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What to know before you begin

Chapter One, Page One:

What To Know Before You Begin

  1. Understand the conventions of the kind of book that you’re writing.
  2. Have a good understanding of your major characters—know their backgrounds and personality well enough to predict how they’d react in most situations.  And listen to those characters, once you know them.  When a story goes haywire, it’s usually because a writer is trying to force a character to do something that goes against the grain of the character’s personality.
  3. Have a good understanding of the central conflict of the book.
  4. Make sure the central conflict and the characters match up well. (For example, don’t send a superhero after a bad hairstylist.  Superheroes save the world.  You need somebody superficial and vain to go after that hairstylist.)
  5. Have some idea of the beginning, middle, and end of your book.  You can outline it obsessively, or start with a general idea in the back of your head, but it helps a lot to know where you are ultimately going when you sit down to write a book.
  6. Have some idea of your setting when you sit down to write a book.  Good world building is something that enriches every novel, whether the setting is real or imagined.
  7. Don’t overload any scene with the products of your research.  The telling detail, rather than endless lists of what you’ve learned, will be what sticks in the reader’s mind.
  8. Try to strike a balance between dialogue and narrative appropriate to your project.  A “gray” page isn’t appropriate to commercial fiction (all text, no dialogue, no paragraph breaks), though it may be just the ticket for a scholarly paper.
  9. Start each scene somewhere interesting, build it to a climax, then set the hook for the next scene.
  10. Each scene should reveal something important about either your characters or your plot.  If it doesn’t, no matter how pretty it is, it wastes space and reader attention.
  11. When you’re stuck, ask yourself some of the following questions:
  • What’s the worst thing I can do to this character right now?
  • What’s the best thing that could happen to this character right now?
  • Why doesn’t this character want to do what I want him/her to?
  • Is there a character handy I can kill off?
  • If this scene is boring me, what will it do to the reader?
  • Should I start cutting?
  • Where was the last place the story felt right—should I go back and start it again from there, trying something a little different?
  • What does this character want?
  • Am I going to give it to him/her?
  • If I do, will it be a curse or a blessing?

Remember, professional writers write.  They don’t get writer’s block.  The rest of us do our jobs, even when we don’t want to.  Why should writers be special?  So writer’s block is a myth.

  1. It usually takes three chapters or so, about fifty pages, to get to know your characters well enough to be certain of them.  When the book is about a third complete, read it again to make sure that your characters are consistent, and make notes for any necessary rewrites, before finishing the draft.
  2. A story arc for a book begins the moment that a character is forced to make a great change in his/her life.  The story builds until the results of that change are final, and the conflict the change wrought in the character is resolved.  So make sure that you start out very close to the moment of change.  You can fill in necessary background in the course of the story.
  3. Don’t forget that you’re not Writing a Book.  You’re telling a story.
  4. Keep point of view in mind as you write.  Make a decision as to how best to tell your story—whether it’s first-person, third-person limited, third person, third-person omniscient, or whatever, find the best way to tell your story, and stick to it.  Changing character viewpoint in mid-scene is an easy way to lose readers.
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