal!).
Now when I begin a project, I try to place myself in the new world as if I were my reader. What do I want to see? Is that interesting? Is that character compelling? Is the voice something I want to hear for three hundred pages?
2. What is the ending?
Again, as a newbie writer, I would imagine my books with a bang of an ending too. With all of these “bangs,” you’d think I was writing thrillers! However, what I discovered – both as a reader and a writer – was that I needed to know what happens after the climax of the story. Back in high school, I learned this was a “denouement” but I didn’t know how to apply it until I became a novelist.
It isn’t enough to simply end a story. I need to imagine how all the storylines connect, or don’t connect; how characters continue with their lives. Even if I don’t write it all out for the reader, I need to know what those things are.
3. Where does the story take place?
For me, place is a character. Specificity of location is critical. I might plan to fictionalize a town, as I did with Eight Days on Planet Earth, but I need to know what the exact place is that I’m fictionalizing. If I use an actual city, as I did with The Leaving Season, I need to research as much as possible if I don’t know it personally. I need to have a visual image of what the houses look like and the trees and roads. How close is the next town? Is there a body of water? And since this is a work of fiction, what isn’t there that I can fictionalize?
4. What’s the title?
I have been known to change a title ten or more times before, during and after the process of writing. However, I absolutely must have a decent working title before I even start. The title – a good one – will define the story quickly, giving it a theme without me having to force one on it. It will also stick in my head so I can be thinking and working when I’m not actually in front of a computer writing it.
5. Is it a book?
This is the most difficult question to answer. Sometimes you have an idea that seems like it’s really cool and fun or eerie or important but it’s just a character or a situation or maybe it’s just a scene or two. A book, especially a YA novel, is over 60K words! Your story idea must be sustained over the course of a lot of pages.
Also, if I haven’t written something in a while or if I’ve started and abandoned ideas for various reasons, I might be anxious to get going on a new book. No matter how excited I am to start, though, I have to live with it for a while. This is actually something I learned from Stephen King’s On Writing.
Only write the story when you can’t let it go, when you can’t stop thinking about the characters, when you can’t get the narrative voice out of your head.
Only write the story when you can’t not write it.
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