Monday 26 October 2015

Making things up: Getting Started

By Teri Terry

Part 2 in Making Things Up: a blog series about the creative process. like writing. You think you’ve got a knack for it, and you have some things to say. Or maybe you’ve written loads already, and the time has come to write something new, but you’re stuck. How do you get started?

How do you begin putting words on paper? Blank paper. Accusing paper. Gorgeous, pristine paper that doesn’t want to be sullied by anything less than brilliant.
A Blank Page...EEEEEEEK!!

One of the questions most asked of authors is this one: 
Where do you get your ideas? 
The assumption behind the question seems to be that before any words can appear on that blank page, there must be an original, awesome, inspiring, exciting idea! Just a little pressure, then.

Not necessarily. Sometimes the heart of the story is only found by writing it. But how do you start if you only have an inkling or a vague idea what to write about, or even aren’t sure at all where to begin?

First up: Choose your weapon!

It shouldn’t matter so much, but it does to me. I do most of my writing directly on my laptop, but I always start with a notebook – one chosen specifically for a new story – and I’m simply incapable of writing anything worthwhile on paper that isn’t at least A4 in size. And ideally hard backed, coil bound, white paper, lines - ones that aren’t too thick or in a weird colour - spaced just so, maybe with an interesting picture on the I’m not fussy at all, am I? And whenever I’m planning or get stuck, I go back to the notebook. Many stretched handbags and sore shoulders later I’ve tried to break this habit, but I just can’t.

Here we have working notebooks! From left: Slated; Book of Lies;
and the current one, book one of my new trilogy, Dark Matter

Interestingly, I was recently rereading one of my favourite writing books, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and came across this in the opening chapter (p. 6-7):
The size of your notebook matters, too. A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts... It is true that the inside world creates the outside world, but the outside world and our tools also affect the way we form our thoughts.

This made me wonder: does the size of notebook relate to the kind of stuff I like to write? If I wrote, say, quirky literary fiction that focused in on the minutae of one life, would a smaller notebook be just right? It’d be worth trying it to save my handbags and shoulders.
Just a few of my notebooks in waiting...
But whatever you need to write, make it so. If you suffer from not wanting to sully the pages of a beautiful notebook, it may be that plain is the way to go. And pocket sized notebooks may be just right for you, despite what Natalie said, or you might think better with a keyboard.

Second: Write, write, write...but what?

Here are a few approaches that may help:

1. What do you enjoy reading?

What are the essential elements of the type of story you love to read? Identify them and put them together in your own way, and you will have the start of a story.
For example, if you love a good murder mystery, you need somebody to die. You need someone to find the body; someone, who may or may not be the same person, to solve the mystery and find the killer. If you start with someone dying in an interesting way or place, and develop characters for your victim, murderer, and sleuth, a story will appear.

Of perhaps you love a good romance. This
True love! In one of its many guises
isn’t so much my focus so I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure you need more than one character, whether it is boy-girl, girl-girl, boy-boy-girl – you need at least two to tango. You need reasons why they come to care for each other, you need challenges, growth: who are they, and what do they want? How do they meet? Why are they right or wrong for each other? What comes between them? Can this be overcome?

If plotting a whole book is too daunting, you don’t necessarily have to know everything about your characters and what will happen to them when you start. You can take an interesting character, introduce them to another in an interesting way or place, and see what develops.

I don’t mean to get into plotting here today, and everyone has a different approach as to how much plotting and planning they like to do before they write. But at a basic level, when you’re working out what to write, starting with the elements of the type of story you love is a good place to begin if you’re stuck what to write about.

2. Free writing

A less structured approach is to write something every day – often it helps if it is at a set time of day, for a set length of time – without any thought to where it is going or why. Begin with an object, a character, or a setting, and put pen to paper, and just go. Don’t let yourself think, just write whatever pops into your head. Once your set time for free writing is over, stop and read what you’ve written. Think about it, and ask yourself questions about the elements on the page, and see where it takes you. It won’t always work, but sometimes you can find interesting ideas or starting points from your unconscious mind have leaked into what you’ve written.

I also often use free writing from the point of view of different characters to help get to know them, but that is a whole other topic.

3. Mind mapping

Say you have an interesting scene or character but you don’t know what to do with them. 

I find it really helpful to do a mind map. So, as an example I've got below - Phoebe, a character I'd introduced in Slated. Originally she was a walk on/walk off part, who trips Kyla up on a bus, and that was it. But she was somehow interesting, so I wanted to work out ways to increase her role in the story, and on this page I was coming up with options - some of which made it in to Slated, many of which didn't.

This also works well for me if I’m further into a story, and I’m not sure how to make something happen. Eg. I know my hero has to escape from the evil clutches of my villain, but how? If I write arrows of every possible option, no matter how daft they may seem, and the consequences that will flow from each one, the answer usually becomes obvious.

I said I wasn’t going to talk about plotting, but it’s kind of like I can’t help myself...

4. Serendipity strikes: kaboom!

OK, this does happen sometimes, and I live for these moments. It might seem a bit like luck or chance, but the more of the above kind of writing and exploring that is being done, the more these kinds of things seem to happen.
With Slated, it started with a dream that I had, of a girl, running, terrified, on a beach. I wrote that down as soon as I woke up and, presto! it became a trilogy (well, there was a bit more involved than that, but that is how it started).

Mind Games started very differently. I happened to read an article about rationality and intelligence, and then wondered what would happen if rationality were prized over intelligence in a future world: who decides who is rational, and how? What are the consequences of being considered irrational and intelligent?


Once you have a story in mind - if writing the first line, paragraph, page or chapter is too daunting, just write. Ramble. Play with words. Get going, and later on when you know your story and characters better, what should be those important first words should come to you.
Writing – especially the coming up with ideas part at the beginning – should be fun*, not torture. Enjoy it!
           *apart from the occasional influence of deadlines, but that is a whole other nightmare blog post...

About the Author
Teri Terry is the author of the award winning, internationally best selling Slated trilogy - Slated, Fractured and Shattered. Mind Games, out in March, was recently nominated for the Carnegie. Dangerous Games will be in December, and Book of Lies in March 2016. After that is the Dark Matter trilogy, which she should be writing right now instead of blogging...but that is a whole other blog post.


  1. This is so timely for me. Serendipity Strikes! I am almost 20,000 words into a new book and have blank page today, I'm just going to write - I know roughly where I'm going, so let's see what happens!

    1. I usually find if I ramble along - on foot or on the page - I eventually work out where I am going: hope it works today

  2. Love the teddy picture. Feel thoroughly identified with the old one this morning. I often bait serendipity with random details. In current series I chucked something into book 1 having no idea why, and serendipity left it till book 3 to come up with the goods. Hairy! Good luck with the Carnegie.

    1. "I often bait serendipity with random details". Love it!

    2. Me, too!
      And Ana, this happens to me a lot also. Something is there without any particular reason, and presto! later on it all becomes apparent why it was needed.

    3. I think when you write a series, the first book becomes the seed that everything grows from. So even (originally) throwaway details can be reused and reinterpreted - I did this myself just yesterday!

  3. I long to just write and then I find my brain snags on words and starts to re-plot in the middle of it all. Then it says, 'Hold up! What are you doing with that gnome/terrifiedboy/troll over there? This might happen and this and this ...' but I think this may betray either a plot weakness or an over-active imagination. Letting ideas and characters stew can really help. All great advice - thanks, Teri!

    1. Random gnomes, I like! Strangely this echoes a conversation I was having yesterday at FantasyCon.

  4. I think notebook size is SO important. I always go for A4 but blank -so I can do mind-mapping and silly pictures (that no one else could interpret) without being hemmed in by lines. I've sometimes given my nice new notebooks to children in school visits for them to scrawl in before I start so I'm not the one defacing the beautiful blank page for the first time. But wallpaper lining paper is great as it doesn't look beautiful before you start so it's easier to attack it with messy thoughts...

    1. I know many writers like those little whatchamacallits....ah yes, moleskins. They're too titchy for my brain. It point blank refuses, and I have tried

  5. This is awesome! I can't wait to put my ideas down. :)


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