A new story is hard to write. And generating ideas to fill it is even harder. When you’re staring at a blank page, Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes might haunt you: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
I rarely buy stuff on impulse, not even books. When I bring home a book I hadn’t planned to get, it’s because the cover and the first line grabbed my attention. Cover design usually isn’t an author’s responsibility, and even if you’ll be involved in yours, that comes at the end of the writing process. Instead of worrying about that prematurely, I want to talk about the other half of the equation—a story’s beginning.
Every story you consume informs your instincts about plot structure, prose, and characters, and when problems crop up in any one of those areas, an alarm sounds at the back of your mind. Unfortunately, no matter how savvy you are at detecting issues, the solutions won’t be as obvious. The disconnect between your ability to identify and straighten out problems is nerve-wracking because you don’t want to write an entire novel without realizing a huge flaw is undermining everything. You need to learn how to interpret your intuition’s signals through three approaches.
At the beginning of this year, I taught an English camp in Spain, where I spent most of my daily commutes focused on memorizing the unfamiliar streets. If I took a wrong turn, I might not have been able to reroute myself, so several days passed before I looked beyond the signs and noticed the gorgeous mountain backdrop. Sometimes I slip into the same habit when I’m writing and editing. I miss the big picture because I’m preoccupied with all of the complicated, troublesome scenes.
With minimal scrolling through search engine results, you can gather an abundance of information on writing stories, but what about the grueling process that follows it? How do you rearrange your mess into an orderly narrative? For most writers, even plotters, the first draft revolves around discovery. You diverge from your outline, notice that the story is more interesting from a secondary character’s point of view, or an entire subplot ends up being pointless. With so many changes to address, you wonder where to start, or maybe you’re even tempted to scrap your premise.
To me, drafting a manuscript is akin to creating an animal figurine out of a pile of clay. Section by section, you mold, carve, and polish your loosely formed impression into a muscular, spirited stallion. Over the past few years, I’ve had to revise three manuscripts, and during that process, I stumbled across four methods that increased my efficiency. The clay analogy is ideal for conveying each one.
As writers, we love exploring the internal struggles that shape our characters. During formative moments, emotional turmoil may need to take center stage, as with Thomas in Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes. Usually this scene happens near the story’s middle, when everything—including the protagonist—seems to be falling apart. Turning points deserve emphasis; otherwise the deep change in the character’s arc will seem artificial or glossed over.
Has a story’s setting ever intrigued you even more than the plot? Think of the gloomy weather on the moors that reflects the characters’ turbulent emotions in Wuthering Heights, or the unforgiving sand drifts wrought with murderous sandworms that excrete the galaxy’s most coveted resource and serve as a crucible for the cast of Dune. Why do each of these places feel so mystical?
Some books make me feel like I’m Bilbo Baggins, unsuspectingly opening my door to a heap of dwarves tumbling across the threshold. Characters, titles, relationships, and family dynamics zig-zag past my eyes, creating a buzz in my mind as I stumble through crowded scenes. I’ve heard enough names to fill a genealogy, and I’m only on page two.
Jesus didn’t shut His eyes to the suffering around Him. From hypocrisy to idolatry and worse, He confronted sin head-on with God’s love—sometimes in everyday conversation, but more often He couched His teachings in parables. Christian storytellers need to practice the same wisdom and extend the same grace. My newest release, Inside the Ten-Foot Line, provides one example of how to gently reach hurting readers. Although the novel features a lot of volleyball action (it’s sports-centric), a dash of romance (it’s YA), and humor (because I’m the author), it touches on a struggle many teens face.