Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beginning at the Middle

Cover art for "The Blood Cries Out"
Since I am pursuing a non-traditional publishing route, it seems only fitting to explain the non-traditional origins of my new novel.  The article originally appeared in Savvy Authors, but it is not currently found anywhere else on Google.

As Anne Lamott reminded us in her enlightening and engaging book about writing and living, Bird by Bird, the best way to approach an overwhelming project is often to break it up into its smaller component parts.  This has a way of transforming the seemingly impossible writing task into something that just might work.  A couple years ago, a co-worker shared a piece of dark family history that sent chills down my spine.  For a person like me whose writing usually contains a spiritual dimension, that family history was something I wanted to find a way to incorporate within fictional context, most likely a mystery novel.  The problem was, after obtaining the family’s permission, I had no precise idea where to begin. 

I tried the “traditional” approach of story outlining and character sketches, but I didn’t want to begin to write the story until I head a better idea of who and what I was writing about.  In the past, beginning a tale too early has only served as the story’s death knell.  There’s something about putting it to paper that solidifies or cements those words.  In my mind, at least, it’s better to avoid a few re-writes at the outset and delay seriously starting the tale until it’s really had a chance to ferment in one’s mind.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re not scribbling down notes all the time.  Still, there’s something fundamentally different about outlining the story or jotting notes on character development and actually writing the opening paragraph of the tale.  My own over overabundance of caution was seriously delaying me from moving forward with this challenging project.

About this time, an unexpected e-mail arrived from a small publication in Kildaire, Ireland.  Having read and enjoyed a short story of mine entitled “The Stars Within the Glass,” the writer was inquiring if I could supply a short piece of original fiction for use in a publication.  I have to admit that this idea did not sound terribly appealing at first.  After all, it represented a potentially significant time investment for a relatively small publication.  It occurred to me, however,  that perhaps I could use the request as a motivator--i.e. kick in the pants--for starting work on my novel.  The question was, yet again, where to begin?

After some thought (and a little procrastination), I decided to write a short story from roughly the middle of my outlined novel.  My idea was something along the lines of a serialization of a piece of larger work of fiction--except nothing had been written previously.  The story ended-up being about a chapter in length, and, at this point, it should conclude part 1 of my planned two or three part novel.  When this short story soon appears in print it will be a streamlined version of the chapter to come, since not all details are really necessary in a trim short story.  If all goes according to plan, this short story, then, will someday be a chapter within a much larger work.  

What did I learn from this unusual approach to starting the writing of a novel?  Well, I don’t know if this is always a great strategy for getting to work, but for me it’s helped to see my characters more clearly than I otherwise would have so early in the process.  It’s also been an interesting way to elicit feedback on the project.  For example, I was planning to go one particular direction with the work, but several of the test readers who seemed to enjoy the short story the most expressed a sincere desire that the story would end up going a completely different way.  In fact, one of those readers is my wife, so I have to give their proposal some careful thought!  In short, if you’re having difficulty figuring out how to get started on your next book, you might just try beginning at the middle.  

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