Sunday, February 16, 2020

At the Starting Line


I’m beginning a new novel, which means that in addition to brainstorming plot ideas, I’m pulling out my starting-line resources.
These are a few things that I’ve found over the years that help me get fired up about the long writing road ahead. One is On Writing, by Stephen King. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, but now I limit myself to opening it only when I’m about to start a new project. It’s useful for many reasons. You hear from a master how he does it. And you hear that a writing career is hard and long. Which is a big boost psychologically as I confront a blank page. And then there are the little jewels throughout. One I came to as I was preparing to write this blog post:
King stopped for gas at a station with an attendant. While the guy was filling up his car, he wandered around the building and found a fast-moving stream. There were still patches of snow on the ground and he slipped, barely catching himself before sliding into the water and getting swept away. He thought about how long it would’ve taken anybody to notice he was missing and then how long before rescue personnel would find him. That morphed into an idea about a mysterious man who parks an old Buick in front of a rural gas station. That eventually became From a Buick 8. And that tells me that falling on your ass isn’t necessary a bad thing.
My other favorite reference is a list of points from a former Pixar storyboard artist. Emma Coats wrote a column about it for The Wall Street Journal a long time ago, and I cut it out immediately. A few of my favorites:
- “Give your characters opinions. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third and fourth—get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
- And the one I always strive for and never manage to accomplish: “Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.”
Maybe I’ll be able to do it for this book—but don’t hold me to it.

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