Starting from scratch

I’m getting ready to begin outlining a new novel, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where ideas come from and how we develop them into something rich and compelling.

Everyone has a different process, and everyone’s process changes as they learn and mature as writers.  I know when I first began writing, I’d get hit with an idea (“oooh, shiny!”) and immediately start writing with absolutely no thought to plot, conflict, change, character arcs, or really anything else.  I’d just roll with it.

For some authors (so-called “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants without an outline), this process works great (Stephen King is reportedly a pantser).  But as I learned more about writing, I began to feel paralyzed by all the things I now knew I needed to make happen in any given story.  To shake free of this deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I had to start doing more planning and now I’ve become something of a plotter (outlining in advance).  Maybe when I gain greater confidence, I’ll shift back towards pantsing again.  Who knows?  Developing and writing a novel is a pretty fluid thing, and whether we’re pantsers or plotters, our ideas and writing typically evolve and morph as we go.

None of this really answers the question, though, of where we start.  You’ve got an idea.  Maybe it’s a particularly vivid image, or a character’s voice yammering in your head, or some thoughts about a great adventure, or a setting you’re just aching to flesh into a whole world.  Whatever it is, you have to take that idea and blow it up like a big balloon, filling it with air and making it buoyant and whole.

Where does that first big breath come from?

Do you start with your protagonist, developing them from a few scratched ideas on a bar napkin into an ambulatory, reach-out-and-touch you creation, or do you start with plot, with the events that will sweep that character up and change their life forever?

So far, in my writing, no matter what my kernel of an idea is, I tend to start with character, then world, then plot.  It’s hard for me, at least at this point in my career, to devise a twisty, compelling plot if I don’t have a handle on the person it’ll most effect and the setting in which it’ll take place.  So I spend a lot of time working on that character.  What’s his/her backstory, how did they get where they are and what advantages and handicaps has that given them?  What about their family, their friends, their lovers?  How have they supported, undermined, or betrayed them?  What does the character look like and how do they think?  What are their quirks and tics?

Often the answers to at least some of these questions are tied pretty intimately to setting.  The world we live in and the culture we’re a part of have a huge impact on how we think and act.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, but I pretty much can’t create real-seeming characters if I don’t have at least a partial handle on the world they inhabit.

All that work, and still I’m only poised at the gate, fingers hanging above the keyboard, waiting to type sentence one.  Like a champagne bottle corked and ready to blow, I’ve got this whole character (and usually a grip on several secondary characters) and world-building just bursting to get out of my head and swan dive into an adventure.  Only then do I plunge into the plot.  Or maybe I just start writing and use a “pantser” method to find the plot.

Maybe, though, I’ve got it totally backwards.  Maybe my process is leaving me hamstrung and playing catch up, putting my characters through their paces in a story that’s limp and unstructured.

I’d love to hear from all of you.  Where do you start?  When you sit down to write that first sentence, how much planning have you done and what kind of planning have you done?  Do you start with characters, with world, or with plot?  And how does that choice effect the way the rest of your process (and your novel) unfolds?

12 thoughts on “Starting from scratch

  1. Micah Joel

    Every story I write gets there by a different path, it seems. I tend to obsessively plan things out in advance, but in the heat of battle, plans go out the window. Sometimes I make sweeping changes in rewrites.

    BTW, any plans for NaNoWriMo this year? November’s getting close…

    1. mirandasuri

      I am thinking of doing Nano as a way to jump start the first draft of the novel I mentioned at the start of this post. I figure if I can get some solid outlining done between now and then, I’ll be ready to use Nano to good effect. How about you?

  2. Catana

    I think I’m very much like you. I get lots of ideas for stories, but unless they include at least one character, and some hint of a world where that character lives, they’ll probably just remain notes. I steep myself in a combination of current social trends and past history, so my viable ideas immediately coalesce around one or two characters. The plot may be more difficult to work out, but as long as I can keep learning about the characters, the plot will eventually come clear. I have several WIPs that are pretty much just pantsed, but the more complex the plot is, the more I need to spend time working it all out, and developing at least a chronology, if not an actual outline.

    1. mirandasuri

      Plus, it’s hard to put in the time required to write a novel if you aren’t *really* interested in the protagonist. They’ve got to be someone you want to spend time with (for good or ill!)

  3. medievalness

    My background in anthropology also influences my process, I think. My usual process is to beginby world-building, usually starting from a what if? – what happens to a society if X and Y factors are thrown – and then building up a world from there and establishing the major conflict that starts the plot rolling. Then I throw in a few characters that start out fairly cardboard cut-out and get fleshed out as I figure out where my plot is going.

    I’m trying to become more of a planner in my writing. My last novel ground to a halt when I realized I had no idea what my climax was going to be and I ended up with a bunch of characters wandering aimlessly in very detailed world. This time around, I wrote Chapter 1 and the climax first. We’ll see if that works any better.

    1. mirandasuri

      Interesting. I think that’s really true — when you come from an anthro background it’s just impossible not to have that world-building front and center. Do you find you draw on your anthropological knowledge/research a lot in developing settings in your writing?

      1. medievalness

        At the moment I’m working on building a world with an economy that’s primarily based on a fairly complex version of gift-exchange, which is an area that I work on a lot in my dissertation work.

        Beyond that, I find bits and pieces creeping in. Usually things that I have completely forgotten from my quals (or completely disagree with academically *cough* Eliade *coughcough*). Some of the older scholars I find lend themselves to a narrative context particularly well, even though I wouldn’t use them in scholarship. I guess at least all those hours of angst didn’t go to waste.

        I’m not sure how I feel about my shameless appropriation of anthropological models in my writing…

  4. EF Kelley

    You’re deep into that phase that Laura Mixon called ‘conscious competence’. You’re good, and you know it, but it takes effort.

    I’m about 65% Architect. I need to know where I’m heading, who’s taking me there, and what the Big Deal is. Then I get into the details, plotting the run up to each Big Scene. Once I’ve got a clear path, I can let my Gardening take hold; grow my vines, see where they take me. Sometimes they go off in amazing new directions, and I have to re-plot. Sometimes they need weedkiller. If I take longer than three months to plot and write the next book, I feel like I’m wasting too much time.

    So, where’s my ABSENT? Huh? HUH???

    1. mirandasuri

      I’d love to say I’ll have ABSENT to you soon, but it’s got to be totally revised before I can send it to Beta readers (believe me, it’s for the best!). I’m hoping no more than 2 months.

  5. Robyn

    Well, I come up with an awesome set of characters and an amazing setting, and then I write about 15,000 words. Then I sit down and make a list of the next 75 things (one thing for every thousand words) that are going to happen that will get me to the climax, and then like magic, a year later I have a draft. Seriously, I don’t recommend this method. But I have to write that 15,000 words so that I know who’s interacting with whom, even though it’s often just people sitting around talking and eating food.

    1. mirandasuri

      I think doing that kind of exploratory writing is far from a waste of time. Once you’ve gotten to know your characters that way, it seems like you’d not only be better able to devise good adventures for them, but also be able to write them more authentically.

      I like the idea of one plot point for every 1K words…I might try using that as I outline this next book….

  6. Catana

    That’s not a bad method, Robyn. It’s how I work, very often, though not as formally. Making lists is hard work, dontcha know. I get to around 15,000 words, then poop out because I haven’t thought much farther ahead. But that story will be stuck in my head at both a conscious and subconscious level, and I’ll work on it from time to time until it’s finished.

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