Thursday, July 23, 2009


We’ve talked about how to get an idea. Simple enough, you say—but not always. Writing is a process—we’ve all heard that before, but let’s think about what the “process” actually is.

First of all, we have to come up with the idea that we want to write about. For many of us, the stories start with just one idea, one scene that we’ve thought of, or even dreamed of—the germ of the story that we want to tell. There are many ways that writers get the beginning seed of what their tale will become, but how to make it be “the best that it can be?” Regardless of how an idea comes to you, it’s what you do with it that counts, in the end.

Some stories are uniquely your own to tell. An autobiography, such as Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, or a fictionalization of an autobiography, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, could not be told by anyone else in the same way.

Other ideas are out there for the taking—but it’s up to each writer to put their own spin on a “generic idea” that others have used before. One of the examples I like to use in class about this is the retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in many different formats through the years. It’s a basic story; “star-crossed lovers” that can only be together in death. Who would believe a successful musical could be made of that theme in “West Side Story”? The twist on the ending was that Juliet’s counterpart, Maria, didn’t die, but the other parallels remain constant. There have been several movie versions, but a few years ago, Leonardo DeCaprio starred in a modern remake of Romeo and Juliet, his men using semi-automatic weapons rather than swords. Oddly enough, the director chose to let the characters keep the original dialogue that Shakespeare wrote. There was a message in that: no matter what the time, no matter what the weapons, or the clothing, the love between the hero and heroine remained as constant now as it was then. Although the medium that relays the message has changed—written word translated to stage then to screen in various “takes”—the point of the story never changes, only the telling of it.

So you’ve decided what to write about, and you have a basic idea of what the story will be. Has it been done before? More than likely. What will YOU bring to the table? How can you tell the story that will make it “the one” that everyone will want to read? Putting your own tone and “self” into the story will be what makes it different and unique, even if it has been “done before.”

The next question you must ask is, who are you writing this story for? What audience are you aiming at? Most people have a pretty clear idea of what group they are targeting, but if this is something you haven’t thought about, give it some careful consideration. If you’re writing YA, remember it’s going to have to be a bit “edgier” than what publishers were looking for when you were “that age.” The romance genre has changed, too. Some things that were acceptable, such as heroes who took what they wanted regardless of the consequences, (forced sex) are frowned upon in today’s mainstream romance market. However, there is a huge range of venues in other genres that are more accepting of that type of behavior for their heroes. Just be aware of your target audience. This will help you not only in completing your writing project by giving it direction, but also in finding an agent and/or publisher when you’re finished.

Getting organized is the final preparatory step. Whether you’re a “planner” or a “pantser”, you need to have some general direction of where you’re headed with your book. I don’t generally recommend forcing pantsers to become planners. But in the beginning, sometimes it’s good just to make some kind of a general outline about what you want out of the story. There’s one question that must be answered of any story you want to tell:

“This is a story about __________________ who wants to do ________________.”

Easy enough, right? Sometimes, that’s harder to answer than it seems it will be. It’s not always cut and dried. And there may be more that one simplistic answer as to what your main character(s) want.

To recap, decide what you want to write about—something you love or are interested in telling about. Start with an idea, and don’t be discouraged about not knowing where to put it in your story. Many times, the idea we think is the “beginning” of the story turns out to be something nearer the middle. Has it been done before? Yes, but you’re going to make it different than anyone has ever told it before by bringing your own writing style and personality to it. In other words, you are bringing YOURSELF to the writing table, pouring your thoughts and beliefs and skills into your work to make it different and interesting. Who are you writing for? Give it some very careful thought. Some people write for themselves, while others hope to be on the NYT bestseller list in 6 months. Targeting your audience is important, either way. Getting organized is the next step to preparation. Getting your thoughts together and making an outline or even a general “guide sheet” to go by loosely will help, no matter what you’re writing.

Next, it’s time to start building your characters!