Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Beauty of a Fresh, Blank Page

The process of starting a new project is different for every writer. Maybe it begins with a story read in the news or ignited by the winking flicker of a strange dream. Maybe it starts with a character, an unfamiliar face with a past that won't leave you alone. And what writers do with that idea is just as varied. Some have a strict routine that really works for them, down to what snacks and drinks they have arranged at the ready, even.  

My (newly agented! YAY!) critique partner, Anne Love, is brilliant. We call her The Character Whisperer because she's so perceptive about human nature that she crafts these gorgeous characters that practically do all of the story work for her :) Her blog post earlier this week inspired me to share how I begin a story. And it helps that that's exactly what I'm doing right now!

For me, I'm not the writer with notecards plotted out in perfect order before I ever enter any words on the page. Like Anne, my projects usually begin with a character or two and then a scene that tells me about them. This usually involves lengthy discussions with my critique partners, talking about my imaginary people and answering questions about them that would make the muggles scratch their heads if they only knew what we were doing.

Sometimes I pick actors that resemble my characters at that point. They're never exact replicas to the ones I see in my head -- and I think that order is important. They're more the actors I'd pick to play them. It doesn't always work out that way, but this time it did! These names are "placeholders" and subject to change, but aren't they cute? :) 

Sometimes I write the scene that's speaking to me so I can learn more about my characters. In my last three books, it's been somewhere around the black moment that comes to me first. But in this one, it was the meet-cute. (I won't give away all of my secrets :)

My next strategy is to learn as much about my characters as possible. Sometimes I give them the Myers-Briggs personality tests, a super insightful, interesting, and inspiring resource. I create Pinterest boards with outfits they'd wear, pretty things with which they'd decorate their home, the cars they drive -- things that are important to them and also capture their essence. I figure out their pasts and what might keep them from sleeping at night.

This approach might not work for everyone, but if you're like me and write character-driven stories, here are some things I keep in mind when I'm starting a new project:

With this approach, you have to deeply know and love your characters in order to connect with them and know their mannerisms and how they'd react to the situations you throw at them. You have to know the lies they believe about themselves, the keys to their past that keep them from living in freedom, and how that all connects with their deepest desires. You have to know why they've let things stand in the way of their happiness, and sometimes this unravels as the story unfolds. 

But if you don't love them, empathize with them, and connect with them emotionally from the very beginning, there's unfortunately little chance an agent, editor, or reader will.

If you know your characters, the story will grow organically according to the sparks they ignite. The events in this story will be determined by their deepest dreams, the lies and doubts that have shaped their life decisions and self-esteem, and the way they react to things according to those innate details. If you're writing a romance, their chemistry will ebb and flow according to the way these things make your characters mesh and clash

The conflict that keeps readers turning the pages will have rich dimension if you ask yourself the best and worst outcomes for your character in any given plot point and come up with an unpredictable or intriguing way that scenario could happen to them. 

If you know the inner workings of your characters and translate them through a unique premise that highlights their strengths and weaknesses in a compelling way, readers will be invested in the roller coaster of puzzle pieces brought together through your fingertips.

These are all things I'm trying to keep in mind as I start my latest story, learn from my characters, and hope that forcing them to confront their deepest doubts will help readers find freedom from their own along the way. Usually what starts out as that fresh, blank page ends up teaching me those hard, beautiful things first, though. :)

How do you begin a new story? Is it different each time? Are your projects more character- or plot-driven?


Laurie Tomlinson is a wife and mom from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who enjoys stories of grace in the beautiful mess. 

She is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers and received the Genesis Award in 2013 (Contemporary) and 2014 (Romance). 

Her work is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such Literary.

You can connect with Laurie here:

Twitter - @LaurieTomlinson


Jaime Wright said...

Mine usually begins with my hero/heroine's first massive tension filled scene. You know, the one. Where the hero inserts foot in mouth and heroine sets out to set him straight? :)

Great post, L!! :) <3

kaybee said...

Right now my "new" work grew out of my old one. It's a sequel and it grew pretty organically. There were two characters I just had to follow up on! That said, I still have to do plot work and character work. Nothing is easy. I have to give them goals etc. and make sure they are people the reader can root for.
Kathy Bailey

Jeanne Takenaka said...

LOVED this post, Laurie! I always do my character work before beginning. Sometimes, they begin speaking to me as a scene comes to life before I actually begin writing on the first "official" page. I like getting to know their voice a little when they speak to me. :)

I think my stories tend to be a mix of character and plot driven. I get to know my characters, but I also have the big points of the plot mapped out before I begin. I just don't always know how we'll get to those points. And occasionally, we take a different direction as the story unfolds. :)

Laurie Tomlinson said...

@Jaime - And you know I love those scenes! Forget sparks where you're concerned. It's all-out explosion :)

@Kathy - That's kind of the case for me this time, too! My heroine's story grew loosely based on a friend of a friend's story, and my hero was from a different book I wrote! I think it says a lot when more minor characters won't leave us alone :)

@Jeanne - Agreed! I like to write things that aren't in the story. It also helps me get to know my characters to rewrite a scene in the other character's POV to give it more dimension. Your approach sounds a lot like mine!

Anne Love said...

Yay!! Can't wait to brainstorm with you Laurie! ;)