Now, where do I start?
Most writers have some clue about the story they want to write. If they’ve been down the writing road before, they’ll most likely just dive in and start working. Those folks, of course, are pantsers, members of that daring category of storytellers who disdain logic and reason (and an outline) and plunge into the business of creating art — or “arting” as Chuck Wendig would have it.
The rest of the writing herd, the plotters, are more likely to make a few notes if not some sort of outline or plan. Then they’ll dig in.
But what if you haven’t been writing long enough to know whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter, or something in-between? What do you do? Where do you start?
My suggestion would be to restrain the arting urge, at least for a little while. Then, instead of writing an outline, a list, a series of character studies, or anything else, try your hand at blurbing your book.
There are a variety of approaches one can use for writing a book blurb. The one I like the most was devised by professional writer and freelance editor, Victoria Mixon. Her formula cuts right to the heart of what a story needs to compete in the world of commercial fiction. Here it is:
When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit/restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement]/ or [sacrifice high stakes].
Here’s a version of the formula with a variety of character possibilities. The formulaic words can be manipulated to fit the circumstances, but the primary elements all remain: character, motive, action, and consequence leading to a climax.
Here’s how I applied the formula to one of my own novels:
When eager young Stormy Green, a recent college grad, applies for a newspaper job during WWII, she meets an eccentric gossip columnist with a bizarre lead on some Nazi infiltrators. When the columnist is murdered, and the Nazi attack is imminent, Stormy must find a way to thwart the terrorist plot.
Clearly, the blurb doesn’t tell the whole story. Far from it. But it does force the writer to focus on the critical story elements. By working what you have in mind into a framework like this, you’ll suddenly have a better understanding of the story arc — the guts of the tale. You’ll be far more likely to know where the tale begins and how it will end. All in a couple of sentences!
Does this mean you can’t change your mind as you go? Of course not. New characters will pop up; new challenges will present themselves; things you never dreamed of will suddenly rear up in the night and demand to be included in your book. Whether or not you allow them in is entirely up to you. But by then you’ll command a double armload of scenes, maybe even chapters, and those decisions will be much, much easier.
If you haven’t blurbed your story idea yet, get busy. Now!