Starting from Scratch: Actual Writing

Once I have a full chapter-by-chapter outline in place, it’s time to start writing–but that doesn’t mean the writing is going to be automatically awesome. I don’t recommend that everyone rewrite their first chapter a zillion times until it’s perfect, but I do recommend a lot of free-writing at the beginning of a new book, and in my case this was multiple attempts at the first chapter. Each book, and each viewpoint character, has its own particular voice and style, and it’s important for me to find this voice as early as I can.

When I wrote I Am Not a Serial Killer, I did a bunch of free-writes to try to pin down John’s character. Most of these were just John talking about stuff: I gave him a topic and let him go. This doesn’t work for every book or character, but for a very strong, very peculiar character like John it worked really well. His character had to drive the book, more so than the plot or the villain or anything else, so I needed to get it right. None of that early writing would have worked in the book, but it let me know who he was and how he talked and how he thought; once I had that firm in my mind, it was easy to say, “okay, the plot starts here, and John is doing this,” and then just let it go from there.

The specifics of that first chapter–that our introduction to the story is neither plot nor dialogue, but a detailed description of an embalming–was also very carefully chosen, after a couple of first chapter attempts that didn’t really “feel” right. The first chapter is a promise to the reader, and the rest of the book is the fulfillment of that promise, so I built my first chapter around the specific promises I intended to fulfill: the main character is very smart, very scary, and kind of inhuman; the book is going to include a lot of creepy details and dead bodies; even the climax is foretold by the first chapter, though I won’t say why for those readers who haven’t read it yet. Perhaps the biggest promise of that chapter is that the book will focus on the character first, and the plot second; the murders that drive the plot are mentioned only in passing while John does something else.

For Strawberry Fields, finding the character’s voice was very important for a different reason. It’s a much more plot-oriented book, and while the character at its heart doesn’t need to be as layered, he still needs to be interesting and competent; his actions and reactions need to drive the story. In my first two attempts this didn’t come across well because I was making him too weak–he’s delusional, after all, and depressed, and it was very hard for him to seem strong when I was trying so hard to make him seem crazy. I pulled back on that and punched up his competence and kept starting over from scratch, showing different scenes in different ways until I found a way that worked. What I’ve settled on is a sort of “secret agent” mentality, where the main character talks and acts like a hero in a spy movie because that’s how he sees his life–he’s surrounded by all of this weird, dangerous stuff, but rather than just letting it happen to him he takes an active hand in trying to fight back and escape. The balance between competence and insanity is a very difficult one to walk, but it’s proving to be very interesting.

9 Responses to “Starting from Scratch: Actual Writing”

  1. Cool, lots to think about. So does the poll mean you listen to Joy Division, like I do, for its wonderfully eerie mood enhancing qualities?

  2. Callisto says:

    Hmm… Strawberry Fields is sounding more and more fascinating as I hear more about it. Fie on the long writing/publishing process!

  3. I bought I Am Not a Serial Killer at the LDSS conference; you signed it for my son, who loved it. I just finished it, and I thought it was terrific. John Cleaver shouldn’t be sympathetic, but he is, due to your skill. Well done; I look forward to more.

  4. Arlene says:

    Yet more details on how to write a solid story. I am learning so much from you!

  5. Donna says:

    Good advice on free writing. There’s nothing quite like giving your characters free reign to talk to you. Well, I guess there are certain mental illnesses that are kind of like that. writing and insanity are more closely tied than I thought.

  6. Fiona says:

    I have just done this same kind of thing with the first few chapters of my new book. I have tried to begin it in serveral different places. Then, I have had to decide the voice, and what will help my audience connect and understand the most. I’ve written in first person and thrid person and MPV for a few chapters. I have tried present and past tense. It is amazing to let lose and play around with these elements. I’m funnier in 1st person past tense/ but the story shines through better in 3rd person. I also found out that I don’t like the physical discription of my hero, so have had to start from scratch with the character. Can’t write a hero that you hate to look at.
    As for your new hero, always remember, just because they say that they aren’t all out to get you doesn’t mean that they’re not.

  7. Jaime Theler says:

    thanks for sharing! I’ll have to try the freewriting idea. My current WIP (just starting) is much more character-driven and so it will probably save me a lot of revising the beginning chapters if I can firmly get into my main character’s head. So far my characters aren’t quite on the edge of insane, but I can see how that would be challenging and fun to do. Can’t wait to read your book!

  8. Arlene says:

    My mother-in-law is reading “SK”…

    And the cycle continues. I’m determined that you become quite famous, Dan. :)

  9. admin says:

    Aren’t you typically non-fiction, Jaime, or am I remembering incorrectly?

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