by James Preston
When I read a great novel, I often find myself thinking, “How on earth did the author do it?” followed by, “Where did he start?” Every published author has had to get past the blank page.
Let’s talk about Plato, the Athenian philosopher. You remember him, right? He told “The Parable of the Cave,” which went like this:
There once was a group of prisoners who had been chained to the wall in a cave their entire lives. They had never seen the outer world, only shadows cast on the wall in front of them. For them, the shadows were reality.
Then one of the prisoners was set free and moved into the outer world. She was amazed — there were three dimensions! Color! Reality was far more complex than she had imagined.
I recently reread James Clavell’s magnificent novel, Noble House. This thing is huge; the hardback is over a thousand pages, so it is not a book to be undertaken lightly. On top of that there are probably a hundred characters, all of them with lives of their own, backgrounds and a part to play in the story.
I had the usual questions: “How on earth did the author do it?” followed by, “Where did he start?”
Then I read a brief article that included the parable of the cave and the two things — my feeling of inadequacy when I looked at Noble House and was awestruck and Plato’s shadows on the wall — came together. Sometimes things do that.
I realized that, like the prisoners, I saw the shadow. I saw the product, not the object that produced it. When we read a novel we don’t see the effort, the false starts, the rewrites, the edits that went into it.
This realization led me to a question I get asked every now and then by people who want to write . . .
How Do I Start?
We’ve all heard the stories about the writer who rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter (see below) and stares at the blank page.
You know you want to write a book. In fact, maybe you’ve already tried and quit, and now you want to do it again and “get it right” this time. You read articles and see advice like, “Start with a character,” or “Start with a problem,” and on and on. And then there is the blank page.
The Blank Page has defeated lots of writers.
I’ll describe several ways of getting going and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. Plus, I’ll talk about how I wrote my first mystery.
Note: For younger readers, click here for more about typewriters. Trivia fact: You can find apps that will make “typewriter noises” as you keyboard. Tom Hanks even invented one that works with the iPad.
Let’s begin with some basics.
You might know that you want to write about a small town in west Texas. Clavell wrote about Hong Kong. I write about Southern California, specifically Huntington Beach, Surf City, USA.
This one’s obvious, right? In Noble House, it’s Ian Dunross.
Can you start a story without a character? Sure. Think of a situation, for example the protagonist is given control of the family business, because it’s failing.
And in the end . . . One way to create a novel is to start with the end and figure out how it happened.
There are many ways of getting to The End. In my case I was writing scripts for a medical training company (thrilling shows about surgical instruments and how to give injections). One of the directors was an avid sailor. He mentioned how shallow parts of the channel between Orange County and Catalina Island are, and how supertankers had to stay in northbound and southbound lanes. I thought, “That’s interesting,” but there wasn’t a story there. (More on this in the next section.)
So these are the parts you need to work with. We’re still left with that question . . . What do you do first?
4 Ways To Start
1. Begin with an outline
An outline can be on the back of an envelope or it can be a hundred pages or anything in between. A traditional outline would look like this:
A private jet lands in Hong Kong and the police discover guns being smuggled. Introduce Linc Bartlett, Inspector Armstrong, K. C. Tcholok.
Notice it’s linear; one thing happens, then another.
Another type of outline is more free-form and might look like a group of circles connected by lines. In this case it would have a circle for airport connected to “Linc Bartlett,” “guns,” and “smuggling.”
Advantage: An outline forces you to think about the story. Whether it’s linear or free-form, you have to answer the dreaded question: What happens next?
Disadvantage: I think there are several, but one that can sneak up on you is that you might actually like your outline. If and when your characters come to life and start to speak to you (and, BTW, that is one of the greatest moments in what we do), they may not care about your Roman numerals and numbers. There will be a temptation to make them toe the line. Sometimes you have to make characters follow orders and sometimes you have to let them run wild and free. But that’s the subject of another post.
Yet another way is 3” x 5” cards. Years ago I read an essay by the famous science fiction writer Larry Niven, author of the Ringworld series, who said he used index cards and on each card something had to happen. Side note: I have lost that reference. Sorry, Mr. Niven.
Advantage: Obviously, you know where you’re going. You can spread cards out on the floor and see the whole story at once — allowing you to identify sections that are slow, or places where too much happens at once.
Disadvantage: This is a big one. We live to tell stories. Once it’s outlined it’s possible to lose interest. After all, the story is told. (This same pitfall applies to telling too many people about the story before you write it.)
A more practical disadvantage is space. I laid out cards for my first mystery, covering the living room floor. (I have a very understanding spouse.) Then my cats came and rearranged all my work. Pro tip: if you do cards, number them so you can put them back in order.
2. Begin with characters
You can start by listing the people in your book. There are many sample character development forms, but most involve physical characteristics, occupation, education, and so on.
Back to my story for a moment. Sometime after I heard about the shipping lane and supertankers, I found myself thinking about a stockbroker living in Manhattan “happily moving around electronic piles of money,” who returns to California when his wife is hospitalized.
To this day I have no idea where he came from, but there he was and he just wouldn’t go away. I thought, “That’s interesting,” but once again it’s not a story.
3. Start with the ending
Another way to start is to write the end. It won’t spoil Noble House to say there’s a typhoon. In my case I saw a supertanker, unable to either turn or stop, bearing down on a disabled small boat. And the bow of the tanker is on fire.
4. Assemble your pieces
I had the shipping lanes, I had my broker, now back in California, who is sailing back from Catalina at night, hits fog, and then hears – feels – a supertanker approaching. Close, so close to a story. Obviously, he doesn’t get run down and killed. The end is another encounter with a tanker, only he can see this one because the bow is on fire, and he’s right in front of it.
Here’s the answer: it matters less how you start than that you start. Let’s say that again: it matters less how you start than that you start.
If you have an idea for a character, or a situation or an ending, write it down and go from there. The blank page is waiting for you to fill it.
Oh, what happened to my broker and the supertanker? Why, I went from one idea to another to a third and then to 3” x 5” cards (the cat playground), and he came to life and told me his story. Don’t worry, he didn’t get run over. After a lot of work the novel got me an award, an agent, and a contract.
Note about references…
The problem with references is that there is such a huge amount of writing about writing that it’s not only hard to choose who to read, it’s possible to only study and never write. Plus, nowadays you’ll find different opinions on just about everything.
My suggestion is to follow your instincts and listen to those teachers who seem to be speaking directly to you. They are out there and the simple act of finding them will be worthwhile for your writing.
Now it’s your turn. If you’ve done it, how did you beat the blank page? What did you do first? If you are standing at the edge of this pool, thinking about sticking a toe in, what does your gut tell you to do first? C’mon, we’ve given you some ideas here — what looks good?
Come with me. The water’s fine.
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James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”