Guest post: Where and how to begin writing your story, by K. A. Last

Hi everyone, K. A. Last here. It’s been a while since I’ve written a post for Aussie Owned and Read, and it seems fitting that this month’s topic is beginnings, because I was unsure where exactly to begin for this post … So, I’m going to tell you about a book I wrote to help authors with this exact problem.

Where and how to begin writing your story

Beginning a story isn’t always easy. We can have an amazing idea but absolutely no clue where or how to start writing that idea down. Well, I’m here to share a secret with you …

It doesn’t matter. The only thing that does matter is … beginning.

This is a rather long post, so bear with me, because I have some great points to talk about, and there might even be a couple of free things along the way.

As a writer, I often find it hard to get the thoughts in my head straight, and in any sort of coherent order. There are so many voices in there vying for my attention, and at times I feel like one big jumbled mess. Over the years I’ve tried different things, including pantsing and plotting my stories, and I’ve come to realise that for me, the best and most productive method is outlining my ideas in detail first. Once I have a solid outline, I find that when I sit down to write I waste less time, because I already know what I want to write about.

Sometimes I’m lucky enough that my ideas pop into my head fully formed with characters, and plot, and the entire world my story exists in. But mostly all I have is one concept, or a character name, or a theme, and it needs a lot of help to get started. And like I said before, getting to the point where you have a solid story idea or somewhere to begin isn’t always easy.

ani_cover_3dmockThat’s where A Novel Idea! comes in. I created this journal to help writers of all ages and skill levels—to help you be as prepared as you can be when you sit down to write your story. A Novel Idea! is divided into sections, much like the traditional three-act structure of a story plot, but with extra scenes. It will help you work through your story idea from the initial light bulb moment, to all the details about your characters, to visions for the world you want to create. By the time you finish filling in the pages, you will have a wonderful story idea to start writing, and a host of invaluable information to refer back to once your first draft is completed.

I know what you’re thinking, I’ve made it sound all too easy, but I know just how much it isn’t, and that’s why A Novel Idea! is not only a writer’s journal, it’s also a colouring book. When I get stuck on an idea, or I feel I need to work through the thoughts in my head, I often turn to colouring to help me clear my mind and set my ideas straight. The aim of including illustrations in this journal is to allow another creative outlet while working on your writing. If you find yourself needing time to think, but you would like to keep your hands busy, the illustrations can be used as a means to clear your mind. The borders on each page are also colourable, so switching between the two creative modes is easy.

If you want to know more about what A Novel Idea! contains, and how it can help with making a start on your writing, then read on …

THE IDEA

Okay, so the first thing I do is I tell myself to forget about the fact that I need to write around 70 thousand words to make a book. This is just a ball park figure. Some books are shorter, and many are longer, but I write for the YA market, so 70k is a good target number. But like I said, forget it. You don’t want that big, scary number holding you back.

Next, you need an idea. For anyone with a vivid imagination, these are not hard to come by, and we can find inspiration anywhere. But how do we shape and expand an idea into something that we can turn into a novel? This is where we start small, and work until we can see the bigger picture clearly.

Start by writing down the basics of your idea. It doesn’t have to be fully formed, but you need to get onto paper what your idea is so you can free you mind to think about all the other things you’re going to need to know to write your story. It could be as simple as one or two lines, or maybe you’ve been thinking about it for a while and you write a page.

Once you’ve done that, focus on working out the three most important aspects of your story. Take three sheets of paper, or use a notebook (you should have a notebook!) then write about the goal, the motivation, and the conflict of your story.

From here, you should try and briefly outline all the important parts of the story. Story structure usually goes something like this:

  • Beginning
  • First major plot point
  • Second major plot point or midpoint
  • Third major plot point
  • Climax
  • Resolution

If you know what the main obstacles of your story are, then filling in the gaps becomes a lot easier.

Once I’ve worked out the basics, something I like to ask myself when I have a new story idea is why is it exciting? If your story doesn’t excite you, then it won’t excite your readers. You need to pinpoint what it is about your story that will get people excited about it. This could be anything from the romance, to a rebellion, to who murdered someone.

By now you should have a pretty good idea about what your story is about, what the main plot points will be, and how it begins and ends. For me, the climax and the ending are very important, because that is what the story is working for and towards.

CHARACTERS

The next step is to cast the characters of your story. Sometimes my ideas start with a main character, and their conflict and story grow from there. Before I sit down to start writing my story, I like to know who I’m writing about. Of course I don’t know everything, because writing a character is sometimes like meeting them and getting to know them. There are a lot of things about them that I discover along the way. But I always work out the basics of their character profile. Usually a story will have the following characters:

  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Secondary characters affiliated with the protagonist
  • Secondary characters affiliated with the antagonist

Don’t forget that characters don’t always have to be people. You can download a printable character profile sheet to help with the development of your characters.

STORY WORLD

So now you know who the main character in your story is, and what their goal, motivation, and conflict are, you can build the world in which they will navigate and interact with other characters. World building is important for any story, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. The type of world your story exists in will depend on what your story is about, and there are many factors to consider. Not all of these will apply to every story, but they are a good starting point, and you should try to work out as many details as possible to understand how your story world will work.

  • Time or era
  • Place
  • Landscape and architecture
  • Reality or fantasy
  • Climate
  • Magic system
  • Weapons
  • Technology
  • Transport
  • Government
  • Social hierarchy
  • Currency
  • Language
  • Fashions
  • Rules

LET’S WRITE

By this point you should have the three main areas covered. Your story idea, the characters within your story, and the world they will inhabit. All that’s left is to sit down and write! Now is when I like to make a short paragraph outline of each chapter in my story. Sometimes I can’t outline all of them, but I outline as many as I can, as well as the most important scenes to do with the major plot points, climax, and the resolution.

My last piece of advice is nothing is set in stone. I often find that while I’m writing, my characters do something I hadn’t planned, or something I had planned doesn’t fit with their character development. When this happens, it’s okay to re-evaluate your story outline. As we write we get new ideas, and we see things differently. Our stories evolve, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s all part of the creative process.

(NB: the above section was first published at www.storyqueens.com.au for the full article, please go HERE.)

As a bonus to Aussie Owned and Read readers, I’m also giving you a FREE colouring page download. If you would like to know more about A Novel Idea! or any of my other books, come and say hi on my Facebook page, or check out my website.

Good luck with all your story beginnings.

K. A. xxx

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Beginning where the story starts

To celebrate the new year, most of this month’s posts will have a theme of “new beginnings”. 

One bit of advice you’ll often hear from agents and various other bookish folks — such as editors and competition judges — is to make sure your book starts in the right place. People are time-poor and there are a lot of competing entertainments, more than there were when I was a wee lass. Smart phones! Augmented reality! Reality-cooking-soap-TV shows! You need to hook the reader from the outset, draw them into the story. Start where the story actually stars, with the inciting event — not beforehand.

I’m basically giving you that same message, but thought I’d do it with song an example.

The inciting event — the first big, life-changing incident that triggers the plot — in my first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, happens at a Halloween party. That event is in the first chapter of the novel, and always was … but the first draft of that chapter started with Isla and her cousin Sarah receiving the party invitation and sorting out costumes. I’m still fond of that scene, because it sets up the relationship between the two characters, and Sarah is a lot of fun to write. But it wasn’t the best place. Isla thinking about whether she had time to get her homework done before the party wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that hooked the reader.

In my defence, it was my first novel, and I learned by making the mistake. :p

The fact my opening sucked bugged me all through drafting the book, so after I’d finished and taken the time to get a bit of distance from the writing, I went back again. (The distance is crucial. As I said, I was fond of the costume-choosing scene, which meant I needed to take the time to see it for what it was.) I cut the first part, and started the scene instead with the two girls and Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, arriving at the party. Fixed it!

Yeah, nah.

That was the version of the book I started querying. I entered it in PitchWars at the end of 2012, and the feedback I got from mentors really shook me. I was still starting in the wrong place, dammit! Again, I was still taking time to establish the characters. I had Sarah and Isla giggle over an old school crush. Dance. I thought I was setting the scene, but it was still slow.

I went back and amputated even more from the scene. By this point I’d probably removed around 2000 words (sob). Now it starts with Isla, at the party, meeting Dominic — her eventual boyfriend — and getting invited to participate in a séance. Sarah doesn’t even appear until the end of the chapter.

If you’re getting told your book starts too slowly, have a look at what you’re trying to show the reader in your opening scene. For example, say you start with your character jogging, thinking about their life (apparently this is a very common beginning, as is staring into a mirror). You want the reader to see upfront that your main character is a physical creature who has problems that need pondering. Instead, why not start with the manifestation of the problems. You can always have the character jog later, or mention the athletics trophies being knocked to the ground during the zombie attack — that sort of thing.

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, such as if your character is doing a marathon and they rupture their Achilles tendon on the first page or get hit by a car, because the rest of the story is about their healing journey.

I’d like to think I’ve learned this lesson now. I’ve started (and finished; OMG!) five other novels, and all of them have a much quicker beginning to the plot. But I learned it the hard way. Avoid my mistake, grasshopper!

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer. Her first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, is currently free in ebook format at all good (and some dubious) ebook retailers. You know, if you want to find out what happens next. 😉

Note: the featured image at the top of this post is from Shutterstock.

Cassandra Page

Anything but cleaning

Here at AOR this month we’re talking spring cleaning. This would not count in my top… billion… fun past times. Although I do love a clean house/workspace.

Instead I present to you, 5 things to do instead of clean:

  1. READ – this one might be obvious but I’d hate for it to get lost. Think of all the pages to be read instead of bathroom tiles scrubbed
  2. Buy books – this helps with point 1 but might actually add to the mess (e-books?).
  3. Write a story – I know I’m struggling with my story when I clean instead of writing (then it can help clear my head and make me wish I was writing)
  4. Order your bookshelf – this is like cleaning, I admit but it’s fun and you could happily get side-tracked by a fave book
  5. Meet a friend and talk books – this gets you away from the mess and has a fun social element that’s good for your soul

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Anyone else got a good way to avoid cleaning?

🙂

Beck

beck nicholas_ bec sampson

I always wanted to write. I’ve worked as a lab assistant, a pizza delivery driver and a high school teacher but I always pursued my first dream of creating stories. Now, I live with my family near Adelaide, halfway between the city and the sea, and am lucky to spend my days (and nights) writing young adult fiction.

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Spring cleaning my mind

This month at Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking the benefits of spring cleaning, whether through edits or literally. Today, I want to talk about something I believe benefits my writing greatly–spring cleaning my mind.

Sounds a little strange? Sure, it does. But when I think of cleaning, I think of freeing a space from the clutter. Stepping back from something after being involved at a level of extreme and minute detail and looking at things anew.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been working on a manuscript for two months. I then moved house, became heavily pregnant, and had an increased workload, meaning that even though all I really wanted was to work on the manuscript again, to refine and edit the work both on a small and large scale, I wasn’t able to.

At first,  it saddened me. It made me so frustrated to know there were so many changes I wanted to make but that I simply didn’t have the time for. Life had gotten in the way.

Now, however, I feel as if my perspective on the book ahas changed. I feel as if I could make greater, bolder edits that I wouldn’t have been able to before. I can instigate greater change within the work, all because I’ve stepped away for so long and in doing so, spring cleaned my mind and my perspective of the manuscript. I have space. Mental room to breathe that I didn’t have when the emotion and hype of the manuscript were fresh.

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Give yourself some mental space.

I think giving your book an ample amount of space and breathing time to clear it from your mind and get a new perspective is one of the most valuable things you can do. It’s something that can be hard, especially given we live in such a world of instant gratification, but it’s rarely not worth it.

So for all of you fabulous NaNo participants out there, I challenge you to spring clean your mind and step back when the month is over. Not just for a day, or a week, or a fortnight. Let’s go big. Give yourself one month. Two. Take extra time until there are details about  your novel you’re not even sure about anymore. Give your manuscript time to rest, as you would a steak after it’s sizzled away on the barbecue. Hopefully, you get as much out of it as I did.

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Lauren K. McKellar is the author of romance reads that make you feel.  You can find her on Facebook or learn more about her at her website.

Photo: Big Stock Photo

Three Pitch Tips

This month here on Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking pitching. Make sure you stay tuned for ur best pitch info and advice coming all throughout the month.

When it comes to pitching, I’m a bit of a novice. I’ve done an elevator-style video pitch (that’s actually how fellow Aussie Owneder Stacey Nash and I met) and a few Twitter pitches, both with varying degrees of success.

More than that, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few pitches in different competitions and for a small publishing house I used to work for. Here are my top tips for an effective manuscript pitch:

  1. Write your book. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But the amount of times I’ve seen pitches where a full or partial has been requested, only to be met with words similar to ‘I just have to … uh … well … you see the dog ate it, and so now I need to …’
    Most pitching opportunities are for finished manuscripts, not for ideas (unless it is a concept pitch, in which case, fire away).

    The Dog Ate My Homework!!!

    Photo: Big Stock Photo

    Think of a pitch a shortcut to the top of the slush pile, a pile that can consist of thousands of potential novels. If a publisher hears your pitch, loves it and requests to see the manuscript, but the manuscript takes weeks, maybe a month to arrive–how likely are they to remember it as the one they got excited about all that time (read: maybe a few hundred pitched manuscripts) ago? For this reason, I recommend only pitching finished works.

  2. Target appropriately. Before you pitch your manuscript, make sure you do your research. Is the agent or publisher you’re pitching to interested in your genre? Do they have a book that’s too similar to  your own? Should you be pitching to him or her, or an Australian/UK/American correspondent instead?
    Knowledge is power, and the more info you have on your pitchee, the better!
  3. Practise, practise, practise. Sounds obvious, right? But if you’re giving an in-person pitch, you cannot practise it enough. You want to know that sucker so well that the words float from your tongue, just in case those nerves kick in.
    Personally, I like recording myself giving my pitch, then playing it back to see how I come across. After all, it’s often not until you see yourself in the (sometimes unforgiving) light of video that you’ll learn if you speak clearly, if you make good eye contact, or if you look like you’re begging.

For anyone pitching this month, whether in an online competition or at Australia’s RWA, I wish you all the best.

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Lauren K. McKellar is an author and editor. She loves reading, writing romance, cute boys and puppies. You can visit her at her website or on Facebook, or laugh at her first ever video pitch here.

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If you listen…

In honour of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week coming up this month, we’ve dedicated all our posts to the issue of diversity in fiction. For more information on NAIDOC Week, visit their website here.

I like to read diverse books, I think it’s important but it wasn’t until one of my favourite small readers asked me for a book with a hero/heroine ‘like her’ that I really started to understand. Even now, I know I’m only doing my best and can’t completely get it.

This small reader has significant hearing loss. She’s not completely deaf and she doesn’t think it should be a ‘plot’ so much but she wants to read about girls like her. Having adventures, friend issues, falling in love, fighting dragons – and maybe wearing their hearing aids or getting into trouble cos the battery is flat and they have to pretend to have some idea of what’s going on around them.hearing aid

She gave me advice when I had a character go deaf in my sci-fi series (LIFER, TEMPER) and is helping me with my first hard of hearing contemporary heroine. I feel getting the details right is important but am aware they won’t be right for all readers who might have hearing loss. I believe the character is more than her hearing and hope to show that. It’s a challenge for me as a hearing person, but one I think is worthwhile.

Have you read any books with a character with hearing loss?

🙂

Beck

beck nicholas_ bec sampson

I always wanted to write. I’ve worked as a lab assistant, a pizza delivery driver and a high school teacher but I always pursued my first dream of creating stories. Now, I live with my family near Adelaide, halfway between the city and the sea, and am lucky to spend my days (and nights) writing young adult fiction.

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Why I write more in winter + COMPETITION TIME!

Winter. I love it.

No, scrap that. I FREAKING love it.

At heart, I’m a summer girl. I swim, I spend time outdoors, and I bask in the summer. But without fail, every winter I manage to achieve one thing that always seems to slip out of my grasp in summer:

Writing. More. Words.

I can put this down to three main reasons:

  1. Cold weather = less time out socialising (read: walking the dogs) and therefore more time spent inside. As well as less time spent dog-walking, a serious social activity for me, I also spend less time going out and visiting friends this season because secretly, I was a hedgehog in another life and I totally hibernate. Yes. I’m one of those weird creatures who just gets super tired in winter. However, it does mean less time spent out and about, and more time spent at home results in more time writing.

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    Photo courtesy of WikiCommons. Credit: Olaf1541

  2. Bribery is epic. In summer, I’m a pretty healthy gal. I love fruit, salads and all sorts of things that would make you sick. Kale? Yes, please. Quinoa? Only if it comes with another superfood.
    But in winter? I turn into a badarse. Chocolate. Hot chips. Wine (well, not at the moment, since I’m pregnant, but that doesn’t mean I’m not dreaming about it). The point is, I often like to ‘motivate’ myself when writing. For example, I’ll say to myself, “Lauren, if you write another 5,000 words, I’ll let you eat a bowl of ice cream.” (Well, if I’m being completely honest, it usually then is followed by, “No, make that two bowls … Oh hell, give me 5,500 and you can have the whole tub!”).
    I bribe myself more in winter because the treats I crave are junkier, and therefore, I write more. See? I’m a simple creature with simple needs (feeeeed meeeeee).
  3. Since I’m home more, and eating more (see points one and two) I find I read more during winter. After all, chocolate tastes better when I add in some book-induced tears! I’ll often find myself too busy to have reading binge-fests in summer, but on a rainy winter’s day, what could be better than sitting down to a fresh book and just diving in, demolishing that sucker in as few sittings as possible?
    I’ll often stockpile books I want to read, saving them for a mammoth winter sesh. This month, I’m really looking forward to A Thousand Boy Kisses, which I hear AH-MAY-ZING things about, and can’t wait to devour.
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    And, with reading a lot, comes writing a lot. For me, the two go hand in hand. Reading something great makes me aspire to write something hopefully similarly okay/readable-ish.

So what about you? Do you write more during winter?

Tell me why you do or don’t for your chance to win an e-copy of Losing Faith and Seeking Faith, two contemporary New Adult novels in the Surfers Way series written by the lovely Jennifer Ryder and myself. Entries are open below and will be judged on creativity. Competition closes June 14, 2016, 5pm AEDT.

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Lauren K. McKellar is an author, editor, and hedgehog. You can find her hanging on her Facebook page, rambling over at her website, or eating copious amounts of chocolate while obsessing over her growing baby belly.