To Begin

One of the most important bits of any story is the beginning. The part that convinces a reader to keep reading, or to shut the book and move on with their lives. The blank page that keeps writers trapped in fear. We know beginnings are important, we know they must portray character, setting, plot, and tone all without info dumping, we know that a good beginning will keep readers, a bad beginning will deter them. As writers, we are acutely aware of all of this. And that awareness keeps us frozen, staring at the empty page and waiting for the perfect words to begin our stories.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. Don’t laugh, yet. Beginnings have the possibility to be easy. Well, easier anyway. Now, I am no expert on this. On anything to be perfectly honest, but I do have an idea of what a good beginning is, and what a good beginning isn’t.

It all boils down to a couple of questions to ask yourself as you are settling down to begin your epic novel.

What is the most important part of this story?

Don’t tell me the characters. You haven’t thought about it yet. Think about it. What, in your book, is most important? Is it the plot? Is it the setting? Is it the theme? Or is it your characters? When you have answered that question, you know what to showcase in the beginning. If your setting is the most important part of your story, you will most likely want to start with a description of said setting (don’t scoff, many classic novels start out with description). If it is your plot, get that plot started right away!

Cut straight to what is important and leave out the fluff.

Is this story plot driven or character driven?

For the sake of this post, we will not be discussing the differences and potentials of each kind of story here. Suffice to say that plot driven stories rely on the plot to drive them forward, character driven stories, the characters.

If your story is going to be plot driven, you will want the plot to start off with a bang. Plop your reader in the midst of a gun fight, have the inciting event start two pages before the novel begins. However you do it, make sure events are happening from page one. This is a plot story after all, there isn’t time to be introspective.

If you have a character driven story, you will, most likely, start at more of a leisurely pace. Your inciting event can start a few pages down the road. Breath, introduce your readers to the characters they will be hanging out with for a few hundred pages. Don’t worry if things seem a little slow at first. Just worry if they stay slow when they aren’t supposed to be.

Since we are all about to being new projects, I thought it would be worthwhile chatting about beginnings. Don’t stress writers! Your beginning will be awesome. Are you guys ready for Nano yet? I am pretending that I am, also trying not to hyperventilate as November 1st looms ever closer. Eep!

Good luck everyone!

Shaina Merrick

Plotting V.S. Pantsing

You know how at the beginning of each how-to post the author tells you why you should listen to them? Why they are uniquely qualified to speak to you on this subject? Well. Here is a short version of that.

In the plotting and pantsing world I am not exactly in either camp. Nor am I one of those enlightened people who sit squarely in the middle of the line with their novels. I am a metronome. Sometimes I swing all the way to the pantsing side of writing, sometimes I swing the other way. It really depends on the day.

So do I know what I am talking about when I say plotting or pantsing? Yup. Been there done both. Whether that makes me qualified to write about this is another matter altogether. I will leave it for you to judge.

Lest you become confuzzled, let me define these terms. Ones that are bandied back and forth in the writing world all of the time. Sometimes sparking an interesting discussion, sometimes a heated debate.

In simple terms, plotters plan out their story before the first draft. Pantsers plot it out while they are writing the first draft. Plotters figure out their characters, plot, and setting waaay ahead of time. They are the ones with multiple notebooks dedicated to different elements of their story. Pantsers sit down with the germ of a story idea, a pen, and a piece of paper, and figure it out as they go along. Plot outlines? Character worksheets? What are those?!

The most heated debates come when writers begin to discuss which one is better. To plot first, or to plot later, that is the question. To which I say, depends on the day?

Pantsing Strengths

At this particular moment, the novel I am working on has been completely pantsed. When I began writing it I had a phrase, and half of a character. As I wrote I found more characters, and eventually figured out what on earth was going on with this story. That is the magic of pantsing. It is like a movie going on underneath your fingers. No one knows what is going to happen next. Least of all yourself. Everything is a surprise, and the magic that keeps us writing is everywhere. It is the first blush of that story, untainted by planning, that gets you through that first draft.

Also in pantsings favor is the fact that you can start right away. No waiting until every plot point is filled and every character question answered. You don’t even need to know the theme before you write those first words. I love that. I love that I can sit down and begin, and somehow that first bit of a story idea becomes a full story.

Plotting Strengths

Now while my current WIP is being pantsed, I have many many many plotted stories in progress. Ones that were plotted withing an inch of their life before I even started the first chapter.

As with pantsing, I start with the first blush of an idea. And then I figure out what on earth I am going to do with this idea. Which means all the worksheets, all the character questionnaires, and all the theme wonderings. What I love about this method is that I get to answer all of my questions before hand. There is something breathtaking about creating a character arc and watching it unfold before your eyes. I don’t have to wait for the end of the book to find out what is going to happen to all of my characters. I can figure it out right now! Then there is writing out each and every plot point and deciding what happens when. My organized self gets a thrill out of that part! When each character arc connects to the plot points, and it is all tied together by the theme, that there is pure magic.

I must say that the actual writing of the story goes much smoother when you have it all planned out before hand. There are less writing block moments and way fewer times that your characters have backed you into the corner with less than no ways out.

Pantsing Weaknesses

What, did you think I was going to let you leave without telling you the dangers of each method? Nope! Prepare to be overwhelmed.

If you absolutely hate writers block, if even the mention of it wants to make you hide under your bed with chocolate, then don’t pants. Trust me. When you barely an idea with where you are going to go with your story, writers block springs up often. Yelling ‘surprise!’ and then wondering why you are running away screaming.

It is easier to write yourself into a corner with pantsing. You eagerly follow each and every rabbit trail, and then wonder how on earth your characters ended up on the edge of a cliff with no ways of rescue. Hm, maybe I should write in a flock of eagles?

Also, you will have to edit many many times. There is no first then second then finished draft with pantsing. Unless you are a writing genius of course. You will have to do way more after the first draft to make sure that it all goes smoothly. And that includes refining character arcs, filling in plot holes, and foreshadowing. Things that you would have already done if you had plotted. So if you hate editing, try to have some of the planning and questioning done before hand.

Plotting Weaknesses

Even with your mega plans and color coded plot your novel still might fall flat on its face. Or never get written in the first place.

The greatest weakness I have found in plotting is the fact that you are never done planning. There are always more questions to answer about your character, always more bits to find out about your world, and always more research to do. You may find yourself always plotting and planning and never getting to the first draft. And if you don’t get to the first draft, you don’t have a novel. Only a well planned project that you will get to, someday.

Also, if you have created a multi faceted plot that has planned for every eventuality and filled every plot hole and put every character in a firmly defined box, your characters will grab the reins and run away with the whole story. It seems to be the rule of all plots. The more you tack them down, the smallest thing will upset them. If I don’t make sense, I apologize.

You see, writing is a creative process. Which means you are using the creative side of your brain most of the time. You know, the side that wakes you up at 2:00 AM with a great idea. That side will refused to be tamped down, and when you least expect it will pop up with this great idea that will send your perfect plot careening off course.

Pantsing Ideas

I thought this post was long enough, but I didn’t want to leave you with all of this dismal news. My hope is that these how-to posts are useful, and so I want to give you a few ideas to make each side easier to write. To avoid each pitfall and tap into the strengths.

I have found that pantsing becomes more manageable when you take notes while you are writing. Whether those notes are in a different color within your draft, or in a different notebook, or even at the end of each chapter, write ’em. Notes will save you from wondering where your characters went, and keep you from hours of finding where you wrote down what color your MC’s eyes are.

If you are writing notes, you have a quick look at what you will have to edit later. Possibly saving you a draft, or at least a bunch of time.

This idea is to keep writers block in the corner. Keep the ending in mind. No, this isn’t me trying to finagle you into plotting. Know where you are going with your story, at the very least you will know when you need to end it. Chances are, you already have an idea of where your story is going, just fine tune it a bit. What is the goal of the characters? Are the characters going to get their goal? Or not? Figure that out, and your pantsed novel will end right on time.

Plotting Ideas

Don’t plan too much. That about sums up my advice for this side of the question. If you plan too much, your novel won’t be written. Which isn’t quite what you want, is it? We all want to finish our stories, so do yourself a favor and stop planning. Find a point that you can stop, and stop. Decide beforehand what that point will be. Are you going to plan until you have a basic idea? Until you have the whole plot finished? Answer that question, and when you have hit that point. Stop. Don’t let yourself plan any more.

Again, if you plan too much and too tightly, one small thing will make it all crash off course. Okay okay. I might be exaggerating. Your plot will probably not go crashing into a mountainside and shatter into smithereens.

However, when you are plotting, leave breathing room. Room for your characters to do unexpected things, and for unexpected people to show up. And if the unexpected happens, don’t sweat it, or try to erase it. It will be easier to put toothpaste back into a bottle than to stuff your idea back into your brain. Play with idea a bit, let it percolate. Maybe it will make your story better, even if it means that your plot will have to be adjusted a bit.

Phew. If you made it to the end of this ridiculously looong post. Congratulations! Take some chocolate strawberries. I hope it was helpful, at least a little. So go out, finish those stories! I will be over here trying to end my pantsed novel. I need to take my own advice and figure out what the ending is for this thing…

Shaina Merrick