Starting the Next Book

How do you start your next story? I don’t mean where, exactly. We all know the first chapter should begin with a life changing event. Ideally with a smidge of the everyday world shown, enough meat to show the character’s character, her (or his) dilemma without backstory slowing us down though.

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Sigh. If it were only that easy. For me STARTING the next book, period, is the hard part. I’ve attempted freeform scribbling of story ideas—you should see the disjointed pages of “maybe’s” I’ve got. Maybe he should do x, maybe this happened to her in the past, maybe that. If there’s a gem in that mess it’s hiding pretty well.

I’ve tried starting with only the most basic premise, using bold, black marker to set out the major plot points on index cards. This tactic is supposed to be so great. The cards can be rearranged so easily, you can take them everywhere! To begin, you only need a few big scenes! This major thing happened, they have to end here, something crushing has to happen about there, etc. Then you play a game of connect the dots—more index cards forming a dotted path from A to B to C. Except wait—you have to actually write something on them. And therein lies the trouble. Anyone else find all those blank rectangles laid out in row intimidating? Stilting? Truth be told, I did start my last book this way… sort of. But it didn’t get me very far. This time, index cards seem to be getting me nowhere.

Some people research heavily, all the gems of information igniting story ideas and plot twists galore. Ummmmn. If I don’t know what I’m writing, how do I know what to research?

There’s the conflict box, of course. Shudder. To me, more disturbing blanks. And the subconscious. Ask a question before you go to sleep and in the morning you’ll have an answer. Okay, it sounds kooky but this does work for me sometimes. For a needed tidbit, or small simple question. But I have never woken up with a good solid conflict or storyline fully formed in my drowsy brain.

When I think back, to before I had purpose and goals and timelines in this whole writing thing, here’s how it worked: I’d have a major flash of inspiration. Not a whole plot, not an inherent conflict, but what I call a snippet: just a flash of a scene, involving some kick-ass dialogue. I’d get it written down, and then stop. I’m not a pantser, I can’t just go on. I’d have to sit down and figure out the rest—the worst of it anyway. Who are these people? Why and how did they come to this point? Where and how do they go on from here?

Back then I wasn’t worried about sustaining conflict, weaving in subplots, conforming, or not, to genre.

I imagine what you’ll suggest: I should roll with that, just start writing, but guess what? The only scene that’s been knocking around in my head is not going to work for the next book. The next book is the third in a romantic suspense series that I’m trying to sell…so it’s got…CONSTRAINTS.

Nothing for it but to perhaps write that scene down just to remove it from my mind, hopefully making way for something else to come to the surface. And maybe the break I’ve been taking (due more to other demands, since this our chapter’s JeRoWriMo challenge should have been a productive writing month for me) needs to morph into a break about recharging, refilling the well.  Reading books, seeing movies, exercising for a change… I don’t know.

I just hope whatever needs to happen, happens soon. That inspiration or desperation kicks in. Because the agent is going to need the blurb for this book, like, uh, tomorrow. And as always—I’d prefer to be writing. So, help! I’m open to ideas. What tricks work for you?

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23 Comments

  1. Great post! Starting a new book is never easy for me. I too have difficulty with the conflict and wonder if it’s enough to sustain an entire novel. I’ve worked through this in different ways. Sometimes I’m at the gym and the story comes to me. One time it came to me in a dream and I woke up with a great story arc. Chocolate helps me too!

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Guess I’d better get back to the gym and buy a bag of favorite chocolate too! ; ) Thanks for commenting, Tina!

      Reply
  2. Jenna,
    Find out WHY you are having trouble. Is it because you are stressing so much, which is a detriment to your super creativeness? Could it be that this book needs another direction? Ping pong your ideas/problems off your CPs too (it always works for us Scribes). I’d write that scene floating around and see where it brings you. But I’m not the best plotter…so take that with a grain..and good luck. You’ll do terrific, I know it.

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Thank you, Nicole, for the encouragement! And you are right: focusing on WHY is probably the first step (and maybe the hardest!). xo!

      Reply
  3. Diana Quincy

     /  February 17, 2014

    Hi Jenna — I’m also struggling with the second book in a new series that I am self-publishing. Part of the problem was that, although these characters are carryovers from the first book, I didn’t know them that well. Things got a bit easier when I developed a back story for each of them. Maybe you could start by writing down your hero and heroine’s characteristics. What do they do? Who are they? Will their work bring them into each other’s orbits? And I also agree that a little brainstorming with your CPs is an excellent idea 😉

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Diana, somehow I always think everybody else has an easy time and it’s just me. Good to hear that even prolific writers like you struggle sometimes! Backstory, hmmmn. Even if it doesn’t go in, I need to know it, I guess!

      Reply
  4. Think of the tale you will write. If it is in a series, where did it point the reader. Imagine the story in its entirety. A general playing in your mind. When you get to the middle where all hell usual breaks loose, make it the beginning. Bombarding the reader with necessary backstory can be hidden by the action that is usually reserved for the crucial middle of a piece.
    Good Luck
    other J

    Reply
  5. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  February 17, 2014

    Hi Jenna – I love this post. It seems a lot of us are at the start of new projects right now. There has already been a lot of helpful advice here in the responses. I think you hit the nail on the head a bit when you mentioned needing to take a step back and time off, and it doesn’t need to be a lot of time. Treat yourself to a week of reading books you’ve been dying to read or movies you’ve wanted to watch but didn’t have the time. Often, inspiration will strike while the mind is at ease and you aren’t feeling the pressure to produce. One thing to remember is why we’re doing this in the first place. It is for the love of the journey. Taking the pressure off can be a huge help.Also, spending time with your characters, getting to know them and their back story as Diana suggested might help you see those bigger moments until it all comes together. You will get there.

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      I bet with JeRo that many of us purposely timed things to start projects during February. I intended to big time, just didn’t quite work out with other obligations. I’m sure the pressure has a HUGE amount to do with it. I might just do that–at least as much as possible around day work…Thank you, RA!

      Reply
  6. I forgot to mention my best resource that helps me with both inspiration and plotting is Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey.” I find that if I plot the conflict in advance very well, it’s much easier to start the writing.

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Madeline Hunter always says that, Tina! Can’t recall her exact wording, but the gist is that if the conflict is strong enough, the book practically writes itself, if not, you’ll struggle the entire way through! I actually think I missed the Vogler book in my many how-to’s. Need to get that!

      Reply
      • RoseAnn DeFranco

         /  February 17, 2014

        This book is always a go to for me. I tend to use it to check the dots after I’m already knee deep in a project. Using it right out of the starting gate is a great idea.

  7. Characters! It’s all about the characters for me!! Interview them! There’s no pressure there because it’s not for a scene or the plot; it’s just to get to know them. Ask them questions and see what you find out about them. It’s fun and it’s really, really helpful in getting the story going because you’ll find their built-in conflicts that way. Just my two cents, of course.

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Thank you, Nancy! You and Diana, and RoseAnn too! I need to try this! Even if it’s not stuff that needs to go in the book, it might just help ME. Thanks for taking the time in this busy month of yours!

      Reply
  8. I, too, have trouble coming up with an idea. But for my 3rd book (I’m in the middle of my 2nd), I was out in San Francisco, and did a lot of the research. So, I know where and almost know who will be involved. And then, out of the blue, the idea came to me! Years ago the published authors all said that the ideas should start coming to you about the middle or end of your previous book. And low and behold! It’s working! : ) To get myself started, I pick a place. I do all the research at that place. I think this starts the ideas boiling!

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Sounds like I need to travel more, Kathleen! ; ) Wouldn’t that be great! I do NOT count the trip down the parkway today to a trampoline place to entertain a pack of kids while there’s no school…I will have to start using EXOTIC and WARM settings! Thank you for the hint, I’ll add it to my mental list, and as this book will be set in a different place, it’s a timely hint, too!

      Reply
  9. Great post, Jenna. I usually have to dive in and write the characters, even if it’s a prologue I know I’ll scrap later. Either I feel it, or I don’t. If I don’t, I need to figure out WHY.

    Good luck! You’ll figure it out. 🙂

    Reply
  10. Jenna Blue

     /  February 17, 2014

    Thank you, Joanna! Sometimes the diving in is the hardest step. Need to set a goal, like okay, just write this for one hour and see what happens. And you are right: I’ll start to feel it or I won’t, and can attack from there….Thanks!

    Reply
  11. Hi Jenna, great post! Sometimes you have to write the first chapter or first few chapters to understand who your characters really are, then how much can they possibly tolerate as the book progresses as far as tension, plot, etc. Putting your ideas to paper (or computer) is hard work! But the reward is that when people actually GET IT, and connect with your gems of though! Great post. Best, Michele

    Reply
    • Jenna Blue

       /  February 17, 2014

      Michele, sounds like you and Joanna work the same way! Thank you! : )

      Reply
  12. Hi Jenna. I’m in the same spot you are and I feel your pain! I know my hero (Nick) real good, since it’s the 3rd book in the series. I know his back story and where his life is at the beginning of the story. I even know the back story between the H/H. My main problem is I need to get in the head of my heroine. I’ve been so fixated on him I haven’t given much thought to her. I also struggle with the GMC. I do find that while I don’t plot the entire book, nailing this down helps me see the first few chapters and some main events that need to happen in the book. To get me there, I’m pre-writing some back story and hoping that will get me where I need to be. Hopefully it’s comforting to know you’re not alone in this struggle. 🙂

    Reply
  13. Jenna Blue

     /  February 17, 2014

    Maria, definitely comforting to know I’m not alone. Bizarre how we all think it doesn’t happen to anyone else! I’m always so envious of those that seem to bubble over with ideas, always wishing they could be writing something else. I seem to keep the focus on what I’m doing, yet it seems to make it hard to switch gears after! I suppose this is all part of “learning my process!” Need a tutorial to my own self! ; ) THanks for stopping in, Maria!

    Reply

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