By Kathleen Bradean
The need to write seems to run strong in the Bradean gene pool. My father, grandmother, sister, daughter, and cousins have all tried their hand at it. Recently, one of my cousins saw a comment on FaceBook I’d made about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and was intrigued by the idea, but like many people, was hesitant to give it a try. My first thought is always, “What are you so afraid of?” But that’s an easy thing to say when you’re already published. I don’t want to be flippant about new writer’s fears, so if you’ve always wanted to write but haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet, I’m here to give you constructive advice. NaNoWriMo is over, so if that felt like too much pressure, you can now work at your own pace.
So… you have a story you want to write. Last month, I mentioned that the stories we tell ourselves are like dreams. They seem to make sense, but once exposed to the harsh light of day, we can realize how fuzzy our grasp of it is. Maybe you have a detailed vision of what you want to do. If so, that’s great and you can plunge right in, but if you don’t have it mapped out that well, you can still get started as long as you know the following things:
1) The central conflict of your story.
This conflict will be created by:
2) What your main character wants.
Does she just want to go home (Wizard of Oz) or is she seeking something? (Winter’s Bone)
3) What stands in their way of getting it?
Society, culture, parents, a corrupt system, her own self-delusion, a crazed duck who won’t let her near her car… And it helps to know:
4) The cost of failure/success.
These are the stakes, and they should get more intense as the story progresses. Life is hard, and we like to read about people becoming their better selves when tested. But feel free to show people
corrupted by their desires. Sometimes we get what we want then find out it wasn’t worth it. Pick your moral and run with it.
That’s the bare minimum. You could get started with just those points in mind, but it’s also important to know
A character working at a high school has much different challenges to face than one working in a tattoo parlor, with different norms of behavior and rules to follow, not to mention working hours. Winter in Boston isn’t winter in Tallahassee. Mass transit in NYC and San Francisco are integrated well into the cities but don’t work the same way, and don’t even think of trying to get around in Los Angeles on the trains even though they exist. As Harold Hill’s nemesis says in The Music Man, “You got to know the territory!”
Of course you’re going to add much more as you write. I’m talking about the absolute least information you need to know about your story.My process, if you can even call it that, is that from nowhere, I’ll envision a snippet of a scene. Then I’ll go What was that? And replay it in my mind. Each time, I’ll push the timeline a little longer or try
to fill in more of the details. As I’m playing with it, I’m asking myself questions such as “Who the hell are these people and what are they doing?” If they’re working together, what are they working for. If they have a conflict, what is it about and why do each of them have a valid reason for their opinions? I’m noticing where they are. If they’re in a hut, is it because they were traveling and got caught in a storm so they took refuge there, or is that hut home? So what I’m doing is searching for the five information points I mentioned above. Other writers may feel differently. I’d love to hear their input.