Thursday, October 18, 2007



For those of you who’ve just joined us, this is a blog for anyone who has been putting off writing that book! You know the one I’m talking about, the one you’ve been telling your friends and family that you’ve got to write, that’s been eating away at you, that you think about whenever you’re not doing the million other things that you’ve just GOT to do. Well, as they say there’s no time like the present; so, think of this as your own personal blog coach---you CAN write that book (try saying that a hundred times). Over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving you some thoughts on how one writer (namely me) got started, got finished and ultimately after much trial and tribulation, got it published (and actually received some critical acclaim). So now it’s your turn!

Last week we talked about getting that BIG IDEA, the one that will propel your book forward. This week we’ll talk about the next step: Getting Started. I’ve subtitled this week “Blowing out the Cobwebs!” because from a figurative perspective, that’s often what getting started entails. Blowing out the mental blocks and cobwebs that have hindered you in the past from taking that first step, writing that first sentence and slowly but inexorably getting drawn into your own story. Because, ultimately, not getting started once you’ve latched on to your BIG IDEA is almost like that famous Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred.” I won’t recite the entire poem (because I can’t remember it right now!) but the gist of it is What happens to a dream deferred….” He writes: Is a dream deferred like a “Raisin in the sun….or…. does it explode?” I would say that if you’ve done the mental work to come up with the BIG IDEA and you don’t take it all the way to fruition, it is like that dream deferred. And I know that no one wants any more internal combustion then you probably already have! So let’s get started.

In writing the book there are two equally important tent poles: Character and Plot. If you have a novel with great characters but no plot, it’s ultimately not going to go anywhere and in today’s fast food, immediate gratification world you’re probably not going to get too many people to hang with you until the end. Conversely, if you have a great plot but poorly developed characters, you’ll leave your readers unsatisfied because they will not feel a connection to the people in the story. So the moral is that you’ve got to have both. Then the question is how do you start developing character and plot. Let’s begin with characters.

The first thing that you want to do is to define your main characters. I’d suggest writing a half a page to one page on each of your main characters. The page should contain as much information on them as you can create, obviously their name, where they’re from, the major conflict in their life, their goals, their frustrations, their relationships, as much on their “back story” as possible, where they grew up, any trauma early in life, their relationship with parents, siblings, best friends. In short you’ve got to create their world and if you discipline yourself to describe your characters in a page or less, you’ll have more to draw upon when you start writing. One caveat, I found that as I wrote I came up with characters that I hadn’t initially contemplated or in some cases, the back story changed with my original main characters. That will happen because more than anything the process of writing is organic and does change as you write more, but defining the your main characters and their major conflict is critical in making sure that they are coherent in their actions and reactions throughout the story.

Once you’ve written the page about each of your main characters and you feel as if you know these people, then you want to write a general outline of the beats of the story. I do have a disclaimer; some writers don’t write outlines; they don’t write character descriptions; they just sit down and write. And that can work too, but I’ve found that if you’re having difficulty starting, it sometimes helps to put your toe in the water before you jump in, and a good solid outline with character descriptions is the proverbial “toe in the water” that gets you used to the temperature so that when you do jump in it’s a good experience.

With that in mind, I’d suggest that you write a very general outline of the beats of the story. I’m going back to screenwriting terminology for a minute where generally you’ll write down the beats (ie the main plot points) in each of the three acts, focusing on what are called the “turning points” at the end of each act which move the action forward until the climax and conclusion. Although there’s no required three act structure in a novel, you’ll still want to think about the major things that happen in your book. What is the set-up, ie. what starts the action of the book. If it’s a murder mystery, is it the crime being committed, is it the detective getting a call that they’ve been assigned to a case? There has to be something which starts the action. That something is called the set-up. Although in a novel there’s no page by which the set-up must begin (as in a screenplay where the set-up has to happen within a defined page limit), you still want to make sure that your setup occurs at least within the first twenty pages. Otherwise it’s going to be difficult to keep your audience. It also disciplines you because once you have your setup, something’s got to happen as a result of the setup and that will take you to your next major plot point.

What I’ve found in writing the beats of the story is that I go from very general to more specific. In other words, my first outline may only be a page. I’ll have the set-up, then the next major action point that occurs as result of the set-up and then every major plot point until the climax and conclusion. Once I have the very general outline, I’ll start getting more specific, filling in additional characters and subplots. Generally you’ll have what’s called the “A” story which is the main plot. As an example, an outline for the “A” story might look like this: (1): Setup: A body is found in a dry riverbed, (2) the Detective is assigned to the case, (3) He follows the trail of suspects and is convinced it’s the business partner (4) He has amassed all of the evidence against the business partner (5) He’s about to arrest the partner and charge him with the crime and the partner is found dead (6) There’s a ticking clock and the detective must solve the case or something else is triggered (7) In a bizarre twist he realizes that the person he least suspected is in fact the killer (8) the Climax where he confronts the killer (9) Resolution: the crime is solved.

This is of course very general, and the next step would be take each of those nine beats and flesh them out more. For instance, what is the trail of suspects, how does he find them, who are they? The “B” story (or subplot) will generally be a combination of fleshing out more back story on the main character or characters, or parallel action occurring that ultimately ties in with the main story. The key with subplots is that they have to tie into the main plot otherwise they’re like dangling participles (remember from high school English) and they are just a distraction.

Now you should have the first building blocks of your novel: the main character descriptions and at least a general outline of your story. A final word about outlines: you can continue making them more and more detailed until finally you have an outline that’s as long as a book. I would suggest that once you have an outline that sets out the major beats of the story, the major subplots, if any, and reasonably fleshes out the major plot points, you should start writing. Otherwise, you risk spending so much time outlining and re-outlining that it becomes just another impediment to actually writing the book. The outline is the tool, not the end in itself. Generally an outline of 5-10 pages is more than sufficient and at that point, you’re ready to start writing. PAGE ONE: You’ve started!

Next week, we’ll talk about Point of View and Putting yourself on a Schedule. In the meantime, for more information on my novel A DEAD MAN SPEAKS check out my website at or if you’d like to contact me I can be reached at


Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering -- in an effort to just "get my novel out," I've decided to join the National Novel Writing Month ( competition in November. The concept is simple -- 50,000 words in 30 days, no matter the quality, and you win. The idea is to write something, ANYTHING, no matter how bad it is, and leave your inner editor behind, with the idea that you can always go back and edit. Have any of you tried this and, if so, did you finish?

angela henry said...

50,000 words in thirty day? Wow! I'd probably have to take a leave of absence from my job to pound out that many words in a month! I've heard of the NanoWriMo competition but I've never participated. Sounds like a good way to get the creative juices flowing though.


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