By far, the most common question I get asked by authors working on their first pieces specifically written for publication is: “Where do I start?” Or, they will say something to the effect of:
“I have the idea in my head…I mean I know where I want the story to start, where I want it to end, and the main points of the story I want to include, but I just can’t seem to figure out how to start writing…”
Sadly, because each of us has his or her own style and methods, there is no clean-cut single answer that will work for everybody experiencing this problem. However, I will at least supply you with a method that has worked for me numerous times, and which other authors, some bestsellers, have said works for them when they hit a literary wall.
In short… outline. Construction workers and general contractors can’t build a house without a blueprint and a floor plan. Some writers can’t either. Keep in mind though, just like in construction, there is always the possibility that the project grows and develops in ways that were unexpected during the planning phase. The same is very true when you write. Never lose sight of the fact that your outline is just a guide and isn’t carved in stone.
So now you’re ready to get started. If you know where you want your story to start, write a sentence or two explaining the opening setting at put it at the top of a clean page. If you know how you want the story to end, write that at the very bottom. If you don’t know how you want it to end, that’s okay, just skip that part for now. All you really need right now is a starting point, but if you know where you want it to go, it is a big help in crafting the events of the story to lead where you want them to go.
Just a quick side note here; it’s sometimes better to use index cards instead of listing ideas for chapters on a single sheet of paper. Index cards will allow you to re-order and interchange the position ideas over and over without erasing or playing a full four quarters of trash can basketball with your draft ideas. If you have a cork board and a few pushpins, so much the better.
Next, try to visualize your protagonists as they move on their journey through your story. For each key experience your character experiences, write another sentence on your page between the beginning and ending (if you listed one) or make a new index card and insert it into the outline where you think it makes the most sense at that moment. Don’t worry too much about the order making perfect sense at this point. As long as it makes sense to you for the creative process, that’s all that counts right now. No matter what order you choose to place them in at this point, I can tell you from experience, they will almost certainly change later in the actual writing process.
Once you’re satisfied that you have listed all the key scenarios you want your character(s) to experience or endure, arrange your cards or make a final draft outline on your sheet of paper, arranging them in the order that, once again, makes the most sense to you at that point — yes, it is going to change (several more times) before your manuscript is ready to be submitted to anyone for publication, so don’t sweat the order just yet. Your whole objective at this point is to display the key points of action that are going to occur throughout your story. The order of events is still very subjective and will have to change several more times as you write and your characters experience things you never initially expected them to.
Now you’re ready. You have your blueprint. Rather than writing a novel-length book, now you can write a series of short stories (chapters) individually that, once placed together in the final order (like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle) you will have a naturally flowing story with the specific, individual action sequences that keep stories flowing and keep your readers turning pages well into the night.
The practice of outlining will benefit you as a writer in more ways than you can imagine. One of the truest tests of a great author is when you can arbitrarily pull any chapter from one of their books and it will tell you a complete story, with a beginning a middle and an end. No, this doesn’t hold true for every great book or even for every great author, but it does more often than not, and it will help you to increase the arsenal of tools you use as a writer to continuously hone your craft and get you and your work the literary credibility it deserves.