posted by Leann Sweeney
I am often asked when I speak about my books where I get my ideas--this is in fact the most often asked question. In truth, ideas are the easy part. They're everywhere. Open your browser and the world of the wacky, the weirdly wonderful and the plain sickening things that people do are all over the place. Add "and then what if ...?" and you've got a plot. That could be why so many people truly believe they can write a book. And then they get stuck on page fifty and wonder why they've hit the wall. These are imaginative, perhaps even brilliant, people who get stopped dead and that's because sadly, it takes a little more than a great idea to write a publishable book.
Yup, ideas are the least of my problems. But starting a book in exactly the right place? Huge problem. Starting in that perfect spot may make the difference between an amazing story and a mediocre one. And guess what? Getting the correct beginning might help you finish that book if you have the passion and the persistence to go with it. Oh, and skin as thick as the earth's core. You will need that.
How many books have you put down because they started too slow? You couldn't get into them, you set them aside and they started to collect dust--at least they do at my house, probably more times than I can count. Then I will pick up another book and BAM! I can't stop reading. What's the secret? How does this happen? It takes plenty of thought on the part of the writer, that's how.
A skilled writer should draw you in from page one, and that can happen in many ways. But for my mysteries, an analysis of the plot is essential. I often think of what Elizabeth George taught me in a class I took in 1999. She said books should start "in media res"--literally "into the middle of things." Begin in the middle of the action. Good advice, but not as simple to accomplish as one might think. I learned something else to add to her advice at a conference I attended later and it has made a huge difference.
Once I've decided what my story is, I draw a long line on a blank sheet of paper. I learned this technique from Rick Riordan, a Texas author who happens to be a great teacher. He worked with young adolescents so maybe that's why he got my attention. <g> No surprise Elizabeth George was once a teacher, too. Anyway, on this line I place key plot points--things like "the murder," "the relevant backstory--and believe me, not all backstory is relevant," "character X is introduced," and any other essential elements I can think of, and I put them on this line in chronological order.
Then I start thinking. One of these keys must come first, but how to choose? It all comes down to how quickly and easily the story can begin without boring the reader. If I start with a murder, how will I give the reader the information they need to understand why this death happened? Does the reader need to know about the dead person before the victim dies?Or is that not so important? Sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes it's absolutely necessary. My preference is to feed in the backstory slowly because this can add an element of surprise. But sometimes, that victim has to appear on the page and have dialogue for the reader to truly understand why he or she ends up dead.
One thing I have learned is that for me, pages and pages of backstory--in other words, what happened when I wasn't reading this book--doesn't work. It may be fine for other readers, but not for me. That doesn't mean that some other writer can't make that backstory so compelling that they draw readers in from page one. But I want to be there, with the narrator from the first sentence. And that long line can give me a preview of just how much backstory I have to put up front to make the story work. Putting things in chronology can make me see in black and white how I need to structure the book.
I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on what makes them turn that first page and not ever want to stop. As I said last week, I am a lifelong learner. I will never stop wanting to learn how to write better books.