June 22, 2012
By Mary Hutchings Reed


We started to begin last month, and didn’t get past beginning to commence to begin. Are you ready now?

In the past couple of months, you’ve limbered up with morning pages, started your writer’s journal and probably read a little too much about how to write your first novel. Good.

Do you have an outline? A sketch of each character? A good opening sentence? No? Great! You are indeed ready to start!

Writing a novel is telling a story, and while some writers write to an outline — particularly those who write mysteries, thrillers and other plot-driven fiction — you’d be surprised how many of us have little more than an image, a character or an enigma to start with. Sitting at the computer every day is for us an exercise in trusting the process. We discover the story as we write it. Honest.

If you have a few principles of storytelling in mind, you won’t worry that you don’t know where your story is going. You will trust that you’ll know at the moment you actually need to know. In fact, at a Lawyers for the Creative Arts publishing seminar in February, Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of 14 books, suggested in his keynote address that not knowing is an important creative ploy. He suggested that each day you end your writing session by leaving your story hanging: “And then he said …” or “When he opened the door …” That way, you’ll have a ready-made place to begin the next day.

To fill in the blank and move your novel forward, you do need to have in mind the basics of story and story structure. Cause and effect. Opportunity and motive. Accident and intent. You need a main character, who 1) wants something (preferably badly) and plans to get it, 2) faces obstacles and complications, 3) reaches a crisis point, 4) either gets or doesn’t get what he/she wants and 5) begins (or not) a new phase — the resolution of the story.

What I had when I started my first novel, “Courting Kathleen Hannigan,” was my own experience of practicing law in the 1970s. What I didn’t have was Hopkins vs. Price Waterhouse , the Supreme Court case that inspired the dilemma that Kathleen faces in the novel. I got it when, at a certain point in the writing, I knew I needed a conflict, something that would challenge my main character. In desperation I leafed through the paperback CCH employment law decisions for the late ’80s. Sitting at a library carrel on a dreary November afternoon, I was “given” what I needed to make a plot.

What makes a novel rich for the reader and challenging for the writer is that there are several characters, each with multiple and sometimes opposing wants. When you don’t know what happens next, you might look at the conflicts between your characters. Become the advocate for one and put up your best defense for the other. Depose your characters. Cross examine them. Let them act it out. As a lawyer, you know, even if you think you don’t, how to do this.

A story is more than a collection of interesting anecdotes or observations. A story contains an emotional truth. It’s the difference between (not an original example): “The King died and then the Queen died” (anecdote) and “The Kind died and then the Queen died of grief.” Writing coach Marjie Rynearson calls this the “premise,” and puts it quite simply: “Why are you telling this particular story?” Do you believe that people can love each other so much that one will die without the other?

I hesitate to place too much emphasis on premise, especially for an audience of folks trained to pound home the evidence that proves their case. Good stories may lead their readers to see something a certain way, but they can’t force a point on the reader. At best, that is morality play or fable. At worst, it is polemic. Neither will land you on the best sellers list.

For many stories, and especially for novels, it doesn’t matter where you start. Especially if you don’t know your whole story yet — you are going to discover it in the process — you’re going to come back when you finish the first draft and see if the first, first chapter is indeed where the novel should begin. You can’t know now what you’re going to know when the first draft is done.

So, start!

Turn on your computer and put your main character someplace, doing something, wanting something, trying something.

And write …

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1 Response
  1. Marilyn

    I’ve been writing fiction (two novels and lots of short stories (five shorts published) and I often don’t know the precise endings until I actually get there. I usually know the direction of the ending, but as the characters speak and act, I pretty much learn from them exactly how to resolve the story. If my ending feels vague then I know, I need to spend quiet time away from it: let it come to me in its own time. I agree, trusting the characters to let it play out is key. One time all I had was a title of a story and nothing more. Nearly three weeks went by with just these four words bumping around in my head. I thought, how stupid is this! But soon a character emerged: a name. And another few weeks went by before the character began to speak. The creative process is very mysterious, but if you can trust yourself to flow with it, the pay off is very exciting. I wrote the story and it was accepted fairly quickly by a lovely online publication.