Sewing the Seeds of an Idea: When to Start Planting

Different seed samples await germination testi...

Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.

The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.

The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.

I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.

With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.

corn seedling

Permission To Not Write In A Linear Fashion?

Jigsaw

Following on from my last post about writing styles, plot and structure, I have been wrestling with my next novel. I am 6,000 words into the manuscript but last week I hit a wall. The story refuses to be written in a linear style. It refuses.

I have several key scenes in my mind and have been wanting, itching, to write them but the little voice inside my head says – you’re not there yet, finish the introduction, take your time. So, I struggled on, limping through ways to unfold the characters, their motives, setting the scene for future events. I almost gave up.

Over the weekend, the story – which, let’s face it, becomes your inner world while you write the novel – evolved and wouldn’t let go. I was still faced with the same problem on Monday when I sat down to write. I wanted to keep going and I couldn’t. If you have ever seen a race horse at the start of a race practically ready to storm a building, let alone the track, you’ll know what I mean when I say I wanted to skip the links, the build-up and just cut to the chase, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Animated sequence of a race horse galloping. P...

I did something I haven’t tried before, I gave myself permission to just write the scenes which needed writing and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can link them up successfully. This, I suppose, follows the scatter graph model which I talked about. I know that some writers use this method but it is risky and I’ve only ever written one. word. after. the. next. one. chapter. at. a. time.

It does, however, feel a little like constructing a jigsaw in the dark in the hope that when I turn the light on all the pieces will give me one story and that the picture will look good and just as it should.

How do you write? Do share your techniques, methods or tips however strange or unorthodox. It would be really interesting to see how other writers work.

Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner