Vision: A Resource for Writers

Welcome to the archives.  Current Issue is here

 

Worth the Wait

By Elizabeth Chayne
Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Chayne, All Rights Reserved


You know you've got it -- the idea of a century. A mind-blowing plot, a realistic hero, and a good store of one-liners. Everything a good book could ask for. Maybe even more than that.

This Book (capital B to emphasize importance), once done, will give J. K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and all the rest of those bestselling writers a run for their money. You'll make it to the New York Times bestseller list in the first day, and everyone will be quoting your characters for years to come.

Fired with excitement, you head to your computer and start typing out the first chapter, only to find yourself blocked after the first page or so.

Fantasy over.

What went wrong? It sounded so magical and feasible when it was in your head. Why does it look so fake on paper?

The little imp in your head kicks in somewhere around this point. Does this mean that you're a bad writer? Maybe you shouldn't be writing at all. Real writers don't seem to have problems like this…

Take a deep breath and relax. First of all, it's perfectly normal to have first-page writer's block. It doesn't mean you should delete the story and never write again; it only means you need to go deeper into the story: get to know your characters, rethink the plot and fill up the holes.

If your story takes place in a specific location that actually exists, consider taking a weekend off to visit it if you are able to. This helps you to build up an authentic atmosphere for your piece.

 

When that's not possible, research! This is especially important if your tale is happening sometime in the past (WWI, the sixteenth century, etc.). You'll need to know all the details. Did they have compasses? What were the people like? Were there certain objects reserved for royalty that your non-royal heroine shouldn't be able to get? Be careful not to overload the book with information, though. There's no need to start the book with a history lesson. The best facts to add are the ones that you found intriguing or interesting. After all, the things you find boring will probably be boring for your reader too.

It's equally important to do research if your piece takes place in the present, particularly if there are medical or legal matters to be taken care of. (Remember to thank the doctors/lawyers/other experts on the acknowledgement page of your book!) You'll be amazed at the fine points that come out to bug you.

But what if your story occurs in an imaginary land? What kind of research should you do in that case? Basically, your job is to familiarize yourself with the rules of your location. Is it a magical land? If so, what type of magic does it contain -- witches and wizards, fairies, mighty enchanters? What language do the locals speak -- Common, Elfish, Dwarfish? If it isn't magical, what sort of time period is the land living in? Is it medieval, or more like America in the thirties?

Now's also a good time to draw a map of your land. Use a bit of high school geography sense to help you out here. Don't make rivers flow up mountains, for instance! Dictionaries, thesauruses, and baby name books are all helpful tools when you need names for lakes, forests, and cities. You can also "steal" names from a world atlas or a more local map.

After you've gotten enough background information, start getting to know the characters. The first one to begin with is, obviously, your hero or heroine. What kind of a person is he or she? Timid, sassy, bold, clueless? How many family members does he have -- or is he an orphan? How many languages can she speak? What does he look like? What is her personal motto? Collect all the information and fill it in a character fact sheet or pop it into a folder so that you can have a place to go to for reference. You don't want your hero to have a different hair color in every chapter.

Next, the sidekick character, if you have one. (It may be an animal, not a person.) Fill out a fact sheet for him/her/it. If an animal, decide the breed, size, and general appearance. Also, decide whether it can talk, or just think thoughts the hero can't hear.

You can fill out fact sheets for other characters now, or you can worry about them when they actually show up. There's no point filling up five-page fact sheet for someone who only says a couple of sentences in the entire book.

Keep your notes and character profiles in a folder, shoebox, or some other easy to reach place. Keep a small notebook in your wallet or purse, and jot down any ideas that come to you. (Don't the best ideas always come at the most inconvenient times? Be prepared!) Toss the notes into the folder/shoebox when you get home, so you'll see them the next time you go through the box for help in advancing the plot. Because that is, after all, what the box is for. It keeps everything in one spot and keeps the magic alive. If you feel like "cheating," skipping ahead and working on the later chapters first, that's fine, and the box will help connect the dots when you need to put the earlier and later chapters together.

You may find that the process of writing a good story is hard work, and tediously slow hard work at that. This is especially true if writing is only a part-time job/hobby for you, and you only have a few hours each week at most to devote to your book. At times, you feel as though you've forgotten what the parts you've already written are about. Other times, you may feel as though you're spending your time trying to fill a black hole. After all, there are so many enjoyable activities you could be doing. At such moments, when the chips are down, so to speak, give yourself permission to take a break. Enjoy a lazy evening doing nothing, or go outside and socialize with your friends. Writing is, by nature, an unsociable business!

As for those days when you have writer's block, and your inner critic kicks in, making you feel as if nothing you write could ever be worth reading, open up the shoebox and read through what you've done, congratulate yourself for doing such a good job, then start writing anew.

 

Good stories, like good wine, take time to mature. Both are worth the wait and the effort.