The Writer’s Life from A to Z

Authors have long lamented that “there is nothing more intimidating than the blank page,” or other axioms to that effect. Whether you agree with that statement or not, one can’t deny that there’s a certain amount of anxiety—mingled with excitement, of course—involved when faced with the prospect of beginning a new work. One could argue that part of this trepidation stems from the fear of the uncertain (which, unfortunately, even writers are subject to). Maybe you don’t yet know the direction you want your story to take. Maybe you don’t yet even know your story.

In this installment of “The Writer’s Life,” Jaden Terrell shares some tips on how to map out your story. With these tricks in your arsenal, you’ll be able to approach that foreboding empty page with confidence.

Your First Draft

By Jaden Terrell

In the past several months, you’ve learned a lot about the characters in your story. You know what clues the perpetrator left, how he obscured his tracks, who the suspects are and what will cast suspicion on them, and where and how your protagonist will find these clues.

What else must happen in order for your character to get what she wants? What obstacles will she face? How will she be deceived or betrayed?

By now, you’ve probably envisioned a number of scenes. It’s finally time to start putting it all together.

Brainstorming and Index Cards
Based on what you’ve learned, take a few moments to brainstorm all the scenes you know you’ll need. You can make a list, write a summary, use a mind map or clustering exercise, or use whatever format best suits your needs.

I like to use index cards because the act of physically manipulating the cards helps solidify the story in my mind. If you prefer, you can use Post-It notes, a white board and dry-erase markers, an Excel spreadsheet, or Scrivener. If you choose one of these alternate methods, just mentally substitute your method every time I refer to index cards.

If you have several subplots, you may find it helpful to use white for the main plot and a different color for each subplot. When you’ve finished your planning, you’ll be able to see at a glance if your story is balanced and how the subplots are interwoven with the main plot. If one color is clumped at the beginning and then never appears again, you know you have a problem, and you can sort it out before you get too far along in your narrative.

Now, write a sentence or two about each scene you’ve envisioned, one per card. (Make sure to use the appropriate color, if you’re color coding your subplots.) You can go into more detail if there are things you want to be sure not to forget, but don’t worry about pretty writing, and don’t worry yet about putting them in order. It’s okay if there are gaps. You can always fill them in later.

Ordering, Bridges, and Turning Points
Once you have your cards written, put them in order. Don’t stress about this. You can always change things later. With each scene, ask what needs to happen to lead to the next one? What would logically follow? What if your character failed? What would make things worse? After your protagonist takes action, ask yourself if there’s any way your villain would know what your protagonist has done. If so, how would (s)he naturally react? After your villain takes an action, ask yourself what your protagonist would naturally and reasonably know about it and how (s)he would naturally react? Use these questions to build additional scenes, with important turning points at the ¼, ½, and ¾ marks.

Where do you start? As close as possible to the inciting incident (the thing that changes your character’s life and embroils him or her in the story) without confusing the reader. If you have to have a flashback immediately after your opening, chances are you’ve started your story too late.

Once you have your cards in order, you have a flexible outline. As you write, if the direction of your story changes, you can rearrange the cards or toss some out and make new ones. I like to keep them up to date, so I can lay them out and see the whole story at a glance.

Write Your Story
Pick a card, any card. I like to start at the beginning and write to the end (it keeps me from referencing events that haven’t happened yet), but it’s fine to write the scenes out of order if a later scene appeals to you more. Some writers like to write the last scene first so they know where they’re heading. That’s fine too. The important thing is to write.

You don’t have to wait until you know everything.

Whatever scene card you choose, start writing it. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just get the story down.

When you’ve finished that scene, choose another card.

As you write, continue to ask yourself, “Does what I’m writing make sense, based on what’s come before and what’s going to happen? What would naturally and logically happen next? How would this character naturally and logically respond to this event? How could this be worse?”

To Revise or Not to Revise
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about whether or not to revise as you go. Because writing and editing require different thought processes, conventional wisdom says it’s best to get the whole book down on paper first, then go back and revise and polish. It’s very difficult to do both at the same time, but there are successful authors who manage it and turn out exceptional work year after year, all the while struggling to refine each shining sentence before moving on to the next one. If that’s the way you work, and if you’ve been able to use that method to actually complete a novel, by all means, carry on. You’ve found your process.

But if you suffer from the curse of perfectionism and you have trouble finishing anything because your editor brain refuses to let you move forward until each sentence is a glistening gem, I strongly suggest you follow the conventional advice. If your editor brain is such a tyrant you can’t move forward, you should probably show your editor brain a little tough love. Pack her bags, give her chocolate and strawberries and champagne, and send her away to a cottage on the beach with the promise that when she comes back, you and your writer brain will have a nice, messy draft for her to fix. She’ll tap on the door and look at you with sad puppy eyes, and when you refuse to let her in, she may resort to screeching that your work will be dreck and that, without her, you’re destined to be the laughingstock of the literary community. Put your fingers in your ears and tell her gently, “It’s not your turn yet, Pumpkin.”

When I started writing, I was paralyzed by the need to be perfect, and I had a drawer full of beautiful first chapters to show for it. I had to use the tough love approach before I could finish my first novel. Now my editor brain and my writer brain have made peace with each other, and my process is somewhere in between the two extremes. I like to do what Dean Wesley Smith calls “cycling.” I write a new chapter, then go back and revise previous chapters, then write another new one, then cycle back, and so on. I’m not allowed to revise until I’ve written at least 1000 new words. This keeps me moving forward but allows me to go back and fix problems as they arrive. So my “first drafts” are more polished than they used to be, because by the time I read the end, I’ve already been through it multiple times. The key is, though, that the writing and editing are still separate. Writer brain comes out to play; then the two brains work together to make sure everything works.

Choose the method that will get you to the end. And above all, have fun with it. Try different things. Backtrack if you have to. Give yourself permission to write badly, to tell instead of show, to let your writer brain play. There’s nothing you can do wrong that can’t be fixed.

Below are some things to think about as you plan and write. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed with it all, step back and go back to the basics. Ask yourself the simple questions: Does this make sense? What is the next, natural, logical thing that would happen? What would this character naturally, realistically do? How could this be worse?

Character

  • Are your characters consistent?
  • Does your protagonist have at least one heroic characteristic?
  • Is (s)he too perfect?
  • Have you used his/her fears and flaws to deepen the story and further the plot?
  • Does (s)he have enough internal conflict? Opposing desires? Conflicting emotions? (Desire, Motivation, Obstacle, Conflict)
  • Are the stakes high enough for the character? Is (s)he “all in”?
  • Have you given your protagonist room for growth? (What is something (s)he would never say, think, or do? Can you find a plausible way to make him think, say, do those things?
  • Does your character surprise us while remaining true to his/her character?
  • Have you shown us the emotional and/or spiritual effects of the turning points on the character?
  • Are all your characters’ motivations believable?
  • Are the supporting characters and antagonists well developed? Do they have lives, conflicts, and emotions of their own, independent of the protagonist? Do their strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits echo or complement the protagonist’s? Remember, “The villain is the hero of his own story.”

 

Plot
You’ll notice that several plot issues overlap with character.

  • Does everything make sense? Does the storyline hold together?
  • Does one thing lead logically to another, or are there gaps in the narrative? Does it pass the “what would logically happen next/what would the characters logically do” test?
  • Is there enough happening?
  • Is there enough conflict? (Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean fighting.)
  • Have you asked yourself, throughout the narrative, “How could this be worse?”
  • Do you have subplots and layers?
  • Are the overall stakes high enough?
  • Is there a moment of no turning back?
  • Do you have major turning points at the ¼, ½, and ¾ points of the story and other turning points throughout? Are there reversals throughout the story (places where the unexpected happens and changes the direction of the story).
  • Have you used these turning points as opportunities to heighten or understate emotion? Are you going for the obvious or can you bring more depth or subtlety to the scene? (Think Mel Gibson in LETHAL WEAPON, where he’s in the trailer putting the gun in his mouth. Originally, the director wanted him to scream, rant, rail at the universe. But Gibson asked to try something different. He made it smaller and quieter, and by doing so, gave it infinitely more power.)
  • Have you included moments of forgiveness, grace, redemption, and self-sacrifice?
  • Have you given your characters moral dilemmas and choices?
  • Does the resolution seem both unpredictable and inevitable?
  • Are all loose ends resolved?

It seems like a lot to hold in your head, but you can get there, one sentence, one page, one paragraph at a time. Remember Dorie, the incorrigible blue fish in the movie Finding Nemo. As long as you “just keep swimming,” you’ll finish that first draft and be able to type “The End.”

Beth TerrellJaden Terrell (Beth Terrell) is a Shamus Award finalist, a contributor to “Now Write! Mysteries” (a collection of writing exercises by Tarcher/Penguin), and the author of the Jared McKean private detective novels Racing The Devil, A Cup Full of Midnight, and River of Glass. Terrell is the special programs coordinator for the Killer Nashville conference and the winner of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA). A former special education teacher, Terrell is now a writing coach and developmental editor whose leisure activities include ballroom dancing and equine massage therapy. www.jadenterrell.com

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