‘How do you begin a book?’

Previous posts have concerned how I feel in the middle of a book, and at the end. Now seems a good time to cover how I begin, as I’m at that stage with ‘Just for the Holidays’.

Beginning a book is a little like falling in love. I think of it when I should be thinking about something else, I don’t hear everything that’s said to me, I feel a little uncertain, a little apprehensive, a lot excited. What will happen? What if …?

Every book’s different but here, loosely, is where and how a book begins:

Idea

Ideas come to me through reading or hearing something, thinking about my past, or just, apparently, out of the ether. If an idea sticks in my mind, my subconscious plays with it. Inconveniently, the ideas my subconscious likes often come halfway through another book, so I have to try and keep the new idea bubbling on the back burner.

‘Just for the Holidays’ originated from a story told to me over a meal. My friend’s holiday with her sister had gone from bad to worse as the sister dropped bombshell after bombshell on her. I asked if I could use the idea, suitably modified, explored it a bit more, decided what would suit me and what would need to be changed, and in which sort of direction I’d take things.

Characters

My characters come to me early in the process. I begin with hero and heroine. My subconscious plays with them, too, and I find myself making decisions that I’m not completely aware of making.

For ‘Just for the Holidays’ I decided that Leah is, like me, a bit of a petrolhead. This is going to allow me to have some fun with the research, as she does track days and goes to motor sport events so, naturally, so will I have to! One big element to her character was established by the initial idea: Leah has chosen not to get married or have children. She’s a free spirit and likes her life exactly as it is. I wanted her to have a cool job and found a suitable one, one most people wouldn’t count as a job. Importantly, Leah has an older sister, Michele, who’s quite different: a teacher, married with children. Between the different lifestyles of the two sisters lies a lot of emotion and conflict.

Ronan is a grounded helicopter pilot. I’ve tried to make him something else because I’ve written about helicopters once before but he came to me as a grounded helicopter pilot and my subconscious has turned obstinate about it. Again, research is a pleasure. And if anyone would like to take me up in a helicopter, please get in touch.

The work

Now comes the part where I take these few facts and develop something bigger. I create secondary characters to impact on the hero, the heroine and the plot. I give Ronan and Leah conflicts, I explore their lives, their histories, their goals. I mull over what’s drawing them together and what will keep them apart. I look at them from the points of view of other characters – what does her sister think of Leah? What does Ronan think of her? What does her employer think of her? What does Leah think of him? What does his son think of him? etc etc. I feel this technique gives me properly rounded characters.

For some reason, I almost always plan on paper, with a pen. Maybe I think better with a pen in my hand. It’s certainly not because I like handwriting, or that my handwriting is attractive. I’m now fortunate enough to have a second desk for when I’m writing by hand.

The second desk

The second desk

On the opposite wall is an area I can use to cover with sticky notes, if that’s what seems a good idea at the time.

My planning wall with The Wedding Proposal's plot just beginning

My planning wall with an earlier book, The Wedding Proposal, just emerging

Sometimes I simply write out my thoughts and ask myself questions. At other times I create plans. This usually happens when I have a central issue and I want to explore it. The next picture is of a successful plan. I began with my central issue and explored all the outcomes I could think of, with consequences.

A successful plan

A successful plan

Here’s a plan when things became a lot less straightforward.

Not going quite so well, this time ...

Not going quite so well, this time …

It began well. But I introduced a second issue that would impact on the first and found it wasn’t working with the same logic and ease. Everything I thought of seemed to give rise to more and more to think of – hence the additional bits of paper stapled together as my exploration got too big for the page. Stuck, I paused for thought. Should I buy a new stationary tidy, now I have this second desk? Ooh, look, I didn’t realise that my long-arm stapler could extend its reach just by moving something along a bit … I clicked my pen and stared at the plan. By the end of the day all I had decided was that the secondΒ  issue wasn’t working.

During the evening, my subconscious kept drawing my attention away from the TV, my dinner, and the book I was reading, worrying at the second issue. Just as I was going to bed – bingo! I realised what was wrong with my issue (too close to something I’d used in another book) and what I could do to change it.

The important thing, to me, is that the plan did its job. Knowing when something isn’t working is as important as knowing when it is.

So, back to my second desk, this afternoon, to work on secondary character bios, drawing all the many pieces of my jigsaw together. It will probably be a couple of weeks before I feel ready to type ‘Chapter 1’ into a new Word document on my Mac. Me and my subconscious have a lot to do before that.

NB My subconscious isn’t the only thing I listen to. Conscious thought does a lot of puzzling – and an agent and/or publisher might have some input, too. πŸ™‚

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “‘How do you begin a book?’

  1. Always interesting to see how other people work. I’m tussling at the moment with my second edit of my follow-up novel and somehow need to inject more conflict but not sure how to do this without altering the essential timeline, essential because there’s a baby involved!

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  2. That’s really useful, Sue. And I have ‘love writing’ as well of course:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! πŸ™‚ Of course, my method is only what works for me. Other writers have their own techniques and I don’t think there’s a right way or a wrong way. I’m always open to trying things if I hear of/think of something that feels as if it might work. If it doesn’t, I just don’t do it any more. πŸ™‚

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  3. Brilliant post Sue, thanks for sharing.

    Like you, I have to do a lot of thinking about characters and plot before I actually start writing that first scene.

    Good luck with Just for the Holidays.
    Nikki x

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  4. What an interesting post Sue, thanks for sharing. I need to plot using a pen and notebook too, I think it’s a need to ‘bleed onto the page’ before your thoughts can be streamlined πŸ˜€

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  5. This is a very interesting post. You’re right, knowing that something isn’t working is very helpful. I think that gut feeling of something not being right comes from clues that your subconscious has picked up, but decided not to tell your conscious mind.
    I plan on paper too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. neetswriter

    I love reading about how you work, Sue as you always say something which inspires me. I like to plan by hand too, and sometimes just sitting down with a pen and piece of A4 really helps when I’m stuck. Thanks for the tip on what other people in the novel think of the hero and heroine-what a great way to add depth to those characters (I’m applying this to my two main characters in my head as I type…)

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