Writer Basics Step 1: Getting Off

13 Feb

By Marilyn Campbell

Whatever your writing goal, the first step to achievement is to get off the proverbial pot! The astronaut can’t make it to the moon without leaving the launch pad. The baseball player can’t score a run if he never leaves home plate. And the aspiring author will never see her book published if she doesn’t progress from an idea to actually writing it.

For purposes of this pep-talk, I’ve made the assumption that you already have the fundamental writing skills, are very familiar with the genre in which you wish to write and are aware of what’s hot and what’s not in the marketplace.  All of these things are necessary but the physical action of writing must take place before the dream can become a reality. In other words, you need to get that brilliant vision out of your head!

Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of authors of all sorts of genres and one thing I can pass on is that no two writers get started on a manuscript in precisely the same way. What works for one is a stumbling block for another. Only you can figure out your best way to move from concept to completed manuscript and sometimes that requires a bit of trial and error.

Likewise, not all stories are developed from the same sort of magical spark. Some begin with a plot, some with a character, some with an otherworld and so on. There is no “right way” for a story to pop into your mind. Personally, I’ve had the most success using the “What If…?” method. What if a man wanted to be rid of his wife without actually killing her? What if a group of stranded aliens took up residence in a small town in Iowa? The answer leads to another question and another answer until the random spark becomes a viable storyline. But at this point it’s still just another idea. I still have to get it written.

On one end of the spectrum are writers who just start writing, one word, one sentence after another, and keep writing until the entire tale is told. I envied these authors enough to try their method but it didn’t work for me. The fact that I’m directionally dysfunctional in a car seems to apply to my writing as well. I absolutely must have a map.

I’m an outliner. I need to have a clear idea of the action I’ll use to hook the reader, how the middle will keep from sagging and how all problems will be resolved in the end. I also need to flesh out the main characters’ personalities, conflicts and motivations to correlate with the plot I’ve imagined. All of these thoughts get scribbled down on a lined pad, sometimes in a flowing narrative, sometimes in choppy phrases. No one but me could ever transcribe the notes so neither perfect sentences nor neatness are required. I know, this is really old-school but my muses are loudest that way. By the way, I have never had a book published that was exactly the way I initially outlined it, but without some semblance of a map I couldn’t even get a first chapter completed.

For me, a lot of the creative magic happens during the outline process. While writing down the points I think I’m sure of in an unstructured way, secrets and surprises sneak in and suddenly I can’t wait to write out the first scene.

Whatever action inspires you to get off the Start Space of Authorland, the important thing is that at the end of the day you have put words onto a page, either paper or virtual. Only then are you doing what writers do.

Then the next day you get up and do it again.

And again. And again.

 If you have a question about the writing process, I’ll be happy to address it in my next Writer Basics blog.

11 Responses to “Writer Basics Step 1: Getting Off”

  1. JoAnna B February 13, 2011 at 9:52 am #

    I had to share…
    I was reading this post and my hubby glanced over at my computer and started to chuckle. He knows what I like to read, so he took the title of the post completely out of context. I guess I know what he’s thinking about. 🙂

    • Marilyn Campbell February 13, 2011 at 7:11 pm #

      Aha! (Rubbing hands together) Then my evil plan to trick an unsuspecting bystander into reading my words worked! Thanks for sharing JoAnna.

  2. Adrienne February 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Thanks for the kick in the pants!

    • Marilyn Campbell February 13, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      You’re very welcome Adrienne. Someone recently did that for me and I believe in passing it on.

  3. Jocelyn Modo February 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    I’m right there with you on outlining. I need to get to know my characters and have a good plan to get started. My characters always take over at some point and we go off script but by them I’m confident that they know who they are, what they want, and where they’re going. Thanks for the great post!

  4. Abigail-Madison Chase February 14, 2011 at 8:34 am #

    This is just what I need to get myself motivated

    • Marilyn Campbell February 14, 2011 at 10:42 am #

      Thank you! I really do believe in taking a physical action, no matter how small, to get out of the mental stage. I see it as a way of telling the Universe that I’m serious.

  5. Desere Steenberg February 14, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    Hello Marilyn

    Thanks this was a really inspiring post , I am no writer but just a really passionate reader, but I would like to know what advise you would give to someone who wants to be a writer but has no idea where to start , do you start with a plot or with names first and can the ending come to one before the middle or the beginning has even formed in writers head ?(I hope I am making sense)

    Best Desere

    • Marilyn Campbell February 14, 2011 at 10:51 am #

      Hi Desere, Your questions are good and I’ll make sure a future column addresses the brainstorming part. The short answer is that there is no “right” way for a story to gel for the writer. It really is very personal. I have had a whole series start with a dream about a world in the center of the earth, another began because of a What If? question and others by a character who sneaked into a book in progress and demanded a tale of his own. As to the ending, I always think I know how the story will end but I had one suspense (Pretty Maids in a Row) for which the killer kept changing right up to the last chapter. In other words, when the desire to write is there, any spark of an idea is a good place to start. Good luck!

  6. Desere Steenberg February 14, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Thank you so much Marilyn this is stunning advice and it is much appreciated thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. And I am looking forward to the future column on the brainstorming part will keep my eyes peeled for it !

    Happy Valentines day to everyone !


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